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A picture might be worth a thousand words, but sometimes the scene in front of you will be so expansive that you might need even more than a thousand to do it justice. This is when you should consider shooting a panorama.
A panorama is essentially a wide shot, where a number of pictures are stitched together to make one single image. With the advent of digital photography and the increasing sophistication of stitching software, shooting a panorama is a relatively simple process, although there are a few hints that will help to guarantee better quality results with less effort.
The most crucial thing is to avoid any type of distortion or deviation in the shots that make up the panorama. A good tripod is vital - make sure to go for one that allows rotation on one axis at a time (side-to-side for shooting panoramas). A 3-way head is best for this. If you use the ball and socket type it will need to have separate function to allow you to just pan (move left-to-right or vice versa smoothly).
The tripod will need to be parallel to the ground, otherwise as you pan the camera, your last image will be visibly higher or lower than the first. Getting a tripod with a spirit level on the base as well as the head is pretty vital. Line it up as best you can, and do some test pans to check this.
Getting your shots
It's better to take more shots, using a slightly telephoto lens, than fewer shots using a wideangle lens, as the latter will introduce distortion in each picture that can stop the images lining up properly. Sometimes you’ll need to use the camera on its side in vertical orientation to achieve this. It’s also best to avoid objects that are closer to the camera as these will be distorted more, and less easy to combine.
I always try to shoot from left to right, as this way the images line up in your editing software - then overlap each image by half to a third of the frame. Try to avoid extremes of lighting if you can, and if possible switch off the autofocus, as the focal length of the lens sometimes changes slightly as the lens focusses. This isn't as big an issue as having an out of focus image though, so leave the autofocus on if the depth of field isn't great enough to have the whole scene in focus.
Don't think that you have to have a thin wide shot: sometimes combining only a few shots can create a smaller, less elongated panorama with impact.
As with shooting close-ups, using a compact can often make shooting panoramas easier than shooting with a DSLR. Some more sophisticated compacts feature a 16:9 format mode. While this usually just crops the standard sensor shape to the 16:9 letterbox format, it can be useful for creating instant panoramic shaped images.
A number of cameras also incorporate a 'panorama assist' feature to help you to shoot the images more accurately, and then stitch them together using in-camera software. Sometimes this will even include a feature that super-imposes the previous shot on the LCD screen to help you to line up the next shot.
Editing with software
If you have Adobe Photoshop, or the cut-down version Adobe Elements, the Photomerge function is a comprehensive panorama stitching tool, although there are also relatively cheap software products available. If you’ve shot the panorama correctly then often all you’ll have to do is select the Auto function. If not, you can end up having to manually assemble each image, and then retouch the joins by hand.
All photos by Steve Davey. Header image: Diavolezza range, Switzerland.
Steve extensive book, Footprint Travel Photography covers just about everything you could want to know about travelling with your camera. More information on http://www.bettertravelphotography.com/phototours/
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