Not every scene makes for a great landscape, and not every landscape makes for a great panorama. Panoramas, in fact, are pretty subjective. I've seen some really terrible landscape panoramas, and some really great panoramas that aren't landscapes at all. So how do you know when to click over to that panorama setting on your brand new camera? Read on to find out.
The key to developing an eye for great panoramas is to look at other panoramas. When you study the work of other successful photographers, you’ll start to get a feel for the art of the panorama and how to choose a subject that will make a great panoramic image. But before we get into that, let's first take some time to talk about the specific art of the panorama.
Panoramas, as you know, are composite images of two or more photographs that have been stitched together, either in camera or in post-processing. People generally shoot panoramas in order to give the viewer a better idea about the size and scale of a scene. This is why they're so popular for landscape photographs—sometimes it's just impossible to take in the entire scene in a single photograph even when you're using a very wide-angle lens.
Up until recently, you had to have special equipment in order to capture a panoramic image. Even after the advent of digital, you still had to have some knowledge of how to use post-processing software in order to actually be able to physically stitch together that panorama shot. But today, a lot of cameras actually have a panorama mode built right into them. I have a point-and-shoot camera, for example, that tells me exactly how to line up each one of those shots so that they will stitch together seamlessly in the final image. This makes it a very simple matter to capture a panoramic image for anybody who owns a camera with this capability.
BBVA Compass Stadium panorama by Flickr user ay_lee_in
So does that mean that you should go out and take panoramic images of anything and everything? Of course not—just like any photograph, you need to choose a subject that lends itself to this particular technique. Not every image does—and not even every landscape.
How do you know?
Now, in theory, you could make a panorama out of almost anything. All you need is the ability to stitch all of those different images together, and you can do that in really any location. But what makes a great panoramic photo is an image that has a lot of different layers. In other words, a great panoramic photo must have foreground interest as well as background interest. If you're looking out at a hilly green landscape, for example, stitching together a lot of different photographs of the that same horizon isn't going to do a whole lot more than a single shot of the horizon, even if you’ve got a lot of interesting clouds in the sky. Even a lot of interesting clouds when stitched together with a bunch of other interesting clouds is really just a photograph of lots of interesting clouds. On the other hand, if you’ve got some interesting features from foreground to background, that's a different story. Add some hills, some houses and farmland and a few trees in addition to all of those clouds, and now you got a photograph that's worthy of a panorama.
Now having said all of that, objects in the very near foreground can actually give you some trouble, because you’ll get what’s known as “parallax errors” if you try to stitch together images that have objects that are very close to where you’re standing when you take the photo. This is because the background elements and foreground elements will appear to shift relative to each other when you move your camera, and when this happens there’s no way to correct for it in post-processing. So unless you have specially calibrated panoramic equipment, avoid shooting scenes that have objects in the near foreground. Instead, look for landscapes that are “big,” such as what you’ll often observe from a higher elevation, and have layers but at a greater distance.
As I said, panoramas aren't just limited to landscapes, any scene that is big and impressive can make for a great panorama. Another good example is architecture, especially very a large, looming building such as a stone cathedral, a castle or an elaborate historical building. Now, do keep in mind that when you’re shooting architecture it can be a real challenge to prevent distorted lines and to capture everything in such a way that it stitches together easily in post processing, so if you find you’re passionate about the idea of panoramic architecture, you may need to invest in some that special panoramic equipment, which can help you deal with distortion and parallax error. In the meantime, you can get the best possible results hand-held by stepping back and shooting with your lens parallel to your subject.
Remember also that it can be challenging to capture panoramic shots of scenes that have a lot of movement in them, especially seaside photos that include the ocean surf. If you’re going to tackle this challenge, try to include the surf (or any other moving elements) in a single frame if possible—if not, use continuous shooting mode and move quickly, following the direction of the waves. You may still have some stitching issues that will need correction in post-processing, but overall you’ll improve your chances of getting a cohesive series of images if you act fast and keep your shutter speed high.
WEMBURY BAY Panorama. Nikon D3100. DSC_0099. by Flickr user Robert.Pittman
Other moving subjects can give you some trouble, too. You may be tempted to get a panoramic shot of a big, sweeping city scene but it’s going to be impossible to do so because of the sheer number of moving subjects in any given city. Cars moving in and out of the frame, pedestrians, bicyclists, even otherwise static objects that change electronically like billboards and street crossings are going to give you some real trouble. So unless you’re friends with someone who has the power to shut down an entire city block (JJ Abrams perhaps?), skip city scenes or other scenes with lots of moving objects in them.
Windy days are going to be problematic as well, so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security because your scene is devoid of people and vehicles. Make sure that you also check the wind—fast movement in the clouds, for example, may result in clouds that are misaligned. As a general rule, if you can see motion in the clouds with your own eyes, your camera will see it, too.
Similarly, trees and plants that are bending in the wind may also give you a misaligned seam that you won’t be able to correct, even in post processing. So if there are any elements in the scene that might be affected by a breeze, choose your time of day carefully. Mornings are more likely to be wind-free, so plan to visit during the day’s first golden hour. And just to be on the safe side, make sure you check the weather forecast for that day—if wind is expected, it might be better to schedule your shoot for another day. Likewise, if the light is changing rapidly you may have issues with one part of the image being brighter than another—I always advise shooting in manual mode so that your camera doesn’t change the exposure between images, but that only works if the light isn’t also changing. You’ll need to work fast during the golden hour so that those changes in light aren’t perceptible in your final image—a shot taken just before the sun comes up over the horizon, for example, won’t stitch together well with a shot taken just after the sun makes its appearance.
If you follow these tips you’re going to save yourself a lot of hassle in the long run—I will admit to spending way too much time trying to fix bad seams in panoramics and then just giving up altogether. It’s far better to avoid these problems in-camera, because there just isn’t an easy way to fix them after the fact. You can do a certain amount of cloning, but depending on how obvious the error is it may not be enough to save the image.
Panoramic photos are easier to shoot today than they have ever been—if your camera has a panoramic mode, you’re going to have a really good time trying it out and experimenting with different scenes. Just think “big” and avoid tricky situations, such as scenes with a lot of movement or with large elements in the foreground. Beyond that, don’t limit yourself too much—if it’s a scene that impresses you with its beauty and enormity in person, chances are it will impress your viewers as a panoramic photo, too.
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