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20 September 2013

Checklist for Panorama Photography

A lot of texts on the Internet about creating panoramas seem to focus on the stitching part of creating a panorama -- which is of course a good thing. Tips and tricks for stitching software help a lot to get a great result. However, the more care and attention is put into shooting the photographs, the less headache you'll have in the later steps.

The fact that I'm not a very experienced photographer always makes me wonder whether I remembered to set everything on the camera correctly before I start shooting. And often I forgot something and end up using way too much time on post-processing. Or even with an unusable result. So here I bring my own short checklist for shooting better panoramic photographs.

  1. No-Parallax Point
  2. Minimise Camera Shake
  3. Set Camera to RAW
  4. Shoot F-Priority
  5. No Flash
  6. Pick Your White Balance Setting
  7. Zoom All Out
  8. Manual Focus
  9. Shoot!


Panorama by Matthias Kabel, from Wikimedia Commons

1. No-Parallax Point

The absolute top-of-the-list must-have entry. If you don't get this right, it's going to be a pain stitching your panorama later. Especially if you have a scene that includes both near and far objects. If you've read just a slight bit about panorama photography, this is probably what you've read about. In short, it's about rotating your camera around a certain point, called the no-parallax point, which is placed typically within your lens, or else you're very likely to get parallax errors in your panorama, and they can be very hard to edit out afterwards. There are plenty of articles around the 'net explaining this in detail.

The thing you need in order to avoid parallax errors is a so-called pano-head, which goes between your tripod and your camera. There are those who prefer to do hand-held panorama shooting, but in my experience, such a pano-head will ease things dramatically. It can be an expensively bought one, or it can be a simple, cheap, home-made panohead -- doesn't matter too much.

2. Minimise Camera Shake

A tripod will minimise camera shake. It would be a shame if just one of the shots end up blurry and shaken, thereby ruining the whole panorama. And of course, you'd need a tripod for the panohead mentioned above.

Besides the tripod, you should do something to avoid camera shake caused by pressing down the camera's release button. The simplest solution is to use your camera's ability to shoot with a one- or two-second delay, although a bit cumbersome for panoramas that consist of more than a handful of shots. A more elegant solution is to use a remote control. These come in various shapes and sizes (and prices!), wired or wireless, branded or bamboo. I found a very inexpensive combined intervalometer/remote for my camera on ebay, sent directly from China to Europe at app. €11 including shipping. I figured, at that price it wouldn't matter too much if it didn't last very long, or didn't even arrive. It did arrive, though, and still functions without any problems, and it's very simple to use.

3. Set Camera to Raw

A good thing to do when you shoot photographs that are to be stitched later (and probably in general, too), is to shoot raw rather than JPEG. Your camera's raw format supports a wider range of steps from dark to light, called the dynamic range, than JPEG does. This is especially beneficial if your stitching software uses exposure correction. With JPEGs you are more likely to get smeared-out light or dark areas. If your stitching software doesn't take RAW files directly, you can convert them into e.g. 16 bits TIFF files which also support a broader range than JPEGs.

If you haven't been shooting RAW before, it does introduce quite a few new things to learn. You'd probably want to read something and play around with this quite a bit before attempting at panoramas from raw images. Another method for maximising the dynamic range is bracketed shooting.

4. Shoot F-Priority

Unless you settle for shooting full-manual, it might be a good idea to set your camera to F-priority (the "Av" setting on some cameras). For most panorama scenes you want everything to be in focus, both near and far objects, so use a relatively high f-number -- probably 11 or more. This gives a large depth of field.

5. No Flash

If you shoot indoor, don't use the built-in flash (in general, don't use the built-in flash indoor, unless you really have to), as it tends to create uneven lighting of the photo. This will be quite evident when several images are stitched together. Make sure the room is sufficiently lit.

6. Pick Your White Balance Setting

Whether you're doing an out- or indoor panorama, you should pick a white balance setting that fits the lighting in the scene; for instance tungsten or fluorescent light for indoor shooting. Often the auto-white-balance setting ("AWB") doesn't do a very good job, especially on indoor shots with no flash, and you'll get weirdly coloured photographs as a result. Do a few test shots to see if the selected white balance works for your location.

7. Zoom All Out

Unless you're going for a giga-pano, you might as well zoom all the way out, if you're using a zoom lens. Also, remember that when you change the focal length (i.e. use the zoom), you also change the position of the no-parallax point, so you need to adjust your pano-head (if you're using one of those).

By always shooting all-zoomed-out you get at least two advantages: Adjusting your pano-head is easy (on mine I just have one setting, namely 18 mm on my standard 18-55 mm zoom lens), and you need to shoot and stitch fewer photographs. The only disadvantage is lower resolution, but at e.g. 18 mm, chance is you get plenty of resolution for a panorama. If not, try your way out to find your preferred focal length trade-off and then stick to that.

8. Manual Focus

The last thing to remember before shooting is to set your camera/lens to manual focus in order to get as uniform photographs as possible. If you're not too experienced in manual focus (like me), a good tip is to use this procedure before shooting: set to auto-focus, point the camera to something in your scene, half-click the release button until auto-focus has done its thing, then switch back to manual focus. Do a couple of test shots, and check that both near and far objects are in focus (if only some are, you might want to increase your F-number, see above).

9. Shoot!

Now, you should be ready to shoot your panoramic photographs for later stitching in e.g. Hugin. I won't cover that part much here, only mention the importance of getting good (something like 1/3) overlap between the photos, both horizontally and vertically. Also, I always shoot the nadir shot (downwards) as the last shot so that I'm sure not to have moved the tripod. In fact, I always shoot a couple of nadir shots having moved myself in-between so that I won't get my feet or shadow in the final panorama.

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