How to create panoramas with a digital camera

What is Panorama Photography?

The traditional definition of Panorama photography is the process of capturing an image that is longer than a standard photograph. Most panoramas are longer on the horizontal side but they can be longer on vertical side as well. Panorama photographs can be created using digital or analog film cameras. Before the invention of the modern digital camera, special film cameras had to be used to capture panoramic images. Today, just about any digital camera can be used to create a pano.

Why Panorama Photography?

The most obvious reason to create a panorama is to capture a large sweeping landscape without having the need to crop the image down. Another reason to create a pano is to increase the resolution of the final image. Panoramas can be printed in extremely large formats without the loss of image detail. Lastly, panoramas allow the photographer to shoot wide scenes with long lenses which helps eliminate unwanted lens distortion and makes objects in the distance appear larger.

Considerations for shooting panorama photographs

Yosemite panorama with grid
Shoot with the camera in the vertical position for horizontal panoramas in order to give yourself more megapixels and padding.

Subject Distance: In most cases it is best if there are not any close objects to the lens. Close objects could throw off the stitching process in post production.

Remove Polarizer Filters: Polarizers work in relation to the sun. They are most effective at a 90 degree angle from the light source. Because of this, wide lenses and panoramas will often produce a deep blue dip in the sky when shot with a PL filter. These artifacts can be very difficult and darn near impossible to remove in post production. The only time that I use a PL filter during a pano is when there are so many clouds that the dip will not happen since the clouds are obscuring the blue in the sky.

Make Sure your tripod and or pano rig is level: If the pano rig is not level the image will staircase down and potentially ruin your shot.

unlevel tripod panorama example
Unleveled pano rig example

Watch out for empty space: When composing a panorama watch out for scenes that have large empty spaces such as cloudless skies and open water. Since there is little detail in these areas they could result in stitching errors in post. Never include a frame that is 100% sky or water.

Shoot with the camera in the opposite orientation of the desired panorama: If the panorama is going to be horizontal, shoot the scene with the camera in the vertical position. Likewise, if the panorama is going to to be vertical, you should shoot with the camera in the horizontal position.

Required Gear for Panorama Photography

Panorama rig before proper setup.
Really Right Stuff Pano Rig before it is centered.

While it is possible to shoot panoramas without any gear other than a camera and lens, there are a few items that will greatly improve your results and success.

Sturdy Tripod: A good tripod will help prevent vibrations from entering the lens while shooting. This is especially important when shooting with a telephoto lens. I use a Gitzo Systematic 3 series tripod in my every day and panoramic shooting. If your tripod has a center column it is important to leave it down. Center columns easily pick up vibrations and can transfer those vibrations to the camera.

Pano Rig: There are a variety of pano systems on the market with the most common two being Really Right Stuff and Nodal Ninja. When searching for a rig, the amount of options can be quite confusing. I highly recommend getting a muti-row rig that can support a telephoto lens with your camera attached. There are a variety of automated pano head on the market as well with GigaPan being the most popular. Like any gear, automated pano-heads have their pros and cons. The biggest benefit of an automated option is that it eliminates the room for human error once the rig is set up. The most obvious downsides is the size and setup time. Since the unit is rather large it will not be a good hiking option. It is also battery powered so that means another piece of gear that you have to make sure is charged before you head out into the field.

Cable release or intervalometer: A cable release is very useful when creating panoramas because it allows you to trigger the camera without touching the camera. This will reduce camera shake while speeding up your workflow. In order to make sure you get the right product, check your camera’s port before purchasing one. If you still do not know what type of trigger to purchase, you can do a google search with your camera’s brand and model with the word cable release or intervalometer afterwards.

Camera settings for panorama photography

As with all landscape photography, it is important to make sure that you are shooting in RAW in order to ensure that you capture the maximum amount of tonal data in the scene.

Manual Mode: Since you don’t want any of your settings to change between shots it is important to shoot in manual mode when composing a panorama. This way the shutter speed, aperture, and ISO settings will remain the same throughout the pano sequence.

