By September 20, 2009 7 Comments Read More →

Creating Great Panorama Photographs

You can make superb panoramic photographs if you have the right software. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

You can make superb panoramic photographs if you have the right software. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

I’ve always been fascinated by the photographic process-how all of the technological aspects of our craft come together with a photographer’s creative vision to make something wonderful. The perspective created by various lenses, and the physical limitations of those lenses, can result in some unwanted results, however.

If you look out at any expansive scene-a valley at dawn, a mountain vista, the sweep of a big room from one side to the other-your eye doesn’t actually “see” all of this at once, does it? Check it out right now: look around the room or space you’re in. Your peripheral vision is about 180 degrees, but your “eyes” (really your brain, processing the visual imagery in front of you) is really focusing only on part of this scene at a time, darting here and there as you look,  sharply focused on only one bit at a time. We end up with the illusion of sharply seeing all of this at once as our brains assimilate the information coming in.

Camera lenses don’t work this way, of course. To “see” a big wide expansive scene, you use a wide angle lens, which distorts the reality in front of you: foreground becomes foreshortened and overly prominent; things further away recede unrealistically into the background. You end up with a different reality from the one you’re actually experiencing.

The 35mm widelux camera. The lens moves behind the curtain at center.

The 35mm widelux camera. The lens moves behind the curtain at center.

What’s the solution? At one time you could try shooting with a Widelux camera. This was an innovative and very cool 35mm camera which had a normal lens on the front of it and a transmission mechanism for the lens: when you depressed the shutter, the lens actually moved during the exposure from left to right, scanning the scene, much like a photo copier mechanism works today. The 35mm negatives were about twice as long as regular ones and required special negative carriers to print. But what you got were wide scenes in which details did not recede. These always looked strange to the eye, so accustomed have we become to the receding compositional aspect of modern wide angle photography.

Now you don’t have to have a Widelux to create these images, only some “photo stitching” software. I’m going to explain two ways to do this: using the Photomerge feature in Photoshop, and a little piece of ArcSoft software called Panorama Maker.

Start with a wide scene you want to shoot, but put a normal (around a 50mm) lens on your camera. Set your camera for a manual exposure. (If you don’t, the exposure change that your camera decides will result in poor stitch results). Now shoot the first image of the scene. I always start on the left side of the photo, although this is personal preference. Now, keeping your eyes, head and arms locked in position, rotate from the hips and  shoot the second shot, making sure to overlap with the first exposure by about 20 percent. (You’ll get better at judging this with practice.) Keep shooting until you’ve finished your composition. Alternatively, you can mount the camera on a tripod, making sure it’s truly level, to create this composition.  I’ve found that with practice, I can eliminate the necessity for the sticks.

Now you’re ready to assemble your image.

Create a folder on your computer and get the images into it. (I’ll do this with my image browser software, Photo Mechanic.)

If using Photoshop:


You’ll be prompted to Browse to select your files, and given a choice of options as to how you want Photoshop to assemble the image. Start with the “Auto” setting and hit OK.

Stitching a series of photos together using the Photomerge feature in Photoshop.

Stitching a series of photos together using the Photomerge feature in Photoshop.

Photoshop will process your combined image, creating a layered document with each of the original photos on its own layer.

You’ll need to crop the resulting combined image to eliminate edge distortion.

Now go to Layer>Flatten Image.

Congratulations…you’ve just assembled your first stitched panorama!

Using Arcsoft Panorama Maker:

This is my preferred method, simply because this relatively inexpensive piece of software is so much more versatile than Photoshop for creating panoramas. This software can create stitched VERTICAL as well as horizontal photos and can even “tile” images together: imagine creating a pan that’s four images across and three images tall, for instance.

Assembling a panorama in Arcsoft's Panorama Maker software.

Assembling a panorama in Arcsoft's Panorama Maker software.

The software has a wizard-like interface that will guide you through the image creation process. When finished, you have the option to Save as a jpeg, create a Quicktime or Flash file or html for web display. The new version (which I’m not running yet) even allows you to create pans from video footage! This is very cool stuff!

The completed assemblage, here created from five vertical photos. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

The completed assemblage, here created from five vertical photos. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Another aspect of this worth considering is how much higher your resolution can end up when creating a pan vs. a straight wide angle photo. Instead of one wide shot with say, 23.5 mb of information in it, now you’ve got over 100mb of information from the five combined images in your composition. The difference in the final result can be startling.

The biggest attraction for me, however, is how much closer to reality these images look to my eye. No more foreground foreshortening, no more side-edge wide angle distortion. No more middle ground diminishment to objects in the middle distance…just a lot more in-your-face immediacy to the result! This is truly cool stuff.

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: How To, Landscape, Software

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

7 Comments on "Creating Great Panorama Photographs"

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  1. David Joachim says:

    Thanks for the demo. I’ve been considering panoramic software. I used to shoot panoramas with an old twin lens reflex, then print the photos and literally cut them and tape them together. Not the preferred method.
    I am a huge fan of the original Cinerama process that was so immersive and dazzling, yet so cumberson for filmmakers and exhibiters. And they could never completely eliminate the join lines between panels. The newest DVD re-release of HOW THE WEST WAS WON (shot in the 3 strip process) uses new software to electronically eliminate the join lines. Ain’t technology mawvulus?!

  2. David Joachim says:

    That should be “cumbersome” it’s early.

  3. Alphonse says:

    Take a look at Double Take, really easy to use drop and drag pano software that makes high quality panaramic inages
    Al Phonse

  4. Hey, thanks for the tip. This looks like pretty nice software for the Mac.

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