Shooting stitched panoramas

Last week I talked about shooting cropped panoramas – this week I’ll cover shooting stitched panoramas. Stitching is the process of shooting several photos and using software to stitch them into one panorama (vertical or horizontal). I’ll assume you know all the basics of shooting stitched panos, this post will focus on my experiences of shooting them.

Visualizing the end product in a cropped panorama can be a bit tricky but at least you still have the shot in your viewfinder – with a stitched pano you really have to exercise your imagination! I’ll focus on shooting the stitched panorama in the field – not the stitching. Get the shot right and stitching is not too hard.

Let’s kick off with an example, a wide view that is only possibly using stitching (unless you own a 6x17cm panorama camera!). This is a very wide view of Brisbane (click to see large):

Click to see large size on my gallery!

This shot is made up of 5 horizontal images stitched together using the brilliant PTgui software. The final product of this pano is 5600 pixels wide (enough for a good 150cm wide print) and looks fantastic.

To illustrate the components, here’s a screenshot from PTgui’s “align panorama” window allowing you to clearly see the 5 images:


As you can see I cropped a lot of the panorama after stitching it and this is how you should normally do it – always leave a wide margin for cropping later, already in the stitching process you loose quite a bit of the top and bottom when the images are warped and stitched together. In this case I actually have a bit too much margin but never mind. I also decided to crop a lot of the right side after seeing the stitch. Notice how much overlap of the images I have, this is important.

Shooting the stitched pano in the field

The above shot is almost 100% automatically stitched by PTgui. I think I may have manually deleted one or two control points and of course I aligned the horizon manually. Apart from that PTgui did all the magic with a flawless result because I took great care in shooting this in the field. So how did I do it? I use these rules:

  • Visualize. This is the most important part (just ask Ansell Adams). You cannot see the end product here, you have to visualize it.
  • Use RAW. You really really have to shoot raw for stitched panos. You need the images to be 100% identical and only raw allows this. If you must shoot jpeg (why?) then it is really important to set manual white balance.
  • Everything on manual control! Shutter speed, aperture, iso and focus absolutely must be on manual control so they don’t change between shots. Oh and don’t zoom in or out between shots!
  • Find the correct exposure, like in the example above part of your panorama will like include much brighter sky than other parts. So get the exposure right, you don’t want to burn out the highlights in half the pano!
  • I practice the sweep several times before shooting the images. I sweep from left to right but it doesn’t matter really. Practice the sweep or you’ll start shooting and discover that your body can’t actually rotate 180 degrees around your spinal cord!
  • Don’t rotate around my body. I start off with spread legs, right foot in front and lean forward (like I’m the karate kid). I then concentrate on rotating around the lens nodal point when doing the shoot. I use my legs to rotate, keeping my upper body still. At least you have to focus on rotating around the camera, keeping the camera in one spot and. This is very important, fail this and you’ll introduce some heavy parallax errors in the stitching.
  • If using a tripod for this you should use a panorama head or you’ll almost make it worse by using a tripod (since you’re rotating around the tripod screw in the camera, not the nodal point).
  • It’s a good idea to zoom in to at least 35mm so you don’t introduce too much barrel distortion from your lens. Don’t zoom in too tight. You need plenty of  margin for stitching and cropping.
  • Overlap! Create overlaps by at least 30% but 50% is better.
  • You need to keep the horizon in the same place in every shot. If shooting a horizontal panorama then I just stick the horizon in the middle. It’s easier to keep it in the middle from shot to shot and I’m cropping it later anyway.
  • If I’m shooting stitched panoramas in the Australian outback – the hardest part of all is actually ignoring the flies crawling into my nose, eyes and ears!

Practice this again and again and you’ll get so good at shooting the separate images that the next bit – stitching the images is very easy and almost automated! That’s why I’ll only briefly cover it here in the next paragraphs, I find that the shooting part is by far the most important.

Developing the raw files

One rule here: the adjustments you make to the raw images must be 100% identical! That means you can easily do you normal RAW development, set the white balance, exposure, fill light, black and white point, saturation, curves etc. But do this on one of the photos and then copy these adjustments to all of the shots! They must be 100% identical or they won’t stitch properly.

Stitching and software

I use PTgui and I find it amazing, it is an incredible piece of work and easily worth the money. There are several other commercial super stitch programs as well but you can easily learn by using some of the free stitch programs. A free stitch program is probably included in your camera software, or try the free demo of AutoStitch.

More examples

Have a look at my two panorama galleries, the main panorama gallery and the Australia panorama gallery for many more examples of both cropped and stitched panos. Feel free to comment or email me with any questions!

It’s a panoramic world for me

I love panoramas and always have and I’m really satisfied with how digital photography has enabled me to shoot my panoramic visions without owning a panorama camera. I think my eyes have a built in 3:1 aspect ratio because that is how I see the world: 

Click to see large size on my gallery!

Head up in the clouds and a big wide view!

A final word of warning: shooting panoramas is very addictive 😀 You may find the standard 3:2 format useless after shooting a lot of panoramas and having been bitten by the pano bug (and flies, mozzies etc. in the outback!)

2 Comments on “Shooting stitched panoramas”

  1. Hello,
    I am a panoramic photographer too (but not only panorama). I own a 5D, a Technorama 617 and a NOBLEX 150 UX. But mostly I do photography digital now (with PS CS3). What I want to ask you is: how do you come to exact 3:1 in digital photography (without using your inner eye)? I think this is important for doing series for printing.

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