Tips for Shooting Panoramas

In this post we are going to talk about taking panorama pictures. Panorama pictures are very wide (or long in some cases) pictures mostly comprising of more than one picture digitally blended together to create a single image. They are generally used to capture large landscape vistas, too large to capture with a single photograph. The technique can also be used to capture very high resolution images for extremely large format printing! In the text below you will learn some techniques for capturing these image……..

So I have been an avid landscape, seascape and architectural photographer for quite a while now. On occasion I’ll encounter a scene or building that can simply not be captured in a traditional single frame capture. Maybe it’s because my lens are not wide enough for a specific subject or perhaps the scene being captured warrants a wider ratio of photograph. There are also times when I think ‘wouldn’t this just look amazing as a huge print’…. huge prints typically need huge resolution… this is another area where knowing how to shoot and combine panoramic photographs can be to your benefit.

In this tutorial I will show you how I capture my panos… While by no means the perfect set up it certainly fits my needs and I feel these tips and my advise will at least help you get a better image. Panoramic photography can be a very expensive business with specialist equipment and setups costing well into the thousands but you don’t necessarily have to have all this ‘stuff’ to get great shots. I’d sit in the middle grounds in what I have spent on equipment that helps for this area of photography but the very same equipment is vital for the architectural work that I specialise in so that warranted the expenditure! Anyway I’ll start with explaining the equipment end of things moving onto the taking of the shot and then the combining of the shots in post processing.


Ok…. To begin with I’ll tell you what I use to take my shots. Nearly all of the time I use the Canon 5DSR as the camera of choice. When shooting pano’s you often want loads of resolution and the 5DSR gives me that. To be honest any Digital SLR will be sufficient. Even a decent quality point and shoot digital camera or your phone can work. To me the camera isn’t really the most important part of shooting successful images. With the correct technique you’ll get acceptable results with any camera. Anyway… moving on… I shoot panos with a few different lens. Surprisingly the lens I probably use the most is a Sigma Art 85mm. Its very very sharp, provides loads of detail and is relatively distortion free. I’d use this mostly when there is a bit of distance between me and whatever I am trying to photograph. After that I also use either the Canon TS-E 24mm F3.5L II Tilt / Shift Lens or on occasion the Canon TS-E 17mm F4 L. Using a lens with ‘movements’ (shifting in particular) makes middle-highish resolution images very easy. They are the main lens I use but at times also resort to wider or longer focal lengths, depending on what I am shooting.

Next up and probably more importantly is a tripod. I use a Manfrotto 055 Tripod with a Manfrotto 410 geared head. The very odd time I would also use a Manfrotto Levelling Base underneath the geared head. Keeping everything very squared up and level is vital for successful pano shooting. I also use a cheap hot shoe mount spirit level jobbie on top of the camera but use it purely as a backup. Once I position my tripod I then adjust the levelling head so at least the geared head above it is working off a level base. Some tripods have a small spirit level on the top which will work equally as good as the levelling base. Next I level the head itself using the built in level and after that I double-check everything is straight with the crappie spirit level on top. The reason I kind of ignore my spirit level mount is that after a bit of testing I found the hot shoe itself is not level with the body of the camera. Also the foot of the level itself does not fit snug in the hot shoe. So yeah I basically don't trust it…! I’m probably over cautious with this but when I am shooting architecture I have to have things straight so my cautiousness definitely stems from there. After that I use a Hahnel Capture wireless remote release to trigger the exposures. So thats the equipment I use.

Yes I have spent quite a bit of money on this equipment but its part of what I shoot professionally so its justified. To perfect the whole tripod shooting and setup one should always rotate the camera around a nodal point. The nodal point of a lens is the point inside a lens where light paths cross before being focused onto the film plane or digital sensor. A dedicated pano head will let you find this nodal point and then rotate around it. By not doing it that way you can get parallax issues etc but as of yet I have not found it to be a major issue. Parallax tends to effect items very close to you (like rocks in your foreground). So far I have found that the software I use for combining the images I take corrects the parallax sufficiently. 

I have seen really good multi-shot panos shot with iPhones and other smart phones. While their sensors may be small and low resolution the software thats doing the joining of the images is pretty good and compensates for lack of resolution. The resulting panos are great for web or small printing but would not stand up to a lot of further manipulation or any type of large format printing. They have their uses….!!!!! Ok next I will explain how I actually take the shot. It only took me 900 words to get to here…!!!!

