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Panoramic Landscape Photography

by Catherine Ramsey (follow)
Blog (395)      Tutorials (61)     

Panoramas sit closely on the side of fine art photography, rather than just landscapes, deserving of a place on the living room wall. The way they allow the viewer's eye to sweep across the landscape, gives them a more inclusive view than people normally see in the average rectangular photograph. Panoramas visually enhance many types of photography, such as travel and architecture images.

Composition Of A Panorama

It almost goes without saying, but it's important to plan out your picture before you shoot it. Where is your panorama going to start and where is it going to end? It's important to structure your panoramas carefully, paying close attention to the composition of the elements. Your first objective should be to decide what to include in the picture, instead of shooting whatever you see. Presumably you're going to be shooting your panorama from a good vantage point – the top of a mountain, a bridge, the side of a lake etc. Avoid obstructions like trees, buildings and people in the way. You're aiming for a clear sweep of the landscape.

Second of all, no matter how many images you plan to take, your final image will undoubtedly be a rectangle, and a stretched out one at that. This can make it tricky to know what composition rules apply. You can and should still use rule of thirds; keeping your horizon on the upper or lower third of the scene, and your vertical elements on the left or right most thirds of the scene, and that the horizon is level. There's no point in shooting on the side of a hill if it means that your image will be sloped. The rule of thirds and a straight horizon combined will help to alleviate the pressure of trying to make everything look symmetrical.

Another rule that is often used in landscape photography, and works within the rule of thirds, is something called centre dominance. This rule dictates that your most important features, your focal points, should be placed in the middle layer of your thirds. In other words, the section above the lower third and below the upper third. In the image below, notice how the mountain (and the mountain reflection) sits in that middle section. They are the dominant features.

Finally, try to shoot on a day when the light is not changing constantly. If the sun goes behind the clouds for some of your shots, you will end up with an unevenly exposed panorama.

Tools And Rules

There are two ways to shoot panoramas. The first being to take a single image of your landscape with a wide angle lens, then crop the top and bottom sections of the photo to reveal a long, sleek rectangle.

The second option, and the more preferable one, is to take multiple photos and stitch them together with editing software.

For this second option, you'll need a tripod with a smoothly swivelling mount and have it positioned on a flat surface. Even if you've twisted your mount so that it's sitting flatly for the first image capture, remember that it must also remain on the same level for the rest of the images. You can use a spirit level (many tripods have these inbuilt as well) to check if your tripod is sitting straight. Practise by swivelling the mount backwards and forwards and using the spirit level to ensure that each image is not crooked. Adjust your tripod's legs as necessary.

Besides your tripod, you'll also need a lens that is suited to the job - preferably a wide angle
(24mm or 35mm for example) or a normal lens (50mm and longer), but keep in mind that they will each give quite different results. A wide angle lens can render straight features to appear curvy, while normal lenses have little or no distortion and will require you to shoot with a longer (less wide) focal length.

While you may prefer the look of a longer focal length, sometimes it͛'s not practical to use one and be able to fit the whole scene. Choose a focal length you think will best suit your needs to capture the landscape properly.

With your equipment organised, you can now begin shooting. Start by taking your first image, then, without changing any settings or moving your tripod legs, swivel the mount left or right so that the view through the camera ever so slightly overlaps your last image. A small amount of overlap is important for stitching the image together later on.

Take several photos, overlapping each a little, until you've documented the scene you want to capture.

Stitching It All Together

There are many photo stitching programs available, and if you're keen to create a lot of panoramas, you may choose to invest in one of these. For this tutorial I'm going to show you a quick guide to stitching it together using Adobe Photoshop.

You may choose to make minor adjustments to the images, such as fixing up any lens distortion or vignetting, but leave all other edits until the panorama is stitched together. To do this open Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Photo Merge. This will bring up a dialog box with options to change the way the layout will appear. It would be a good idea to play around with each of those to see the different ways that Photoshop stitches your images together. Auto is the simplest option.

Click Browse, then select the files that you want to stitch together. Once selected, press ok. Photoshop will automatically stitch together the edges of the photos and separate them onto layers, allowing you to see exactly what parts of each image have been used and where. From here, feel free to make any additional adjustments to the tones, exposure, contrast and white balance. You may also want to crop the image edges to tidy the composition or straighten any horizontal lines. You might need to change the final image size or the resolution to something more suitable for uploading to the internet, as the full scale image will have a very large file size. About 2000 pixels wide or 72dpi resolution should be fine for sharing online.

Not only can you shoot your set of images in horizontal landscape format, but also in vertical portrait format. You may wish to try both and see which format works for you. Just remember that shooting in portrait format will require you to take many more photos to cover the entire scene than you would normally need in landscape mode.

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