Five rules for better panoramas

Panoramas--images that combine a series of photos into a sweeping vista larger or wider than what you could capture in a single photograph--are among the most exciting and unexpected benefits of digital photography.

Panoramas--images that combine a series of photos into a sweeping vista larger or wider than what you could capture in a single photograph--are among the most exciting and unexpected benefits of digital photography. Photographers used to need special film cameras to take super-wide panoramas, or they simulated the effect by taping together a set of prints, exposing lots of ugly seams in the process. Now, using software like Windows Live Photo Gallery, Adobe Photoshop Elements, or any number of other panoramic stitching programs, panoramas are easy to make and the results can be, quite literally, seamless.

You probably already know the basic rules for taking good panoramas, like making sure you get about 30 percent overlap in each source photo and using a tripod when possible to keep the horizon level in each shot.

This week I present five less-common rules that can help you get even better panoramas.

1. Expose for the Average

152549-panoband-b_original

If you've ever taken a panorama on a bright sunny day, you've probably seen bands of light and dark running through the final image, as in the photo linked to the left.

You can't fix that particular problem afterwards in a photo editing program; you need to prevent it before you start shooting. To do that, set your camera to its manual exposure mode and keep the same exposure locked for each photo you take in the panoramic series. Not sure what exposure to use? Point the camera at the brightest and darkest parts of the scene and note the various exposures it recommends. Then, when you set the camera to manual, dial in a value that's in the middle between the two extremes.

2. Shoot Vertically

When you take a few photos and later combine them into a panorama, you tend to lose the tops and bottoms of the scene due to the way your photo editing program stitches the images together. The wider your panorama, the more you tend to lose from the tops and bottoms. One easy way to mitigate that loss is to shoot your panorama with the camera held vertically, in portrait mode, rather than the usual landscape orientation. You'll need to take more photos to cover the same ground from left to right, but each image will be taller, letting you get more sky and ground in the final photo after cropping.

3. Shoot a Patchwork of Photos

Another way to get more height in your photos is to shoot a grid rather than a strip of photos. In other words, shoot, say, four photos across, then go back and shoot another four photos, above or below the original set. Now you'll have eight photos to stitch together, giving you detail both horizontally and vertically.

Similarly, did you know that most photo editors can stitch a vertical panorama just as easily as a horizontal one? Don't feel limited to stitching traditional panoramas. Take a set of shots, one atop the next, to photograph a skyscraper or statue.

4. Shoot Left to Right

You can shoot a panorama in any direction. Start on the left and take each successive shot to the right, or do it the other way around. As long as you get sufficient overlap between photos, you can take them in any order you like. But when you see them in your photo organizer, it's easy to tell you have a series of photos that are intended to be part of a panorama if you shoot them from left to right.

152549-pano_stack-b_original

I go one step further. I tag all my panoramic source images with the term "Panoramic Sources" and I use the Stacking feature in Adobe Lightroom to group each set of panoramic sources together (you can do the same thing in Adobe Photoshop Elements). The screen shot to the right shows what that looks like.

5. Stitch for Free

Finally, if you don't have a program like Photoshop Elements that includes a stitching tool, don't worry. The free Windows Live Photo Gallery I mentioned earlier has a superb panoramic stitching tool. In fact, I like Photo Gallery's stitching quality better than Photoshop Element's, so I use Photo Gallery to stitch my images together.

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