great blue heron taking flight at sunrise with orange water marshall point lighthouse sunset bald eagle in flight photo colorado fall aspens photo bald eagle in flight photo
First Light Photography Workshops
Home Workshops Photo Galleries Books / eBooks Online Articles Bio Sponsors


When we look at the world around us, we see things more or less in a panoramic perspective. Our peripheral vision is pretty much 180 degrees. Our photographs, on the other hand, capture just a small portion of what we actually see in front of us. Many times we want to zoom in tight to capture just a small portion of the whole, but there might be a time when getting everying in front of you captures the true essence of the scene.

Maybe you've hiked out to Delicate Arch for a sunset shot but when you've looked at the image when you get home it wasn't quite what it seemed like when you were there. Maybe you've had a beautiful fall color scene in front of you with mountains spreading across from left to right and lots of beautiful color in the foreground. To capture it fully, the best way to do this is by taking a panorama of the whole scene.

delicat pano photo
Delicate Arch taken with 5 images and processed with Panorama Factory.

In days gone by, special cameras would be needed. Or, lots of time in the darkroom to be able to create the desired image. With digital, though, it's a lot easier to create a panorama of whatever scene you want and quite easily at that.

The first step is the taking of the photograph, or to be precise, taking a series of photographs. To do this it's best to use a larger lens, something in the range of 70mm to 200mm and shoot a series of vertical images. By shooting vertical and using more images, you get greater detail in each of the shots as opposed to just two or three horizontals. This helps when printing the combined file as there is more data to work with.

There must be a bit of overlap between each shot. I usually try to have a minimum of a 20% overlap and sometimes go up to 33% of the scene being in adjoining images. You don't have to be exact with each shot because the software you use will be able to match the overlaps. What's needed to try and get as close to exact as possible is the horizon line. This is where the level on the tripod head comes in handy. Some newer cameras have a built-in level that can be seen through the viewfinder. To create the overlap, find a major feature about 3/4 of the way from the edge that can be easilty found when composing the next section.

Take at least five images to create the panorama. The more used the larger the image as well as the file size. I've found that 5 or 6 seem to work best for getting everything in the shot that's close in front but have used as many as 12 images across.

Do not use filters, especially a polarizer as they will cause differences in the tonality of the sky, which will be quite evident in the final image. Most other filters can cause spectral highlights or articafacts that will need to be worked with in post processing. If using a zoom lens for the series of shots, keep it at the same focal length throughout, otherwise there won't be a good match. Keep the same exposure settings for each image. Do a test of the different values in the shot and set a good compromise manually. After taking readings of each composed section, adjust the exposure to the area that is most important to the final image. To do this use Aperture Priority metering mode to get the original readings and make a mental note of what the shutter speed was at the f/stop chosen. Next, switch to Manual mode and set the desired f/stop and shutter speed that will be used for all images in the sequence.

Some images are easier to expose for than others. If there is a good bit of contrast or colors, such as the image below of fall color and snow, work to get it right the first time. Pick an area of the image that has everything in it - colorful trees, blue sky, white snow - and find the exposure that works best for this section and use it for all of the images in the sequence. A second or third series with bracketing can also be taken but more than likely the best one will be the original one. Slight temperature and saturation adjustments can be made once the images is put together.

snow goose landing bosque del apache

snow goose landing bosque del apache
12 image panorama - exposure set for gold trees in foreground

Due to the contrast of the shadows and snow in the image below, make sure the snow is exposed properly and let the shadows fall where they may. The best section to use would be one with a fair amount of shadows as well as snow with the sun hitting it. A good tip for snow is to make sure the histogram has some pixels just into the far right section but not all the way to the right side. This will render the whites as white while maintaing detail.

sonoran desert arizona saguaro cactus photo

Use a tripod. Make sure to get it balanced so that as the head is turned from one side to the other it remains level. Do not move the tripod once it's set in position. Just rotate the head to create the series.

It's a good idea to designate what images are included in the sequence for easy identification later on so I put my hand in front of the camera and take a shot of this before the first image and after the last one. It doesn't hurt to do a couple of sequences with varying exposures if you're not sure about which will produce the best result.

Once the images have been taken, the stitching process can be done. Panorama Factory is a great program dedicated to putting these shots together automatically. Photoshop has also improved its stitching algorithm quite a bit over the years. If planning to do a lot of panorama shots, the reasonably prices Panorama Factory would be the way to go as a software that is dedicated to one task is going to be better than one where it's an add-on filter. Both make the process very easy but in tests I have done Panorama Factory does a better job.