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Panoramic Photography

What is a photographic panorama?

Basically, it's the process of creating an image which exceeds a field of view beyond normal boundaries of standard photography.

Panoramic photography can be further broken down into sub-categories.

Single shot cropped images forming rectangular images typically with aspect ratios of 2:1 or wider. This is the easiest way to create a panorama and requires the least amount of work.

Multi-shot panoramas, typically 2-4 images whereby side by side images are taken and later stitched together to form a single composite. Stitching software is required to glue these images together. Once the composite is formed into a single image, the sum resolution of the individual images results in a much higher resolution final photograph. So, a 10MP point and shoot camera is capable of producing a 50MP+ images, depending on the amount of images comprising the shot.

Multi-shot, multi-row mosaics, consisting of many images, where is single landscape shot can be broken down to encompass several images. There really is no limit to the amount of images a person can take in a single scene. Many mosaics consist of as little as 6 or 12 images to as much as 100 or more. The much larger mosaic images result in gigapixel images that exceed 1GB in size. These super high resolution images can be used for wall prints and also displayed on the web with the use of special software like Zoomify. A viewer could pull up a cityscape mosaic on the web and zoom in on any portion of the gigapixel image to extremely fine detail. You could, in effect, see the license plate of a vehicle several blocks away. Google "gigapixel images" to learn more.

Immersive photography, also known as Quick Time (QT) or Virtual Reality (VR) photography. It is possible to take several combined images and form a single image for display on the internet whereby the viewer can interact with the image. The viewer typically has the ability, depending on the immersive image, to rotate 360 degrees around with cylindrical panorama and even up and down 90 degrees (360x180) for full spherical panoramas. These type of panoramas virtually place the viewer "inside" a scene creating a full immersive experience. Most of these type panoramas allow you to zoom in and out as well and are also accompanied by music or sounds. These fully immersive images have broad applications, the most popular of which may be Real Estate. QTVR panoramas also have many commercial applications such as travel and tourism. Because of the broad applications and given the growing popularity for the hobbyist, it's easy to understand why this is the fastest growing segment in the area of photography today.

What is needed to create a successful panoramic image?

Basically, only 4 elements are needed: camera, lens, pano head, and software. Combining these 4 elements will help to create a workable workflow.

Camera. While there is a small hand full of panoramic cameras on the market that offer one shot solutions, most are very expensive and not within financial reach. Inexpensive one shot solutions leaves you with very poor quality images and are really not an acceptable path for most. You can create panoramas using ANY camera. Most of us already have a camera – if you do, you've passed the first requirement towards taking successful panoramas. The most popular cameras are Digital SLR's (DSLR's). These cameras allow for interchangeable lens and even the smallest and least expensive DSLR's are capable of producing stunning full screen panoramas.

Lens. If you have a point and shoot camera or other camera with built in lens, this will generally work just fine, depending on the type of panoramas you are wanting to take. Most point and shoot cameras begin at the 28mm focal length. At these focal lengths, these cameras are great for multi-shot side by side panoramas and even multi-shot, multi-row super high resolution composite mosaics. DSLR’s benefit with the added versatility of interchangeable lenses. The wider focal length lenses, the wider the field of view and less shots required to capture an entire scene. Popular lens for creating QTVR panoramas using DSLR's are the 8mm Sigma, 10.5mm Nikon, 10-17mm Tokina lenses. It is possible to create a full 360x180 degree spherical panorama with as little as 3-4 shots, using these super wide angle fisheye lenses. Of course, most people with DSLR's aren't ready to pluck down this kind of cash on a dedicated lens, they shouldn't be disappointed because the 18-55mm kit lens will work just fine - it'll only require a few more shots. Longer focal lengths are ideal for creating the gigapixel mosaics like with cityscapes and extreme high resolution landscapes. Other popular lenses for point some shoot cameras (Nikon P5100 or P6000) are the IPIX converter lens - cheap and very effective.

