Panorama images have something intriguing. They give you a different view of the world around you – a view that does not resemble the way you see a scene with your own eyes or the way a single photograph depicts a scene. But creating a proper panorama is not easy. To avoid visible artifacts in the final image, you need some special equipment, and you need to set it up and use it purposefully.
In this article, I am going to show you the right gear, the procedures for setting it up correctly, and the techniques for shooting a high-quality panorama image.
The anatomy of a panorama
A panorama image is composed of multiple individual photographs that are stitched together using a dedicated piece of software. For example, you can use the Photomerge function in Photoshop to do this, but there are also free solutions like the Open Source software Hugin.
But we will leave the entire post-production (including the stitching) to another article. Here, we will concentrate on what you have to do to create proper source photos for your panorama.
As you see in the figure above, you essentially scan the scene from left to right with your camera, and you take individual photos (we call them sections here). These sections need to overlap for the stitching software to be able to merge them into one without problems. To maximize the vertical field of view, the source photos for a panorama should be taken in portrait orientation (short-side-up).
What you need to create a panorama
In order to produce a series of source photos like this, you need a couple of things:
- A tripod: While it is possible to create panoramas hand-held, you will run into many problems when you do so. Especially if you are just starting out, mounting your camera to a stable tripod is essential.
- A panorama adapter: This is a special device that ensures that the necessary rotation of your camera is not going to produce so-called parallax errors. I have covered how to create a DIY panorama adapter in another article, but you can also buy these off the shelf.
- A proper setup for your panorama adapter: The panorama adapter (also called nodal point adapter) is not going to work perfectly out of the box. You will need to set it up properly for your specific camera/lens combination.
- The right rotation angle: To ensure that your source images overlap sufficiently, you should rotate your camera by a fixed angle between adjacent sections. Finding this angle and using it for the rotations will ensure that you can capture the series of photographs quickly. This, in turn, can eliminate problems that are caused by motion in the scene (e.g. moving clouds) as it reduces the overall time the shoot takes.
In the rest of this article, I will give you detailed procedures for setting up your nodal point adapter and for finding the right rotation angle. Afterwards, you’ll be ready to create panorama images with a consistently high quality and with minimal problems at the post-production stage. Finally, I will lay out the important steps of actually shooting a panorama image.
Finding the nodal point
In another article, I have explained how you can build a solid and yet simple panorama adapter. Irrespective of whether you use this device or some off-the-shelf adapter, you need to find the nodal point of your lens before you head out to shoot your first panorama. I will explain this process based on my minimal adapter, but it is essentially the same for any kind of panorama adapter.
Finding the nodal point for a specific lens involves some testing and incremental adjustments of the panorama adapter. You need to adjust the camera position on the adapter both in longitudinal direction (parallel to the optical axis) and in lateral direction (perpendicular to the optical axis). For doing this with this simple adapter, use the two quick release clamps as shown in Figure 1.
In Figure 2, you see a typical example of a parallax error: Two vertical poles are positioned at different distances from the camera. Two photos are taken and the camera is rotated by about 30° between the exposures, just as in a real panorama shoot. In Figure 2 (3 and 4), you see the two photos taken with a panorama adapter that is not adjusted well. In the magnification (1 and 2), you see that this results in a parallax error: The two poles are shifted relative to each other to an extent where they even switch positions. These photos cannot be properly stitched since the stitching software essentially tries to align the images such that the overlapping areas match. This is not possible as they are fundamentally different.
In contrast to this, the photos in Figure 2 (5 and 6) are taken with a properly adjusted adapter. The magnified view (7 and 8) shows absolutely no shift between the two poles. Thus, the overlap regions are identical except for the distortion created by the lens. The stitching software will automatically remove the distortion and stitch the two photos without any problem as depicted in Figure 2 (9).
To find the nodal point of your lens, you can use a similar setup as the one shown in Figure 3. Place the camera on your adapter such that its optical axis (the imaginary line that connects the center of your lens and the center of the sensor) is centered on the adapter. Through a series of test shots, a verification of the results and incremental adjustments of the longitudinal position of the camera on the panorama adapter, you can now adjust the adapter such that it produces minimal or no shift between the different sections of your panorama.
The nodal point is different for different lenses and for different focal lengths of the same lens. For panorama shooting, the focal length should be as short as possible. Thus, you should pick your widest lens, set it to the minimum focal length and find the nodal point for that setting as follows:
- Set up the test by placing two vertical poles in front of your camera – one pole about 1 meter away from the camera and the other one about 3 meters away (Figure 3 – 1 and 2).
- Set up your camera with the panorama adapter on your tripod and put your lens into its shortest focal length (Figure 3 – 3). This is the focal length at which you will shoot your panoramas and that we will adjust the adapter to. Use an aperture that puts both poles in focus in your photos (f/8 – f/11).
- Rotate your panorama adapter such that both poles are at the right edge of the frame and take the first test shot (Figure 2 – 3).
- Rotate the panorama adapter such that both poles are now at the left edge of the frame and take the second test shot (Figure 2 – 4).
- Compare both shots on the camera display and verify if there is any relative shift between the poles from one photo to the next. Zoom in on the poles if necessary (Figure 2 – 1 and 2).
- If there is a shift, move the camera on the panorama adapter along the longitudinal axis, and repeat the two test shots.
- Do this until the shift is completely eliminated (Figure 2 – 7 and 8).
- To verify that this is really the case, you should take the final test shots to your computer and try to stitch them together. Inspect the resulting image closely to see if there are any visible stitching errors (e.g. discontinuous lines) in the overlap area.
