Perfect Panoramas

panorama photo
Waves can be a challenge when shooting panoramas, you can see the break lines if you look closely - by 1suisse

Creating the perfect panorama is far more difficult than merely stitching together a series of images in Photoshop. Getting the perfect shot takes planning, the right equipment and a surprising amount of preparation.

For certain specialized areas of photography, like architectural and structural, it’s not unusual to see photographers employ highly specialized cameras like the Seitz 6×17, which is great choice if you have $30,000 to drop on a camera. For some specialty areas of photography and certain applications such expense is justified.

I’m guessing most of you will want to utilize the equipment you happen to own now, as I would.

Once you select the vista you want to capture and have established your vantage point, you’ll need to gear up.

– Your camera
– A sturdy tripod
– A bubble level if your tripod doesn’t have one (some cameras have built-in software levels)

Remove the polarizer if your lens has one as subtle changes in the angle as you pan across a scene can cause the colors in the sky to change slightly.

There are specially made panorama heads for tripods, but those are expensive.  A $6 bubble level and tripod will usually do the job.

Horizontal or Vertical Framing

It’s your choice. Horizontal framing will give you a long, narrow shot. To get a wider picture select vertical framing.

Be aware that vertical framing may introduce subtle errors because you’re no longer pivoting around the lens access. To correct for that you need to either have your camera perfectly level relative to the horizon, or there are specially made panorama tripod heads that compensate for the shift.

The vertical framing won’t be quite the issue if you’re perfectly level, especially with a full frame camera like a Canon 5D.

Turn Off Auto Everything

This will be a challenge because most cameras have automatic settings that most people aren’t even aware exist. Modern cameras are fitted with computers that will fight to the death to get you the most perfect picture it can with whatever functions it still controls independent of the operator. So, for panoramas, you have to turn them all off.

The auto ISO setting is the one most people overlook, auto white balance is another. I go so far as to turn of Peripheral Illumination Correction and Low Light Noise Correction. Some of the newer consumer cameras have panorama features built-in that take care of the exposure and overlap issues for you.

Depth of Field

In most panoramas, depth of field is going to be more important than shutter speed since you’re working on a tripod. You’ll want to use a smaller aperture (higher f-stop) but don’t feel like you have to go all the way to f/22. You should be able to get adequate DoF for a panorama out of f/11 or above.

Overlapping Frames

I prefer to pick my overlap points manually. For landscapes it’s easy: Find a prominent feature with strong vertical lines that will be easy to match up in post and overlap your frames on those features.

Oceans and beaches present peculiar problems in panoramas because of waves and people moving around on the beach. Waves may be one time you want to think about bumping up to f/22 so you can utilize a slower shutter speed. Since it won’t be possible to preserve a wave pattern from one frame to the next, sometimes the best compromise is to use a slower shutter speed that blurs out the wave motion. You can also cheat in post-processing and use the clone tool to blend wave features, but that’s a lot of manual work.

For situations where there are humans moving around, you’ll just have to be fast and try to pick break points large enough to conceal a moving person, like a pillar or big tree. If you’re far enough back from a crowd, minor imperfections won’t likely be that noticeable anyway.

I wouldn’t advise trying an HDR panorama where there are any moving parts. That’s going to be hard enough to get right on a static scene. Use Automatic Exposure Bracketing if your camera supports it and I do the HDR layering before trying to stitch the panorama photos together. It’s inevitable when adding HDR layering that the color in one frame will be off, so find that one first and minimize the amount of color work you have to do in post.

With that exception, do the stitching first and then run color and contrast correction on the final product.

Shooting Panoramas

Stitching Panoramas Together