Following my previous article which was a hands-on review of a Seitz Roundshot VR Drive motorized panoramic head, this essay is more
Let’s first define a panorama. Right from the onset, I would exclude multi-row, multi-position sets of images which can be stitched into a combined image in aspect ratio 3:2 or less. I’m using here a typical 3:2 nomenclature, but that short format includes also a 4:3, 5:4, square or any other similar aspect ratios. There is nothing wrong with using stitching of many individual segments to construct a larger high-resolution, high-acuity image, but it is not a panorama. Panoramic format is defined as an elongated image, with its horizontal dimension typically at least two times longer than its height, sometimes with aspect ratio reaching even 10:1. A vertical panorama is defined in a similar way, with the difference that its height is 2 or 3 times greater than its width. A 360-degree or a spherical scene is a special type of a horizontal panorama with a full view of the surroundings.
There is a fundamental difference between a panoramic format and a panoramic viewpoint. The true panoramic viewpoint covers 120-180 degrees and invariably a certain curvature is introduced. The curvature depends on the lens used and on the distance from the main objects in the scene. While many regular photographs can be easily and successfully cropped into an elongated panoramic format, the true panoramic viewpoint results in a different look and feel. Sometimes, we can crop the top or bottom portions of images made with a wide-angle or even with a long lens to an elongated format, but although the final dimensions and aspect ratio adhere to the panoramic format definition, something is amiss. However, a lot depends also on the photographed scene.
Below is a panorama of a colorful town square with a rather natural looking perspective. This panorama was made by using a 35mm lens on a cropped camera body, which would be equivalent roughly to a 50mm lens on a full frame body. Such a view couldn’t be obtained simply by cropping the top and
A conventional photograph, whether a square or a small-ratio rectangle shows typically just a small portion of a photographed scene. In contrast, a true panoramic image can show a complete, much wider view, and instead of a single snapshot, it can capture a complete story. That story can be an expansive and varied landscape vista, a colorful wedding scene, group of wild animals in their native environment, or a thrilling action shot on spectacular background. The image made in a rotational fashion, whether it is accomplished with an automatic pano rig or with a handheld camera transmits a more authentic feel to the photographed scene. It really helps to display such a photograph in a large size, so the viewers can inspect it from one end to the other, and switch their viewing focus from the large overall scene to the individual details within the scene.
On the other hand, the image below was photographed from a draw bridge overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway in Hollywood, Florida with a very basic APS-C Canon camera and wide angle lens, and then cropped to an elongated format. The resulting picture has a good depth of field, and it is sharp throughout, not only due to the use of the wide angle lens, but also because it was shot at F8 and 1/320s. If you’ve been on these bridges, you might remember vibration from the car traffic that makes it difficult to for shooting multiple images for stitching and also for video filming. So sometimes, a quick snap with a wide-angle lens and a suitable image crop is a more practical alternative to an elaborate shooting panoramic rig and stitching method.
The picture below was shot at a kayak slalom race the Minden Whitewater Preserve in Ontario, with the same old APS-C Canon camera, but with a 200mm lens, thus getting an equivalent of a 300mm lens. The first paddler is sharp in focus, but the second paddler and the rocks are quite soft, which makes the leading kayaker to stand out. So, here we have an example of a wide panoramic format, combined with a shallow focal length of a long lens. The technique worked in this case, and I used this photo for a 2-page spread in one of my books.
Most wildlife shots are taken with a long lens in conventional format. Trying something different and attempting to show the wolves in their natural environment, I shot the picture below with a film-based Fuji GX617. This camera doesn’t have a built-in automatic focusing, nor a light meter, so I just estimated the distance and the available light, and snapped a few frames before the wolves left the scene. Nowadays, many photographers who are used to fire 12 shots in a second, would find shooting with this camera rather restrictive since you get only 8 frames per a 220 film roll (with a 120 film roll, you’ll get only 4 frames).
The picture below shows a wedding scene on the shore of Moon River in Muskoka. The wide format provides plenty of space to tell a big story showing the bride and groom arriving at the right end of the scene with an oldfashioned boat and the family and guests welcoming them at the dock and strolling along the rocky shore.
The following panorama encompasses almost 360 degrees and provides a sweeping view of a small town square with restaurants, stores, and people strolling on the streets. It would be hard to show all these details in a typical 3:2 image. This panoramas was shot with a 20mm lens which unfortunately reduces the more distant objects in the size.
Free-style and Standardized Panoramic Methods
Free-style method as I refer to it, is a typical approach of shooting landscape panoramas in which we look at the scene in front of us, choose the appropriate camera and lens, envision the finished panorama and proceed to take a set of pictures, either on a tripod or handholding the camera. I use this approach mainly for non-standard situations, taking 3 to 5 images for one panorama, sometime resorting to handheld shooting, especially when hiking without a tripod. If I carry just one camera with a couple of primes or a zoom lens, I will select the most appropriate focal length, decide on the vantage point and the overall composition, measure the available light, and take a few pictures handholding the camera while turning on my heels in a circular fashion. Since I can’t see and evaluate the entire panorama in my viewfinder, I might take a few steps in either direction, and take a couple of similar image sequences from a different vantage point. However, if the photographed scene is far away, obviously making just a few steps to the side won’t make any difference, so shooting multiple panorama compositions from basically the same location makes sense only when shooting nearby scenes with a shorter focal length lens or if there are some photogenic objects in the foreground which might deserve capturing them under a different angle or position in the final panorama. Upon returning home, we may process the images in RAW converter or use just the JPG files and then load them into a stitching program to make the panorama. This may be a lot of fun, but it is also rather labour intensive.
