Panoramic photography gives the photographer more creative options when creating an image. Sometimes elongated feels better than rectangle or square. I am not really talking about gigapixel images that allow you to zoom in on a town square or an office window from the top of another building. I am thinking purely from a creative point of view, the compositional aspects of panoramic photographs rather than the billions of pixels aspect. I am also talking about digital photography and seeing the final image in the minds eye before pressing the shutter. And that means multiple images that are stitched together later in Photoshop, or Hugin or something like that.
Panoramic photography in a way harks back to the so called ‘good old days’, in that if you take multiple images to take a panoramic photograph using a digital compact or DSLR, then you won’t be able to see the final image until you are back at the computer. That process will force you to slow down and really think about your composition.
The composition of a panoramic photograph is no different from any other photograph whether square format or rectangular. The big difference are the number of possibilities that are available when taking panoramic photographs. And remember, with digital photography, regardless of the pixel count and format of your cameras sensor, you can create any format of photograph at any resolution if you are prepared to use multiple images stitched together. At the risk of making huge generalisations, with a square format it is more common to put major elements in or near the center of the frame. With rectangular format the choices open up a bit to allow more room for the off-centering of major elements, whilst allowing the image to fan out sideways and beyond of the major elements. With panoramics there are other creative possibilities. For example you can center a tree or the corner of a building and show different things happening either side of the main element. Or you can emphasize the size of an object using objects of different sizes (trees/people for example) coupled with a long vertical panorama.
You should still feel inspired to take a panoramic photograph and you should (eventually) see panoramic compositions intuitively. There is nothing wrong with cropping in photoshop at home on the computer, and you can use that process as part of the learning curve, but it’s challenging and rewarding to see unique compositions whilst you are out taking photographs, and then have a go at creating them as panoramics back home, after taking mulitple images.
multiple digital panoramic images can take any shape and size, you are not confined by format anymore. You have more flexibility than with any other format of photography, and you choose your resolution. But now it’s time to talk a bit about how to frame the shot.
First you see something that you think will make a good panoramic photograph, you need to stop and look at the potential composition and roughly work out the shape of the frame and where the edges will be. This means working out what to exclude from the frame and what to include. What I then do is take a point at the farthest left edge that I want included in the composition and go a little beyond that with my framing. Then I look right and find the right most element in the frame, I go a little beyond that, and that is my right edge. Then I need to work out how high the image will be, in other words, where is the top of the frame, and where is the bottom of the frame. I do all of that with sight only, I don’t look through the viewfinder, but in my minds eye I will now know where the edges of the frame will be. Sometimes I will hold my arms out and use my hands as the edges of the frame to get some idea as to what the overall composition will look like.
Then, handholding the camera I look through the viewfinder to the left edge that I want included in the frame and position the the viewfinder roughly where each frame will be (without taking the photo), going left to right for each row that I need to achieve the desired height. Overlap by at least 30 percent. You need to overlap by a significant amount so that the stitching software can join everything up.
After all that, I still haven’t taken the photos yet. If you have a zoom lens where you can adjust the focal length you can determine more precisely the final resolution, by either zooming in and taking more individual photos, which will create a higher resolution image or you can zoom out, go a bit wider and take fewer individual images which will create a lower resolution image. The ‘practice run’ that I described above can be used to test different focal lengths if you do have a zoom. Using a zoom lens, and after becoming used to the technique described above, I find it quite easy to create a 20,000 pixel image (longest edge) or, for the same composition take a 40,000 pixel image. For the most part though, I take multiple image panoramics for reasons of composition and rarely go above 25,000 pixels along the longest edge, as this is a convenient size for sorting the individual images out on the computer as well as processing time and final image size.
There are some other technical things that you need to do during this process. Like how to set the camera up prior to taking the images that will make the panorama. I usually use a tripod for nearly all of my landscape photography, and that’s how I take panoramics too. But you don’t need to do that, it is easy to take panoramics without using a tripod. And there is no need to have a ‘panoramic tripod head’. I am not going to explain what the ‘parallax effect’ is, Wikipedia does that much better than I can, but panoramic tripod heads are designed to reduce/eliminate the parallax effect. That’s all that they are designed to do, they don’t exist to make the panoramic process easier or more convenient. And how much the parallax effect is reduced is dependent on you setting the ‘panoramic tripod head’ up correctly, which is a job in itself. And just to add another nail in the panoramic tripod heads coffin, stitching software handles the parallax effect very well (not 100 percent all of the time, but not far off), so there is absolutely no need for an expensive tripod head that would probably be more useful as a door stop, and, if like my own experience, may actually prevent you from taking panoramics because of the fiddlyness and time consuming nature of attaching a whole load of largely irrelevant metal to the top of your tripod.
I only really got into panoramic photography after my standard ball and socket tripod head disintegrated whilst on an extended photography trip. So I went into the nearest camera shop and they only had a 3 lever pan/tilt tripod head, it wasn’t what I wanted but at the time I had no choice. Then I noticed that with a pan/tilt tripod head I could position my camera straight, tighten the three levers to hold the camera in place, then loosen the left-right lever enabling me to swivel the camera left and right on the same plane. So all I had to do was level the tripod (easy, as I have a spirit level on my tripod), then level the camera (easy, as I have a spirit level on my tripod head). With everything level I can move the camera left and right creating a strip of overlapping images. Then I can loosen the up/down lever, tilt the camera upwards for the next row (still overlapping the image below) and then I can photograph another strip of overlapping images from right to left. I could repeat this forever creating whatever shape multiple image photograph that I liked.
If I then combine the ability to move the camera on my tripod in this way with the handheld technique I used to help me visualise and frame my panoramic image, I can take a series of photographs that can be very easily stitched in stitching software.
The technique that I described can be done without levelling the tripod and camera, and can be done with a ball/socket tripod head, but you have to be much more aware of capturing everything that you have visualised. You don’t want any missed gaps. And if your camera moves across at a downward angle without you realising, then the final panoramic will have sloping edges, which may ‘eat into’ your composition. That is why you should frame your shot beyond what you actually need. Then you crop the image back on the computer. As long as you are aware of this then you can use any tripod head, or even ditch the tripod altogether, just make sure you have enough light in order to handhold the camera without blurring the images.
Some other last minute tips for making panoramic images; set your camera to a fixed white balance, like cloudy or sunny etc. If you set your camera to auto white balance, it is common for a camera to adjust its white balance as you move the camera, so that one half of your finished panoramic photo has a warm look and the other half has a cold look. If you shoot RAW images (as opposed to jpg), then you can correct this easily in post processing, but it’s still better to get it right beforehand.
It is not essential to use the exact same exposure value for all individual photos. But my advice is to use manual exposure and change exposure values as necessary, as you go – but in manual mode. If you shoot in manual mode you can ensure that most of the single images are well exposed. One single manual exposure value for all individual images may result in some parts of the final image being very underexposed or very over exposed. If I am taking a landscape panoramic and the sky is significantly lighter than the ground, I will change the exposure accordingly. This would result in a dark dividing line in a two row panoramic that could be easily fixed in Photoshop.