It is easier than ever to stitch two or more images together into a panorama. Many cameras have a pano function built-in and there are plenty of utilities and plugins on the market that can do the job. I’m still relying on Photoshop’s ever-improving pano function. Regardless of which tool you use, there are a few common guidelines that will help you get consistent and predictable results.
- Level the camera — If your camera has a built-in level or artificial horizon, great. If not you can use an accessory spirit level that slides into the camera’s hotshoe. Alternatively, use a level in the tripod head or base. Photoshop can correct horizons that are not level, but only within limits. If your pano image sequence is out of whack you’ll have to crop more of the image in the final pass; assuming that you want an image that is a clean rectangle.
- Lock in your exposure and white balance or else the transitions between images will not be smooth. You can use your camera’s preset buttons to accomplish this, or do as I do, and keep everything on manual.
- Do not use a polarizing filter! As you are probably aware, the polarizing effect varies with the angle of the lens to the sun. The blue sky will often come out blotchy and unnatural-looking in the final composite file.
- Use a tripod. These days this is no longer an absolute as the software gets better and better along with big improvements in vibration reduction, but a tripod will give you better control of the composition, as well as sharper images.
- Position the camera vertically or in portrait mode — but only if your intent is to create a very large file. The pano in this article was made with about four images shot in landscape orientation because I knew that I wanted a long aspect ratio.
- Wide angle lenses make more distortion. This is especially noticeable in panoramas of architecture when you need to be assured of getting straight lines and accurate perspective. Often a 50mm focal length with its “normal” angle to view is the best way to go.
- Shoot a blank or dark frame before and after your pano sequence. This will give you a handy reference mark when you’re editing images.
- Overlap images by 1/4 or 1/3. This gives the software more to work with.
I was inspired to write this post yesterday during a visit to The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA where some of the work of photographer James Balog was on display. Among his many accomplishments, Balog has created dramatic images of some of the world’s largest, incredible trees. One huge photograph of a giant sequoia was assembled from over 400 separate files. The files are not blended into one seamless image. Rather, one sees a stack of imperfectly aligned images, which artfully give dimension to the final composition.
The first panoramas I created were the result of a laborious process. As I recall, Photoshop 1.0 did not have a stitching tool. Or, I may been using Corel Draw. Either way, the first step was to scan three 35mm slides. Next, the edges of each file had to be gently feathered. Finally, after much trial and error, the 3 files were fit together. Before there were any digital options the feathering was in the darkroom using layered film masks. We have come a long way.