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Simple Improvements #010 – Panoramic Photos

If you’ve never shot a panoramic photo, give it a try!


2012-03-22 Cherry Blossom Festival at Tidal Basin

Washington DC Cherry Blossom Festival, March 22nd, 2012

The basic concept is simple: Pick a beautiful landscape and take photos from left to right (or right to left).  Over lap the previous photo by about a third of the frame.

There are a whole bunch of post processing software applications available these days that will automatically stitch together a series of photos to make a panoramic scene. The app Photosynth is a great and free example on the iPhone.  Ideally, we’d like to use our camera instead of our phone to take the photos, and computer post processing applications like Photoshop Elements and Photoshop make it very easy. Depending on the software you choose, the process varies slightly, so I’m not going to try and walk you through your software. I will give you a few simple pointers for shooting to improve the process.  I personally use Photoshop CS5, but here are a few other free computer apps for stitching panoramas:


Windows Live Photo Gallery

Image Composite Editor

I can’t make any promises on these apps, but here’s some other free options for Mac.

(as always, be careful what and where you download.)

Ultimately, if you like the results, consider investing in a program like Photoshop Elements.  PS Elements is an excellent option for post processing photos and it provides almost every feature a photog could want from the full version of Photoshop (including panoramic stitching).  Adobe offers a free trial of Photoshop Elements for 30 days here.

2012-02-12 Kodiak Tidal Flats

Tidal Flats around the Russian Creek, Kodiak, AK

The software algorithms are very good and can overcome most minor inconsistencies, but the more we help it along by taking easily stitched photos, the better the final result will be.

Shoot in your “landscape mode”, usually represented by a mountain symbol on your dial or screen (this almost always provides a smaller aperture; better for landscapes). If you are at a point in your photography where you understand the ins and outs of aperture, shoot in aperture priority mode with an aperture of about f8-f11. In all cases, I recommend you set your white balance to cloudy (even if it’s sunny – your photos will be slightly warm, but that’s fine). We choose aperture priority (or “landscape mode”) to maintain a consistent depth of field through out the series of photos and a specific white balance to maintain color consistency throughout the series of photos.  Auto white balance may make it difficult for your software to smooth the stitched together image.

Focus about a third of the way into your scene and hold focus as you take the series. You can hold focus on most cameras by pushing down the shutter button halfway to set focus, then take the photo, but don’t take your finger off the button and keep it half way down as you work through the series of photos (maintaining a consistent focus about 1/3 of the way into your scene).  Keep in mind, the horizon is very rarely 1/3 of the way into your composition.

An additional suggestion I recently heard from more than one instructor at Photoshop World: Shoot a quick photo of your foot or your finger prior to beginning the series and again after the last photo of your panoramic series. This silly, but obvious foot photos make it very easy to identify the files that belong in your pano after you download them to your computer for processing; they’re bookended by shots of your shoe!

You can also turn your camera sideways and shoot your series in portrait orientation. This provides more height in your pano, but will also require a few more shots to cover the same width.

Try it out and have fun.

2012-01-20 Coast Guard Communication Station Kodiak, AK

Coast Guard Communication Station Kodiak, AK, January 2012

Here’s some folks with a way more in depth discussion on panoramic shooting, if the process interests you:

The Author of this post is Pete Van Ness

I'm an amateur photog who enjoys the challenge and social aspects of photography. I've never sold a photograph, but I've framed a few! For me, photography is a hobby, a passion, and much better than playing golf. Time to practice and grow as photographer!

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