Aperture: The aperture that you choose will depend on the distance from your subject and focal length. In general it is a good idea to choose an aperture that is going to give you a decent depth of field. Somewhere between f/11 and f/18 should yield good results. If there are no close subjects you can probably get away with an aperture around f/11 which will result in a slightly sharper image than a closed down aperture of f/18.

Panorama photography of mount Whitney

ISO: Like most landscape photography, the lower ISO you shoot the better. A low ISO will result in the least amount of noise and the highest dynamic range. There are times when you might want to crank up the ISO though. When shooting in the wind it is often a good idea to bump up the ISO in order to achieve a faster shutter speed which will reduce the chances of camera shake. It is also a good idea to bump up the ISO a bit when shooting on the edge of day when there is limited light. The light could change too much during the course of the pano if you are shooting too long of exposures.

Shutter Speed & exposure: The shutter speed that you choose for your pano is not super important as long as it is quick enough to allow you to complete the pano before the light changes too much. The best way to determine the proper exposure for your panorama photo is to point the camera at the brightest part of the scene and check the histogram. You'll want to push it as far to the right as possible without riding up the right hand side. This technique will expose the most amount of detail in the image. I like to turn on highlight alert in order to have a visual clue of how bright my exposure is. If I don’t see any flashing I know I can push my exposure brighter until I do. A small amount of flashing is usually ok since the histogram is referencing the JPEG image on the back of the camera’s LCD screen and the RAW file actually has more information than what is visible in the JPEG.

White Balance: Since you’ll be shooting your panoramas in RAW this setting is not too important. That being said, I prefer to choose a custom white balance for the entire panorama. The easiest option is to just choose sun, cloudy or shade depending on what kind of light is hitting your subject. If you leave your camera set to auto white balance your while balance might shift during the pan and cause you to have a little more work in post processing.

Understanding Parallax

Parallax is the difference, or displacement in an object's apparent position viewed along two different lines of sight. This effect is most noticeable with subject matter closer to the camera and becomes less significant at greater distances.

Panorama eye exercise

One way to see and understand the effects of parallax is to hold two fingers in front of your face at two different distances. While holding your fingers in a direct line with your face, look at your fingers while closing your left eye, then switch to the right eye and notice what happens to the finger closest to your face. This phenomenon is similar to what happens when you pan from your camera instead of the the lens.

Below is an example of what parallax can look like when shooting without a pano rig while using a wide or mid range lens. Notice the extreme distortion and how the image bows out at the edges.

panorama parallax example

panorama parallax example

Finding the No Parallax Point

No Parallax point

When shooting panoramas it is ideal to rotate around the camera’s lens, not the camera itself. More specifically, it is best to rotate around the lens’ “no parallax point” The no parallax point is the point in the lens barrel where parallax is minimized the most. In zoom lenses this point changes depending on the focal length of the lens.

Finding the no parallax point in each lens is the most challenging part of panorama photography. The good news is that if you take good notes, you’ll only have to find it for each lens or focal length one time. The exercise that I’m about to describe will explain how to find the no parallax point while using a multi-row pano rig. When you set up your pano rig, make note of all of the markings on the rig. It might be helpful to take photos on your phone as well.

NOTE: Each pano rig is designed differently and some of the parts move slightly differently from one brand to another and even from one model to another. The following text is a general guide so keep in mind that some of the steps that I describe might be slightly different on your rig.

Step 1: Put all of the pieces of your pano rig together

Some pano rigs can be mounted to a ball head while others need to be screwed on to the tripod or mounted to a dovetail plate before it can be mounted to a ballhead. I prefer a system that can be mounted to a ball head in order to speed up the leveling process while in the field. Additionally, a leveling base can be mounted to just about any tripod which replaces the need for a ball head when using a pano rig.

Step 2: Mount the camera or lens

If the lens you plan to shoot with has a foot plate mount, it is best practice to mount the lens to the pano rig instead of the camera. If your lens does not have a foot plate, simply mount the camera to the pano rig.

How to center your pano rig
Centering the Lens

Step 3: Center the Lens

Once the camera is mounted adjust the pano rig so the lens is pointing directly down at the center of the tripod. The idea is that you want to place the center of the lens over the center of the tripod. On many rigs you’ll be able to see a screw or even a target where the center of the tripod is. It can be helpful to put the camera in live-view and center the focus point so you have a visual reference as to where the center of the lens is. To move the camera loosen the lower rail so you can move the camera and lens over the center of the tripod. Once you find the center of the lens and position it over the center of the tripod, lock down the bottom rail and take note of the numbers where the vertical rail meets up the bottom.

