Superwide made super-easy

How to make panorama landscapes with your digital camera or image editing software

First off, let's clear up some confusion that was perpetrated by camera manufacturers for the last decade when film was king. A Panorama is not a photograph taken with a normal or moderate wide angle lens and cropped so it is very long.

Unfortunately, a feature found on many cameras in the 1990s that was called "Panorama" simply masked the top and bottom of the negative, and the rest was called a "Panorama". It should've been called something else. A cropped picture? Definitely. A waste of film? Possibly.

OK. I'm glad I got that off my chest. I feel much better now.

So, what's a real Panorama? It's a wide aspect-ratio photo that takes in an unusually wide angle of view, usually starting at 180 degrees, but it can cover a full 360 degrees. In the film world, there are specialized Panorama cameras, often with lenses that spin around while recording the image on a long strip of film. These cameras, such as the Horseman Super Wide SW-612, the Linhof Technorama 612, and the Noblex 175 (shown), are a big investment, but thanks to digital software, they are no longer necessary to get a real Panorama.

The digital revolution has brought true panoramas into the hands of anyone. You can shoot a winning panorama with any compact digital camera or DSLR using free or inexpensive software. The catch? The digital panoramas must be electronically stitched together from two or more images. Done right, though, these multi-image assemblies are seamless. The image editor that came with your camera or printer can probably do it and if not, the right program is a minimal investment. In fact, some digital cameras will stitch together panoramas automatically for you, in the camera!

Shooting for a panorama

The technique for taking pictures that will be turned into a panorama differs slightly from regular landscape photography.

A digital panorama starts off as two or more separate photos. You can stitch together a smaller number of horizontal images, or a larger number of verticals. The advantage of a lot of verticals is that you end up with a physically larger picture, which is better if your desired end result is a big print, and gives you a wider angle of vertical coverage. If make smaller prints (like 4x15 inches), shooting horizontals may be sufficient.

Cameras with manual exposure control are better. Metering is tricky--you should disable automatic exposure, since a camera only capable of autoexposure may adjust differently for each component picture if the light varies, and that would result in inconsistent exposures. Pick an area of the final image that you want to be exposed properly, and set your exposure in Manual. Use that exposure for all of the images that will be used in the panorama. In addition, set your White Balance manually for the same reasons.

Shoot from left to right or right to left, but keep the following in mind:

  • Make sure there's a landmark object on the left and right of each frame, and include them in the overlapping areas. This will make it easier to line up the images.
  • Provide generous room for image overlap.
  • If you shoot handheld, rotate the camera so the back is moving along the circumference of a small, imaginary circle--2 inches diameter should be enough. This is called rotating around the lens nodal point, which is the optical center of the lens, and it helps avoid visual problems when putting the images together.
  • Even better: If you can afford one, use a tripod with a special panorama head that rotates the lens around the nodal point.
  • If your handheld camera has optical image stabilization, use it!

Stitching in camera

Many compact digital cameras these days have a "Panorama" mode--internal software which will build a panorama out of multiple images right in your camera! Select the Panorama mode before you start shooting. (Each camera does it differently, so consult your manual.) It will guide you through the process, and some cameras (like the Kodak EasyShare V570; see example) give you guides to help you find overlapping elements in adjacent images.

When you're done shooting your panorama, using the above tips, simply press whatever button the manual says to press that indicates you're done shooting, then sit back and relax while the camera gets to work. In a few moments, the entire stitched panorama is done!

I shot this scene of the Raritan River one early spring day at Donaldson Park in Highland Park, New Jersey in 2006, using a Kodak V570—one of the first compact cameras to feature built-in panorama mode. The technology has vastly improved since these shots were taken.

By the banks of the ole' Raritan, I shot this three-shot sequence with the Kodak V570 in its wide-lens mode in the Panorama setting. The following is a simulation of what I saw. (It's impossible to grab screen shots off the camera while shooting.)

Lineup time: A light strip towards the left showing the previous exposure lets you align elements from the edge of one picture with elements from the edge of the previous shot in the live image preview mode. In this case, alignment's off. I simply moved the camera until the tree from the first image eventually lined up with the tree in the image I was preparing to shoot.

