One of the great ways to capture large scenes that don’t fit neatly in an 8 x 10 frame is by taking a series of photos and blending them together in a panorama. If you’re concerned that your low-resolution photos will look pixelated or blurry on a large screen or large format print, maybe multiple shots will remedy this.
From the Greek term meaning “all sight,” the word panorama was invented in the 18th century, though panoramic paintings and other visual representations have been around at least since 20 AD in painted murals in the city of Pompeii. The Irish-born artist Robert Barker coined the term to describe an installation he had created, where viewers walked into a large cylinder that was painted on all sides.
Technology brought panoramic photography to new heights in the 1970’s with multi-image diapositive slide projections. Usually set with an audio track and a specicalized projector (or multiple projectors; some multi-image screening houses relied on 24 or even more mounted projectors) that synchronized the changing from one set of slides to the next, multi-image presentations would overlap images with graduated edge-masks so as to appear as one large, wide panoramic photo.
As technology has advanced, so too has the ease of creating panoramic photos. Coinciding with the decline in analog film cameras and with it, the slideshow, computers largely superseded this medium, and anyone with a digital camera and computer with the right software can now create large-format panoramas in a very short time period.
Most smartphones have a panorama option, and while the linear (long, horizontal) option produces good, sometimes great results, the spherical panorama option on Android phones is next to impossible to do correctly. In order to create a seamless spherical panorama, the camera must be rotated about the no-parallax point or NPP. While finding the NPP is a relatively straightforward (if time-consuming) process, one would first need a custom mount for the phone and a 3-axis rotator, like the Nodal Ninja 6 Panoramic Spherical Tripod Head, which IMHO would be a bit much for a smartphone. (A note on finding the NPP.)
The Nodal Ninja 6 Panoramic Spherical Tripod Head is a 3-axis pano rotator
that allows for rotating about the focus point of just about any lens.
To take simple panoramas, you don’t need anything but your camera and a computer pano-stitching software. A tripod will facilitate the movement of the camera, and a pano-head rotator will facilitate precise rotation, but you can also do it by hand. Many tripods have bubble-levels built in, which is quite helpful (your camera may have an internal level as a substitute).
Below is the tripod I use, the MeFOTO Roadtrip S Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod. I can’t recommend this tripod highly enough. With its twist locks, carbon fiber composition, and ball head, it is super light and transportable and goes just about wherever I go. I can also unscrew one of the legs and connect it to the center pole and it becomes a monopod.
The grading on the swivel knob helps me take the correct number of shots and align the panorama horizontally, but only if the ball head is straight on top of it and parallel to the horizon. There is a handy bubble-level on the plate that helps me achieve this. It’s important to set the exposure correctly before we start. Shooting in an auto-exposure mode will lead to uneven color and brightness in the final image. (Since large format panoramas tend to have areas of extreme highlights and shadows, many photographers use HDR bracketing to even out the exposure. A note on HDR photography.)
Now we proceed to take the photos. Simply make sure there is enough overlap from one photo to the next as you rotate the camera. While shooting, I go from left to right, and in each shot I make sure there is one identifying object in the right side of the frame. I then rotate my camera to the right, keeping that object in frame and take note of the angle of rotation required to overlap but not too much. I shoot, then rotate the camera the same amount of rotation and shoot again. I repeat the process for the desired number of images. In this case, I took 12 photos, and
Stitching them together produces the following image:
If you are discouraged by the seeming complexity of the manual panorama process, that was not my intention. While in-camera/in-phone pano stitching is far easier (this may be the option for you), I prefer to have control over the camera settings and how images ultimately turn out. Furthermore, my DSLR takes larger RAW photos with a much higher quality than a phone or point-and-shoot like the fancy cameras. This preference begs the question, “is it worth it?” I think so, but I explore this query further in another post.
One error I made several times when I first started shooting panoramas was with framing the subject of the panorama. Many times I would start my series with the subject, only to place it far to one side. Panoramas take more effort and intention to frame than conventional photos, and I can’t review them until I have stitched them on my computer. It is important to think about where you’re going to start and end your panorama. Another tricky subject is large bodies of water. Since most large bodies of water are constantly in motion, it is quite difficult to avoid stitching errors between composite photos. To alleviate this, I try to get shorelines (and waves) in only one photo (or no shoreline at all).
Finally, import your photos into a pano-stitching software. PhotoShop Lightroom has a decent pano-stitching feature (ctrl-M on a PC) I use a program called PTGUI (Pano Tools Graphic User Interface) that lets me adjust many parameters of the panorama, including light settings. Also, if the computer is unable to find control points for stitching, I can add some manually–usually 5 or 6 is enough to align the images.
In the next blog post, I will discuss spherical panoramas, the kind I use for Google Street View Tours and showing the interiors of small spaces.