How to take better Pano images

After a recent trip to Iceland, the land that was made for pano’s; I decided to write an article on how to take better panorama images.

The Gear I Use to Take Panorama Photos

I can't say enough about the merits of a sturdy tripod.  if you spent less than $100, there's a good chance your tripod may be flimsy enough to introduce some vibration or camera shake that could ruin your images. I use a Manfrotto 290 Series carbon Fibre tripod. Like the rest of the 290 Carbon range, the 294 carbon tripod is built to be transportable without compromising on stability. To achieve this, it uses a “next-generation” carbon tubing: an innovative composite tube derived from Manfrotto’s experience in professional supports with optimized fibre angles that provide consistent advantages over aluminium tubing in terms of rigidity, lightness and stability. 294 tripod legs use a 3-section construction with larger diameter carbon tubing than the 293 models, in order to maximize camera stability and minimize vibration, ideal for zoom lenses that amplify any camera shake. Durable tension-adjustable aluminium leg locks can be tightened to suit your preference and to counteract any effects of wear and aging, keeping the tripod fully functional throughout its long life. Two-position leg angle settings make low-angle shooting possible, while a rapid centre column adds flexibility and extends the min-max height range. The disk at the top of the centre column is compatible with any Manfrotto head, ideal for photographers who want to put together a custom support, fine-tuned to their own specific preferences or to the demands of their photographic style.

And while it's also nice to have a ball head, a good 360 degree rotating head that can support your camera in vertical orientation will usually do the trick. I like the Manfrotto Pano Head. The 303PLUS advanced panoramic photography head is built around the 300N pan rotation unit, with sliding plates for nodal point positioning and an elbow bracket to allow the camera to be mounted in either portrait or landscape orientation. It incorporates precise geared movements of the two sliding plates used to locate the camera over the panoramic axis of rotation, adding greater accuracy to nodal point positioning. The micro-positioning plates provide extremely precise fingertip adjustment via a gear drive system; a release button disengages the gear drive to facilitate rapid movement of the plates when required. The plates are also longer than those of the 303 head, which helps to make this head suitable for use with larger traditional or digital SLR cameras equipped with standard or wide angle lenses, or for medium format cameras.

I prefer to shoot wide, using the Sigma 24-70mm or the 24-105mm F4 DG OS HSM Art lens. The 24-105 is the latest in the sigma line-up and is a premium lens designed for full frame cameras and will also work with APS-C sensors with an effective increase in focal length. The 24-105mm F4 is a highly versatile focal range and staple everyday lens. With the increasing resolution power of new sensors, it is designed to bring out the true potential of evolving camera technology. Sigma’s 24-105mm f4 includes proprietary Sigma technology including our Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM) which ensures fast, quiet and accurate autofocusing as well as our Optical Stabilizer (OS) which compensates for camera shake. A 9 blade rounded diaphragm creates beautiful background blur, while FLD and SLD glass elements compensate for various aberrations, distortion and curvature. The use of Thermally Composite Material (TSC) reduces size and weight and as part of the new Global Vision design, it is compatible with the Sigma USB dock for further customization and the new Mount Conversion Service.

Now it's time to take some pictures. First of all, I have to say, I shoot solely in RAW format. RAW allows you the ability to really get the most out of each file, whereas even high-quality jpegs have discarded much of the workable information that is left in a RAW file. Shoot in RAW and your image processing will be more effective.

The first step in the whole process of course, is selecting a suitable landscape to photograph. And as we have all heard: you should always choose one of the “golden hours” of the day, meaning an hour before, during or after sunrise or sunset. But more than that, composition is often overlooked when people take a pano image. Remember to have a foreground element to ground the image, remember the rule of thirds, try to not put the horizon dead center… etc…

I put your camera in vertical (portrait) orientation, making absolutely certain that your tripod and camera are completely level. This is important as it will keep your horizon straight. On a single image this can be easily corrected, but on an image that has multiple images, a crooked horizon can ruin an entire pano. Your camera will have a level and so should your tripod and pano head. Use these tools in your set up and you will be glad you did.

Just like any other landscape image, start by focusing one-third of the way into the landscape you want to photograph. You'll need to lock your focus at this point, or your focal point will change each time you depress the shutter button. This will leave you with out of focus and disappointing results. The best way to accomplish this is to simply switch out of auto focus mode after you identified the focus point, and switch the camera into manual focus mode.

If you are using a DSLR or other camera that doesn’t have a Panorama Mode, you’ll want to set your metering mode to manual.  Otherwise you’ll end up with an image that has different metering on the different images… this makes some images dark, some images over exposed…

I set the camera to manual to find the exposure.  It’s also important to even out your metering, meaning scan the entire scene making note of the aperture and shutter speeds your camera is suggesting, then pick one pair of settings in the middle, or slightly darker to make sure any sky details is preserved.  With those shutter and aperture settings dialed in, it’s finally time to take your pano.

Some final thoughts...

Overlapping is one of the important areas in creating a panoramic image.  Just one slip with not enough overlap can ruin a panorama image.  No one wants to see their picture with a bar of white down the middle because of the failure to overlap properly. 

I overlap by a minimum of 25% each time.  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. It is just digital memory, it’s better to error on the side of caution.

With new software, like photoshop CC or CS6 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.  Keep it tight and your image can have the added quality of extra skyline or foreground features previously missed. The largest printable pano I have ever done is above. It is two rows of 9 vertical images, 18 images in total. I used a Sigma 120-300mm f2.8 telephoto lens.

Movement in the scene can be an image killer.  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.

We travel to some great locations to shoot pano images. Please see these workshops below.

Newfoundland - http://northof49photography.com/newfoundland-and-labrador

Yukon – http://northof49photography.com/fall-colours-in-the-yukon

Iceland - http://northof49photography.com/iceland-photography-workshop

Paris - http://northof49photography.com/2014-paris-workshop

Namibia - http://northof49photography.com/namibia-photo-workshop

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Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: www.kevinpepperphotography.com