One of my new year's resolutions was to do panorama photography more often… Not really a measurable goal, but at the end of 2017, I only did five or six. That is about one every other month. I think I can at least double that to 12.
So to kick off this goal I began to dig into the literature on panoramic photography. It did not take long before I learned that panorama images used to be for the elite and the rich. Back in the early days of film photography, trying to stitch together 35mm slides was insanely difficult. So in order to actually create a full-on panorama you needed specialized lenses and cameras. This was the era where photographers like Peter Lik became so famous because he had one of these cameras and thus took these beautiful panoramic images that few could. Then mixed with stellar printing techniques, this propelled him to stardom that few landscape photographers have ever achieved.
Thank goodness for digital for leveling the playing field.
Yes, panorama photography does have an impact and can make a difference in your photographic career. I just have neglected it until now.
I guess I should start this section off by explaining what a panoramic image is. I assume that many of you actually know, but for those who are really really new at this, let me just say this: a panoramic image is an image that is composed of a wider aspect ratio than your standard single image. These images still play by all the rules of other images though. They need a foreground, midground, and a background. They should still have a subject and follow the same rules of composition that I explained in this article here: Understanding Composition in Photography: A Complete Guide.
When doing a panorama set your camera in portrait orientation. This is for a couple reasons. Most modern DSLR's aspect ratios are 2:3. That means your image will print to a nice 4×6 inch size. If you do a panorama in landscape orientation you will be stitching together a 2×3+2×3+… how many images you take. Since your vertical is only 2 inches tall and your horizontal is 3 inches wide, as you pan, your horizontal aspect ratio will increase quickly but your vertical will remain consistent. What this looks like is a ratio of 2×6 or a 2×9. When the ratio is that skewed, it has to be printed insanely huge to be seen properly.
Imagine an image that is 8×24 inches or 9×27 inches. It is barely worth viewing and it becomes really expensive to print.
I am not saying those ratios should never be done, but I kind of am as well. They have a special place in the world, but should only be used in those moments.
The proper way to do a panorama is to as said shoot in portrait orientation. This gives you an aspect ratio of 3×2. So if you add a couple of these together your image is now 3×4 and if you stitch three images together your aspect ratio is 3×6 or a 1:2 ratio. I will dive more into that in the next section. You get more wiggle room if your image is photographed in portrait orientation.
The thing that defines a panoramic image is the ratio. Like I said earlier the thing that makes an image a panorama is the fact that ratio of the image is wider (or taller) than the standard ratio given by your camera. Your camera produces images in a 2:3 ratio. That means if you multiply that out to produce an image that will be divisible by those and still remain true to what your camera captured. So if you printed your image to 16×24 it holds to that ratio of 2:3.
When you take a panoramic image it will have a ratio 1:2, 1:3 or even 1:4. So if you print your image 9×18 it will hold true to a 1:2 ratio.
So what is the proper ratio for your images?
Aesthetically speaking your images look best printed and set to a ratio of 1:2. That will ensure as they increase in size they will remain proportionate and will still look big. One of the problems with a further skewed ratio is that images always look super short but insanely wide. In order to see them at a decent size, they end of being huge. A 1:3 ratio could mean in order to see your image in its full glory it could be a 16×48 print. That is a $200 dollar print on metal and even more on acrylic. By the way, 16 inches is not very big. I know, I have printed dozens of images that size.
One other thing about panoramas though is that often a 1:2 ratio does not work for them. If you stitch together 12 images a 1:2 ratio will not work. In those situations, your ratio will be custom. I would try to crop it to some sort of standardization for your printers and your wallets sake.
The thing to note from this all is keep your ratio as best as you can to a 1:2 or something close to that.
This is the part of the article that I cared the most about.
What focal length should I use?
The answer is whatever works for your scene. But I will line up a bunch of examples below so you can see them side by side so you can see which focal length you like best.
20 mm provided the most distortion out of all of my images. I was close of course, but that was due to the fact that I had to get close because of the wide focal length. I didn't really like that effect.
Here I feel still provides a bit of distortion in the sky. The clouds kind of feel like they are being bent away to the right and the ground kind of has that effect too. Mind you at 30mm, the distortion is minimal enough I would be comfortable printing and photographing most of my images at this focal length.
At 50mm the distortion appears to be gone completely. At this focal length almost all panorama images look flat and the way you want them too.
I was reached out to by a fellow IP writer and he shared an image that he took with me at a location here in Utah. My version below is a 1:2 ratio, his is a 1:3 ratio. This will allow you to see the difference side by side. This also shows the difference in editing style and the same spot.
When using telephoto lenses, the perspective begins being compressed. This also happens in panorama images as you use the higher focal lengths. The mountains are compressed and the close-up peaks and the back peak look about the same distance from the camera.
One thing to note as you get to the longer focal lengths is that in order to get the entire scene within your image you usually end of taking a lot more images. This becomes an issue when stitching them together. The size of the images drastically increases and the great ratio of 1:2 becomes really hard to do.
All these images are a 1:2 ratio by the way.
The Parallax Problem
One thing that begins to show up as you read about panoramic photography is something called Parallax. Parallax is a simple concept that you have seen your entire life as you open and close your eyes. Parallax is the phenomenon of different perspectives of the same object due to different distances/angles viewed. An easy way to visualize this is to look at something close to you and alternate opening and closing your eyes one at a time. You will see how the item shifts just a little. That's the parallax effect. This gives you 3D vision.
So how does this come into play when you are doing panoramic photography? Often when taking an image you will be using a tripod with a ball head or some sort of panning feature. As the camera rotates it rotates around the center point that is not the front element of your lens. This causes the front element of the camera to actually move and change perspectives. Just like when you close your eyes one at a time you see a bit of movement, your camera experiences the same effect as it swings from left to right.
Most of the time this does not create much of an issue, but the closer something is to you, the more of an effect it will create. This is why photographing panoramas with close foregrounds can be very difficult as distortion will begin rapidly showing up due to parallax. This would also explain why the clouds in my wide angle pano's up top actually have distortion.
So how do you get around it?
Like everything in photography gear does not make you a better photographer, but it does make better images. In order to get around the parallax effect, many companies have come up with a wide variety of ways to get around it. It does not take long to realize that the way to get around parallax is not cheap and the king of it is Really Right Stuff. Almost all the websites out there that talk about pano heads for your tripod usually end with Really Right Stuff.
Your first option and simplest is getting a pano-gimbal head like the one below (Image courtesy of Really Right Stuff). These simple devices allow you to set your nodal point. This is the point where parallax is no longer affecting your image. From here you can get more advanced arms that allow for better control, more options and cost upwards of $1,200 dollars.
You can check out their line up of gear on their website.
Other brands have similar designs but they all essentially do the exact same things with minor changes in features.
If you want to go full electronic there are a few options out there for you as well. Scanning through B&H you quickly run into the brand GigaPan that creates an electronic gimbal head that is placed on your tripod. With these devices, you set beginning and end points and the device will automatically pan the image from left to right and up and down and take the images for you based on the model. These top of the line devices run well over $500 dollars but are really useful if you are taking massive panoramic images especially in changing light. Purchase one here if you feel like doing something crazy new.
Other options are buying separate panorama specific heads. The problem with these devices is that they still don't help you get around the parallax effect dilemma. Frankly, you can use your basic ball head to accomplish this.
Let me know what you think and add any information in the comments below that I missed. I know I did. Or if you are a panorama guru reach out to me. I would love to do an interview with you sometime about the cool things you do.