Although I am only a novice at it, I enjoy creating and viewing panoramic images. I’ve only delved into simple panoramas, not the “see everything in every direction” images you can find on the Internet. To get high quality panoramas like those, a lot of equipment and time goes into setting up each photo shoot. In this post I will describe some simple wide-angle panoramas I’ve taken with ordinary cameras, mostly handheld while hiking. (Some of the newer point-and-shoot cameras have a built-in panorama mode which, I believe, constructs panoramas of the type I describe here. Having no first-hand experience with such cameras, I cannot compare that process to what is presented here.)
Consider the three photos below. They were taken with a handheld Canon Rebel XT in Landscape mode in the Basic (i.e., automatic) Zone setting. The camera with a wide-angle lens was pointed in three horizontal directions chosen so that the three scenes overlapped at their adjacent vertical edges by about 20%. An attempt was made to keep the vertical direction identical in the three shots.
Panorama tutorials on the Web recommend additional steps to ensure better results. First and foremost, a tripod allowing camera rotation about a fixed vertical axis should be used, but I chose to avoid the extra weight and clumsiness of carrying a tripod on long hikes. In addition, automatic modes of the camera should be avoided; instead, identical (manual) exposure settings for all shots should be used. I try to remember this but often forget, as was the case with the three images above. ISO, exposure time, and aperture values on the first two images ended up being identical, but the exposure time and aperture opening both increased in the third, giving roughly a half-stop more exposure. Software such as that described in the next paragraph can sometimes correct for small differences in exposure.
After taking the photos, the next step is to “stitch” them together. Although I used the Photomerge Panorama feature of Photoshop elements to stitch the panoramas in this post, there are several free alternatives. In my opinion, the best free Windows software for this purpose, in terms of both output quality and ease of use, is Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor).
Here is the result of stitching the three photos. In spite of the shortcomings in my photographic procedure, the results are acceptable to me. The horizontal field of view of the resulting panorama is approximately 170°.
This type of image is called a partial cylindrical panorama, partial because it covers less than a complete 360° horizontal field of view and cylindrical because rotating the camera about a single vertical axis simulates the projection of the scene onto a cylindrical surface. More elaborate shooting and processing techniques can be used to produce more encompassing panoramic images of other types such as spherical, cubic, etc.
The viewer’s impression of a panoramic image depends strongly on how it is displayed. To me, panoramas like those above are unimpressive even if zoomed to extend across the entire screen. I think it is more pleasing to view them interactively by zooming the image so its height matches the height of the viewing window, then viewing parts of the scene as the window is panned side-to-side across the image. There are dedicated panorama viewing programs that have this feature and, in some cases, even correct for the cylindrical distortions inherent in the production of the image. Two general choices are available:
- If only local viewing of panoramic images is desired, an interactive viewing program can be installed on a personal computer. An excellent, free program for viewing cylindrical panoramas in Microsoft Windows is WPanorama.
- If a photographer desires to display panoramic images publicly, there are several websites with excellent interactive panorama viewers. Using them typically requires free registration at the website and uploading panorama files to the site. These images can then be viewed interactively by visitors to the site. Two examples of such a website are pan0.net and Dermandar.
Here is a panoramic view of the Grand Canyon as seen from the North Rim. This was constructed from eight handheld shots taken eleven years ago with an old Olympus D490Z point-and-shoot camera. Parts of the scene were hazy, and the camera’s automatic exposure setting unfortunately produced different exposure times for several of the images. To view the panorama interactively, click on Grand Canyon.
Finally, here is a panorama of the cliffs on the Mexico and Texas sides of the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park. The four photos used to create this panorama were taken with a Canon 7D mounted on a tripod. In the image the Rio Grande flows out the mouth of the canyon, then flows in front of the Mexican cliffs on the left. To view the panorama interactively, click on Santa Elena Canyon.
The map below shows the locations from which the above photos were taken. Hover over or click on a marker to see which photo was taken at that location. Zoom in for more map details.