How to Take Great Panorama Photos

September 28, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | 29 Comments |
How to Take Great Panorama Photos Image

Commercial photographer Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld explains the secrets of taking great panoramic photographs.

If you're like many photographers, you may feel that panoramic photography is somewhere on par with completing your 1040EZ tax form every year.

As someone who has made every mistake possible while trying to understand the art and science of making panoramas, I'm here to tell you that it isn't rocket science.

By the time you finish reading this article, you're going to be grabbing your camera bag and rushing out the door to try it for yourself.

Successfully, I might add...

The first step in the whole process of course, is selecting a suitable landscape to photograph. And as we have all heard: you should always choose one of the “golden hours” of the day, meaning an hour before, during or after sunrise or sunset. I personally favor twilight, whether morning or evening. Twenty minutes to half an hour after sunset (or before dawn), the sky and clouds have an incredible glow that can range from deep pastel colors all the way to the most intriguing blues and violets.

How to Take Great Panorama Photos

Illustration: Nubble Light, York, Maine: a 20 image panorama.

The second step is to set up your dSLR on a good, solid tripod. I can't say enough about the merits of a sturdy tripod, but I'll leave it at this advice:  if you spent less than $100, there's a good chance your tripod may be flimsy enough to introduce some vibration or camera shake that could ruin your images.

And while it's also nice to have a ballhead, a good 360 degree rotating head that can support your camera in vertical orientation will usually do the trick. I use a very old Bogen 3011 tripod and a Manfrotto 3025 panoramic attachment for my panoramas, but I have made do without the panoramic head for years successfully, and sometimes still don't use it at all. Other people use more technical equipment, like the Panosaurus or the Nodal Ninja, both of which allow one to be very precise. A panoramic head or ball head simply make the whole process easier.

The third step is to put your camera in vertical (portrait) orientation, making absolutely certain that your tripod and camera are completely level. To help with this, I use an Adorama Double Bubble Level, which looks a lot like a very small carpenter's level, and attaches in the hot shoe of your camera. It helps so you don't get stitching errors or a bowed, wavy-looking banner of a panorama.

Now it's time to take some pictures. First of all, I shoot solely in RAW format. RAW allows you the ability to really get the most out of each file, whereas even high-quality jpegs have discarded much of the workable information that is left in a RAW file.

I prefer to shoot wide, using the Pentax DA 12-24mm ultra wide or the Pentax DA 18-55mm ALII lenses at f/13 or f/16 using ISO 100 or 200, but f/8 or above will suffice. (I know photographers who use such lenses as the Pentax DA 10-17mm fisheye, or the Sigma 10-20mm.)

Just like any other time, start by focusing one-third of the way into the landscape or architectural piece you want to photograph. You'll need to lock your focus at this point, or your focal point will change each time you depress the shutter button, which will leave you with out of focus and underwhelming final results. The best way to accomplish this is to simply switch out of auto focus mode and into manual focus mode once you have focused your lens where you want.

Entry Tags

photos, images, landscape, how to, panorama, technique, pictures, tripod, How to Take Great Panorama Photos, interior, panoramic, panos, pano

Your Comments

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#1 Michael Baldwin

All i shoot is panoramics. I own a panasonic FZ50 so i cant use a wide angle so i stitch everything.I also include HDR so a 20 image panoramic turns out to use 60 images with the different exposures. If anyone is interested my work can be found http://wreck-photography.deviantart.com/

Great article. Thanks

11:54 am - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#2 Nikhil Ramkarran

Sensational tutorial Cynthia. I haven’t done any panoramas for my photo a day project, and I am now tempted to remedy that. In fact, I just thought of a subject. Thanks.

1:13 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#3 Alice

Thank you! I now have an idea for my university project!

2:32 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#4 John Cantrell

In my experience, using a wide-angle lens just lowers the apparent resolution of the final panorama…  The point of taking panoramas for many people is not just the wide-format view, but also ca “virtual” photograph with resolution many times higher than the camera’s.  For instance, a minimum “35 mm camera equivalent” focal length for a sharp pano using a 10Mp digital camera (just an example) is 35mm-40mm.

Instead, zoom moderately into your scene (45mm is a good place to start) and snap many overlapping pics of it, then just trust the component images to one of the many excellent free stitcher softwares (MS ICE is free and pretty good).  You’ll be much happier with the final results (sharper, clearer, more detail) than if you use fewer images taken at an extreme wide angle setting.

