How to Take Great Panorama Photos

September 28, 2010 | Mark Goldstein | Photography Techniques | Comment |

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.

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