Today's point and shoot cameras have a ton of bells and whistles. If you own one of these little cameras, you may not even be aware of all of those fancy features. In fact you may be surprised to discover that your little point and shoot (or phone camera) is capable of some things that your DSLR isn't. One of the most widely under-utilized bells (or maybe whistles) that point and shoot camera have is the panoramic mode. While you certainly can take panoramic images using a camera without this feature, it does make these shots infinitely simpler.
But what if you don't have one of these cameras? Let's see how to take images appropriate for panoramas, and how to stitch them together.
[ Top image Just head for that small moon over there by Flickr user c@rljones]
If your camera doesn't have a panoramic mode it is still very possible to create a great panoramic photograph. You will need four tools: 1) a tripod, 2) a camera with manual mode 3) a fairly middle-of-the-road lens, since a wide angle lens will create distortion that will make it difficult to stitch your image together later on and 4) Photoshop Elements with the Photomerge utility.
ChiTown by Flickr user Christopher.F Photography
Pick the right scene
Motion can be a real problem in a panoramic image, because the software you use to stitch the two images together may not know what to do with overlapping parts that don't look exactly the same. So that big beautiful pine tree in the foreground with branches waving in the wind might actually ruin your shot, or at the very least force you to stitch those images together manually. Cars, people and other moving objects will also be a problem. If you can, it's a good idea to time your images so that these little intruders don't become a problem in post-processing.
Lone Tree by Flickr user Tom Lussier Photography
Set up your shot
Start by mounting your tripod on a level surface. You should have a sturdy tripod that isn't easily jostled by the wind or by you, the photographer. Now set your camera up in manual mode (or lock the exposure), which will prevent the exposure changing as you go from one image to the next. Again making merging easier. Take a reading from every position in the scene where you will making an exposure and make a note of each, and then choose the reading that is slightly below the middle - you want to aim for a little underexposure rather than over exposure, that way you will maintain some color and detail in the sky.
Next, make sure your camera is level (use a leveling tool if you need to. I use a free app on my phone). This will prevent the distortion that can occur between objects when you take an image at an angle. You want to avoid distortion in a panoramic image because as I previously mentioned, it can make it challenging (if not impossible) to stitch your image together in post-processing.
Take your first shot, then using the handle on your tripod, smoothly move the camera to the next part of the scene, taking care not to move your camera vertically or change its angle.
Take your photographs
Make absolutely sure you overlap between scenes. This is important because overlapping will ensure that you don't inadvertently leave out part of the scene, but also because the slight distortion (yes, distortion is indeed your enemy) that may occur at the edge of your frame will cause "flaring" of the image when you stitch it together in Photoshop. A good rule of thumb is to keep about 1/3 of the first image in the frame of the second. If your camera has a rule of thirds grid in the viewfinder, you can use this as a guide.
Just remember roughly where the right edge of the first image was, then move your camera and line that part of the scene up with the first line of your rule of thirds grid. Take the next photo, and repeat until you get to the point in the scene where you want your photograph to end.
Post processing: how to complete your image
You can stitch your panorama together manually, which with practice may actually give you better results. But in this tutorial we're going to talk about the faster way, which is to use Photomerge in Photoshop Elements. Here's how:
In "full edit" mode, choose File > New > Photomerge Panorama. You'll get a pop-up menu asking you if you want to use individual images ("Files") or all the images in a single folder ("Folders"). Alternately, you can just open all the files you want to use prior to selecting "Photomerge Panorama," then you can choose "add open files."
If you choose "Files" or "Folders," you'll then need to navigate to the directory where your photos are stored.
The Panorama of Patagonia by Flickr user Stuck in Customs
Now choose "perspective" from the layout menu. (You can also choose a "cylindrical," "spherical," "collage," "reposition" or "auto," but for the type of panorama we're discussing here you will want to stick with "perspective.") In the perspective layout, the software will choose the center image as its reference point, and then stitch all the other images together around it, skewing, stretching or repositioning as necessary. Note: there is also an "interactive" layout, which allows you to manually position everything.
Now Photoshop Elements will give you the option of blending the images, which means it will select the best place to join the photos and will blend the colors in order to create an invisible seam. You can also choose to remove any vignettes that may have occurred in the images when you were taking them, and to correct for distortion. It is, of course, better to avoid these problems rather than expect Photoshop Elements to fix them for you, since the software may not do a perfect job after the fact.
Now click "OK." The software will ask if you want to fill in the transparent edges; if you say "yes" it will add "content-aware" healing to the edges.
And that's how it's done - at the basic level, of course. You may find that you aren't completely satisfied with the job Photomerge does; that's when it's time to re-evaluate your technique and perhaps learn how to use Photomerge in interactive mode. Or just do it all manually. Whatever you decide, panoramic photos can be a great way to present a truly compelling image of a landscape or other fantastic piece of scenery. After all, it's really hard to reproduce the splendor of a landscape in two dimensions. But when you do it in 180 degrees, you're going to come a lot closer to giving your viewer the impression that he's standing right there with you, taking in the view.
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