Another important point is that the closer the subject is to you, the less successful the stitch will be (I think this is probably why the poster recommends wide-angle, which has greater and more forgiving depth of field).  Some comments about pivoting the camera around the lens’s nodal point would have been appropriate (for instance: how to estimate the nodal point, how to hold the camera when pivoting).  Putting your camera on a tripod will likely not pivot the camera properly for objects close to the camera.  Most of the time you just don’t need a tripod, or even the special adapters available for panoramas.  Modern panorama software (such as MS ICE) automatically fixes rotation/parallax issues, lens distortion, and exposure inconsistencies (but not focus, unfortunately).  It’s amazing.

Finally, the suggestion to use RAW is silly IMO.  Raw processing adds considerably to the process of getting to the final image and acts as a barrier to spontaneous creativity by delaying the final result. Most people don’t need it.  Modern camera jpg engines are quite adequate for the majority of photographers.  On the other hand, if you have a fetish about sitting at the computer all day fiddling with software just to get an adequate image out of the RAW files (when the jpg the camera produced is perfectly adequate…) well, then, have at it.

So: it usually isn’t necessary to use a tripod, don’t waste your time with wide-angle + RAW to recover a modicum of additional sharpness. Instead: handhold your camera, zoom-in a little bit on your subject (but don’t use telephoto unless your subject is very far away), pivot the camera NOT your body, and save to jpg instead. 

You will take more panoramas and be happier with both the process and the results.

(My 2 cents worth).

2:33 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#5 Thomas

The Wiki of the Panotools Community is at http://wiki.panotools.org/

3:36 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#6 Charlie Self

Neat article Cindy. As usually, someone is eager to post another method, taking you to task for not doing it his way.

Most techniques in photography can be adapted and changed to suit the photographer, the camera, the location and the customer. I generally shoot raw+ for most everything, so I can work either way without a hitch.

Sometime in the next few weeks I hope to get out and try your method. I may also try John Cantrell’s method…maybe at the same time—though I very much doubt I’ll work without a tripod.

I’m not interested in adding another program to my repertoire, so I’ll first check out how the programs I already have work with panoramas.

Thanks for the article!

4:01 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#7 John Cantrell

Not really a method… just some easier-to-use-and-less-expensive guidelines.  The only method one should always observe is to make sure you overlap the images properly.  Nothing worse than coming home with missing a component.

I placed a link in my URL to some of my panos on Picasa.  They were composed from handheld jpgs made with an 8MP Sony T100 pocket camera, stitched with AutoStitch (freeware), and are representative of what’s achievable w/o use of a tripod, raw, dslr, etc.  The images are greatly reduced (1600 pix) for Picasa… some of the originals are over 100Mp and of course much sharper than the Picasa versions!

4:34 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#8 Ethan Parker

I learned several tricks from the handheld panos I’ve been taking for several years now:
1)Software; I’ve tried several products and I’ve settled on Microsoft’s Image Composite Editor (“ICE”) over Hugin or Photoshop because it produces great results, is very capable of dealing with handheld photos and making the best of what you give it, is incredibly easy to use, and free.
2) Take lots of photos with at least 30% overlap.
3) For camera settings, never use the flash and force your camera to use the same white balance setting for all shots. For all the blending capabilities of ICE adjacent photos need to have the same tone/hue. It’s ok to leave other settings like focus and exposure on auto.
4) For each shot rotate your camera around an imaginary point located at the approximate center of where you think your image sensor is located. This means that you need to rotate your body around the camera instead of simply standing in one spot and rotating your body. The significance of this depends on how close your subject is. If your foreground it close it makes a big big difference. If you’re shooting a landscape with very little foreground then it matters much less.

If you care to, you can see a couple results of my efforts at http://photosynth.net/userprofilepage.aspx?user=ePrime&content=Synths

6:41 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#9 Peter Smith

Thanks Cindy for your clear instructions. I have observed many of your panoramic photos with awe and can’t wait to try it out myself.
Peter (labnut)

6:59 pm - Tuesday, September 28, 2010

#10 Kingsley

Thanks for that comprehensive post Cindy - you should be commended.
Learnt some things and that is all that is important!
Sad others like to take the opportunity to stand on their soap-boxes!!
Appreciate your efforts…

4:08 pm - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

#11 John Cantrell

Sorry some of you think that was soap-boxing.  I meant no disrespect.  But my attitude is that the pros and advanced amateurs already know the stuff conveyed in that post and that the pano newbies who read it could well be discouraged by it, perceiving (incorrectly) that the costs, logistics, and learning curve barriers to good panoramas are high, the effort intimidating.  If you have a camera, you’re “in”... go forth and make panoramas!

