There are times in photography where even the widest-angle lens in your kit just won’t cut it to get a wide landscape or amazing sunset. Not only does an ultra-wide angle lens introduce a large amount of distortion, but it also makes it difficult to get a great amount of detail during post processing. On top of that, if you wanted to get a panoramic crop you would tend to lose about 50-60% of your starting image. There are many ways you can go about shooting panoramic images, but the easiest way is to use your camera on a tripod and then rotate the camera after each frame. Ok, maybe it’s not the easiest way, but that is the way that will make the most sense for those just starting out. For those of you with Apple iPhones you most likely already know how to use the feature on your phone. Don’t get me wrong, the iPhone panorama feature is cool (and yes, I use mine for it from time to time for fun), but if you want to get an enormous amount of detail in the final image for printing you’re better off using an SLR-type of camera.
I will be completely honest with you…I cheat when shooting panos. There were many times in the past when I used the rotate and shoot method and I just didn’t get what I wanted in the end. The reason I didn’t is because of stitching errors from what is known as the no-parallax point. Without getting overly technical, the no-parallax point is a specific distance (in millimeters) from the optical center of a lens to the plane of the camera’s sensor. So that this makes more sense, hold your index finger straight up in the air with your arm extended straight out from your nose. Then close one eye, and switch back and forth closing each eye. You will notice that your finger will appear to shift, but all you’re really seeing is parallax. The same process happens in photography, except between the lens and the sensor. It is much more noticeable when you have an object or objects in the foreground of your photos, and it is much harder to correct for. Many photographers use a piece of equipment known as a nodal slide, which will allow you to manually find the no-parallax point relatively easily. I have used them many times in the past and I’m not a huge fan, but they do work. So how do I cheat at taking panos? I use what is called a Gigapan Epic Pro-V. In a nutshell, it is a robotic panoramic tripod head that communicates with my cameras to automatically calculate and fire the shots I need to stitch together the final image. Just about 95% of the time with the Gigapan, I don’t need to adjust for the no-parallax point, but there are rare times I do. It’s a relatively heavy setup, but it makes shooting panos easier than anything else I’ve ever used. During setup, the GIgapan asks you where you want the top left of the pano and the bottom right, and then it automatically calculates how many images it will need to fire. Once you press go it does its job. Below are a couple of photos of it in action.
Ease of use isn’t the only reason I use the Gigapan to shoot panoramas. The main reason is because I can get far more detail in the overall image. So you can understand the amount of detail you can get with the Gigapan, here is a panorama I shot of the Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park, Utah last weekend, along with a 100% crop of the same image. If you've never had the opportunity to visit Arches I would highly recommend it. It is an incredible sight to behold, and probably the closest thing you would ever get to being on the surface of Mars.
Fiery Furnace – Arches National Park, UT
Fiery Furnace – 100% Crop (Just slightly left of center from original image)
For most of the images in this series, I used a Nikon 85mm f/1.8G lens at f/10. Each pano was anywhere from 70-210 images, depending on the width. Each one of the following images are 3ft x 10ft at 300dpi, which is huge, but keep in mind that most of the panos I shoot have a source file that has a length of anywhere from 24-36 feet in length. The longest panoramic I’ve shot with a Gigapan had a source file of over 300 feet long (not kidding). I always keep the original source file, but scale down a copy since it’s not feasible to print something that large in most cases.
Landscape Arch – Arches National Park, UT
Park Avenue – Arches National Park, UT
Skyline Arch – Arches National Park, UT
Turret Arch – Arches National Park, UT
And there you have it! Keep in mind that I do this stuff for a living. The Gigapan is a luxury niche item, and isn’t something that many full-time photographers use. If you want to put a little time and effort into getting good results just use your camera on a tripod. Always shoot wider and taller than you need for the desired result, and leave about a 10 degree overlap on each photo. Always shoot panos in fully manual mode (if your camera allows), to prevent color shifting across the final pano. Then invest a few bucks into some panoramic stitching software, such as Photoshop or PTGui. Even better, you can save your money and get Hugin panoramic stitching software for FREE. Shooting panoramas can be frustrating, but the end result is amazing with enough practice.
Be sure to keep checking back to my Arches National Park gallery over the next several days, as I will be uploading lots more photos from my latest trip. If you enjoyed this week’s post or have any questions, feel free to leave comments below.