On the other hand, a standardized shooting method can be very effective in a production of a series of 360-degree panorama scenes, whether interiors/rooms for real-estate clients, in forensic photography, or even at some outdoor venues, such as fairs, car shows, and on nature trails, especially when planning to combine a number of such panoramas into a comprehensive 360-degree VR tour. To make a pleasing 360 VR tour, it is highly desirable to shoot and present all panoramas in the same consistent fashion (using identical lens and same image proportions). In such a case, I will decide in advance on the camera and lens, will set them on a tripod with a motorized panoramic head, and proceed with automated shooting. Depending on the requirements, I may decide to shoot 9-10 images with a 20mm lens in one row, or 3 rows of 10 images, or even shooting in HDR mode and thus taking even over 100 images per a scene. Outdoors, I would select a 28mm, 35mm, or even a 50mm lens which would trigger a different camera control program shooting 10-15 images in one row, and most likely in multiple rows.
When shooting indoors with a motorized rig, the entire camera rotation and image acquisition may take several minutes, so I can use that time to scout and prepare another room for shooting while the camera is busy in the first room. Such a workflow would be difficult and rather time consuming without a motorized panoramic head. Upon the return home, I will transfer all images from the memory card to the computer, but this time I will start the stitching program in a batch fashion, and then I’m free to attend to other duties, while the stitching program takes care of analyzing and combining the images. Such high-speed panorama production workflow is made possible only due to standardized shooting and stitching methods, and is invaluable when tasked with a production of a large number of 360-degree panoramas. In other words, if you need to make multiple panoramas, it’s much easier if you shoot them all in the same fashion.
In the following section, I included a mix of panoramas, some made with film cameras and some by stitching digital images.
Below is a typical landscape panorama with several large trees in the foreground, and a mountain range with
Here is another story telling picture. Instead of capturing just the old castle, the panorama shows a plowed field, blooming trees, row of family houses m two churches, and ruins of a medieval castle on the hill.
The Kilauea lighthouse located on a scenic narrow peninsula, jutting out into the Pacific ocean. This scenic spot was purchased from the Kilauea Sugar Plantation Company in 1909 for one US dollar.
The group of low-lying islands and shoals is a great
The white fishing boat and compact homes built right on the sloping rocky shore are reflected in the amazingly calm water and the hill contour with a symmetrical reflection ties it all together into a placid panorama.
Sometimes, there is an opportunity to shoot vertical panoramas. Because of this site layout considerations, I combined two such vertical images below.
Both were shot with a 2 1/4″ film-based Fuji GX617 camera and 180mm lens.
And sometimes there are certain objects and formations that just beg for
How to shoot panoramas
- Choose the best vantage point trying to envision the entire scene. You can use your camera viewer or the back screen to scan the entire scene from left to right, respectively for the entire 360 degrees to get a feel for the panorama from a given vantage point. You can use your phone in panoramic mode to get a good preview.
- Any camera should work. The cameras with a small sensor will give you the greatest depth of field, cameras with the largest sensor size will give you sharpest images. This may sound as a conflicting advice, and in some case it is, so judge the scene and if you have a choice, the select the most appropriate camera. If you own both, full frame or crop format cameras, use full frame camera. An exception to this rule would be if you shoot a more distant scene, and you want to take an advantage of the DX’s (or M43 or even 1 inch sensor) camera crop factor.
- Choose the most appropriate lens. To make an indoor panorama or a panorama of an intimate outdoor scene with a full frame camera, use 15 to 20 mm focal length. Ideally a prime lens or a wide end of a zoom lens (i.e .16-35mm lens). If you are shooting a larger scene, mount your best medium to long lens (50-105mm). For shooting farway objects, such mountains or islands, you might consider a 200mm or even a 300mm lens.
- Select ISO high enough to properly expose the darkest parts of the scene. Turn off Auto ISO.
- Shoot in manual mode. Set your focusing to automatic, focus to about 1/3 of the distance between the closes and farthest point, and then switch focusing to back to manual.
- Measure the light for the lightest and darkest areas in the scene, then switch to manual and set the shutter speed somewhere between those two extremes.
- Set the aperture to F8 or F11. This way you get a large depth of field and most of the scene should be in focus.
- Check the light conditions and rather than using Auto White Balance set the White Balance to Cloudy, Sunny or absolute Kelvin temperature.
- If you use a solid tripod or a panoramic head on the tripod, overlap each image by at least 30 degrees. Start the leftmost image about 35 degrees left from the intended left edge. End your rightmost image about 35 degrees past the intended right edge. If you shoot handheld, aim for a 40-50 degree overlap.
- Don’t use polarizing filter. If you are used to have a clear filter for lens protection, you can keep it on.
- Tripod is optional, but highly recommended, especially if you shoot multi-row panoramas or use a slow shutter speed.
- Panoramic head is ideal for fast and precise image positioning, and it is recommended for professionals, but not essential for amateurs. On the other hand, an experienced pro will draw on his experience, and can in many cases shoot handheld to make acceptable panoramas.
- Cable release is optional, but recommended if you activate the shutter release manually.
Les Palenik has been shooting panoramas using various film and digital cameras for the last twenty five years. He published several photography books with panoramic images from Ontario.