4:26 pm - Wednesday, September 29, 2010

#12 ScottyV

Panorama is something i haven’t ventured into yet, thanks for the tips. Breaking out the tripod this weekend!

4:41 am - Sunday, October 31, 2010

#13 Brian

You say to shoot in raw, but in your Photoshop example you are loading in JPG’s? Can you load in raw files to edit afterwards as a whole, and are they kept in raw format after the pano is made? If not, how do you pp them evenly as separate photo’s first?

7:19 pm - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#14 Charlie Self

I don’t understand why this came to me for comment, but the answer is quite simple: you shoot in raw because it contains all the available information in a format that itself does not change. You do the work you wish to do on the file, then save as a JPEG, TIFF or other end result file.

Most photo editors have the ability to handle raw files of most types.

8:13 pm - Tuesday, April 5, 2011

#15 Claudiu B

Thank you very much ! would love to find out the blur effect on the side of the photo ...

8:18 pm - Tuesday, May 17, 2011

#16 Miekl Mauze

this is the best howto I have read on panos, well done and thanks

8:51 am - Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#17 elvinson

wonderful post, i have sony hx9v camera, i am finding very hard to take 360 panorama, but after reading this i got some idea, i will upload some in
http://www.shortstoriesshort.com.Thanks

5:55 pm - Wednesday, February 15, 2012

#18 Cam

Thanks Cynthia. Great post and examples of wonderful panoramics. In fact great comments and examples from all.

Question though… Isn’t a panoramic all about aspect ratio? So really you could make a panoramic from a single “standard” photo and crop it… the difference is the size of the print yeah??

These are great tips/methods for creating large panoramic prints where stitching multiple photos enables a much larger print at 300dpi for the lounge room wall :)

1. So is there a standard aspect ratio you should use for a panoramic?

2. Would like to know more about Johns comment “camera around the lens’s nodal point”. I guess I’ll go google that :)

P.S. You missed an important step: Stand back from the camera and enjoy the wonderful view :)

11:32 pm - Monday, June 11, 2012

#19 Amol

Love this post! Very helpful for a newbie like me especially for panoramic photography! Thank you,Cynthia!

11:32 am - Friday, September 21, 2012

#20 Ron

I love taking panorama’s and often stack them horizontally and vertically to create a larger file which looks much more impressive when printed large on canvas. However I have struggled when trying to save a file larger than 4GB. Does anyone know what is restricting the file size ? Could it be photoshop ? Or TIFF has a max file size ?

9:55 am - Friday, December 28, 2012

#21 Petri Kuusela

Thank you Cynhtia for your post. I do lots of panoramas with DSLR, pocket camera (EX2F) and sometimes with mobile phone (Samsung Nexus). Best camera is the one with you! Panoramas can be taken also without tripod but there should be no items close to the camera. You can find some of my panoramas at http://tulirautaphotography.com/

7:27 pm - Saturday, March 2, 2013

#22 Keith Martin

@Ron, yes, TIFFs are limited to a maximum of 4GB. There is a BigTIFF format that’s been in development for a while to get around that limit, but that’s not very widely supported. You could try saving in PSB format if you use Photoshop.

@John Cantrell, I applaud your desire to get people diving into this kind of photograhy without scaring them with requirements. That’s a very good aim. It is, though, worth expanding on some things – including points others have made…

RAW rather than JPEG is unquestionably going to give someone better image processing control although yes, it does mean additional work. A JPEG workflow is perfectly do-able, but it won’t allow the latitude of post-production correction to exposure, white balance and everything else that’s inherent in working with RAW images.
I find that the RAW processing part of my workflow helps me in the image selection process as well as optimising, and as everything in a panorama ‘set’ needs to be treated with the same settings the batch processing doesn’t actually take that long.

The nodal point (or more correctly the ‘no parallax point’, or NPP) of the lens is the point around which the rotation should happen. Not the image sensor. No standard tripod does this; they all rotate around the camera’s tripod socket. (In the case of massive telephotos it’ll be around the len’s mount, but that’s positioned purely for physical balance.)
If this NPP rotation is not done then there WILL be parallax in overlapping images, unless everything in your scene is exactly the same distance away. If nothing’s particularly near then it may be negligible, but it is bad practise for pano shooting all the same.

What is the NPP of a lens? Well, put *very* simply, it’s the point at which the light rays converge and cross within the lens optics. It probably isn’t exactly in the physical middle of whatever lens you want to use, but that’s a fair point to begin with.

