Panoramic photography

Photo of author

Words/photographs: Tony Eveling


Take your photography to a creative new level, by discovering, practising and even master the art of panoramic photography!

Old boat, abandoned and disused, dungeness, kent,uk
Old boat, abandoned and disused, dungeness, kent,uk

Panoramic photography gives the photographer more creative options when creating an image. Sometimes an elongated just works better than than a rectangle or square.

I am not really talking about gigapixel images that allow you to zoom in on a an office window from the top of another building.

The village at dungeness,kent,england,uk
The village at dungeness,kent,england,uk

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 (rather than film photography) and seeing the final image in the minds eye before pressing the shutter.

And pressing the shutter in a panoramic sense means taking 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.

Panoramic photography is therefore a much slower process that will force you to slow down and really think about your composition.

A multi image panoramic using a tripod can take 5 or 10 minutes or even longer or so to take, and you don’t really want to get home only to think ‘why on earth did I take that!?’

Panoramic photography helps train the mind to ‘see’ images in your head before you take them.

Panoramic photography can get a bit geeky and gear obsessed, but don’t worry about that. With multi image panoramics there is no absolute need to use a tripod or any of the paraphernalia that can come with panoramic photography.

Stitching software today is very advanced and multiple hand held images are very often as good as anything hardware assisted.

Hand holding multiple images also speeds up the process too.

1930's London Underground sign.  London, England, UK. Panoramic Photography.
1930’s London Underground sign. London, England, UK. Panoramic Photography.

The London Underground tube station pictured here was a spontaneous composition that sort of jumped out in panoramic form.

The London Underground sign is situated on a very narrow rounded corner with the two streets either side invisible to each other.

This composition popped out in front of me and screamed panorama…

If I was to use a conventional rectangle or square format the composition would be different. But this is what I saw in my minds eye, before I started thinking about the panoramic format.

It was taken on a Saturday so (unfortunately) there are not many people around. What I would have loved would have been someone leaning against the red telephone box talking on a mobile phone. But that never happened!

This is a composition where I felt it necessary to put the subject in the middle of the frame and create a symmetry with each street either side of the underground sign.

The techniques for the composition of a panoramic photograph are no different to any other format of photograph whether square format or rectangular.

But you do have more creative options.

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.

So if you want to create a very large print, then you can. If you want to create something online that can be zoomed in, then you can.

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.

Centering elements in a square frame, gives those objects some ‘breathing space’, rather than being too near the edge of the frame which may jar with the viewer…

As the format widens from rectangle to panoramic, the compositional options as to where those elements go increases, but the compositional techniques remain the same.

For me the taking of a photograph stems from a single moment of inspiration. It’s just an instant where you think that something will make a good photograph…Then I stop and consider how I want to take the photo.

Sometimes I go out with the sole intention of taking panoramics, just to kind of test myself, other times I go out and see where the mood takes me.

I still feel though that creating a panorama should be at least partly driven by intuition. That means ‘seeing’ the panorama at the time of capture.

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.

This forest image was a panoramic composition that presented itself very clearly to me.

I initially saw the root system of the tree when walking along a public footpath. In front of the main tree is a large crater shaped dip that I am standing in, it’s as if a tree had fallen long ago and then removed, leaving a crater that had been weathered smooth over the years.

An example of a multi image panoramic photograph. Oldbury Hill, Sevenoaks, Kent, England, UK.
Oldbury Hill, Sevenoaks, Kent, England, UK

That meant that I was lower than the surrounding ground level, as well as being on a steep hill.I noticed that the trees spilled down the side of the hill and that the line that separated the brown earth and the green shadowy forest created a nice, diagonal graphic element that drew the eye from the footpath on the left to the dark shadows of the forest as the trees spilled down the hillside.

I always have a subject in my mind for a photograph. and the subject in this photo is the exposed root system of the tree. Alll the other elements of th ephotograph is the environment in which the tree is situated.

Had I used a more rectangular frame, I would have had much more of the trees in the frame, showing off their height much more with the increasing brightness from the sky above having much more emphasis.

That is not to say that a rectangular or square frame would be unsuitable, but it would have created a different feeling and would have emphasised different aspects of the forest.

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.

These are the single images that I took to create a panorama.

I had already worked out the composition before taking any of these photos.

You should be able to see in this example that all the photos overlap, and that there are two rows. Also, all the photos are horizontal/landscape format.

I find positioning the camera in a portrait/vertical position is awkward and cumbersome, So I always construct my panoramics from a series of horizontal format images even if I am creating a vertical shaped panoramic.

When creating a panoramic photograph, you have to take multiple overlapping compositions, such as you see here.
When creating a panoramic photograph, you have to take multiple overlapping compositions, such as you see here.