The upside of in-camera panoramas is that once you're done, you're done. No need to tweak it on your computer. The downside is that you may find the automation didn't quite work, an overlap missed, and things are either echoed or covered up on the seams. Make sure to check your panorama in the camera's LCD screen before you move on, because you might find you'll need to start over.

All done? Watch the progress bar as the V570 finishes the job and saves it as a completed panorama. But is it perfect?

Minor imperfection: See the diagonal seam line on the left where two of the images were merged? It's visible mainly because the exposures are not a precise match. That's a typical problem with cameras such as the V570 that don't allow for manual exposure control...which is why I prefer shooting with my trusty DSLR and stitching after the fact, using software.

Stitching in software

What do you do if your camera lacks built-in stitching? Use software. Fortunately, most image editing software packages have some kind of panorama stitch capability, and there are specific programs, such as Panavue (Free download) (, Realvis Stitcher ($199-$580; or Panorama Factory ($69.96; free trial download at that are dedicated to creating single-row stitches (the subject of this article) and fish-eye and VR stitches. But if you own Adobe Photoshop Elements, which often comes free with printers, scanners, Wacom tablets, and even some cameras, you already have panorama software.

I'm going to show you how I created a panorama using Adobe Photoshop Elements 3.0 on a Mac a few years ago. More recent versions of Photoshop and Photoshop elements make this process even easier. To demonstrate how it works, I stitched together a six-image, foggy landscape that I shot one morning recently with a Canon 20D showing the Kudzu-covered hills and foliage of southern Tennessee, with the 18-55mm kit lens set at the 35mm equivalent of 50mm.

I metered the scene above manually and set aperture and shutter speed in "M" mode to keep exposure consistent. I shot handheld, moving the camera around what I estimated to be the lens nodal point and leaving overlap space in each image. Back home, I downloaded the images, opened Photoshop Elements, and got to work.

Step 1: Open Photomerge Panorama

Go to File > New and select Photomerge Panorama.

In the Photomerge dialog box, click the "Browse" button and select the images you want to turn into a panorama. If they are verticals, rotate them before you start.

Step 2: Auto stitch. The selected images will now appear in the Photomerge dialog as "Source Files. Click "OK" then watch as the software attempts to stitch the images together.

Unless you shoot the scene on a tripod with a nodal point adjustable head, your software probably will not be able to do it all automatically, and this message will appear. Click OK. Now the fun begins!

Step 3: Manual stitch. Here's the Photomerge dialogue box. The images Photomerge couldn't add to the panorama are on the upper left. You can use a slider on the right towards the top to enlarge your view. Use your cursor and drag the next image down??

Look for a "landmark"--a leaf, a branch, a rock--that appears in both images that you're merging. Superimpose one atop the other (the top image is transparent while you're moving it) and let go; the added image snaps into place, and is indicated by a thin red line. Check to see if the merge works (you can always undo it).

When you're satisfied that your manual merge worked, drag down the next image and keep building from the center images out.

Here I'm adding the last image. Yes, there was plenty of overlap and the next to last image on the right might not have been necessary, but I didn't want to take a risk that there weren't enough shared "landmarks" between the 4th and 6th images.

Step 4: Inspect the seams. Here I've finished merging the images and enlarged the entire image to inspect the seams. They look OK. Now it's time to save the image. Keep in mind that each component image in the panorama at this point is a separate Photoshop layer.

Even on my G5 Mac, saving the image as a panorama takes time. That's because my six image files, shot at full resolution with an 8MP camera created a huge file--over 140MB! Time to take a break while the computer churns. (Note: I chose not to keep layers, since maintaining layers would have made the final image even larger. But if there are minor exposure variations in your image, you might want to keep layers and adjust levels individually in Photoshop.)

Step 5: Fix it in Photoshop. The view in Photoshop shows uneven top and bottom edges--not a surprise given it was shot handheld. I cropped these away, but you don't have to!

For the final image, "Kudzu in the fog," I made a few minor adjustments in Levels and color balanced (I warmed up the scene slightly) before saving the cropped image as my monster-sized 8267x3219-pixel, 143-megabyte file. Note that I waited until the panorama was finalized and layers flattened before making any standard Photoshop adjustments. You can see a larger version by clicking on the image.


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