Traveling with Explorer of Light George Lepp Part 2: Panoramas - Going to Great Lengths

March 30, 2011

Traveling with Explorer of Light George Lepp Part 2: Panoramas – Going to Great Lengths
A panorama, as any other worthy photograph, must contain compositional elements that justify its existence.

This is the second part of a three-part series on shooting techniques, written for the Canon Digital Learning Center by George Lepp:

  1. Shooting from Unstable Platforms (click to read)
  2. Panoramas – Going to Great Lengths
  3. Using ISO as a Tool (click to read)

One of the greatest joys of nature and outdoor photography is experiencing the grandscape. When we think of panoramic images, often we imagine a vast landscape image, one that is so powerful and so huge that one click cannot possibly convey it to others the way we saw it ourselves. The best thing about today’s great digital photographic tools is that they overcome the limitations of the camera to allow us to capture what we really see—exactly the way we see it. Panoramas are one of my favorite ways to bring home images that truly convey the full spectrum of a journey to a new and unusual location.

The panoramic photograph is hardly a new idea. The early photographers assembled series of daguerreotypes to achieve a more detailed image. The first cameras mass-produced specifically for panoramas (the Al-Vista and the #4 Kodak Panoram) were introduced in the late 19th century; by 1911 panoramic cameras were sold in the Sears Roebuck catalogue. These early cameras used a swing lens to scan a scene and record it on a stationary piece of film, which limited the size of the panorama and the angle of view. As the twentieth century advanced, panoramic photography at professional levels was the source of a number of complicated inventions, including cameras that scanned in one direction and recorded on a film strip that moved through the camera in the opposite direction, yielding one long negative requiring specialized processing and printing. These specialized techniques limited panoramic images to the realm of exotic or art photography.

The general public discovered the panoramic concept in the waning days of the film era with simple film point-and-shoot cameras that cropped the capture in the camera, appearing to produce a panorama in the finished print. The advanced amateur/pro Leica XPan and the pro medium format Fuji 6x17 had dedicated lenses that covered an enlarged long and narrow format, offering more detailed results.

With the advent of computers, digital scanners, and digital cameras, panoramic photography took a huge step forward. From this point, a virtually unlimited number of images could be assembled in the computer into a horizontal, vertical, square, circular, or even spherical panoramic photograph. Photographic printers with roll-fed papers followed, and photographers of all levels were empowered to capture every element of the grandest landscape. I personally entered a most exciting and satisfying phase of my photographic production, as I was able to capture all kinds of subjects, both familiar and new, from the perspective of this new capability.

The way we see things

We are instinctively drawn to panoramas because they portray a subject in the same way we normally would see it. To gather more detail, we tend to concentrate on the center of our field of vision, panning back and forth across the subject, whether it’s a mountain range in the distance, a mural on a wall, or a bed of tiny flowers.

Panoramic photography allows the camera to perform that same function. We can get close to sections of a scene, see every facet, and essentially turn our heads to take it all in. This ability solves a number of imaging problems that plagued photographers in the past.

Imagine that you are photographing a mountain range from some distance away. In the foreground is a mundane set of hills, telephone poles, perhaps a freeway and a gas station. Your wide-angle lens would capture the entire mess in the foreground and the mountain range in the background would be diminished and undetailed. If you cropped the foreground out of the image to leave only the mountains, you’d have a poor-quality result. Your extreme wide-angle lens would pose the same problems, with the additional drawback of distortion. But if you want to photograph the mountain range the way you see it, you’ll put on your longer focal length lens, shoot right over the foreground noise, and take a series of captures of only the length of mountains and some sky above them. After assembling them in the computer, you’ll have a high-quality rendition that will hold up in a very large print.

Or consider the problem of shooting at a garden where long stretches of bedding plants are in full bloom. You’d need to climb a tree to get a good perspective on those dramatic sweeps of color, but you’re limited to the sidewalk. The panoramic technique will allow you to photograph the image the same way you’re viewing it, in a series of detailed captures that, after assembly, will place your viewers right there in the garden with that whole flower bed spread out around them. The same concept works in a zoo, where you want to isolate a group of animals from their surroundings but you have to work from a viewing platform at close distance.

Panoramic techniques can be an excellent way to increase depth of field. You’re on a road bordering an expanse of commercial sunflowers at peak bloom, and the bright rows extend forever—from the edge of your lens to the horizon. How can you get the flowers in the foreground and the flowers cresting the hill a mile away all in focus? A vertical panorama is the answer. Each capture in the series reframes and refocuses the image—just as your eyes do as you scan it—and when you assemble the panorama others can stand on the edge of that field and see exactly what you saw, from the nearest petal to the row patterns in the distance.