Next I got the photos home, put them in a folder on the computer and used the free software program Hugin to stitch the images together.

Hugin is as good as any other software package that I have ever used. Before you pay good money for ‘pro’ software, check out Hugin first.

Also I have found Hugin to be better than the photostitching software supplied with Photoshop. Photoshop struggles to join lots of intricate straight lines accurately, especially if you are using a wide angle lens, and bare branches of forests and intricate brickwork can also be a problem in Photoshop.

vAll stitching software will occasionally struggle with joining up certain elements, and Hugin is no different, and if that happens there is no alternative but to join up the bits and pieces manually in Photoshop or whatever photo software you use.

When multiple images are stitched together, it will look like this.  All that's left is to crop the edges so that they are straight.
When multiple images are stitched together, it will look like this. All that’s left is to crop the edges so that they are straight.

This picture was created during a walk in the forest and seeing a lone tree in the distance (it’s difficult to see at this size, but the tree that I saw is in the center of this frame beyond the two foreground trees. Click the image for a larger version).

Most of the trees had branches covered in frost but this one didn’t, but was set against against trees that did.

I noticed some lone trees in the foreground and walking under them I noticed their bare branches filled the boring grey sky.

The branches from two of the trees seemed to reach over towards each other and if I positioned myself appropriately I could make the branches frame the lone distant tree.

In my minds eye, the top half of the frame was filled with these branches, but not the tree trunks they were connected to. So I set about taking the individual images, photographing beyond my initial visualised composition to give myself some wriggle room back in photoshop.

So once I had the big panoramic formed from the individual images, I just need to crop away the uneven edges and do some post-processing.

The tree in the middle distance is the subject of the image, and I used the panoramic format to place it in context in it’s environment.

Epping Forest in winter
Epping Forest in winter

All I did to this image was to adjust contrast and brightness, and I also added a vignette just to push the viewers eye into the frame.

For the final cropping, I went left and right as close to the tree trunks as possible without actually showing any of the tree trunk. I really liked the graphic effect of the branches, but didn’t feel that the whole tree added to the composition.

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).

There is 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 clunky 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.

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 beforehand.

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.

Here is another example of a batch of single images.

This time I used a significantly different manual exposure value for what will become the top half of the panoramic image.

This was because the white clouds beyond the tree branches threatened to overpower the branches, making the thinner branches disappear altogether.

But why not just use an automatic exposure mode, like Aperture priority (A), or shutter priority (S)? Well, I wouldn’t use an automatic exposure mode because that may produce significantly different exposures that serve no purpose.

But I will nearly always use different manual exposures to create a panorama because of ‘hotspots’ of dark and/or light that I don’t want. But, of course, you may want the final picture to fall into complete darkness or brightness in some areas. So, as you can see, the whole process is flexible, and you may be different. So don’t be afraid to experiment.

Each individual image that was required to create the panoramic image that you see below
Each individual image that was required to create the panoramic image that you see below

This panoramic is a little more complicated as it’s three rows in height.

When you start using this many single images you really need to employ the process I described earlier so that you don’t get empty gaps by mistake.

It’s very easy to lose track when composing a panoramic image with so many individual images. What really matters is the discipline of pre-visualising the final image before pressing the shutter(s) in order to eliminate errors later on.

You do not want to get back to the computer only to find a big empty squareish gap in the middle of your otherwise finely crafted photograph.

The finshed stitched together image.  The final process is to crop the edges so that they are straight.
The finshed stitched together image. The final process is to crop the edges so that they are straight.

In this rough edged stitched panoramic the Hugin software that I have used evens out any differences in exposure between each separate image, and blends everything into one continuous image.

This feature in Hugin means that I can expose each photo individually according to the light in each part ofthe frame. Therefore, it means that I can expose specifically for the brighter images at the top of the frame as well as expose for the darker frames at the bottom, and Hugin will even things out, all free of charge!.

Epping Forest, Essex, England, UK
Epping Forest, Essex, England, UK

And here is the cleaned up version. The rough edges from the stitching process have been cropped away, and I have re-exposed the image so that the exposure is even, plus I tweaked the contrast and brightness. Nice and simple.

If you have never taken panoramic photographs before, you can download and install Hugin for free (it’s freeware and only 20Mb), then just go outside and take 3 or 4 overlapping images, handheld if you so wish……load them into Hugin (check out their tutorials ) and watch a whole new world of photography open up…

  • Amazing.. this is something to work with, cause with none of the three panorama’s in the forest i expected the result you’ve created. Really made me look at the composition from a fresh perspective!

    Thanks for the inspiration Tony!


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