Specialist panoramic heads will help you rotate properly, although with most you will need to do some test work and adjustment to get them set up perfectly for your camera and lens combo. Having stressed the importance of specialist (expensive) hardware, I agree that it’s quite possible to shoot these things hand-held: just remember that you need to turn around the optical center of the LENS. It can help to dangle a length of string from the lens, weighted with a key or trapped by something on the ground, as that’ll give you a point of reference when you turn between shots. (This is called a Philopod, BTW.)

The reason for using very wide-angle lenses or fisheye lenses for panorama shooting is to minimise the number of shots required. You’re spot-on in pointing out that this reduces the final resolution (total pixel width and height) of the composite image, so for landscape panoramic work it’s worth using relatively standard lenses; 30-50mm equivalent. But if you want to capture a scene where there’s any significant movement then go for as wide angle a lens as you can find.
I regularly shoot 360-degree ‘spherical’ panoramas in festivals, raves, clubs and demonstrations - about as crazy-dynamic as it gets. I use a very high-res full-frame camera and a ‘shaved’ fisheye lens, and I need just three shots around plus one downwards to remove the tripod or monopod (or me, if hand-held). The results are a little over 10,000 pixels wide and 5,000 pixels high, and if I see any sign of stitching flaws of any kind I regard it as a failure.

If anyone is serious about trying to make good end results from image stitching then EVERY setting on the camera should be set to manual. I know that many image stitchers will try to compensate for exposure differences, but you’re never going to get the best, most believable composite results if you rely on that. White balance, focus, aperture, shutter speed, ISO: set it all to manual.

But if this can’t be done, go for it anyway. Use your phone camera if necessary, and use a stitching app for on-the-spot convenience as well as trying it on a regular computer with more powerful software. Get used to what works and what doesn’t. But always go for 25-30% overlap, and beware leaving a shot out – it’s very annoying when that happens! :-)

I have more information and a large number of interactive immersive panoramic photos at http://panoramaphotographer.com/ – I hope you enjoy ‘em!

9:04 pm - Thursday, April 11, 2013

#23 Joseph Alsko

I have heard that the camera has to rotate around the aperature (entrance pupil) to avoid parallex error.  Does anyone have experience with this?
Thanks.

2:43 am - Sunday, April 14, 2013

#24 Keith Martin

@Joseph, it is correct that the camera should be rotated around the entrance pupil of the lens. Because of how physics and optics work this is NOT actually the same as the position of the physical aperture of the lens! There’s more info here: http://wiki.panotools.org/No-parallax_point

4:23 pm - Sunday, April 21, 2013

#25 Erin

Taking it father than shooting, what are the most important points to consider when deciding to print and display a panorama? If I wanted to do a fairly large print, how would I go about that?

6:25 pm - Monday, June 10, 2013

#26 Keith Martin

For large display, the composite image would need to be good enough resolution to suit the size of print you want to create. If you use the photo exhibition resolution rule of thumb of around 240 pixels per inch (ppi), a five-foot-wide print would need to be around 14400 pixels wide. (2880 pixels per foot…)*

If you shoot with a 50mm lens and a full-frame sensor you get around 40x27 degrees of view. Assuming you’re shooting in portrait mode and you go for around 30% overlap, you get just under 20 degrees of coverage, side to side, per shot.
For a 90-degree panoramic view (moderately wide, nothing extreme) you’ll need five shots. On an 18MP camera this gives around 20,000 pixels… and that will go up to about 7ft wide, no problem.

If you shoot with a 28mm wide angle lens and a full-frame sensor the viewing angle is around 65x46 degrees. You’d only need two shots to cover 90 degrees including overlap, but the pixel size of the final stitched panorama wouldn’t be nearly as large – less than 7000 pixels, which wouldn’t even get to 2.5ft wide at 240ppi. But the stitching production is definitely simpler!

A bit technical, but I hope it’s moderately clear.

*(The rule of thumb for magazine print resolution is 300ppi, but that’s because you normally hold mags closer than you stand to exhibition images.)

10:20 pm - Monday, June 10, 2013

#27 elancekumar

Very informative and helpful post for panorama photography.
Great efforts to make it easier for people
who loves panorama photography.

Thanks.

5:34 pm - Monday, October 21, 2013

#28 Trish

How do I get an 11 shot pana to a better size, mine is so fricking long it would cover a bus. I the vertical the way? But then I would need about 20 shots as I am doing a harbour?

10:09 am - Monday, February 17, 2014

#29 Business Photography

Thanks for all the tips. I will have to try these out.

7:49 pm - Tuesday, April 22, 2014