The panorama mindset

When you approach a photograph, think of the panorama as another of your compositional options. After years of photography, we develop a nearly instinctive understanding of the creative and technical challenges each subject presents. For me, the panorama format is one of the basic choices I make, as simple as whether I will frame the subject vertically or horizontally. Consider the panorama as a way to present the full scale and detail of a large and complex subject, to eliminate distracting peripheral elements, to achieve a unique perspective, and/or to achieve increased depth of field.

A panorama, as any other worthy photograph, must contain compositional elements that justify its existence. To keep a panorama from being just a boring, long image, you should have a strong beginning on the left (or at the bottom of a vertical), plenty of content as you progress through the image, and a definitive ending. The overall composition needs to keep the interest of the viewer throughout. In a panorama, there may be several subjects, because just one may not be enough to carry such a large image. It is especially important to keep a panorama clean and uncluttered; a panoramic image is a journey and a story, and you don’t want to lose your viewers to distracting and irrelevant elements before they reach the end.

Finally, don’t stop thinking panorama when faced with subjects in motion. It’s not impossible to photograph and seamlessly assemble panoramic images of herds of animals, flocks of birds, and drifting hot-air balloons. And while a tripod is extremely helpful in most cases, it’s still possible to take great panoramas when the photographer is in motion, such as when photographing hand-held or from a small boat. In part one of this series, I shared a panorama of shorebirds landing on a floating log, captured at 700 mm hand-held from a kayak. It’s one of my favorite images.

Techniques for better panoramas

Once you’ve chosen the panoramic format for your photograph, your goal is to capture the series of images as consistently as possible. Remember that you’re going to ask a software program to stitch the images together. If your horizon changes position from one image to the next, the stitched results may be unusable. If your exposure or light balance vary from one capture to the next, the stitched image will have a shaded effect that highlights the seams. So whether you’re executing the quick and dirty hand-held pano or the perfect technology-assisted version, success will depend on proper camera setup and technique.

  • You can capture in either JPEG or RAW mode. JPEG will give you smaller files to work with, but RAW will give you more information in each image.
  • Choose manual white balance and select the setting most appropriate for the lighting conditions—probably “sunlight.” If AWB (automatic white balance) is used, you’ll see a variation in color balance from one frame to the next.
  • Set the camera to manual exposure so that each capture is consistent. Leaving the camera on A (aperture priority), Tv (time value), P (program auto), or the Green Zone, will result in inconsistent exposures as the tonal values in each part of the scene change. Determine the exposure for the brightest area of the panorama, and lock it in for all of the captures
  • Generally, polarizing filters shouldn’t be used if you have expanses of water or sky in your image, because the camera’s angle to the sun—and therefore the polarizer’s effect—will change dramatically as you move through the panorama. The result is inconsistent color tones that are evident and difficult to adjust in the transitions between images.
  • Remember to give the compositing software sufficient information so that it can accurately match the elements in adjacent captures. For hand-held sequences, I recommend overlapping from 30% to 50%. From a tripod, overlap 50% for moderately to extremely wide-angle lenses (35mm to 16mm), and 20-30% for normal to telephoto lenses.
  • When hand-holding, find a constant reference point in the image that will help you to achieve consistent framing, such as the horizon on a horizontal image or the edge of your subject on a vertical. With wide-angle lenses, rotate the camera around its axis rather than moving it through an arc around your body (see discussion on nodal points, below).
  • Where the image contains a definite horizon, it will be cup-shaped (concave) if you point the camera downward through the sequence, and domed (convex) if you aim upward.
  • Capture a horizontal sequence from left to right, and a vertical sequence from bottom to top. I photograph my hand over the lens to place a blank frame at the beginning and end of each series. Pixels are cheap.
  • Repeat the sequence to insure that you have a full set of good images. Check your histogram to be sure you’ve selected the proper exposure. Bracketing the exposure may be helpful if there are extreme lighting variances within your sequence of images.

A precise approach

You know I’m not going to let you get away without a tripod lecture! You will greatly advance your panorama success if you use a sturdy tripod and a few specialized accessories to keep your sequence straight and sharp.

