Best Kept Secrets for Shooting a Panorama

When people see my fine art landscape panoramas they often comment that the picture seems to draw them in and surround them. Its not a coincidence that people feel that way, its part of the construction of the image. My panoramas are typically about 30 inches tall and about 80-90 inches wide. At this size, most photographs, even those made with large format cameras, start to lose detail and pixelate, but mine don’t. That’s because my images are assembled from an array of overlapping images. The image above was assembled from 12 individual images. So that’s the first secret to creating a captivating landscape panorama – keep the details sharp. A novice panorama shooter is likely to select a 50 mm lens and shoot two or three frames horizontally. The resulting panorama will be lower resolution and have perspective distortions that create an unnatural look, especially if there is only about 20% overlap. I like to shoot with the Canon 5DS camera because of its 50 megapixel sensor which yields a 30″ x 20″ high resolution print at 300 dpi.

When I approach a site, I walk around and look from many vantage points. I’m looking for a wide field of view as well as interesting objects in the foreground. I select a spot where my view is virtually guaranteed to be unobstructed by the photo bombers and that’s where I set up my tripod. I make sure the footing is solid and not subject to vibration. Once the legs are securely stationed, I use the built in level to make sure the camera will be level and can be rotated level with the horizon.

Selection of a lens is the next critical decision. Since I’m looking for the highest resolution images possible, I want to select a lens that when shooting portrait orientation that there is just enough foreground and sky in the picture. This tends to work best with a telephoto. Much of the images I shoot are shot with a high resolution 100 mm Canon lens. This allows me to get nice narrow slices of the landscape without distortion. Distortion makes the merged panorama images look strange, esp on a wide panorama like 180 degrees. Keeping a normal perspective is the second key technique to drawing people into the picture. Since all the images are shot with a telephoto as someone walks closer to the picture it seems to magnify itself with details. Then walking back and forth, the visual cylinder follows the viewer into all the different parts of the seamless scene. Its like being inside a movie.

Once the camera is set up and leveled on the tripod, its important to make a manual exposure reading. A wide panorama will often have very different lighting across the scene and some of the frames may require exposure adjustments. Finding the mid point and the range is critical before beginning. I should note that this can be tricky as light may be rapidly changing during a sunset or sunrise. The aperture must remain constant for all shots in the scene. Changing the aperture will change the depth of field and magnification of the image making it impossible to create a perfect seamless panorama. The ISO must also remain constant to keep the resolution and noise in each frame from changing. The shutter speed is the only parameter that can be changed to compensate for exposure differences and the longest shutter speed must not be so long that motion blur occurs. So test the range to verify your longest shutter speed. At this point you may be able to set your camera to aperture priority, locked ISO and let the camera make the exposure adjustments. The metering should be set at center weighted or averaged so the exposure readings will change slowly as you pan the camera.

Now that its ready to shoot, start at the left side of your scene and begin making your shots. Each shot should overlap the prior shot by at least 50% of the frame, 60% is even better. At 60%, if you have a bad shot, you can still remove it from the series and there will be enough overlap to stitch the image. The 50% guideline is to make sure the slices are narrow enough that changes in perspective, exposure, and complex content can be seamed together without distortions or vignettes. When shooting a sunset shoot the scene several times to capture the optimal light. I’ve seen people get impatient after shooting the scene five or more times thinking they got it only to find back in the digital darkroom they missed it. Have patience, start shooting early, keep readjusting your exposure settings as the sun goes down and keep shooting until dark. Raise your ISO as needed, perhaps open your aperture, shoot with a fast lens. If you are an advanced shooter, you may want to try try capturing the scene in HDR with exposure bracketing. Remember here too, the aperture must be constant in every shot varying only the shutter speed.

If you shoot 10-12 images per scene, you may find it difficult to remember why you liked the scene because the slices are just pieces of the puzzle. You have to assemble it to see the big picture. If you did shoot bracketed images and want to process the panorama in HDR, you must create the HDR image for each frame before seaming them together into a panorama. Large overlaps will be helpful here too. Be sure to create the low contrast HDR for each frame, combine the frames into the panorama, then apply the toning to the image. Be aware that the seams may become very noticeable when the image is toned if the exposures have even the slightest differences.

So, as I mentioned at the start, fine art photography isn’t just about taking a picture; there’s a lot of technique to be applied before, during and after the image is captured. It involves a confluence of vision, imagination, planning, execution, equipment, and technology. Of course, if you don’t have the equipment or patience to create a masterpiece, you can always buy one from my gallery. Please view my gallery here.