Point the camera downward at the center of the tripod and use live-view to  center the lens over the pano head base.
Use Live View to help you center the lens over the tripod. Notice how screw in the center of the tripod is also in the center of the LCD screen and focus point.

Step 4: Finding the no parallax point

Panorama nodal point exercise

This is by far the hardest part of the pano process. If your camera is still pointing down at the center of the tripod, loosen the upper rail and point the camera so that it is roughly parallel with the ground. Move the top rail so the front of the lens is as close as possible to being parallel with the center point of the tripod.

Now the fun part! You’ll want to find two similar objects and place them about 20 - 30 feet apart. Light stands and microphone stands work great for this exercise but wine and water bottles on tables will do the trick too. Now place the camera about 10 - 15 feet away from the first object so that the far object is just barely visible since it will be mostly hidden behind the first. (if you are having trouble seeing the far object you can use some tape and or paper to make the far object a little larger.)

Move the camera forward until parallax has been minimized.
Start with the lens flush with the tripod and move it forward slightly until you find the no parallax point.

Once you have the camera in place, pan to the left so your objects are on the right hand side of the frame. Now digitally zoom in using live-view and slowly pan to the right while moving the zoom box to the right so your two objects stay in the frame. More than likely you will notice the front object moved in relation to the back object. That is because of parallax. If the two objects moved in relation to one another then you need to continue to hunt for the no parallax point. Move the camera forward and repeat the pan and zoom process again. Continue to do this until the two objects stay in relative position to one another.

no parallax point example

If you notice at any point that the front object begins to move in the opposite direction, you have passed the no parallax point and you’ll want to move the lens back slightly until the parallax is removed. Once you find the no parallax point make a note of where all three rails are. You'll also want to take note as to where the tripod or lens plate is attached to the pano rig itself. This way the camera and rig is always set up the exact same way

Now you are ready to take a panorama with the lens that you just set up. If you want to use a different lens you'll have to find the no parallax point for that lens as well since the point will be different for each lens.

If the lens is a zoom lens you will need to find the no parallax point for each focal length that you wish to shoot at. For example, on a 24-70 lens you might want to find the no parallax point at 24, 50 and 70mm.

NOTE: The no parallax point becomes harder to find once the lens length is longer than 100mm and it may be impossible to completely remove all of the parallax on longer lenses. When finding the no parallax point for long lenses, It may be helpful to increase the distance between the two objects as well as the distance between the first object and the camera. The good news is that telephoto lenses have minimal lens distortions and will produce good results even if the no parallax point is not perfect.

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Shooting a Panorama

Ok! You have your gear set up and you’re ready to go out in the field and shoot a panorama. Before you start firing away there are a couple of things to consider.

Decide what to include in your shot and leave room for padding

It’s very important to have a good idea of what you want to include in your shot and leave room for padding. In most cases your panorama will have to be cropped a little bit after the stitching process. Generally you will want to include at least an extra frame or two on the left and right edge of your panorama. You’ll also want to make sure you have plenty of padding on the top and bottom of your shot. There’s nothing worse than getting home and finding out that you don’t have enough sky or foreground to work with.

Check your overlap

Each frame that you shoot in your panorama will have to contain some overlap in order for the software to properly stitch the images together. A good rule of thumb is to overlap each frame by 30% to 40%. Too much or too little overlap can cause stitching errors in post.


Let the markings be your guide

Instead of trying to eye up the overlap from one frame to another let your gear be your guide. Most pano rigs have markings to help guide you through your pano. I suggest finding where you want your pano to start including the padding frames. Make note of where the pan head is. (use the marking on the rig, it can be helpful to start at zero.) Then pan into your scene to see how far you can move the panhead until you have roughly a 30% overlap. With a mid range lens you might be able to move the pan head 5 - 10 notches. With a telephoto lens you might only be able to pan one notch at a time. Once you know how far you need to move the camera between shots you can quickly move the camera simply by looking at the notches without even paying attention to what is in the frame. Lastly you’ll want to decide where you want to end the pano. Simply pan to the end point and make note of that number. Now you know your starting point, how far you need to move the camera and where to stop the pan. Working like this will save you a ton of time in the field and help you capture panos even in relatively fast changing conditions.

