Panoramic Travels

Photography is one of my passions and for awhile I’ve played around with creating panoramic images. Providing a vista of what you experienced is far more impressive than a single shot with a wide angle lens that is limited by the number of megapixels on your camera. I recently went back through and restitched my panoramas from the past few years. Newer software has made it easier to stitch the individual photos together and really made a difference in the quality of the stitch. The new results are actually impressive: The average megapixel count is 35.1MP with the max at 65MP. It’s no gigapan, but these were shot by hand and many of these are from 2006. Here are a couple of my favorites from Iceland (all of these were shot on the same day!):

Iceland – Landmannalauger [Full Screen]

Iceland – Central Iceland [Full Screen]

Iceland – Central/Eastern Iceland [Full Screen]

Iceland – Skaftafell [Full Screen]

Seattle, Washington (GigaPan)

More Panoramas (in full screen):

Want to do this yourself? You don’t need a super fancy camera. In fact, these were all shot on either a $120 consumer camera or an eight year old DSLR (Canon Rebel XT). To take the photos, you can shoot either in landscape or portrait mode, but they each come with pros and cons:

  • Landscape
    • Pros: Less overlap at the sides means that more of the photo remains untouched by software and therefore clearer. Less variation from image to image can also mean easier stitching with less sudden shifts in exposure.
    • Cons: After you stitch the photos, you will need to crop it down. Shooting in landscape tends to limit the height of the final image and therefore your total megapixels.
  • Portrait
    • Pros: Really, really big stitched panoramas. All of the largest photos I have were shot as a series of portrait shots.
    • Cons: You have to have enough overlap to allow the software to stitch them together, but not too much. If you are off, you can ruin the entire series of photos that you want to link together. I have a couple where the final panoramic didn’t come out because I didn’t overlap them enough.

Once you’ve decided, which way to shoot, steady yourself and look at your viewfinder/screen. During the process, move your body, not the camera (or better, use a tripod). Hold your arms in, elbows against your body, camera and screen so that you can see it near to your face. This helps reduce shaking and also distance that the sensor moves, both of which will result in better images.

I prefer to start to my left and shoot going right. You will shoot as many photos as you need to shoot to cover the range your want. For the rest of this post, I will assume that you will be shooting left to right. Once you’ve centered your first shot on the left most part of what will be your panorama, pay attention to two thing: The horizon and a notable object on the right ride of the screen. You want the horizon to remain steady and notable object is used as a reference point. I also like to zoom in a little so that you are not at the widest landscape possible. Somewhere in the range 20-40% zoomed in on a camera with a 3x optical zoom (never use a digital zoom). This allows you to catch more detail while also keeping the overall image relatively steady. If you zoom in too far, it is hard to line up all the shots.

Shooting time! Take the first photo. Holding the camera steady relative to your body, fix your eyes on the notable object, and then rotate your body until the notable object is in the left 30% of the viewfinder at about the same vertical level as it was in the last shot. Holding the camera steady, take the next photo and then, without moving, note your next notable object on the right side of the shot you just took. Repeat the process until you have covered the entire panorama you are trying to capture. You should have now a series of photos each that are linked by a particular distinct object with about a 20 to 30% overlap. The software recognizes the objects and aligns the layers based on the shape of the objects. These objects can be just about anything that is fixed: A particular buildings, the distinctive mountain top, a giant crack in a rock wall, or even a notable sign. Don’t use people or anything else that moves.

Once you’re done, turn the camera 90 degrees and take another regular photo. This last photo helps “bookend” your set so you can more easily see the panoramic set of photos in your library back on the computer. In a worst case scenario, it can also serve as the only shot of the view that you get if the panorama doesn’t work out. After you get home, you’ll need some software help to get the panorama stitched together. You could do this by hand (and back in 2006, I did), but the software today is very smart at stitching all these photos together. Compared to 5 years ago, the stuff available today is magic. In Photoshop, open the file menu, then select automate, and then photomerge. The rest should be self-explanatory. If you don’t have Photoshop, Hugin is a free alternative, but it is not quite as user friendly. On the other hand, it is pretty powerful and it is free.

The last challenge is that sharing panoramic images is a bit of a pain. You can post the images, but they tend to get downsized and all of the detail gets lost. While you can use a service like (for example, this panorama of Stockholm that was too large for the gMap utility), sometimes you want something that just works and will work across different devices. For software, I am using Photoshop CS6 and gMap Image Cutter (plus a Google Maps API Key). gMap Image Cutter is a small tool that is free for personal use. It takes a large panoramic image and turns it into a set of image tiles for use with Google Maps.  From there, you just need to insert an API key from Google and then upload the results somewhere that the public can access (Credit for pointing me towards the tool goes to Digital Inspiration). Gigapan also offers free hosting (as seen above with the Seattle image), but it requires that photos be at least 50MP and it uses Flash.

  • Cameras used
    • Canon SD10 ($349 new)
    • Canon Rebel XT ($650 new)
    • Canon SD780IS ($240 new)
    • Canon 100 HS ($120 new)
  • Software used
    • Adobe Creative Suite Design Standard (Plenty!)
    • gMaps Image Cutter (Free!)
    • Web Hosting (Cheap!) or DropBox (Free!)

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