Shoot Panoramas and Juice Up Your Travel Photography


Want to bring home some vacation pictures that will really stand out? Try panoramas.

Thanks to recent technological breakthroughs, panorama photography is easier than ever to create, and a great way to add something different to your portfolio of travel photography. There are, in my humble opinion, two ways to do panoramas: The quick way, and the right way. There are actually two quick ways.

Quick Way #1: Faux Panoramas

One is the faux-panorama approach, used in the film era, where a full-sized image is masked to only show approximately 1/4 to 1/3 of it. In the digital era, this can be done easily in post-processing by cropping to an aspect ratio of 4:1 or wider. It doesn't require any special equipment—any camera will do.

This view of Cayuga Lake from Allan H. Treman State Marine Park shows Ithaca, New York and, nestled in the hill above it, Cornell University. It's a standard postcard-type scenic with a 3:2 aspect ratio, the default in my Canon EOS-7D. Lens: Canon 24-105mm f/4L. Exposure: 1/160 sec at f/9, ISO 200, handheld.

Same view, cropped to 4:1 aspect ratio, turns the scene into a panorama. Do you prefer the crop, or the full-frame version?

The advantage? A quick crop and voila, you have a wide aspect-ratio image. Shoot with a wide-angle lens with a panorama image as your expected final result, and you can get something nice. You can also apply other in-camera or post-processing effects, such as HDR, with relatively little effort. The disadvantage? Your area of coverage is limited by your lens choice, and overall image quality will be less than if you do a real panorama.

Quick Way #2: In-Camera Panoramas

Most compact digital cameras and MILCs have some form of in-camera panorama stitching. It is generally fast and does a pretty good job. Some cameras use Sweep Panorama, which I don't care for as much as a shot-by-shot panorama approach.

In Sweep Panorama, you keep the camera moving, rotating in a semicircle, and it captures the scene. The camera then stitches the images together. This sounds pretty straightforward, but if you are moving the camera, you are introducing camera movement, which degrades overall image quality. Some Fujifilm, Sony and other compact digital cameras, MILCs and EVFs have the Sweep Panorama feature—check the specs! Here's an example.

Shown at screen resolution, this photo taken at Allan H. Treman State Marine Park in Ithaca, NY, shot with a Fujifilm X-T1 and Fujifilm 18mm f/2 X-mount lens in Sweep Panorama mode, looks pretty good. But the devil is in the details. Exposure: 1/180 sec at f/10, ISO 200.

Nice and sharp to start: This detail was on the far left side of the combined image, in the first shot, before the camera's sweeping motion was in full swing.

Nasty motion blur through the rest of the shot: This is from one of the middle shots and, as you can see, the right swing motion of the camera affects image quality. Exposure: 1/180 sec at f/10. Yes, you could pump up the ISO for a faster shutter speed (which would reduce motion blur) but this would also reduce overall image quality.

If your camera has an auto stitch panorama mode that lets you shoot, stop, recompose (hopefully with on-screen guidelines to help you line up the overlapping images)and shoot again with a steady camera, you're in luck. The issue of motion blur goes away if your camera lets you hold the camera still for each of the combined exposures. If it doesn't, you can try the next option.

Post-Processed Panoramas

Combining multiple images to create a panorama used to be a tricky, time-consuming effort. Thanks to tools available in Photoshop (CS and Elements) and other image editing software, you can now easily merge multiple images. I'm using Photoshop Elements 11 here, but this will also work on other versions, including Photoshop Elements 12. The good news? You can get the basic sequence with virtually any digital camera that has manual exposure, focus and white balance overrides.

Advantages of shooting and post-processing panoramas:

  • Best image quality. You can use a tripod and low ISO, which gives you the ability to make huge prints.
  • Control over angle of view. You can choose a 180-degree, 360-degree or other odd angle of view, depending on where you start and stop your image capture.
  • Greater control: Photoshop offers multiple panorama options, and if you shoot RAW you can effectively expand the dynamic range, add clarity and otherwise fine-tune images before processing them. (Tip: The RAW settings should be identical for all images you plan to use in the panorama for a consistent look.)

Taking pictures with the intent to stitch together panorama requires a few steps in preparation:

  • 1. Meter manually and use manual exposure for the part of the photo you are most interested in getting right. (Auto exposure could vary exposure, creating inconsistent exposures in the final result.)
  • 2. Turn off Auto WB. Otherwise, the camera may make subtle hue changes that you wouldn't notice normally...until the images are combined.
  • 3. Ideally, use a tripod. While you could hand-hold, a tripod can be a more accurate tool when used with a calibrated head that displays degrees of rotation.
  • 4. Provide plenty of overlap. Shoot so images overlap on the right and left side so the software can more easily find and combine the images.

Shoot a set: I shot this set of images in Donaldson Park, Highland Park, NJ, intending to put them together as a panorama in post-prouduction. Gear: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm f/4L, at 24mm setting. Exposure, consistent for all four shots: 1/400 sec at f/8, ISO 100.

Once you've taken your photo series, here's how to combine images into a Panorama in Adobe Photoshop Elements.

First, move the images you intend to move into a separate folder so you can easily find them.

Under Enhance, open Photomerge. Choose Panorama, and select the Auto option (if that doesn't work, you can go back and try some of the others, but Auto generally does a good job.)

Select your images, check Blend Images Together and hit "OK". The more photos and the higher the resolution, the longer it will take. An image with four full-res images could take up to five minutes to process, depending on how powerful and fast a computer you are using. If you shot the image properly, the result should be seamless.

Above: This is what you'll see when Photoshop's done crunching the images. You will probably end up with an image with uneven borders (see above), and will be asked if you want to apply content-aware fill. I don't recommend this beause it takes time and resources. In most cases, it's simply better to crop away the blank area. If you want a specific aspect ratio, select the Crop tool then go to the bottom of the window and choose Aspect from the drop-down menu. You can then change the default setting you your preference. So, if you want a 4:1 aspect ratio (image is 4 times longer than its height) put the number 4 in W and 1 in H.

High-quality panorama: The final result is both seamless and very sharp! Camera: Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 24-105mm f/4 lens at 24mm, set to record RAW + JPEG simultaneously. You'll find out why in the next photo.

Extra credit—start with RAW for a more dramatic final image. While the first version of this image used straight out of camera exposures, using RAW versions of the same image let me adjust exposure, shadows and highlights, increase clarity and vibrance and adjust contrast for a more dimensional image with a greater dynamic range. This process took me about 5 minutes. Looking at the result, do you think it was worth the effort? I certainly do!

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