Try multiple passes

When shooting a pano there is a lot that can go wrong. Try shooting the pano multiple times in order to increase your odds of getting a good set of shots that will stitch together.

Single vs multi-row panos

Mid range lenses are perfect for single row panos. Telephoto lenses can provide a great opportunity for single or multi row panos depending on the scene and length of the lens. The longer the lens the more frames you will have to capture during your pano and the more likely you’ll have to do a multi row pano. If the framing seems a little tight on a single row, do a two or three row pano. The same 30% to 40% overlap rule that applies to the horizontal axis also applies to the vertical axis.

Stitching and processing a panorama

Stitching and Post Processing a panorama in Lightroom

Yosemite High Country pano

Once you have gone out and shot a few panoramas it is time to stitch them together. There are a variety of programs out there that will help bring your panoramas to life. Each one has its pros and cons.

Lightroom: For most cases Lightroom Classic does a really good job of stitching single row panoramas together. The biggest benefit of using Lightroom to stitch a panorama together is that it produces a DNG file that contains all of the RAW data of the original images. This means that you do not have to process the files before you stitch them since you’ll still have access to all of the RAW data.

As an added bonus, Lightroom can also stitch HDR bracketed shots into a DNG panorama which allows your stitched panorama to behave just like a single image HDR file after it is stitched.

The biggest drawback of using Lightroom to stitch panoramas is that it has a limit on file sizes. Lightroom limits image sizes to 65,535 on the longest edge. Additionally Lightroom limits images to 512 megapixels which equates to a 32,000 x 16,000 image file. If your panorama is larger than this you’ll have to resort to a different piece of panorama processing software.

How to stitch a panorama in Lightroom

Select the sequence of images that you want to include in your panorama. You can either select the images in the grid view or from the filmstrip on the bottom of the screen.

1. To make a selection click on the first image in the sequence, then hold shift and click on the last image in the sequence. This will select all of the images in between the two images and you will see that they are highlighted in light gray.

2. Control Click (Mac) or Right Click (PC) on any one of the images that you just selected and choose Photo Merge > Panorama...

3. Choose your desired projection method in the panorama dialog box: Lightroom gives users three different algorithms to stitch their panoramas together. These include Spherical, Cylindrical and Perspective. In most cases Spherical and Cylindrical usually do a pretty good job. Rather than trying to understand what each algorithm does, it is typically best to experiment with different options until you find the projection method that looks best for the current pano at hand. Sometimes the prospective option can work nicely for vertical panoramas.

How to create a panorama in lightroom

4. Boundary Warp: The Boundary warp slider is a great tool to use in the event that you did not give yourself enough padding on your panorama. This option fills in empty spaces in the pano by warping the image. The further to the right that you push the slider the heavier the warping effect will be. Pay attention to your horizon line and other lines that are supposed to be straight when using this feature since it will distort the image.

5. Fill Edges: The Fill Edges feature can be a useful tool when the boundary warp causes too much distortion but it is important to keep in mind that the tool is not perfect. Fill Edges works by applying content aware fill to any white or empty area around the edge of the panorama. While this feature can look good, it is important to zoom in and inspect the edges of the panorama afterwards to see if any strange artifacts appear. In some cases you may just have to crop in tighter, which is why it is always best practice to give yourself more padding than what you think you might need when shooting.

6. Auto Crop: Auto Crop will simply crop the panorama by removing any uneven edges. This setting can always be overridden in the Develop Module at a later time.

7. The next option is Auto Settings. Checking this box will tell Lightroom to auto process the panorama. I typically leave this box unchecked but some folks, especially new photographers might like to check this box to give them a bit of an idea of how the image could look processed. These settings are not permanent and can always be overridden after the panorama is stitched by moving the sliders in the Basic Panel.