- If the photos stitch fine, make a mark on the long rail to be able to quickly re-establish the setting at any time.
Finding the Right Rotation Angle
When you have found the nodal point, you still need to find the right rotation angle for your camera/lens combination. The rotation angle determines how large the overlap of two sections will be. Between two sections, you need to rotate the camera such that the images overlap by about 30%. For a focal length of 15 mm, a rotation of 30° to 40° will work best.
The procedure is as follows:
- Set up the tripod with the camera mounted on the panorama adapter and point your camera at the scene.
- Look at the scale on the panorama plate and write down where the marker stands. Let us call this number A (Figure 4 – 1).
- Look through the viewfinder and concentrate on a point at the right edge of the frame with your eyes (Figure 5 – 1).
- Rotate the camera to the right to the next section until that very point is about a third away from the left frame edge (Figure 5 – 2).
- Look at the scale on the panorama plate again and write down where the marker is. We will refer to this number as B (Figure 4 – 2).
The difference between those two positions (B–A) is the maximum angle you should use in a rotation between two sections. Round that to the next lower multiple of ten to make it easier. E.g. if the difference is 34°, you should use 30° in your rotations.
This completes the setup of the panorama adapter. It is now properly adjusted for your lens, and you know the best rotation angle.
Once you have set up your gear as explained above, you are ready to go out and shoot some panoramas. Here’s what you should do when you are on location and when you have identified a good subject.
Set up your tripod
Make sure all the legs are fully extended and the clamps/screws are tight. Also ensure that all the legs are spread out as far as possible and have a stable stand. These things seem elementary and not worth mentioning, but if you are careless, your setup will be unstable. If you adjust your camera first, you will need to redo all this work once you notice and fix the instability. So, get the tripod setup right at the very start. For the same reason, you should only really setup your tripod once you have found the right position. Mount the nodal point adapter and your camera on the tripod.
Level your camera with the ground
Use your spirit level (mounted to the hot shoe of your camera) to level your camera. It is important to have a spirit level directly attached to your camera. Chances are your tripod and your panorama adapter also have built-in spirit levels. You should use those to make sure that your tripod is level with the ground too, but this will not replace the spirit level on your camera.
Do a dry run
Before you finish the setup, it is time to do a dry run by panning your camera through all the sections and checking the composition. This can be done most conveniently by using the Live View function of your camera, if it has one. Live View displays the image on your camera’s screen and you do not need to look through the viewfinder. You may need to move your tripod slightly to finalize the composition.
Focus your lens
Point your camera at some point in the scene that is at a medium distance between you and the farthest object. Since you are shooting from a tripod, you will probably have an aperture of f/8 or smaller. If you have a wide-angle lens, you can essentially focus anywhere and the whole scene will be in focus. After you have focused your camera, set it to manual focus mode to keep the focus constant throughout the entire shoot.
The mirror lock-up function of your camera lets the mirror flip up a second before the shutter is actually opened. This reduces vibrations and may help you get sharper images. In particular, if you do not have the most stable support for your camera, you may want to activate mirror lock-up.
Cable release or self-timer
When you shoot from a tripod, you should better not touch the camera to release the shutter. If you do press the shutter button by hand, you will move the camera during the exposure. To avoid this, you can do two things: Use a cable release or use the self-timer function of your camera.
Set the correct exposure
In order to keep the exposure consistent between the different sections of your panorama, you should switch the manual mode (‘M’) and set the right exposure. This exposure setting (shutter speed, aperture and ISO) should stay fixed for all the sections of your panorama. So make sure you expose everything in the scene, from the far left (first section) all the way to the far right (last section), correctly. This is where a dry run is very useful as it helps you assess what the correct exposure for the entirety of all sections is.
Shooting the source photos
Your camera is now ready to take the photos. You should try to proceed through the sections as quickly and fluently as possible.
- Rotate your camera to the left and point it at the first section of your panorama: Since some of the image pixels on the edges will be lost during the stitching and post-production process, you should rotate the camera further to the left than you would actually need. The same is true for the far right end of the image: you should take one additional section to have room for cropping.
- Wait for the right moment: Check the environment before you start to shoot the series of sections. If there are people around, wait for them to pass through the scene and make sure that no one will run through in the middle of the shoot. You can try to anticipate what the people around you will be doing. You can also ask them not to move into the scene. Usually, people will respond friendly and do what you ask them for. You should also wait until the lighting conditions are stable and similar to when you measured the exposure. If the sun hides behind a cloud right in the middle of your shoot, the differences between the sections can be extreme, making them unusable for the final image.
- Action! When the conditions are right, start photographing the first section. When the section is done, rotate the camera to the next section and shoot, and so on. Do this until your camera points at the last section of your panorama (remember to add an additional one). It is important that you take the photos quickly and in a controlled manner. Do not rush it, but do not let time pass unnecessarily either.
That’s it. Now, you should have all the photos that you need to create your panorama later on the computer. To make sure that everything went smoothly, you should check each section photo carefully on the back of your camera while the camera is still set up. Make sure the exposure is correct, no people are moving through the scene, everything is in focus, and the overlap between the sections is sufficient.
It is easy to overlook problems that may ruin your panorama later. So take your time to check the photos thoroughly. If you find a problem, correct it and take another series of photos. Having multiple series of photos available later in the post-production phase can be very helpful since you can pick the one that works best.
Creating a panorama can be a rewarding process. The end results can be stunning as they present a unique view of a scene that unfolds before you. However, it takes the right equipment and the right technique to really produce source images that will live up to this expectation. In this article, I have shown you which equipment you need and how to set it up and prepare it. Then we went through the process of using the equipment to shoot the sections of a panorama.