Tutorial: Panoramas (Part 1)

Here it is, part 1 of everything you may want/need to know to create panoramas. I separated it into two parts because it was getting too long; I would rather people could just give my posts a quick read rather than thinking they’re too long and putting them off for later. This one is mostly focused on basics, settings, and gear, while part 2 will be focused more on technique, processing, and other considerations.

I’ve tried the sweep panorama mode in my camera, but every time I got home and looked closely at the file I would see imperfections and usually didn’t end up using any of the shots. Plus, the sweep panorama may use a high ISO speed to avoid motion blur, but you might not want to use a noisy/grainy high ISO. Anyway, here’s the info in no particular order…

Manual exposure – Everything has to be set manually so that it doesn’t change from shot to shot. Obviously this is to avoid having unnatural looking dark and bright areas in the image. Manual mode is the best for making sure this doesn’t happen. But, if you’re doing really long exposure panoramas around sunrise or sunset (or the blue hour) you have to be aware that the light levels are changing; more on this later.

Manual white balance – In addition to aperture, ISO, and shutter speed, you should also make sure that the white balance isn’t changing between shots. You can either set it to a preset like shade, daylight, tungsten, etc., or you can set it to a certain colour temperature using the kelvin (K) scale.

Jan22_2017_A7R2 (27)-Pano-edit-edit
The Pool of the Black Star in the Manitoba Legislative Building in Winnipeg, Canada. I tried this shot twice; the first one was a nightmare to stitch (possibly due to the distortion in the wide-angle lens I used) and at the end of editing I realized I hadn’t been centered between these columns anyway. This is from the second outing, incidentally/luckily shot with a wide-angle lens with low distortion, which makes stitching easier. (Camera mounted in a vertical position)

Focus – Staying on the theme of nothing changing, your focus should not change either. I usually use auto focus somewhere around the hyperfocal distance and then switch the focus to manual, so the camera isn’t trying to refocus every time the shutter button is hit (See my earlier post(s) on sharpness to learn about finding the hyperfocal distance). You can consider breaking this rule if things are closer or farther away during the camera rotation (as in the photo above where the nearest pillars were only about a meter away while the far wall was about 20 meters away); this will be situation dependent. If you’re using a small aperture and want to make sure the nearest objects are in focus you can consider changing the focus as you go to get all the key elements nice and sharp.

Telephoto vs. wide angle – Telephoto panoramas are usually much easier to stitch together than panoramas done with a wide angle lens. This is because there is a lot less distortion in a telephoto shot and because the relation between the angle of view of near and far objects doesn’t change much as the camera rotates. Plus, you need to do a lot less rotating of the camera when doing a telephoto panorama. This is just something to keep in mind. Sometimes you might just want to shoot an extra couple shots to show a wider shot of a scene, but sometimes you might be doing the panorama because things are too close to get into a single shot (as per the photo below).

Nov13_2016_A7R2 (623)-Pano-edit-edit-edit
A huge limestone crevice about six meters tall, three hours north of Winnipeg, Canada. Thinking back, I probably should have gotten the friend that was with me to walk into the shot to give some scale. The walls on either side of the shot are very close to the camera. (Camera mounted in a vertical position)

Tripod – A tripod isn’t completely necessary but it makes things pretty easy, and it allows you to use a low ISO and small apertures for nice clean, sharp shots. I shoot on a tripod about 99% of the time so this isn’t a hassle for me. Plus, considering that you might be shooting indoors or during the best landscape times (sunrise, sunset, the blue hour), your shutter speeds might be pretty long. You can try your best to do panoramas handheld, but I would recommend that you don’t frame the shot too tight because you might have to do some extra cropping later on. I can only wish you good luck!

Level tripod – If you’re taking the advice to shoot on a tripod, you have to make sure it’s level. In the beginning I didn’t know how important this was, until I had shots that didn’t work or shots that had a huge portion cropped away. A bubble level in the tripod is a great way to level it. Some people attach a level to the top of their camera in the hot shoe (the place where an external flash attaches).