Pano head. This is where we come in. If you are creating panoramas consisting of anything more than 2 images, you will need a panoramic tripod head also known as a pano head. There is a fundamental negative byproduct created when shooting images adjacent to each other with a camera on a standard tripod – it's called parallax. Parallax is the movement of foreground objects to the background. This is easily demonstrated by holding your thumb out at arms' length. As if the tripod was your neck and your eyeball the camera lens, close one eye, and while focused on your thumb rotate your head back and forth. You will see your thumb magically move back and forth while the background stays relatively stationary – this is parallax. Parallax is the number one enemy in panoramic photography. Eliminating parallax is "essential" for the "seamless" stitching of images, so as give the illusion the final image was created by in a single shot. Stitching together images with any parallax at all will result in poor stitch lines, banding and blurred portions of the image. 
This is when a pano head comes to the rescue. A pano head is designed in such a manner so as to position a camera/lens so that it rotates about the no parallax point (NPP) axis of a lens. In the head and eyeball analogy above, if you are able to somehow position your head so your eyeball was centered over your neck, you would not see your thumb move when your head moved left to right. This is what pano head does. Without getting into technical jargon, basically the NPP of a lens is the point inside the lens where the light is reversed before moving onto the camera sensor. Commonly called the nodal point, but technically called the entrance pupil – they are all the same – this is the no parallax point (NPP) of a lens. You must rotate the entire camera and lens around this NPP axis to achieve a parallax free image. It is the primary purpose of a pano head. There are many different types of pano heads on the market – big and small, cheap and expensive, from plastic to robotic. It is wise to compare features of each head to the type of panoramas you are wanting to take, not to mention picking one within your budget. Explore the forums – the most popular unbiased forum surrounding panoramic photography is www.PanoGuide.com with guides, tips and tricks for beginners to professionals. It's a wealth of information from other users, most of which are ready and willing to offer their unbiased thoughts. And ask others about the support a company has to offer - product is one thing but support is everything. We're not worried about asking you to shop around and actually encourage you to do so. Many folks find themselves returning after learning of not only the excellent value our products bring, but the support we offer as well.

Software. Now, that you have the needed equipment to take the shots, you need the software to stitch them together. Many point and shoot cameras offer generic stitching software with the camera. There is free stitching software available, such as Hugin and many software vendors offering dedicated stitching software, the most popular of which is PTGui. And while there are many software choices, another favorite is Easypano. Photoshop (CS4 and earlier) have built in "generic" stitching plug-ins which is ok for but really not recommended because of the limited tools you have in the actual stitching process. Using dedicated stitching software, gives the users a wider variety of tools to work with, and most vendors offer free trail software as well.


Now, that you have everything you need to take and put together panoramas, it is time to create a workflow or method of doing things. From taking the images - to stitching the images - to publishing the images, are varied and dependent on the goals you seek to achieve as an end result. Some basic rules should be adhered to however that are unique to panoramic photography. These basic rules are:

Locking your exposures – every exposure in the sequence of images taken when producing a panorama needs to have the same shutter speed, aperture setting, ISO and white balance. It’s suggested to meter your initial shot in the brightest part of the environment you are shooting. Ideally, an aperture of F/8 or smaller will assure a great depth of field, so everything stays in focus.

Manual focus. You don't want your focus to wonder in and out between shots. At f/8 find a focus point in the middle of scene to assure the broadest range of focus. Outdoors, a smaller aperture like f/16 is even better and preferred to limit the amount of sun flare.

No flash. Using an on camera flash, will create uneven lighting as you rotate the camera taking images. Use a slower speed with higher ISO to achieve correctly exposed images. If you must use a flash, use it off camera, placed in a static location. Make sure it fires at the same flash level with each image.

No polarizing filters. Using polarizing filters creates a change in contrast depending on the location of the sun. The filtered effect changes as you rotate the camera which will result in severe light banding in a stitched panorama.

Go HDR. If you want to create a "wow factor" to your panoramas, step it up a notch and bracket your shots (i.e. +1EV, 0EV -1EV). High Dynamic Range photography is widely used to cover all exposure variables in a scene. It can also be incorporated in panoramic photography as well. Many of the software packages out there today allow for automatic stitching and merging of HDR or bracketed shots such as PTGui.

When undertaking or expanding a new or existing hobby, there is always a learning curve. Starting off easy to get the feel of things is always the path we advise our customers. Once you test the waters and can produce entry level panoramas, the whole world of panoramic photography will begin to open up. It's merely a matter of perfecting and building on what you know. And because this is photography you can apply creativity and composition making it all your own. This might all sound confusing at first, but once setup and running, panoramic photography isn't really that difficult. It is a highly addictive extension to photography as a whole. Explore the panoramas in this app - it wouldn't take much to get yours online as well.

Turn heads with your photography!

By Bill Bailey

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