While making a scenic panorama for a client, I learned a number of techniques for the photographic process which make creating the final panorama easier. Some points are general and apply any time you want to make a top-quality photo. Others are specific to creating a panorama from several overlapping photos. If your final product is to be a large print, then you need to start with the cleanest images possible.
Shoot “camera raw”, if possible. You will have more options available to you later, when it comes time to adjust images for white balance, brightness, contrast, saturation, etc. JPEGs have less exposure and color adjustment latitude. Each time you save the file during the editing process, the image lose quality.
Choosing A Tripod
A sturdy, rigid tripod is best. It is very important that the camera not move during exposures, and that the camera’s vertical angle not change, as it is rotated horizontally. There are several types of heads for tripods. It works best to use a head having separate pan and tilt adjustments.
Choosing A Lens
Go for the best quality lens that you have or can afford. Prime lenses usually have the sharpest optics. Use a so-called “normal” lens – 50mm on a 35mm SLR or full-frame DSLR camera. This keeps barrel distortion – that “fish eye” effect – under control.
Do not use a polarizer filter unless you are willing to deal with the complications. Yes, they do lend a very nice effect when the camera is pointed roughly perpendicular to the sun. Since the filter’s effectiveness (and effect) is a function of the azimuth angle between the sun and the lens axis, it will create some really hard to deal with effects. The most noticeable of which is that the color saturation in the sky will change markedly at different angles to the sun. This makes for a variation from photo to photo that, when creating the panorama, may be objectionable. Things in the fore- and middle-ground will also have a different quality to the light, depending on the angle to the sun.
Here we go…
Set Up The Tripod
Set the tripod on solid ground such that it will not move while taking the series of photos.
Mount The Camera
Mount the camera on the tripod, and make sure it is firmly secured with no wiggling.
Level The Camera
Level the tripod and camera such that, when the camera is rotated, it follows the imaginary horizon without any tilt. A carpenter’s level or similar can be very useful.
Adjust The Exposure
Choose the lowest ISO setting available or the finest grain film. That minimizes the digital noise in the images, or the graininess, depending on the medium you are using.
Manual Shutter Speed And Aperture
The goal here is to find a consistent exposure that will not overexpose the brightest highlights. Set the camera to manual shutter speed and manual aperture. Rotate the camera through the range to be photographed while taking note of the light meter readings. Locate the brightest scene, and adjust the shutter speed and aperture for correct exposure. You will use these settings for all photos.
Adjust The Focus
Focus the lens, either using autofocus, or manually. You may find is useful to choose the hyperfocal distance, so as to maximize the in-focus range. Once set, turn off autofocus. You don’t want it to change from one photo to the next.
Take The Photos
Snap, snap, snap. Take the series of photos, leaving 5% to 10% overlap on each photo. The overlap will be useful when stitching together the photos.
Stitch Them Together
Open the photos in your favorite photo editing software. If available, apply lens distortion correction to remove barrel distortion as well as chromatic aberration correction to all photos. These corrections are available in Adobe Camera Raw. Create a blank canvas a bit larger than what you will need for all of the photos. This can be trimmed down as the final step. One at a time, copy and paste the photos onto the blank canvas. Carefully align each photo with the one beside it for a perfect fit. Some photo editing software has a tool for aligning the photos; doing it manually can result in a more accurate match. Finally, trim the canvas to its final size.