Panoramic Photography: Weekend Photography Assignment

By Geoff Harris

Here at MyPhotoSchool we have some terrific online photography courses, but haven’t talked much about panoramic photography.  So today I want to redress this issue, so this weekend’s photography assignment is to go out and shoot a Panoramic.

You go for a burger and fries and you’ll be asked if you want to go large. Buy a TV and the salesman will try to persuade you take out an extended guarantee. It seems that everything has to be bigger these days. Even photography isn’t immune. Digital photography and imaging software have made panoramic photography far more accessible than it’s ever been. Which means you can go large with your images.

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Ait Benhaddou in Morocco, shot using a Hasselblad Xpan

The usual rectangular image that most cameras shoot is all very well. However, a composition sometimes benefits from a more stretched shape. In pre-digital days the only option was to either physically crop your photos or buy a dedicated panoramic camera such as the Hasselblad Xpan. This camera allowed you to shoot images with an aspect ratio of 3:1 compared to the standard 3:2 (aspect ratio is the ratio of the horizontal size of an image compared to the vertical).

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Vertical panoramics are as effective as horizontal panoramics, though less common. The key is finding a subject that benefits from the panoramic shape.

Digital photography changed all that. You can still crop your images of course. In fact some cameras let you do this in-camera, though typically only when shooting Jpeg. However, by cropping you lose precious resolution limiting your printing options later. A better solution is to shoot several images, moving the camera between each shot, and then stitch the results together in postproduction. Although there are some drawbacks to this method, it does have the happy result of increasing resolution. And yes, that does mean you go large with your prints too.

Shooting images for panoramic stitching does mean being thorough and consistent. Preferably all the images should be shot at the same exposure with the same white balance. I shoot in Manual exposure mode (with a fixed ISO) using a custom white balance when shooting image sequences. You should also use the same focus distance for each shot. There’s nothing more frustrating than stitching a sequence of shots only to discover inconsistent focusing between images.

You need to decide before you shoot where the sequence will start and where it will end. The scope of the panorama and the focal length of the lens you use will determine how many images you’ll need to shoot. When you start shooting you need to overlap each image in the sequence by roughly a third. This will make the stitching process far simpler and ensure that there are no annoying gaps. Although it sounds counterintuitive I usually shoot vertical images when I want to create a horizontal panoramic image. This gives me greater scope for cropping later, though it does mean shooting more images than if I’d shot horizontally.

It’s perfectly possible to shoot sequences handheld. Some cameras, such as certain Sony models, have ‘sweep’ panoramic modes that are specifically designed for handheld shooting (and rather niftily stitch the results in-camera for you too). The key is to keep your camera as level as possible as you shoot the sequence. It’s exasperating when you return with a series of images that gradually get higher (or lower) making it difficult to cut out a rectangular panorama later. It’s far easier using a tripod, though you do need to ensure that the tripod is level before you start. The more images you shoot the more important it is keep your camera level.

You’d think that a wide-angle lens would be ideal for making a panoramic sequence. However, lens distortion and perspective changes can be a problem. I prefer to use a moderate focal length, though some of my most successful panoramic images were shot using telephoto lenses.

Once you’ve shot your images you’ll then need to stitch them together. You could do this by hand, but it’s not recommended (unless you have far more spare time than me). I use the Photomerge function in Adobe Photoshop CS6 do my stitching but there are plenty of alternatives, often supplied free with digital cameras (Canon’s PhotoStitch software, though a bit clunky, is perfectly serviceable). Commercial alternatives include Panoweaver and PTGui.

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This sequence of eight images was shot to create a panoramic (middle), which was then cropped to a rectangular shape (bottom). The cropped image is 13,500 pixels across. Big enough for a 1.4 metre print at 240ppi!

One of the drawbacks with shooting a sequence of images is that invariably something will move during the sequence. Shoot your sequence as quickly but as smoothly as possible. Automatic stitching sometimes struggles with subjects such as running water. Once the stitching process is finished it’s worth inspecting the image at 100% magnification to check that everything is seamless. If it isn’t use a clone tool to patch up the joins. You’ll also end up with ragged-looking image that will need to be cropped to a rectangular shape. The aspect ratio you use is up to you, though 2:1 or 3:1 are good starting points.
This week’s challenge is to shoot a sequence of photos and create your own panoramic image. Although panoramics tend to be horizontal there’s no reason not to buck the trend and create a vertical panoramic. Just make sure you’ve plenty of space of your memory before you start. Making panoramic images can get addictive. In fact you may find you need to buy a larger memory card and hard drive to cope with all the images you’ll be shooting. Still, it’s better for you to spend your money on photographic equipment than on fast food.
If you would like to learn more about photography why mot consider taking one of our famous 4 week online photography courses. You will get four weekly video tutorials, four weekly assignments, an opportunity to be taught by one of the world top photographers and have direct contact with them to ask questions and get feed back on your work.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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