Shooting Panoramics

On July 23, 2012 by Simon Fleming

As well as shooting portraiture and weddings I also love to shoot landscapes. In recent years panoramics have become my ‘thing’, and I have spent a lot of time trying to perfect my technique. I often have people ask me how I shoot them, most assuming I just take one image with a really wide lens and then crop a narrow strip from it. Umm, no. A few reasons for not going that way is that I’d be throwing away a lot of resoloution – even if I was shooting with a very high MP body. The other is that it just doesn’t look that great. To capture both the horizontal and vertical coverage I am wanting I would need to be shooting with something like a fish-eye lens which will cover a lot of ground but not in the same way a true panoramic does. By shooting them the way I do I am trying get a similar perspective to what we see with our own eyes – approximately 160 degrees horizontal x 70 degrees vertical. In my early days of shooting panoramic images I found a lot of inspiration and helpful information through an American wildlife photographer’s website –  Moose Peterson – his blog is definitely worth following. Moose has been shooting for a long time and is a wealth of information.

One of my primary aims, other than to capture the image that is both in front of me as well as in my mind’s eye, is to be able able to print the final image LARGE. By Large I mean at least 100cm / 40 in long. And it has to hold up at that size too – I want it holding good detail even in small areas of interest within the image. My standard shooting recipe produces an image that happily prints to 40x18inch / 100x45cm – this is generally my starting size. I have printed a few to the maximum size I can on my 24 inch Epson printer which is 24×53 in / 61x135cm, and they still look good – retaining reasonable detail when viewed closely.

photo courtesy of Ros Panazzolo

 

I pretty much go ‘old school’ shooting my panoramics (for the shooting part at least) not necessarily because it’s the best or only way – it’s just the way I enjoy doing it. My ‘recipe’ involves always shooting five vertical frames with a 24mm lens (on a full frame Nikon body). This produces a final image once stitched that will give me a file that requires very minimal upsizing to get me to my minimum targeted print size.

I use a number of specific pieces of gear to get the result I’m after as well, starting with a good tripod. Yes you can stand very still and pan yourself around to make your shots – I’ve done this myself many times and got OK results ~ but not the results that I am aiming for. Next in line is an L-Bracket – essentially a bracket that fits to your camera body as an alternative to a quick release plate only on the camera’s base – a much better alternative if you shoot a lot of verticals on a tripod. Next in line is a piece of gear known as a nodal plate. This is essentially a long bar that sits between the camera and tripod head, and allows you to move the position of the camera body and lens forwards or backwards from the central point of rotation on the tripod so that the nodal point of the lens is above this point. This is to adjust for parallax error, mostly in the case of objects closer to the camera. To make the most of this, you need to work out what that particular position is for each lens you plan to use it with as it will be different for different lenses (and different focal lengths on a zoom lens too). Next up is a bubble level that sits in the camera’s hotshoe. This is the smallest and cheapest bit of gear in the whole process but it is really important – all my hard work can be rapidly undone if I don’t take the time to level everything up before I begin. On the topic of levelling, to shoot these properly firstly the tripod base – where the base of the head sits, and rotates – needs to be levelled, then mount the camera and level it. Don’t do these things properly and you’ll have a lot of tears flowing later when you are doing your work in Photoshop. You’ll still hopefully be able to stitch your images but will probably end up having to crop the final image anywhere from a little to a lot – again, throwing away valuable pixels and resolution.

I’ve purchased all of my panoramic gear through a US company called Really Right Stuff. There are cheaper options out there but I’m a ‘buy good stuff once’ kind of guy. I prefer to wait a little longer and save up for quality rather than buy crappy stuff straight away and be disappointed with it / let down by it. Their site is worth a look just for the array of bits and pieces they make for all aspects of photography…  photo-geek heaven.

Depending on the subject and conditions I also make use of graduated neutral density filters as well as plain neutral density filters to help me achieve slower shutter speeds. You can achieve pretty reasonable results in Photoshop mimicing the effects of graduated ND’s but again I prefer to use them whilst shooting to control my exposure on the spot – and to see exactly what I’m getting as I shoot. With the plain ND filters I can use anything up to 10 stops of control – primarily when shooting pano’s with a lot of water in them to get a smoother look to the water, plus it helps in the stitching process. I don’t use a polariser though because it creates too much of a variation in the look of the sky across the view you are trying to capture.

 

 

Other than that, all the standard considerations for a good image still apply – proper exposure, good composition, sharp focus etc. A lot of photographers also put a lot of planning into shooting their landscapes in regards to what time of day, and even what time of year. I am the exact opposite of that. Mainly due to time constraints, I am very much an opportunist. That’s not to say I don’t have specific locations in mind, or that I don’t prefer shooting when the light is better – I do. Many of my better (and favourite) images are a result of being in the right place at the right time, and having my shooting techniques and equipment knowledge finely tuned.

 

 

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