Challenges and Benefits of Panoramic Photography

Cinerama movies are generally preferred for a very good reason: The field of view is more like what the human eye is accustomed to seeing. Unconsciously, when we look at a “normal” photo we know that it is like looking at the world through a window, and we are only seeing part of what we would see if we were there. That missing information may not produce deep psychological distress, but it is my belief that panoramic images that cover approximately 90 X 180 degrees field of view are more comfortable and satisfying than traditional photography.

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In the last few years TV and computer screens have gone from 3×4 ratio to 16×9, which is a wider field of view. And many newer cameras can be set up to capture 16×9 images. When I contrast that to the 4×5 film that I shot many years ago it seems that there is a general movement in the direction of wider field of view.

Progress usually comes in small increments, over a fair amount of time, and while I consider 16×9 to be a step in the right direction, why not go to 2×1 which is how we see with our eyes? Well, there are several problems that have to be overcome to make that practical.

Cinemascope was achieved in the 1950s with the development of the anamorphic lens which was very expensive to produce. It’s still well beyond the reach of the typical photo enthusiast. Zeiss has a new Tuit ultra wide angle 12mm lens that sells for well over a thousand dollars and does a good job of handling the usual distortion found in wide angle lenses, but it is still not enough to achieve my 2×1 goal.

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Cell phone and many point and shoot cameras allow the user to take sweeping photos that are stitched in the camera. So we know that it is possible to take multiple photos and splice them together electronically, much like people used to splice two prints together to produce a panorama. When we try and do the same thing with an SLR camera the bigger, longer lenses on these cameras create a new problem: parallax.

Panoramas are usually shot from a stationary location, typically with a tripod or monopod. Unfortunately, cameras come with tripod socket in the center of the camera bottom, not anywhere near the entry pupil of the lens so that when the camera is rotated to take multiple photos, each photo is from a different point of view and photos may not align and stitch properly. If you are able to stitch many photos together you end up with a very wide, but short photo that resembles a roll of postage stamps and doesn’t fit any media well.

What is needed is a way to mount your camera on a tripod in the vertical format (for taller panos) and move the center of rotation to the front of the lens to eliminate the parallax problem then stitching becomes quite easy. I started working on the problem five years ago, and today I hold, what I have been told, is the only currently active US Patent for a mechanical panoramic camera bracket.

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With a typical kit lens, or a wider angle lens, mount your camera vertically on a PanoFix or other panoramic head, attached to a level pod, then start at the left side of your subject and Shoot your first shot, rotate the camera 30 degrees and shoot the second shot. In six shots you will have gathered enough material to produce at least a 80X160 degree field of view.

Depending upon your camera and software it can be easy as that, but there are other considerations that you might want to plan for:

  • Camera shake: it is best to use a remote control or self timer
  • Because of the greater area, you are more apt to encounter variations in light level, so I recommend that each frame be a set of three bracketed exposures for an HDR effect.
  • The wider your lens the more sky & dirt, or ceiling and floor you can get in a single pass. I prefer to use a wide angle lens and make a single row of photos as opposed to trying to shoot multiple rows.
  • Once you get used to shooting panos you will realize that you can shoot 360 degrees. Because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should. They tend to be disorienting and defeat the purpose of seeking a more “natural” image.
  • You don’t want the camera changing settings as you rotate through your pano, so use manual focus and white balance.
  • In the beginning I used a tripod for every pano, now I nearly always use a monopod and as long as the base stays in the same place and I keep it level it works just fine. Plus it is easier to carry and sets up much quicker.
  • Why would I need a full frame camera that cost more than twice as much and produces smaller photos?
  • Speaking of cost, I recommend Serif Panorama Plus software, which is drag and drop simple and has no charge.
Today’s Two Pound setup Works Even Better

Today’s 2 Pound Setup Works Even Better

My first pano kit of camera, lens, head, and tripod weighed over 12 pounds. Now everything weighs about two pounds, and I can shoot panos almost as quickly and easily as normal photos. The finished photos are around 50MP and can be blown up to wall sized murals.

About the Author
Jack Harwick started at age 12 and was teaching darkroom in the public school system when he was 16, as a teacher’s aide. He has now been shooting for 60 years. He shoots an Olympus E5 in JPG only and edits in Elements without using layers.

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One response to “Challenges and Benefits of Panoramic Photography”

  1. Good post. You can include more information on panorama heads and shooting with tripod.

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