What is the Panoramic Format?
A Panoramic photo usually refers to an image with a width more than twice the height (2:1 aspect ratio). In other words, the image is a lot wider than it is tall. Panoramas are suited to landscapes or large vistas (like cityscapes).
Usually, panoramas are created by taking more than one image with your camera, and then stitching the images together using software.
Some digital cameras have a "Panoramic Mode" that helps you create panoramas by showing you previous images in the LCD so you can line up your subsequent photos. This can be fraught with problems though as it's very hard to line your photos up exactly when hand holding your camera. So I don't recommend using this method.
Other cameras only record the middle part of the frame in Panoramic Mode, placing black bands on the top and bottom of the image. When printed, this will look like a panoramic shot. Your camera is actually cropping the image for you, but I recommend you do the cropping manually in a paint program after you take the photo. See the next section.
Cropping an image to create a Panorama
The easiest way to create a panoramic shot is to crop a standard image. Using your editing program, crop the top and bottom parts of the image. This will create an image that is a lot wider than it is high, creating a panoramic shot.
If you have a lot of 'blank space' (like grass or blank sky) in the top and bottom of an image, this is a great way to liven up the shot.
Creating Multi-Shot Panoramas
These photos take more time to photograph and stitch together, but the results are worth it. The idea is to stand in one place and take a series of photos while rotating the camera. Then merge these photos together in software to create one very long (or very tall) image.
Rotate Around A Central Point
When rotating your camera, the choice of 'central point' is very important. Don't rotate your body and swing your camera with it. Rather keep the camera in the same place and rotate your body around the camera.
To be precise, your camera needs to rotate around the 'nodal point' (the point inside the lens that every point of light passes through before hitting the image sensor). On compact cameras this is usually the camera itself, but with SLR cameras it is close to half way along the lens.
Why should you do this? Changing the camera's position between shots will cause nearer objects to move relative to background objects in different images (in other words, it will cause parallax errors).
A handy way to make sure your camera stays in the same place is to hang a plumb line (some string with a weight on the end) to the middle of your lens, and ensure the weight is above the same point on the ground after you rotate your camera. Or place the tip of your foot below your lens, and rotate around your foot.
There are professional attachments to tripods just for shooting panoramas. A great example is the Nodal Ninja 3.
Lock Your Camera's Exposure
Normally your camera will take a light reading of each shot and adjust it's settings to compensate. For single images, this is what you want. But with panoramas (since you will be stitching the shots together) you want the camera to use the same settings for every image.
So if your camera supports it, lock the exposure and use that same exposure for all shots. Look for an "Exposure Lock" or "AE Lock" button. All cameras are different in how they set the exposure lock, but you usually depress the button at a part of the image that has an average light setting for the whole scene, and while keeping the button depressed rotate your camera and take all the shots for the panorama.
Another way of achieving exposure lock is to set your camera on manual mode. Take a test shot first, note the shot details (like Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO), then using manual mode set your camera to these same settings.
If your camera doesn't have exposure lock, all is not lost. Some panoramic stitching software can automatically fix images that are exposed differently.
When taking your photos, ensure you overlap the images. I do this by noting a feature close to the edge of the frame. When I rotate my camera, I ensure that same feature is still in the frame and near the other edge. A good rule of thumb is to have a 20%-50% overlap.
Overlapping images will make stitching your photos together a lot easier. And you'll ensure you don't have any 'dead space' (areas with no image) in your panorama.
Keep Your Camera Level
Another important point is to keep your camera as level as possible. Small vertical movements of the camera between shots can dramatically reduce the size of your final image because you'll need to crop the whole image to the lowest-highest point and highest-lowest point. You can counter by taking your shots in portrait orientation. That way you'll have more vertical area to work with. You'll need more shots for the same image, but you'll have more leeway for cropping later.
Choose The Right Time
It's not a good idea to shoot panoramas at midday because of the harsh shadows (actually, midday is never a good time to take photos!). Also watch our for quickly changing weather conditions. Make sure you don't take one image in full sun, and the next when the sun is behind clouds.
Also look for moving objects in the image. If someone is walking across your object make sure you don't shoot them twice in subsequent images. The final stitched image will look strange if you have the same person twice (or three times) in the shot. Although it would make a cool artistic effect...
Also watch for wind and waves. both high winds and waves cause problems because they cause movement in your subject (like trees) between images.
Finally, check where the sun is. Avoid pointing your camera towards or near the sun as it will cause the sky in those shots to be brighter than your other images. This makes stitching the images together a lot harder.
Take A Backup
It's also worthwhile taking a backup shot of your subject using a single frame. That way if your panorama doesn't work out for any reason, you still have a useable photo.
Stitching The Photos Together
Once you've created the photos, it's time to stitch them together using photo software. To see how to do this, sign up for my Image Editing Secrets course. I'll show you how to stitch panoramas (and lots of other easy editing tricks) in Photoshop CS2, Photoshop Elements and Paint Shop Pro.
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