Special tripod head – If you hold a finger up in front of you and close one eye, then switch which eye is open/closed, you’ll see that the finger seems to move. Or you may notice that the background changes relative to the finger. This is a parallax effect and the same thing can happen when you’re doing a panorama. I won’t get into the details of how this happens in the camera/lens, but I will mention that there is a spot within the lens where the light rays that are coming in cross and then from there spread back out to hit the sensor. This is called the nodal point. If you can line up the axis of rotation (the center of the tripod) with this point you won’t have to worry about parallax effects. You need a special tripod head/attachment if you want to do this. See below. I’m too lazy and poor to get one of these, but it’s something to look into if you’re serious about panoramas.

A dedicated tripod head for making panoramas. It allows you line up the nodal point (the point where the light rays cross within the lens) directly over the axis of rotation. This helps avoid parallax error.


This is just to give an idea of where a nodal point can be located.

Tilt-shift lenses – Another option for panoramas is to use a lens that has a shift function. Canon’s are called “tilt-shift” while Nikon calls theirs “perspective control” lenses. I won’t get into them too much here, but basically you can shift the lens left and right or up and down without having to rotate the camera; this allows for very easy stitching. You can simply shift the lens all the way to the left, take a shot, then take a shot in the center, then take a shot shifted all the way to the right. They’re very expensive lenses, but very useful too. You can use the tilt function for landscapes where you have a large distance between objects, or you can use the shift function to straighten “bending” walls when shooting buildings. Samyang recently made one that is much more affordable than the Canon and Nikon offerings.

L-Bracket – I shoot a lot of landscapes so this is the first accessory I buy whenever I get a new camera body. The photo below demonstrates how you can switch the camera orientation from horizontal to vertical without having to re-adjust the tripod. You can see from the camera position on the right how hard it would be to make a nice panorama with the camera in a vertical position, as the nodal point in the lens wouldn’t be in one spot while the camera is rotated. In Part 2 I’ll talk more about why you might want to do a horizontal style panorama with the camera in a vertical position.

The L-Bracket. An essential accessory for many landscape photographers to be able to switch from a horizontal to vertical camera position while keeping the camera in the same spot. It can also help a lot with keeping the camera above the axis of rotation for a panorama (although you need the tripod head shown in the photos above if you want the nodal point above the axis of rotation).

No polarizer – You have to be careful with a polarizer when you’re shooting outdoors. Even when you’re just using a wide angle lens (and not doing a panorama) it can cause issues in the sky (unnatural looking dark areas), but it can cause lots of problems in a panorama. It won’t always deepen the blue of the sky uniformly across the entire frame, so when you stitch a panorama you’ll get a bunch of dark lines in the sky. This may not be a problem if you’re using a long telephoto lens and the angle that you’re including in the entire panorama doesn’t cover much distance. If you’re indoors you may want to use a polarizer if you need to cut down on reflections, but double check your shots to make sure things will line up nicely in the reflections afterwards.

Vignetting – Different lenses have different amount of vignetting (darkening in the corners). The effect is most strong when using wide apertures, so you can use a smaller aperture to try to avoid this. You can also apply lens corrections, either in camera or later in your editing program. This should help to avoid dark lines in the sky, for example, when you’re stitching your shot together later. Note: something I just learned is that Adobe Lightroom’s stitching function (at least on my version, which isn’t the newest) doesn’t stitch with the edits applied when you’re working on RAW photos. You have to edit the photos, export them as a jpeg or tiff, then bring them back into Lightroom and stitch them. I lost a lot of time working on the New York City skyline shot (at the top of the post) before I figured this out.

Oct16_2016_A7R2 (49)-Pano-edit-2-edit
This is the blast tunnel leading up to the Diefenbunker Museum in Carp, Ontario, Canada. It was designed to channel the force of a nuclear blast away from the underground bunker housing the prime minister. I was just shooting standard wide angle shots of the tunnel when I realized that the tunnel might make a crazy looking panorama, if I could get all the curving lines to line up correctly. (Camera mounted in a vertical position)

That’s it for Part 1. Check out Part 2 for a discussion on things like stitching vs. cropping, software/editing, vertical panoramas, etc.

I post to the blog about once a month, so if you want to get an alert when there’s a new post just scroll to the bottom of the page and click the Follow button.

– Patrick




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