How do I make panoramic photos with a conventional DSLR?

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December 17, 2015 at 10:30 am  •  Posted in Q&A, Tips & Techniques by  •  2 Comments

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?
—Donny V.

It's not difficult to make panorama images—like this scene from an Arizona desert landscape—by taking three or more individual photos and merging them into one with stitching software. That feature may already be included in software you own; if not, you can find stand-alone options including some that are free of charge. © 2012 Peter K. Burian

It’s not difficult to make panorama images—like this scene from an Arizona desert landscape—by taking three or more individual photos and merging them into one with stitching software. That feature may already be included in software you own; if not, you can find stand-alone options including some that are free of charge. © 2012 Peter K. Burian

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.

Adobe panorama merge.jpg: All of the current Adobe image editors offer some version of the panorama merge utility with varying degrees of versatility. Naturally, other brands of panorama stitching software are also available, including some that are free. Photo courtesy of Adobe Systems.

Adobe panorama merge.jpg: All of the current Adobe image editors offer some version of the panorama merge utility with varying degrees of versatility. Naturally, other brands of panorama stitching software are also available, including some that are free. Photo courtesy of Adobe Systems.

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.

2 Comments

  1. Sarah Kavsek / January 2, 2016 at 2:40 pm / Reply

    I was very interested in reading this article primarily because I am using an old Sony point & shoot (Cybershot DSC-T50), along with a program that came with my old printer (HP Image Zone), to make panorama shots. I find that using a tripod is the best way to ensure the photos line up so they are as big as they can be when you stitch them together. For a photo I did of a pier yesterday, I didn’t use a tripod because I was standing on a platform which didn’t have a solid floor, so I held my breath and took five overlapping pictures. When I got home I went on Image Zone, where it automatically aligned them and stitched them together. If I had used a tripod I might have gotten a larger picture, but maybe not because of the curve in the pier.
    I’m really an amateur so I experiment a lot. With this photo I was lucky because it turned out on the first try.
    Sarah Kavsek

  2. Richard T / January 2, 2016 at 4:23 pm / Reply

    For Windows users, Microsoft provides ICE (Image Composite Editor) for free. I use it with RAW and JPG images and it is capable of quickly assembling the most complex multi-image pictures I have taken, like 3 x 3 up to 9 x 9.

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