The Shoot

Ok so you know what equipment is preferable and I’ve explained a little bit about levelling the camera. So you are now standing in front of a fantastic scene… a beautiful mountain range… a stunning twilight cityscape but your lens just isn’t capturing enough detail to convey this beauty. Ok start by roughly eyeing up the area you think you want to shoot. Now decide which lens will work best to get the shot. Try a few different focal lengths whilst handholding the camera. Once you have decided on the focal length it's time to mount the camera on your firmly positioned tripod.

Now it's time to do some levelling. Start by concentrating on the tripod and ignoring the camera itself for the moment. Most tripods (or at least the tripod head) have a level built into them. If you have a levelling head then get this bit level by adjusting the threaded discs until that little bubble level is perfect. So now you have this bit level now concentrate on getting the camera level. This is where the hot shoe spirit level comes in (if ye can trust it) or on newer DSLR’s the inbuilt level..! I generally concentrate on getting the horizontal levelling perfect and am not so worried about the vertical alignments.

So now everything is level is time to start shooting. I typical shoot in vertical orientation (especially when shooting at longer focal lengths) as the distortion is less of a problem and it gives me more cropping room in post processing. Next I try a few test exposures adding grad filters if necessary. As I normally shoot in aperture priority I now record the correct exposure and switch to full manual mode on the camera and dial in the pre tested aperture and shutter speed. This ensures that my exposures don't change as I rotate the camera through the scene. You should also set you white balance away from auto as different conditions within your scene could effect the kelvin value of your white balance. I shoot in raw so the white balance step is less important but I still set it away from auto just in case. Also make sure you are not shooting at or close to your lens widest aperture as some lens suffer form vignetting which can effect the overall look of the image in post processing. So now focus your lens manually (maybe even with live view so ye nail it….!). Now start pressing that shutter button…. Slowly rotating the camera as you go allow between 20 and 40% overlap between frames. This can be difficult to gauge so always pic something on the horizon thats close to the edge of the frame and make sure its also in the next frame on the other side. Keep rotating (whilst constantly watching your spirit level) and shooting until you have covered the entire scene. I normally shoot a picture of my hand before and after the actual pano images so I know during processing which images are the final ones to be joined. 

Ok If you did everything above correctly you should now have your raw material for your pano image in the bag. I know I mentioned earlier that I use a Tilt and Shift lens but as its quite a specialist lens, with not many people using them, I’m not going to dwell on how to shoot panos with them. Instead have a look here if you are interested in that method. However if you do want me to elaborate then please contact me here in the shop and I will help you. Next up its the processing.


Ok so you have you ‘raw’ material to create your pano image. Trust me you’ve done the hard part…! In no time now you’ll have your pano ready to be sent to us  for that huge print! So again I will explain my methods. I have a couple of options on software but before I get there just some other advice. I’m hoping that you have taken your images in RAW format. If so go ahead now and open your RAW processor. My software of choice is Adobe Lightroom. When you open your images your software may try to auto correct your images. Its best to turn this off as I have no doubt that the software will adjust each image slightly differently resulting in difficultly in the joining process. Instead I want you to pick your settings on one image and then do EXACTLY the same to every image in your pano. Also be careful not to do any cropping yet as that can happen later and you wouldn’t want to loose any of your overlap.

Ok next up its the stitching software. I use 2 different methods and both have their merits. Years ago I had a dedicated piece of software for ‘stitching’ panoramas. It was extremely good but very time consuming to use and took a lot of getting used to. Over the years Adobe have almost perfected their panorama stitching to an extent that I really only ever use Lightroom or Photoshop to do my stitching now. For those of you that haven't used it  in Photoshop just go to ‘File-Automate-PhotoMerge’ and then select the images you want to stitch/merge. In Lightroom just go to ‘Photo-Photomerge-Panorama’. It takes a few minutes but generally gets it pretty accurate.

My preference at the moment is to use Lightroom as it creates a DNG which allows you do a little more editing after it creates the pano! My gripe with both versions of adobe stitching software is the lack of options. Should it happen to get it wrong it can be difficult to go back and tweak. Anyway after you have your now stitched pano you will likely end up with a huge image with funny borders. Thats where shooting the individual images in vertical orientation comes in as you should have a bit of space in the sky/foreground to crop out those wobbly borders! Finally go through your image at 100% to check for misalignments, dust and other distractions. Finally have a quick look at your levels, saturation and curves to finish everything up. Save, backup and send it into us to print! :-)

Thats about as much as I can tell you. There is probably more hidden inside my head but to get at that you’ll have to come into the shop for a chat.



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