Tutorial: Creating Successful 180° Panoramas

April 22, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Prologue: Many modern digital cameras (and smartphones) have an automated panorama feature. The camera records a video while the photographer is panning across the scene, then internally stitches frames from the video together to create the panorama. The feature is fast and easy to use and gives results that are . . . well, at their best very lackluster. At any degree larger than a minimal magnification on a small screen or print, details are totally lost in a mush of color splotches. The viewer only sees a glancing idea of the original scene. That may be fine for display on a smartphone or tablet screen or in social media. But what about viewing a panorama at the sizes the grandeur that inspired its capture was meant to be shown in the first place, at 3 feet to 10 feet across? That takes a more detailed technique, can be accomplished with any camera (or smartphone) and free stitching software and was the subject of an article I wrote in September 2013, reprised here with some edits:
 

130904_02_1207_1213_SX50 Hudson River from Bear Mountain130904_02_1207_1213_SX50 Hudson River from Bear MountainReturn to the Panorama Tutorial by clicking here http://edwardmichaellach.zenfolio.com/blog/2016/4/tutorial-creating-successful-180-panoramas 180° Panorama of the Lower Hudson Valley in New York from Bear Mountain (click on the image to enlarge it in the Gallery)
 

This 180° panorama took longer to set up than to actually photograph the seven individual images. The most important part was finding a good central point in the view of the projected image to set up a tripod. In this case I was on the edge of a cliff, so it was also very important to find a steady footing and not land up with the camera or myself going over the side. It was a very long way down.
 

After setting up the tripod, it is important to visualize where the horizon line will be on either side of the final panorama, whether that line will be actually seen or not. And also determine how high or low that point will be across the image. If your camera has grid lines on the EVF/LCD, turning them on is very helpful. Next point the camera directly at the center of the scene and make sure it is perfectly level (again very easy with cameras that have an electronic level, though an add-on level attached to the hot shoe is also good). The central horizon should be where you want it. Swing the camera to the left to see how far the horizon diverges up or down from your central point. Then swing all the way in the opposite direction to set how much divergence is on that side. If you are lucky, it will only be a few degrees to either side and you can start the photographing images steps. But that is usually not the case. There are two steps you can take, the combination of which can help to straighten the horizon before taking the images. Using a wide angle zoom lens works best for the first step. Change the focal length of the lens slightly in either direction until the central, left and right points of the horizon are closest to the same level while panning without losing elements of your intended image. The second step is to tilt the lens slightly up or down and go left and right to see if further straightening can be achieved. These steps are followed by raising or lowering your tripod to reacquire a good composition. With the point of the horizon as close as possible to the same plane in all parts of the image, more of each individual image will be used by a software stitching program in a rotating function creating more details and less distortion. Keep in mind that it is not necessary to keep the central horizon point exactly where you intend it to be in the final image. Moving it up or down slightly to average it out with the far edge points can help the stitching process. That central point can be moved back in the final edit of the full stitched image.
 

When photographing the actual individual images it is usually best for stitching software to go from left to right. Carefully choose how many images are to be photographed before taking the first one. Panning left to right with the final focal length already chosen above, add a little extra wiggle room to either side since the edge images will probably have the most distortion. The wiggle room allows this end distortion to be in an unwanted area of the composition that can be cropped out later. Exactly matching up the left side of each following individual image to the right side of the previous one, count the number of images to swing all the way around including the wiggle room. Since stitching software works best when having overlap between images, plan on taking about 25% more images than the count in the last step. The panorama image above only needed 5 images to cover the whole field edge to edge, but was photographed with seven images to provide that overlap .Knowing how many images need to be photographed keeps the segments about even in size which also aids the stitching software. Another tip that is very helpful for stitching software is to try to keep important elements of the panorama in a single individual image. In the above panorama image, I wanted to make sure the bridge and the island in the river had no distortions that may sometimes appear in stitching from two adjacent images. Here I adjusted the amount of overlap a little between the surrounding images to assure they were fully included in their own images. Once again, the less work the stitching program has to do, the more of each image will be used and the better the final results.
 

Finally it's time to photograph the actual individual images and there's another tip. When composing each image, first match up the left side of the next image as close as possible with the right side of the previous image at each point on the EVF/LCD horizontal grid. Then pan back the amount of your overlap chosen above to keep the even sizing or adjust for individual important elements. If the horizon line diverges too much from your intended point as you pan back, adjust the camera up or down slightly on the tripod to keep it closer to the same horizontal grid point. This is what I did in the image above and had relatively little waste to crop from the upper and lower edges for the final stitched image.
 

Now this may seem like a lot of work, but it really doesn't take as long to do as to write and read about it. Stitching software will attempt and be reasonably able to produce good results from almost any consecutive series of images. But the best output still always comes from the best input and these steps can be of help in creating wonderful panoramas with strong details and little distortions that can be enjoyed  at sizes that display their grandeur.
 

Addendum: There are a number of stitching software programs that are easy to use with good results. My favorite is Microsoft Image Composite Editor, commonly called MS ICE, that is not only easy to use but has a number of user controlled parameters for creative stitching. All panoramas in the Galleries on this website have been created using it. The software is a free download from Microsoft and the 64 bit version can be found here:
 

http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/downloads/69699e5a-5c91-4b01-898c-ef012cbb07f7/default.aspx
 


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