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Panoramic Photography

Individual, but overlapping pictures are captured around a point of rotation. Image courtesy of Apple.
Click to see how dramatic 360-degree panoramas can be.
The three images above have been stitched together into a single panorama (above right)
If your camera has a hot shoe, a bubble level can ensure it's absolutely level when you take panoramic images.
Stitch Assist mode icon.
If you are a perfectionist, you can use two pan/tilt heads mounted together. You adjust the lower head to provide a level surface, and the upper head to rotate the camera. Image courtesy of Apple.
The Kaidan KiWi- LT is designed for aligning digital cameras capturing panoramas. Courtesy of Kaidan.
Panoramas can also be vertical. You just shoot images one above the other.
There are lenses such as the 360 One VR that use a spherical mirror to capture a panorama in a single shot. Software then adjusts the distorted image to make it more realistic. Courtesy of Kaidan.

Most photographs, even those taken with a wide-angle lens, show just a sliver of the overall scene. To capture a more expansive view you have to spin around in all or part of a 360-degree circle, photographing from a single point in space out to the surrounding environment. There are some cameras that will do just that—capturing panoramic images as they rotate. However most digital panoramas are created using an old technique. For years scenes have been photographed in sections so the images can then be mounted side by side to create a panoramic view. It has been the development of digital cameras and computer software that has made seamless panoramas possible. You capture a series of images around a single point of rotation, and then stitch them together with software.

Panoramic photos are much longer in one direction than in the other and can convey a sweeping image of a scene up to 360-degrees around. Using a digital camera there are three ways to achieve this.
  • Some inexpensive cameras just capture a band across the middle of the image sensor, leaving unexposed bands at the top and bottom of the image area. You can achieve the same effect with any image you've taken by using a photo-editing program to crop it.
  • You can use any camera to take a series of overlapping images as you pan the camera, and then use panoramic stitching software to assemble the frames into a seamless panoramic image. Since alignment is so important some cameras have a panoramic or stitch-assist mode that displays guide lines or part of the previous image in the series so you can accurately align and overlap the next photo.
  • A few cameras make it possible to stitch the images together in the camera and automatically ensure that exposure is the same from frame to frame so the images blend perfectly. These cameras may reduce image sizes to keep the file small enough to manipulate it in the camera.

Generally there are three panoramic sequences from which to choose.

  • Horizontal sequence left to right, or right to left, are used to capture panoramic landscapes.
  • Vertical sequence bottom to top, or top to bottom, are like horizontal but capture a panoramic view of a vertical subject such as a tower or waterfall.
  • Clockwise or counterclockwise sequence is used for documents or other square shapes.

    There are techniques that help you capture better panoramic images.

  • Lenses. Zooming the lens to a wide angle, or using a short focal length lens, requires fewer pictures to cover the same view but makes objects in the panorama appear smaller and more distant. You should avoid using fish-eye lenses that distort the image.
  • Camera orientation. The camera's orientation depends partly on the scene that you are capturing. For most scenes the camera is mounted horizontally in landscape mode. This is easier to do and also requires fewer images to cover a scene. However, some scenes have vertical elements that require you to mount the camera vertically in portrait mode. Doing so gives you more height in the images but requires more images to cover the same horizontal area.
  • Levelness. The camera should be as level as possible as you take the pictures. In a 360-degree pan, the first and last images must overlap and line up when they are later stitched together. Some tripods have twin-axis bubble levels to guide you, but you can also use a small handheld level. One of the problems with leveling a tripod is that the place where you mount the camera and the join where the head rotates aren't necessarily parallel. This means that even when you level the mounting area, the camera may not rotate in a level circle. You need to take some time to get it right.
  • Exposure. The software you use to stitch images together can even out the lighting in a scene but it helps if you give it good images to work with. Some cameras let you use autoexposure lock (AE Lock) to ensure that exposure and white balance are consistent throughout the series of images. On other cameras, a special panoramic or stitch-assist mode locks exposure when you take the first image in the series. If necessary you can always use manual mode.
  • Lighting. Try to avoid extremes in lighting. These occur on bright sunny days when there are bright highlights and dark shadows. The problem is compounded if you have to shoot some of the pictures into the sun. If you can pick your time, pick a day when it's cloudy bright—overcast but with slight shadows on the ground. If the sun is out, shoot at midday to keep the lighting even. If you have to shoot at other times, position the camera so direct sunlight is blocked behind a tree or building when photographing in its direction. When shooting indoor panoramas, set up the camera to avoid shots of windows with direct sun shining through.
  • Rotation. When photographing a horizontal or vertical sequence, stand in the same position and rotate the camera. A tripod isn't absolutely necessary, but if you use one, pan-tilt heads are better for this than ball heads because you can level one axis and lock it in a fixed position, then rotate the camera.
  • Overlapping images. Images should overlap by 30-50% horizontally and not be out of vertical alignment by much more than 10%. Avoid placing subjects that move in overlapping areas, and don't combine nearby objects in the same scene as distant ones or they will be distorted. When possible, place a distinctive subject in each overlapping area to make it easier for the software to know how to combine the images.
  • Documents. When photographing documents, center the camera over each section and keep it at the same height for each shot.
These photos show how an HP camera guides you when aligning photos for a panorama that is then stitched together in the camera. Courtesy of HP at www.hpshopping.com.

Panoramic Equipment

It's certainly possible to do great panoramas without a tripod. However, if you get really serious, or you want to take 360 degree panoramas you should consider a tripod and a tripod head designed for the task. These panoramic heads serve a number of functions:
  • They mount the camera so it rotates around the nodal point — the optical center of the lens. This isn't necessary for simple panoramas, but for extreme accuracy, especially for 360-degree views, the camera should rotate around the point in the lens where the light rays converge and cross over. Rotating around this point eliminates parallax errors that make it difficult for the software to accurately match images.
  • They have built-in levels that help you level the camera.
  • They have index, or degree, marks so you can rotate the camera just the right amount between shots. Some even have detents every few degrees so the camera snaps into place at the exact position.

Displaying Panoramas

After you shoot a series of digital images for a panorama, you use panoramic stitching software to stitch the digital images together into a seamless view. Once stitched you can output the panorama in a variety of formats.
  • Printing. You can output the finished panorama as a still image in any of the popular file formats such as JPEG. Panoramas present a problem when printing because of their length. However, many inkjet printers are designed to print long images, some even supporting roll paper. If you want someone else to make the print for you, check out on-line printing services or look for a service bureau or graphics arts center near you.
  • Web Display. You can put a panoramic photo on the Web just like any other still image, but you can also do it in such a way that anyone with a browser can pan and zoom it. To make this interactivity possible you have to save it in a format such as QuickTime VR (QTVR) and a viewer must have a browser or plug-in that supports that format. When these requirements are met a visitor can pan to look at the ceiling, down to look at the floor, or spin around the room. They can even click hot spots to move from one room into the next or to play other types of media, such as graphics, text, videos, or sounds. Some applications let you save your panorama in an HTML format so the panorama's page and all other necessary files are generated automatically. You don't need any special HTML or Java programming knowledge, just upload all of the output files to your Web site.

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