8 Guidelines To Taking Panoramic Photos With Any Camera

Back in the days of film cameras, creating a panoramic photograph meant either buying a particular, expensive camera or hours in the darkroom stitching images together by overlapping exposures onto the finished photo paper.

Panoramic photos were the realm of the professional with the time and funds to create gorgeous super wide angle shots.But now, in the digital age, it’s not only simple to create panoramic images on your home computer, it’s become increasingly easier thanks to advances in software.  

There are still some general guidelines to follow to help you increase your odds of producing great photos because remember, you can’t fix everything in a computer after the fact. Here are some guidelines that will help shorten your learning curve and give you a head start in creating stunning panoramic images.

1. If Your Camera Has A Panorama Mode, Use It.
Most point and shoot cameras beyond the most basic model come with a little used mode for creating panoramic images.  This mode serves a couple of functions.  First, it will use the display on the camera to show your last picture taken and then a live view of the next picture.  This is done to help you line up you images and overlap them(we’ll talk about the importance of overlap in a minute).  It also adjusts the camera to NOT change exposure settings in between shots as it normally would.  This helps create even lighting through all the pictures, making stitching in the computer a lot easier (although a number of modern programs will also level exposure fairly well).

2. Overlap Amply
Overlapping is one of the important areas in creating a panoramic image.  Just one slip with not enough overlap can ruin an attempt at the grandest of wide angle shots.  No one wants to see pictures of the Grand Canyon with a bar of white down the middle because of the failure to overlap properly.  Most people say 15% works just fine.  Experiment with your particular camera to find the sweet spot of overlap.  Increasing the amount of overlap helps reduce “flaring” that happens when the software is forced to use all of the image frame, including the corners which may show distortion depending on your lens selection.

3.  Keep It On The Level
Keeping your camera level becomes more important as you combine more images.  If you’re shooting four or five images there isn’t much your need to worry about.  But if it’s a monster 40 image shot, it becomes more and more important to keep things on the level.  Think of it this way; your lens is a curved peice of glass.  When held level, all parts of the scene in front of it come in and hit the sensor and roughly the same angle.  But if you point that camera down, say 45 degrees you now have distant objects, like mountains in the background, coming in at a much sharper angle than foreground objects.  

For a single picture, this isn’t a problem, but for a panorama it creates a fan effect which is not so easily fixed in the computer.  What this means is as you pan the camera left to right, the distant objects will fan out and may not have ample overlap.  Further, they will be more distorted and curved because of the angle their light enters the camera.

4. Choosing Your Metering Well
If you are using a DSLR or other camera that doesn’t have the nifty Panorama Mode, you’ll want to set your metering mode to manual.  Otherwise you’ll end up with an image like this.

5. Check The Scene For Movement
Movement in the scene can be a thief of what would otherwise be a grand shot.  Sometimes the blur, or doubling up of people, cars, planes or other moving objects is acceptable. But too many blurry spots (caused when the computer finds parts of the overlapping sections where things don’t line up) can ruin the shot.  It may mean you need to take the images very quickly.  And sometimes, that movement is just unavoidable. 

6. Be Careful with Super Wide Angle Lenses
A great wide angle lens does not always produce great panoramic shots.  Sometimes it’s better to let the stitching software do what it does best and make multiple passes of the same scene, with ample overlap, to create your masterpiece.

7. Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around
With new software you are not limited to just a single pass from left to right to capture your desired image so don’t be afraid to make more than one pass.  Start with the initial pass from left to right (or top to bottom) and then move up or down to grab more detail and make another pass.  Remember the overlapping rule above and how it will now pertain to not only the sides of the shot, but also the top and bottom overlaps.

8. Don’t Forget Vertical Panoramas!
Vertical shots are often overlooked.  The same principles apply to verticals shots as do horizontal images.  It may help to turn the camera on its side or you may find keeping the camera in a horizontal orientation works.  Experiment a little with buildings and waterfalls and then start looking for other verticals you can shoot.

These are just a few of the basic guidelines to help you in learning how to shoot panoramas.  You don’t need fancy, expensive cameras to create nice panoramic images, just a little known how and practice.

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