Panorama Power
How To Shoot & Stitch A Panorama With Any Camera

For a vertical panorama of New York's Chrysler building, I took two handheld photos with the Canon 10D digital SLR camera and a Canon 70-300 zoom lens at 90mm. First, I framed the top with its gleaming spire.
Photos © 2003, Howard Millard, All Rights Reserved

Want to add a new dimension to your photography? Try shooting panoramic pictures--shoot a series of two or more frames and then combine them digitally. The wide sweep of the panoramic format captures attention, adds impact, and compels viewers to look more closely at your images. Plus it's a lot of fun and works with virtually any camera. You can also use these techniques to shoot and compile panoramas from scanned film images or prints. To combine a series of photos you've shot into a panorama, you can use the automated Photomerge feature (shown here) in Photoshop Elements 3 or the new Photoshop CS. Other modestly priced panorama software is listed at the end of this article.

To add the finishing touches to the Chrysler panorama, I straightened it using the Image>Rotate Canvas command. Then, with the Rubber Stamp tool, I cloned out the building on the left and filled in blank areas around the edges of the photo created by the straightening process. Next, I cropped off the dark building at the bottom. Finally, I added a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and pumped up the saturation 10 to 20 points.

Then I aimed down, leaving a 20 to 30 percent overlap, and shot the lower portion of the skyscraper. Remember to lock focus and exposure before you begin to shoot the panorama series.

Increase Your Pixel Power
If your camera captures only 1, 2, or 3 megapixels, there's another benefit to this technique. Combining two or more frames to make a pano can significantly increase the file size, detail, and resolution, so you can make bigger prints. Furthermore, there's the wide angle factor. At the wide angle end of the zoom on most consumer digital cameras, the angle of view bottoms out at the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a 35mm format camera. That's not nearly wide enough for me. But by shooting two or more frames and combining them you can expand the horizontal angle of coverage, effectively creating a serious wide angle view.

Think Wide
When scouting for potential panoramic subjects, think differently. Imagine the long, thin format and how you might fill it compositionally. Some foreground objects and graphic shapes within your subject can add interest. Also, consider vertical as well as the more traditional horizontal views.

To assemble the panorama in Photoshop CS, choose File>Automate>Photomerge. In Elements 1 and 2, File>Create Photomerge. After you choose two or more source files, Photomerge will open and try to align them. Here, with the settings on Normal, it figured out immediately that the pano was vertical and did a fair job of aligning the two components.

You can shoot panos handheld, but the images will be easier to stitch together later if you put your camera on a level tripod. If you're using a zoom lens, don't change the zoom during the series of photos for the pano. Take an exposure reading for the most important subject area and, if possible, lock the exposure, focus, and white balance settings, or set the camera to manual. This way, the exposure and focus won't shift between pictures. If they do, one photo in your pano may be darker than the next, with bands where the component images join. Don't worry, though, if your camera does not allow you to lock the settings. Most cameras will give you fairly consistent results, and you can correct exposure changes later in the software with levels and the clone stamp.

To match the two sky colors, I clicked the "Keep as Layers" button at the lower right of the Photomerge dialog. In Photoshop CS, I created a levels adjustment layer for each of the two component photos, grouped with each. Then I optimized the levels and adjusted the gamma (middle triangle) levels sliders until the skies matched as closely as possible.

Practice Makes Perfect
Once you've found a scene you want to capture as a pano, do several dry runs with the camera, sweeping through the range of the area you want to shoot. This will help you decide which focal length or zoom setting to use and how many frames you'll need to cover the area you want. If you're hand holding the camera move your body around it, as if it were on a tripod. To get started, I suggest working with only two or three images. It's very important to overlap the images, as this helps the software to combine them later. Try overlapping about 1/3 to start with. With wider focal lengths you need to overlap more, with longer (more telephoto) lenses, less overlap is required.

For a horizontal landscape panorama, I shot two frames at Long Island Sound on a foggy late afternoon at dusk with the Canon 10D and a 20-35mm Canon lens. First, I locked in the exposure and focus by setting them manually.

Establish a routine and follow it. If you always shoot the sequence from left to right, for example, you'll easily know where each component image fits in the panorama. As you pan the camera between shots, stop when you still have 1/3 of the previous image in the frame. Continue to shoot and repeat for as many frames as you want. Try to complete the sequence smoothly but quickly in one series of shots so that the lighting and weather conditions don't change. Don't turn the camera on and off in between as this can change the white balance and exposure. If you are combining several images, say four or more, try combining two first, then adding one to that combination, and so on. Some cameras come with a panoramic mode. This helps you compose and guides you through the overlapping. If you don't have a camera with this feature don't fret, as following the techniques I've outlined will get you going; if you have such a feature use it, as it's a great aid in the work.

I overlapped this second frame by about 30 percent for a horizontal landscape panorama at Long Island Sound. Canon 10D and a 20-35mm Canon lens.

While you might think that wide angle lenses would be great for panos because they take in such a wide field of view, in most cases you'd be wrong. Very wide angle lenses might show strong distortion, especially at the corners and edges of the frame, making it next to impossible to stitch images together. An exception is special rectilinear wide angle lenses that may be used with interchangeable lens cameras like digital SLRs. You'll have the most success at stitched panoramas with the equivalent of a 35mm lens (on a 35mm format camera), normal or tele lenses or zoom settings. Normal to tele yield the least distortion and the best final results.

After I indicated the lens focal length in 35mm equivalent terms, Canon's PhotoStitch software created a blend that was perfect--seamless and requiring no repositioning, levels adjustments, or cloning. With PhotoStitch, both quality and ease of use are excellent.

For more information on Elements 3 and Photoshop CS, see www.adobe.com. Additional panoramic software priced under $100 includes: PhotoVista Panorama 3.0 (Win and Mac), www.iseemedia.com; PanaVue ImageAssembler (Win only), www.panavue.com; Realviz Stitcher EZ (Win and Mac), www.realviz.com; Canon includes PhotoStitch software (Win and Mac) with some of its cameras, www.usa.canon.com.

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