I wrote this tutorial for those who want to learn about panoramic photography and how to photograph and stitch panoramas using a point and shoot or DSLR camera. The technique consists of two parts – photographing a scene using a camera and then using special software to align and stitch those images together to form a single panoramic image. I will go over both and will show you how to create stunning panoramic images of any subject, including landscapes.
Have you had a situation before, where you stood on top of a mountain or some sort of outlook and enjoyed a beautiful view that seemed to span from far left to far right, making you move your head just to see everything? If you have had one of those moments, I am sure you really wished that you could capture the beauty with your digital camera. While some of the modern cameras have video recording capabilities and you could certainly capture the whole scene through video, what if you wanted to print it out? The good news is that the technology today allows us to capture such scenes through a panoramic photography technique.
Panoramic photography, also known as wide format photography, is a special technique that stitches multiple images from the same camera together to form a single, wide photograph (vertical or horizontal). The term “panorama” literally means “all sight” in Greek and it first originated from painters that wanted to capture a wide view of a landscape, not just a certain part of it. The first panoramic photographs were made by simply aligning printed versions of film, which did not turn out very well, because it was close to impossible to perfectly align photographs. With the invention of personal computing, advancements in computer software and digital photography, it is now much easier to stitch digital images together using specialized software. In fact, using a proper photography technique and panoramic equipment, it is now possible to create near-perfect panoramas at extremely high resolutions. Some photographers even stitch hundreds of high resolution images to create gargantuan “gigapixel” panoramas. Today, digital panoramic photography is quite popular and common not only among landscape photographers, but also among architectural and cityscape photographers.
Panoramic Photography can get quite complex and expensive, depending on what you are trying to do. For example, creating panoramic images in architectural photography requires camera and lens to be properly calibrated on special panoramic equipment to prevent curved lines, distortions and improper stitches of close objects. At the same time, you can successfully take great landscape panoramic images without investing on any camera equipment, as long as you know how to do it right. In this article, I will primarily focus on taking panoramic images either hand-held or with a tripod, without spending on any other equipment.
While the word “panorama” automatically assumes that it will be a wide horizontal or vertical image, in my opinion, it does not necessarily have to be. If I stitch several images together and it turns out to be a square image, I still consider it to be a high resolution panoramic image. Here is how I define panoramic images:
1) Wide angle panoramas – anything that looks like a wide angle photograph, which covers less than 180 degrees, whether horizontal or vertical. Wide angle panoramas can even look like regular images, except they are stitched from several photographs and therefore would have more resolution.
NIKON D700 @ 24mm, ISO 200, 1/160, f/8.0
2) 180 degree panoramas – panoramas that cover 180 degrees from left to right. These types of panoramas look very wide, covering a large area.
NIKON D700 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/10.0
3) 360 degree panoramas – panoramas that cover up to 360 degrees. These panoramas look extremely wide and they cover the whole scene in a single, super wide image.
4) Spherical panoramas – also known as “planets”. These are 360 degree panoramas that are converted to a square spherical image using a special post-processing technique.
All of the above panoramas can either be photographed in a single row (meaning one row of vertical or horizontal images) or multiple rows (higher focal length is often used to yield much higher resolutions. Multi-row panoramas often require special panoramic equipment).
Let’s now get to the meat – how do you capture panoramic images that will be used to create a panorama? There are two ways to capture panoramic images:
And here is the final stitched panorama (click here for larger version):NIKON D700 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/8.0
And here is the final stitched panorama:NIKON D700 @ 35mm, ISO 200, 1/250, f/8.0
I personally try to avoid shooting horizontally, because I lose too much resolution due to some cropping that is required after the panorama is stitched by software. Vertical panoramas are much better in that regard and they always yield more resolution than horizontal panoramas.
As you can see from the above sample images, the shots I took overlap each other by approximately 50%. In order for any program to be able stitch multiple images together, the images have to overlap each other by a certain margin, so that alignment points are properly identified. The alignment points serve as flags for the stitching algorithm that seamlessly merges the images and cuts out the rest of the image. The overlap margin is a subject of opinion and while some people recommend 20-30% overlap, I personally do it by about 50% (see why below).
Before you start taking panoramic images, you have to change some of the settings on your camera. Here is what I recommend to set in your camera:
Let’s proceed to the fun part – shooting panoramas. Once you have the equipment setup and ready to go, follow these instructions:
The easiest and quickest panoramas can be done by hand-holding your camera. Believe it or not, but most of my panoramas are done hand-held! They might not be as perfect as I want them to be in some cases, but they are still darn good – good enough to print on large paper. Try out the above and see how it works out for you.
If you want to get serious with panoramas, you should invest in a good panoramic setup, which will allow you to take pictures without worrying about parallax issues. There are plenty of different solutions out there and the most popular ones are by Nodal Ninja, Manfrotto and RRS, the latter being the number one choice for professionals. With a good panoramic head, you can have the camera setup rotate around the entrance pupil of the lens and take perfect single-row or multi-row panoramas that will stitch without any problems.
Once you are done taking the pictures, you then need to stitch them using specialized software that is capable of handling panoramas. I will only show how to use Photoshop and PTGui, but you are more than welcome to try other panoramic tools.
Stitching panoramas in Photoshop is super easy. If you use Lightroom, simply select the images and then right click, “Edit In”->”Merge to Panorama in Photoshop…”. If you do not use Lightroom, simply open up Photoshop and then go to “File”->”Automate”->Photomerge…”. A dialog box will come up that looks like this:
The images will automatically show up if you use Lightroom. If you do it from Photoshop, simply click “Browse” and select the images to be merged into a panorama. Make sure that “Blend Images Together” and “Geometric Distortion Correction” are checked, then click OK. This will start the stitching process, which can sometimes take a long time, depending on the number of images and their size. Once the process is completed, all you have to do is crop the image and you are all set!
Besides Photoshop, there are plenty of different panoramic tools out there and PTGui is certainly the most popular one. I have been using it for years and I really like it, although I must admit that Photoshop does a better job at stitching problematic panoramas. Once you open PTGui, click on the “Load images…” button, select the images you want to stitch then click “Open” to open the images within PtGui. Once the images are fully loaded, click the “Align images…” button and let PTGui calculate the connecting points. Once the process is complete, you will see a new window that looks like this:
Select the right projection for your panorama then return to the main screen and click the “Create Panorama…” button, which will take you to a separate tab. Set the right size and format of the image and click the “Create Panorama” button to start the stitching process.
PTGui has a lot more stitching options than Photoshop and you can customize pretty much anything, even manually set control points and select various stitching algorithms.
The biggest challenge with panoramic photography is stitching problems due to parallax errors. I highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article on parallax to fully understand why it presents such a big problem for photography. Once you learn the right ways to take images and minimize parallax, you can start taking great panoramic images!
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