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How to shoot and stitch panoramic photos

I thought writing something fun and easy this week (for a change) that will equip your photography knowledge more and more. We will be talking about taking panoramic photos and stitching them using software. But what are panoramas? Well, as you might guessed, it is several photographs taken at specific angles and stitched together horizontally to create a seamless picture. Panoramic subjects are typically landscapes or cityscapes. However, don’t let that restrain your creativity. You can shoot any subject in panoramic mode if you want to practice

Now you might argue that recent cell phones and point-and-shoot cameras nowadays come with panoramic function built-in the camera menu where you shoot and start turning around capturing the whole 180 degrees scenery. However, in DSLRs this is not as straightforward and it might seem difficult but don’t be afraid. It is easier than you think. Just follow these basic rules.

The first thing we need to do is to locate a scene with no or minimum changes across the spectrum. I mean no cars or highways and not even strong winds in some cases.

Second we need to setup our gear. For that you need a camera (Duh), a tripod, and a shutter release. Off course, later on you need a computer and software. We will use Adobe Photoshop for that purpose. There are however other software in the market that do the job extremely well. Canon DSLRs for example come with a proprietary utility named PhotoStich that you can download easily from canon.com.

You can take horizontal or vertical shots but pros prefer the vertical mode to capture panoramas. Vertical images capture more of the sky and ground and provide higher resolution panoramas compared to horizontal ones. While capturing, remember to overlap each photo – Why? Well in order for any software to be able to stitch multiple photos together, the photos have to overlap each other by a certain margin, so that alignment points are identified and properly aligned during the stitching process. The overlap margin is recommended to be between 20% and 30%.

As far as camera settings are concerned, below are the general guidelines:

  • ISO: make sure that “Auto ISO” is turned off and set your ISO to the camera base ISO (either 100 or 200).
  • White Balance: I shoot in RAW and I usually set WB to “Auto” because I can change it in post-processing to suite my taste. However in panoramic photography, you don’t want colour temperature to change between shots. Panoramas are the only case where you need to change your White Balance from Auto to something like Daylight or Shade.
  • Shooting mode:  set to “Manual” because you want consistent exposures across all photos.
  • Manual Focus: start with auto focusing on a distant object, then switch to manual focus. You do not want your camera to change focus points every time you take a snap.
  • Aperture and Shutter Speed: because you want to have everything in focus, set your aperture to at least f/8, preferably f/11 and higher depending on how close the nearest foreground object is. Set your shutter speed to zero out the meter reading.
  • Metering: do not meter off the brightest (sky) or darkest areas of the scene (shadow), but rather try to find a mid-range spot. 
  • Focal Length: wide-angle lenses (below 24-28mm) have distortion and vignetting issues that can make it difficult to properly align and stitch photos. You can deal with both distortion and vignetting very easily in post-processing software like Adobe Lightroom’s Lens Correction option (see my post on this subject). If you don’t’ use Lightroom or some other software then set your focal length between 24mm and 50mm (depending on the lenses and your censor. Multiply this by 1.6 if you have a cropped censor).

Once you have the gear setup and ready to go:

  1. Set the tripod on a firm surface and level the camera.
  2. Identify your starting point and ending point. As a tip I have come across on many tutorials, take the first shot twice, one with and one without your left hand in the frame. Pan and then when you reach the last photo also take it twice, but now with your right hand in the frame. This will let you identify the starting and ending points in post-processing.
  3. Take the first shot and then start moving the camera to the right. Overlap your next photo with the previous one. Repeat this until you get to the end point. 
  4. When done, visually inspect all images on your LCD to make sure that you have consistent exposure and that you have captured the whole scene by overlapping with a minimum of 20%.

Stitching your Panoramas Using Adobe Photoshop

If you use Lightroom, select the photos and then right click, “Edit In”-”Merge to Panorama in photoshop”.

If you use Lightroom, select the photos and then right click, “Edit In”-”Merge to Panorama in photoshop”

If you do not use Lightroom, open Photoshop and then go to “File”-”Automate”-Photomerge”. A dialog box will come up that looks like this:

Browse for the photos to be merged while making sure that the “Blend Images Together” and “Geometric Distortion Correction” options are checked. After clicking OK, the stitching process will take some time to depending on the number of images and their size. Once the process is finished, all you have to do is crop the image to your taste.