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A panoramic photo actually mimics the field of vision of our human eyes. It usually manages to show more detail than a photo with a typical aspect ratio like 3:2 (from a DSLR) or 4:3 (from a compact digital camera). Perhaps that is why we usually take a longer look at panoramic pictures, or perhaps it just reminds us of a place we have been, or would like to visit.
Before the age of digital photography, panoramic images were taken with a special film camera, like the Horseman SW617 which uses a film size of 6 x 17cm, a panoramic aspect ratio! This camera captured a single wide format frame and required quite a bit of skill to get a perfect picture with the right exposure in the right places, due to the wide area covered. In landscape photography, it is a challenge to get perfect exposure in every single part of the frame, so usually photographers do some dodging and burning, in order to get the perfect shot. These days, we do our dodge and burn tasks in the digital darkroom, aka Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
With Photoshop, we now create panoramic images by stitching together several photos of regular aspect ratio. So we can photograph 5 to 6 photos of a scene with a regular camera (even compact digital cameras are good enough) and create a super high-resolution composite image that will become our final panoramic shot.
The sunset shot above was stitched from about 5 frames from my 5-megapixel Canon S50, an ancient compact digital camera which I still own. The lake panorama below was also created from the same camera.
Here’s how you can create your own panoramic photograph:
- Visualize the final panoramic picture by looking at the scene in front of you. Identify which area is of most interest to you, plan to include that area in a ‘good’ location within your final image. Remember, you’ll be taking several shots, so advance planning is useful.
- Set up your camera on a tripod. A tripod is preferred, though I’ve also managed to create stunning panoramics without one.
- Use Manual Exposure, an aperture of f16 for good depth-of-field, and the lowest ISO setting for the highest quality results. Point your camera at the brightest area of the scene, choose a shutter speed based on the meter reading using Matrix Metering/Evaluative Metering and take the shot. Now point the camera at the darkest area of the scene, and repeat. Take note of your exposure for both shots. Choose a final exposure setting based on a mid-point between the two shots. For example, if the first shot was 1/200, f16 and the second shot was 1/60, f16, you should be using 1/125, f16 for your final panoramic shot.
- Using autofocus, focus on the point of interest in your scene. This could be a mountain peak, or sunset clouds. Once you have your focus point set, switch to manual focus. This is important because we will be taking several shots, and we don’t want the camera to re-focus on a different area of the scene every time we take a shot.
- Take 5 to 6 shots of the scene from left to right, each time moving the camera slightly to cover more area on the right. Be sure to let the shots overlap about 30% to 50% so that we can stitch it perfectly in Photoshop later. The tripod will help to keep your shots level.
You can use any lens, but I find that a slightly telephoto setting helps to minimize distortion. It may be tempting to use a wide angle lens for panoramics, but the perspective distortion caused by the lens will make it difficult to stitch the individual shots together.
Open the individual shots in Photoshop and stitch them together using the Photomerge command which works pretty well. There you have it, your very own panoramic photo. Because this final photo is made up of several images (preferably shot at full resolution) it will be a super high resolution image. Perfect for making into a fine art canvas print to hang in your living room.
If you find panoramic landscape photography intriguing, I highly recommend checking out the Landscape Photography Guide by Kajo Merkert, a renowed Australian photographer who creates stunning landscape imagery.