8. The last option in the panorama dialog box is Stack Images. This feature will automatically place all of the images used to create the panorama and the panorama itself in a single image stack in the Lightroom library. This is a useful feature that will clean up your library and allow for faster image browsing.

9. Post process the panorama: Once your panorama is stitched together you can process it in Lightroom or Photoshop in the same way that you would process any other image. Keep in mind that the file size will be much larger so it will take much longer than normal for the software to processes each edit that you make.

How to stitch an HDR panorama in Lightroom

The process for creating an HDR panorama is the exact same as a regular panorama except in step 2. You click Photo Merge > HDR Panorama…


How to stitch a panorama in Photoshop

If you need to stitch a large panorama or run into stitching issues using Lightroom, try using Photoshop. Photoshop allows users to stitch panos up to 300,000 x 300,000 pixels. That’s 90 gigapixles!!! Much too big for most reasonable computers to handle. One advantage of using Photoshop is that you can attach an external hard drive with plenty of free space and use it as a scratch disk which allows the computer to work faster on very large files since it frees up a little bit of RAM usage. To use an external HD as a scratch disk, hook up your drive and then go to Photoshop Preferences > Scratch Disk. Click the checkbox next to the hard drive that you’d like to use as your scratch disk and you’re all set.

Unfortunately Photoshop does not support HDR panoramas and you cannot create an HDR image out of three separate panorama images. So the only way to create an HDR Panorama in Photoshop is to process the HDR files individually and then create a panorama from those files.

When working with Photoshop, the first thing you have to do is get your photos into the program.

Importing images from Lightroom: If you are a Lightroom user, the easiest way to get your photos into Photoshop is to select all of the images in your panorama sequence by clicking on the first one and shift clicking on the last. Then Control Click (Mac) or Right Click (PC) on any one of the images that you just selected and choose Edit in > Merge To Panorama In Photoshop. This will open the Photomerge dialog in Photoshop which I will cover below.

Importing images into Photoshop without Lightroom: If you do not use Lightroom or encounter an issue when importing from Lightroom you can use the following method to create a pano in PS.

1. Open Photoshop

2. Be sure to make sure that no photoshop documents are open then open all of your panorama sequence images into their own separate documents.

3. Click File > Automate > Photomerge and click the Add Open Files button.

How to create a panorama in photoshop

If you have followed the steps above you are now in the Photomerge dialog box. On the left hand side you will see a set of various stitching algorithms to choose from. The auto option is often a good starting point. If you do not like the results that the auto option produces, Cylindrical or Spherical are great alternatives. For vertical or finicky panos try the perspective stitching method.

There are a few options in the bottom of the Photomerge dialog that you should pay attention to. Keep in mind that every option that is checked will slow down the stitching process. I recommend leaving the Blend Images Together option on but turning the rest off because you can always remove vignettes and lens distortions in the raw files before sending them over to Photoshop. The Content Aware Fill Transparent Areas option can be nice if you did not give yourself enough padding and cannot afford to crop the image. This process can always be done after the panorama is merged though so I prefer to leave this option off because it will significantly slow down the stitching time.

Once your pano is stitched together you will see that all of the images have been merged together and are stacked on top of one another in the layers window. There is usually no reason to keep these separate layers so I recommend flattening your image at this point. To flatten your image go to Layer > Flatten Image.

Now you can process your panorama like you normally would in Photoshop or any other image editor.


PTGui: Dedicated Panorama Stitching Software

While Lightroom and Photoshop do a decent job at creating panoramas, there is another really great option on the market for photographers who consistently shoot panoramas. PTGui is perhaps the most powerful Panorama Software available. There might be times where Lightoom and Photoshop fail to stitch your image together and there's not much you can do about that using those programs. PTGui however, allows users to manually add control points to help stitch tough scenes together. I have had multiple panoramas prove to be unsuitable in Adobe software only to be saved by PTGui. The software has 16 projection methods compared to Lightroom's three and Photoshop's six. PtGui Has the ability to create HDR and 360 degree little planet panoramas. The Software can also create 180 and 360 degree interactive panoramas that can be viewed locally or embedded on a website. I recommend PTGui to any photographer who shoots panoramas on a regular basis.

Morning Peace

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