Lets start off by clarifying what we commonly understand panoramic photography to be. Panorama photography is a technique that enables us to capture an image with an elongated field of view, approximating or greater to that of the human eye. This is widely considered to be around 160° by 75°. This equates to an aspect ratio of 2:1 or an image that is at least twice as wide as it is high. Some panoramic images are 3:1, 4:1 and larger, sometimes even covering the full 360° field of view.
There is something rather special about an image that more closely resembles the field of view of the human eye, yet ironically, it tends to be more difficult to produce really strong images. There are a number of reasons for this. There is the added difficulty of stitching a number of images together in a seamless manner, but more importantly the need to compose the image specifically for a panorama print, when we're much more used to working in a format such as 3:2, the most common digital sensor or long standing 35mm film format.
While there are a number of different ways to produce a panoramic image, I'm going to tell you how I approach this subject. First of all, in terms of taking the image, I use a specialist panorama head that rotates around what is called the nodal point, to capture multiple images of the subject. By rotating around this nodal point, we avoid parallax error, where parallax is the change in the apparent position of an object when the position of the observer changes. I then take the sequence of images, say typically between 5 and 7 images, and stitch them together in specialist stitching software in my computer.
You can of course simply crop an image to the panoramic dimensions in your editing software, but even with a wide angle lens, the field of view will be typically limited to 106° by 63° when using 16mm lens on a full frame sensor. If you make this a 2:1 panorama, through cropping of the top and/or bottom of the image, you lose about 16% of your pixels. By going to 3:1, you lose 56% of your original image and therefore your original and much sought after pixels.
My method actually creates the effect of increasing the pixels, often by a factor of 2x or 3x, allowing very large prints to be made containing incredible detail.
However, it's not just about pixels and numbers. Its actually about the compositional opportunities that the panoramic viewpoint provides, allowing us to create something different and unique. It's a format that especially suits those wide open spaces that surround us here in the UK and that so many of us love to photograph.
Its important to also realize that shooting panoramas does slow down the picture taking process, enabling us to think more about composition, light and the emotion of an image. I liken it to working with the 5x4 large format camera beloved of some of the best known landscape photographers.
It's also important to realise that we should be using manual mode on our cameras, both for exposure and even more importantly importantly, for focusing. If we use one of the auto modes on our cameras, we will likely find exposure changing from image to image, which will show up clearly when we join these images together. It's the same with focus, where the camera will often 'choose' a different focus point than we may desire. I also use the hyper focal distance techniques to get as much of the image in focus as possible for a given lens.
While it may seem like a lot of work to get a single image, the sense of wonder and achievement when it all comes together, while being in some of the most beautiful locations is actually priceless. The technical aspects become second nature with practice.
If this sounds like a genre of photography that you would be interested in exploring further, I will be running a two day panorama workshop with aspect2i in 2013 so please come along and get the opportunity to learn the techniques of panorama photography in the stunning English Lake District. See you there!
© John Miskelly