Panoramic view of Mystic Harbor of the Mystic River in Mystic, CT USA
Since we exhibited the panoramic image of Mystic Harbor we received many letters asking how we made it. Panoramas are nothing new to photography. They have been around for a long time. When I started out in photography I thought it took an extreme wide angle lens to capture such a wide view but I soon found out that was not the case. Simply, it is done by panning the camera horizontally and taking several shots in progression. As a matter-of-fact, one can even do a vertical panorama but they are not as common as horizontal.
In The Beginning
Film was the popular medium when I started my journey in photography. The method of making panoramic scenes was to keep one’s camera as straight/level as possible while turning (panning) the camera on an axis and snapping pictures, maintaining a slight overlap between frames. A tripod helps but it can be hand-held as well. Snap-Pan-Snap-Pan-Snap… I’m sure you get the idea. I soon learned that the amount of overlap between frames was important as was matching the exposure from shot to shot as I panned my camera.
Once the group of images from the scene was captured, the film would be sent out to a Lab to be processed and prints made. After the prints came back they would be carefully selected, laid-out on a table-top and assemble like a jigsaw puzzle. I would trim the assembled images from frame to frame with a razor knife and then trim to square-up the finished grouping all around. The mechanically crafted scene would be re-photographed on a copy stand for reproduction. Sometimes it was pretty ugly and every once in a while it worked and I came up with a nice image but that took a lot of trial-and-error to achieve.
There were other options available like mechanical wonders called panoramic cameras. Panoramic cameras have either a wind-up or a battery powered motor that rotates the focal point of its lens 180 degrees against the film plane in a single shot. These devices revolutionized the world of panoramic photography. No more cutting and sticking photographs together. Dedicated panoramic cameras captured great images of scenes and did it with ease but they were expensive to own and the resultant image could only be printed by a small, specialty group of labs.
Fast-forward to the digital era. The basic field capture remains the same but the post processing has changed considerably. Today, you would think that all the photographer needs to do is to pan her selected scene using the same Snap-Pan-Snap-Pan-Snap method described above and drop the image files into a “stitching” program or app, then, with an Abracadabra and a puff of smoke an instant panorama appears right before your eyes! Well, that’s how people who sell you these apps and programs would like you to think but it takes a bit more effort than that.
Let’s Do This!
If you can hand-hold your camera while keeping a level horizon, by all means do so. If you are just beginning or if your scene is particularly critical you may want to use a tripod. Take some time and set it up with a small bubble level. You’ll want to keep the scene straight and level or things might get flaky later in your post processing.
As you are panning your scene keep in mind that you want to overlap by about 25% from shot-to-shot for a horizontal panorama and about 50% for a vertical panorama. Just pick a “landmark” in your viewfinder and do your best to overlap. This will help whatever program you select to create your panorama do a better job of generating your final image.
Rehearse your panoramic capture. Do a dry run first and pan the camera from point-to point as you will be shooting so you can set the proper exposures. Don’t be lulled into the comfort of automatic exposure. Meter your scene carefully from “snap-to-snap” and shoot in Manual Mode. Shooting in Auto may cause a noticeable difference in exposure as you pan across light and dark areas in the scene.
Some of this can be corrected in post processing but you can save yourself some work if you take a little time to set your exposure correctly in the first place. I like to call this the ICE method of image creation with I.C.E meaning In Camera Editing. This is a throw-back from my film days but a good rule of thumb to follow any time.
You’ll want your scene to remain in focus after the software you use assembles your final image. There is nothing worse than one shot in the panorama having a more shallow depth-of-field than the others. Strive to keep your aperture between f8 and f11 for each exposure. I would also consider using Manual Focus.
5. How Many Captures?
The image of Mystic Harbor was done with eight captures. It spanned about 200 degrees. Use as many as necessary but a good rule of thumb would be about six to eight. Experimentation is the way to go and learning is fun, so try different approaches.
Now you are ready to make magic. Once you have your completed digital image files, open them in your favorite image editing software or app and follow its instructions. There are several options out there and suggesting one would be beyond the scope of this tutorial. Do an internet search for Photographic Panorama or Stitching software and you’ll be awarded with several from free to expensive. Use what is right for you.
I would enjoy hearing from you about your panoramic adventures. I’m also happy to answer any of your questions. Just use the Cider Mill Studio contact form at http://www.cidermillstudio.com/contact.html and drop us a line. -33-
A full PDF copy of this tutorial is available for free download on the Cider Mill Studio website in our Resources section on the Tips and Tricks page