If you want to make a seamless panoramic image, you have to start with some solid photos to work with. Since you’re combining several images to appear as one, any variation can completely throw off the stitching process and possibly render your pano unusable.
1. Use a tripod. This is always advisable, but mandatory if you plan on using a wide aperture or if you have some immediate foreground objects. Even the slightest movement can cause inconsistent depths of field in your pano images (more so when shooting with a wide aperture), so it’s best to have your perspective solid by attaching your camera to a tripod.
There is also the issue of parallax error when shooting panoramics, which requires a tripod to correct. Simply put, when you shoot a pano where you have objects in your immediate foreground, the perspective can change drastically simply by rotating your camera to capture the next image for your panoramic. This is even worse when using wide angle lenses.
This effect is not visible when you don’t have immediate foreground subjects (meaning the distance from your camera to the foreground is sizable). For example, using a telephoto lens to capture a scene will not produce parallax error – at least not enough to be a concern.
To rectify this, you need to have a specialized tripod head that will minimize this effect, allowing you to take those fantastic 360 degree pano shots while compensating for parallax error. This will allow you to stitch a panoramic image seamlessly, even with a wide angle lens.
Also, tripods help you line up your shot in an accurate way, making sure you overlap your photos enough to create a pano. This is especially important when using telephoto lenses as even the slightest movement can change your composition, and potentially leave gaps in your panoramic.
Finally, you’ll need a tripod if you’re photographing a scene with inconsistent lighting (such as sunsets) since you’ll need to autobracket in order to capture the full tonal range. I explain this a bit more below, but just know that a tripod is an important part to photographing a panoramic.
2. Once you’ve focused properly on your subject, flip your lens into manual focus so that it doesn’t readjust itself automatically when taking your pano photos. If you don’t, your images won’t be uniform in focus and will look inconsistent as a pano.
3. Speaking of manual, it’s best to take a test shot for your pano first (checking your histogram to see if the settings are balanced enough). This will allow you to make a mental note of the settings used and then throw your camera into manual mode, inputting the parameters used for your test image. This will make sure that the camera doesn’t choose a different aperture, shutter speed, and/or ISO setting between your photos.
This is very important since if you are shooting in a priority mode (or full auto), the settings will automatically change as you pan through the different amounts of available light in your image (think sky vs. ground) – remember, when in an auto mode, your camera will change settings to expose your photo properly, so a shaded part of your pano will have an increased exposure vs. a more brightly lit section, which will make stitching very difficult. Switching everything into manual ensures that the same settings are maintained throughout your panoramic, which makes life much easier once you get this to your digital dark room.
Some panoramic stitching software will try to balance out your exposures and make them more uniform if you don’t shoot in manual mode, but this is not an ideal way to photograph a panoramic. It’s not always a guarantee that your pano software will correct accurately, and in terms of quality – it’s always better to get the exposure right with your camera vs. having it adjusted digitally as there can be an extreme loss of data. By having a uniform and accurate exposure with your camera, you can produce the highest-quality pano with the most information.
With this in mind, you may need to autobracket your pano to avoid blown highlights/blocked shadows for tricky lighting situations. You’re basically combining two styles of photography here: exposure blending AND panoramic. Here you’ll be capturing two or more images at different exposures of the same composition, giving you lots of accurate room with your exposure to work with.
When you’re done stitching your pano images together, you’ll have three (or more) separate pano files at different exposures, allowing you to exposure blend the layers to create a stunning photo with a large tonal range. The image below was captured in this fashion.
4. Overlap your panoramic images – the more information your pano stitching software has to work with, the better. I usually keep at least 1/3rd of the previous image in my shots.
5. Note that using wide-angle lenses will distort straight lines, like horizons or fences. While you can fix this in post process, it is quite time-consuming and not always guaranteed to be successful. Panoramic software can compensate for this rather accurately, but not 100% of the time, so be prepared to manually stitch images together and correct for this distortion.
This also applies towards using extreme angles – such as shooting the sky from a low-ground perspective. Your lens is curved and will bend these extreme perspectives into unnatural angles – much like a fisheye lens. While you can definitely make pano images in this method, it does take a bit more skill and you may have to stitch manually depending on whether or not your software can interpret the data correctly.
Also note that stitching images taken with a wide aperture (i.e. lots of bokeh and out-of-focus areas) will be more difficult than stitching images that are more in focus, like the example above. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but it does take a bit more time and will probably require some manual stitching on your part.
So as you can see, there are a few things to consider when shooting your pano images for post process. Of course, taking the images is only half the battle – you need to be able to stitch them properly afterwards.
I’ve used Photoshop pano stitching with varied success – it’s very temperamental but it’s also part of Photoshop so if you already have the program, it certainly won’t hurt to try.
Another free option is the increasingly popular, open-source (my favorite kind) software called Hugin. I personally haven’t used it with my panos but will give it a try the next time I stitch. A few users have complained of a complicated interface, but like most programs, there’s a learning curve. If you look through the image gallery here, you can see that it’s a serious piece of software capable of producing some stunning images. Again, considering it’s a free panoramic stitching program, I would definitely try it out and avoid getting frustrated if it doesn’t go well the first time – photography requires much patience, even in post process.
You can’t have a successful, seamless pano stitch without having a solid foundation to start with. By following these simple steps, you can ensure that your panoramic landscape shoot gives you the best possible final image.