Alaska, where I’m fortunate to live, is one great big, enormous, sprawling place. The “big sky” country of Montana has nothing on this place. Trust me. I often find myself standing before one of these grand landscapes and realize that one image just isn’t going to do the trick. This is where panoramic photos come in.
Even four or five images don’t do the Alaskan landscape justice sometimes. It’s just too big, the scenery too grand to isolate down into a single frame.
Last winter, I was photographing along a gravel beach near Haines, Alaska. It was late evening and the alpenglow was lighting up the mountains across the bay in bright peach light.
Shooting wide at 14mm, the mountains shrank to a small part of the frame. They turned into a jagged saw blade of colour in a frame dominated by sky and water. The composition just didn’t work.
I wanted the details in the mountains, while maintaining a sense of the vast landscape. A panoramic photo was the only way to go.
So I mounted my camera on a tripod, zoomed in on the mountains, adjusted my settings, and began a slow pan of the landscape, pausing to make an image with the appearance of each new scene.
Panoramic pictures are hardly a novelty, iPhones and many point and shoots can create them in-camera, but stitching together images from a DSLR, mirrorless, or other high resolution camera will yield better results…if you do it right.
Sadly, they are also easy to mess up. Here are a few panoramic photography tips for making effective panoramas from a series of stills.
To define panorama when it comes to photography is simple: it’s a wide or (rarely) tall formatted image. You can create them by cropping a single image to long rectangle. But the much better way is to use multiple images from a single scene and digitally stitch them together to create a single, wide-format image.
Take that wide angle lens off your camera, this isn’t the time for it. The optical distortion inherent in these lenses tends to mess with the process of stitching them together.
Rather, select a standard lens or a short telephoto; something between 40 and 100mm is usually perfect. Occasionally I’ve used lenses as long as 200mm, so don’t be afraid to go even longer if the situation calls for it.
Next, remove all filters from your lens, especially polarizers. Polarizers cause gradations across an image that are impossible to fix in post-processing, so get that thing off your camera.
Cameras and Settings for Panoramic Photos
Which camera you choose, matters very little. Use what you’ve got. However, your file type and settings matter a great deal.
Always shoot panoramas in RAW format. (Really, all your images should be shot in RAW if you are a serious photographer, but that’s a separate topic.) When shooting panoramas, RAW will allow you the greatest possible flexibility in post-processing.
There, you can adjust exposures, white balance, and other settings to match from one image to the next. If you forget something in the field, or miss a setting, RAW will give you the greatest possible flexibility to fix it later.
I suppose, if you are careful in-camera, and manually adjust all your settings from ISO to exposure, and white balance, you may be able to get by with jpegs. But I don’t recommend it.
Getting the right exposure may be the trickiest part of creating a panorama photograph. Brightness of your scene will inevitably vary from one side of your composition to the other. Here is my process:
- Meter off the brightest part of your scene.
- Adjust your settings so those areas are bright, but not burnt out.
- Take note of those settings.
- Place your camera in manual mode and set your aperture and shutter speed.
- Take a few more sample shots, and check your histogram for burnt highlights or lost blacks.
- Adjust settings as needed
Once you’ve nailed the exposure, you need to be sure your focus, too, won’t slip around during the course of your image series. Turn off the autofocus.
As you pan across your scene, you don’t want your camera grabbing a new focus point each time.
Set it so your subject is in focus and then don’t touch it again until you’ve finished the series.
There are two options for White Balance. The first, and easiest, is to set your white balance in camera.
Using auto-white balance will cause your camera to slightly adjust each time you click the shutter. This will lead to slightly different colour tones with each image in your panorama: not what you want.
Rather than dealing with that, select some other appropriate setting, sunny, cloudy, whatever, and stick with it.
The second option is to shoot in RAW and then adjust your white balance in post-processing. This works fine, but adds an extra step later. For that reason, I recommend setting it in camera, while in the field.
Making the Panoramic Images
Creating each image of your series vertically formatted (portrait), is best. First, this allows you to stitch together a greater number of photos for the same scene. And second, it allows you to compose with more “dead space” at the top and bottom.
When you compose the first shot of your panorama, be sure to include a bit of extra space at both the top and bottom. This “dead space” will be needed later when you crop your final image.
Foregrounds, just as in standard landscape photography, are important parts of panoramas. However, including foreground elements that are very close to your camera, may cause problems.
Each time you pan your camera for the next shot, the front of your lens will move an inch or two. If your foreground is too close, that shift will appear, and your computer will not be able to stitch that part of the frame, resulting in weird, jagged shapes, and visual echoes.
Rather, your foreground should be further back in your frame, several metres at least, far enough so your small changes in camera position won’t be obvious from one frame to the next.
A tripod is very useful, but not absolutely essential. If you are using a tripod, level it. With a level tripod, as you pan, your camera’s angle will not shift up and down and you’ll make the most of each frame you create.
It is possible to hand-hold and still create a good panorama. However, you need to be very careful to keep your camera level as you move across your scene. If you begin to tip or angle up or down, it may be impossible to later stitch the images together.
Compose your first image a full frame to the right or left of where you want your final image to begin. This assures that you will have adequate “dead space” on the sides of the image. Then begin making your series as you pan right or left.
Overlap each shot between 1/3rd and 1/2 of a frame. The overlap is what allows the computer to detect which images go where, so make sure to leave plenty.
Move across the scene making as many images as necessary to fully capture the landscape.
Take a breath.
Post-Processing Panoramic Photos
On your computer (I use Lightroom), go through each image in your series and confirm the White Balance of each image is appropriate and identical.
If you shot in RAW, assuring White Balance continuity is as easy as checking that they each have the same colour temperature.
Check the numbers, if they aren’t all exactly the same, change them so they are. If you set your WB in camera, you can skip this step.
Do not edit each image separately. Your first step in post processing, after confirming the white balance setting, should be stitching the panorama. Once the images have been combined you can worry about the rest.
Most post-processing programs like Lightroom and Photoshop can create panoramas. There are also specialty programs like PTGui which is designed to create enormous images involving hundreds of individual photos.
If you really get into creating huge panoramas, by all means look into programs like PTGui, but for most users, Lightroom and Photoshop are all you will ever need.
I’ll go through the steps in Lightroom:
1. Select your images by clicking the first image in your series, press the Shift key, and then select the final image. All the ones in between should now be selected as well.
2. Right click (PC) or Control-Click (Mac) and select Photomerge>Panorama.
3. A preview window will pop up offering three options: Spherical, Cylindrical, and Perspective. For most simple panoramas, Cylindrical is best, but feel free to click back and forth between these options to find the best option for your image.
4. Click Merge.
Assuming the source images were made appropriately, and the computer didn’t have any trouble merging the images, the completed image will appear in your Lightroom Library, or as a new image in Photoshop.
The panorama will likely have jagged edges from your source images not lining up perfectly. This is not a problem. Select the crop tool and cut the jagged edges away. This is why the dead space I noted earlier is so important.
Once your image is cropped the way you want it, you can post-process as you would any other photo in your collection.
Panoramic photos, are a great tool for those moments when a landscape is just too big, too dramatic, too epic to be captured in a single still.
When I first started shooting panoramas many years ago, I regularly overlooked simple things like remembering to remove my polarizer, or failing to assure the same White Balance from image to image.
If you mess up a setting or forget to remove a filter, the final image just won’t work, and there is nothing you can do about it. You need to pay attention to those annoying little details so you don’t miss your chance to create some epic shots.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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