  • Level the tripod. This task can be accomplished perfectly and quickly with one of several available accessories originally designed for video capture. My favorites are the Bogen 438 Compact Camera Leveler, which fits between any tripod base and head; the Bogen 555 or 556 Leveling Center Column for a number of smaller Bogen and Gitzo tripods; and the GS 5121 LVL Leveling Base for Gitzo series 3, 4, and 5 tripods.
  • Attach the camera to the leveled tripod base using a ball head or other articulated mount. Position the camera so that the nodal point of the lens (the optical center, or the point where the light rays entering the lens flip over) is placed over the axis of rotation. This is more important with a wide-angle lens than with a telephoto. Use a nodal slide such as those offered by Really Right Stuff to position the camera and wide-angle lens. On a long telephoto, the lens collar mount typically is placed near enough to the nodal point to work.
  • Level the camera to the horizon. If a distinctive horizon is within the image, the camera will need to be leveled to both the vertical and horizontal axes. Use a dual-axis spirit level that mounts into any standard camera hot shoe; find these at most camera stores. I carry two, since I always seem to misplace one on every shoot. Really Right Stuff stocks several additional accessories specifically designed for precision capture of panoramas.

If you want to take the panorama concept to a whole new level, check out the GigaPan Eclipse, a robotic system that enables point-and-shoot cameras like the Canon G10 to capture massive, intensely detailed, tiled composite panoramas. The GigaPan system is programmed to take hundreds of images between two points you specify. After processing in the GigaPan software, a gigantic image file is created, from which you can generate an enormous, high-resolution print. Or you can place the file on line, where the viewer can zoom into the image to see the smallest detail. The company plans a future system to work with DSLRs.

Compositing, printing, and presenting panoramas

There are a number of excellent software programs that will assemble your panorama image sequence into a composite image. Canon provides a simple program, PhotoStitch, with all of its cameras. While most panorama compositing software works great on “automatic,” you may want a program that allows you to participate in the assembly of complex sets of images by identifying corresponding elements in adjacent images or by stretching and manipulating distorted wide-angle shots to create a match. I’ve successfully used Panorama Maker 4.0 Pro (ArcSoft), Adobe Photoshop versions CS2-4, and AutoPan; PTGui and Panorama Factory are other examples of programs that offer more interactive capabilities.

You can optimize your images before assembly by batch processing in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional, Lightroom, or Adobe RAW converter. Be certain to apply changes to all of the images equally. Bring your assembled panorama into image processing software such as Adobe Elements or Photoshop to clean, sharpen, and fully optimize it.

The panorama is now ready to be shared! It’s important to choose a presentation that emphasizes the unique impact of the format. I have two favorites, prints and projection.

There’s nothing quite so extravagant and impressive as a loooooooong panoramic print. At trade shows Canon sometimes displays my panoramas at lengths of twenty feet or more! The panorama is, at shorter lengths, necessarily narrow. So if you want to print a pano at substantial size, you’ll need a wide-format printer that accommodates roll paper. In most cases, this will “limit” the long dimension of your panorama print to the length of a roll of paper, up to 100 feet! I use both the Canon iPF 5100 (maximum width 17”) and the Canon iPF 9100 (maximum width 60”). A relatively inexpensive and lightweight way to present long prints is to mount them to gatorboard and laminate the surface with a luster finish. Canvas is another good alternative. The image can be pulled and attached over stretcher bars like an oil painting or hung unframed with a heavy header and footer and no backing.

Projecting a panorama can be problematic since the width of the screen limits the lengths you can display. As a result, projection on even a 12-foot screen can so restrict the height of the panorama that its impact is lost. I’ve projected my panoramas on screens up to 40 feet wide with no loss of quality as long as the projector has sufficient brightness and resolution. I always carry a Canon Realis projector, because these are up to the task. When working with smaller screens, there’s another great way to maintain the effect of walking through a long panorama. Several digital slide show software programs, such as Microsoft Power Point, Apple Keynote (Mac only), and ProShow Gold (Windows only), enable you to scroll an image across the screen at its full height. A 22-image composite of a mile of sunflowers exiting right can seem to go on forever!

Going to great lengths

Some of us are always pushing photography beyond its limits, and capturing and displaying panoramas is one of the most creative and dramatic ways I’ve found to think outside the box. It’s interesting to me that the panoramic image is one that both technical and fine art photographers have pursued since the beginning of the craft. It’s a format that speaks naturally to us, a familiar perspective our eyes embrace, but a photographic presentation that’s new and exciting. Panoramas are another great creative opportunity offered in the digital era by the advancing capability of capture and presentation technology. So don’t be afraid to experiment! The next time you’re face-to-face with a grandscape, and you want to be sure everyone back home understands just how grand it really was, think panorama.

Written by George D. Lepp. George Lepp, one of North America’s best-known outdoor and nature photographers, is a Canon Explorer of Light, and a popular lecturer and teacher. He is also the author of many published books and articles and the field editor of both PC Photo and Outdoor Photographer magazines, where his “Tech Tips” column is widely read. Learn more about George at the Canon Explorers of Light Gallery and at

The CDLC contributors are compensated spokespersons and actual users of the Canon products that they promote.

All images are copyright George Lepp

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