I am seeing more and more panoramic photos that show a long, wide area of a scene. I know that some cameras include an automatic Panorama mode, but mine does not. What is the best way to create one using my normal DSLR?
You’re right, Donny, some interchangeable-lens cameras, including all current Sony models, include a Panorama mode that can automatically stitch a series of images that you shot while panning the camera. Even with this feature, however, the best results are produced when you use the optimal shooting techniques discussed below. If your camera is not equipped with Panorama mode, simply shoot several individual frames and later use software to merge and blend them together onto one long image. Frankly, this method gives you more control over the results than in-camera stitching so it’s the best method, in my experience.
Let’s start with a brief overview of the shooting technique. (For more advice, watch the Composite Panorama Setup and Shooting video by Tim Grey.) For high-quality results, it’s essential to use a tripod, preferably with a ball head since that allows for convenient panning of the camera. Buy an inexpensive bubble level that sits in the hot shoe and use it to ensure that the camera is perfectly level before you begin shooting. For the least distortion in the photos, plan to use a 50 mm (or longer) focal length.
Determine the best exposure for the scene while the camera is in Aperture Priority mode. Remember the aperture/shutter speed and set those after switching to Manual mode. Also set a specific White Balance option, such as Sunny, instead of AWB. (These steps will ensure consistent exposure and colour balance.) If the software you plan to use is optimized for working with Raw photos (such as Lightroom 6), use that capture format. After taking the first photo, pan the camera to the right or to the left, and frame the shot so it will overlap the previous photo by about 25%. (This is essential for the best results regardless of the software you’ll be using.) Shoot a series of at least three images using this process.
Now let’s consider suitable software for panorama stitching and seamless blending of the individual images. You can find many specialized programs on the market from the free Autostitch (fine for getting started) to the highly rated and very sophisticated PTGui ($125), with its numerous tools for perfecting the panorama photo. However, if you already own Photoshop CC, Adobe Lightroom 6 or CC, or Adobe Elements 13, you can use the Photomerge > Panorama utility. They differ in terms of the available tools for correcting distortion and perspective. I recommend the following video tutorials for getting started: How to Make an Adobe Photoshop Elements 13 Photomerge Panorama and Panorama Merge Within Lightroom CC. The tools in Photoshop CC are similar to those in Lightroom CC.
While the videos demonstrate the use of the correction utilities, all of the programs discussed will provide surprisingly good technical results using the auto-correct option. Of course this assumes that you used the optimal shooting technique. If not, then you will definitely need to learn how to fix distortion, skewed perspective, inconsistent exposure and crooked horizons, for example. If you take the time to get it right in-camera, the panorama stitching/blending can take as little as 60 seconds to produce pro-calibre results.