Monday, October 8, 2012

Panoramas


I do walk a thin line here sometimes, as I read many other Photography Blogs that are far more sophisticated than this one of mine, and yet, I am deeply rooted in my own learning adventure, and like to write my content with my Mom in mind. After all, I owe my love of picture making to her. So I'll remain stubbornly unsophisticated, and get to one of the coolest and most basic tricks available -  making Panoramas. There once was a time when you needed a special camera to do this, but with digital imaging software, it can be accomplished with any camera - and I do mean any camera - film or digital. All you need are two or more digital picture files that are related (including digitized scans of your film negatives, as made available on a photo CD) and a computer with photo stitching software.

First, let's get the obvious out of the way and talk about how it's done with the software approach, and then, I'll mention a couple of things about Panoramas that maybe you didn't know. Digital stitching software is, as it's name suggests, a computer application that is able to recognize common points in a series of photographs and "stitch" them together into one bigger photograph. So, in order to make a Panorama using the stitching approach, you need to anticipate how the smaller pictures are going to be put together, and make sure that you include common points that will be recognized by the application. It's very simple - just start from left to right, and take two or more pictures of the scene in front of you, making sure that you have some over-lap near the edges of the individual shots. When I say edges, I mean at least a quarter of the way in from the left or right. I tend to choose something closer to a third of the way in, which gives me more confidence, and a certainty that my shots will be lined up level, as I seldom use a tripod when shooting. The use of a tripod is recommended, to provide much better control over the process, but I seldom take my tripod out with me on photo shoots. Without a tripod, just be mindful of the vertical orientation from one shot to the next, and also a little more cautious about where your stitching points are going to be, and everything will be fine.

Another essential - when shooting the sequence, make absolutely certain that your camera settings stay the same. Do not change focal length if you're using a zoom lens, nor can you allow your camera to re-focus, or change ISO in any way. This probably won't be an issue, unless your sequence has a strong change from light to dark (typically unlikely), but just to be certain, make sure your camera is not set on "Auto ISO" - instead, choose an ISO setting that is appropriate to the scene. The idea here is that if your camera automatically changes a setting, or the focus, the stitching software might not be able to recognize the stitching points. If you know how, set your camera up for full-manual-everything, make sure your satisfied with those settings for the centre part of the scene, and then take the sequence of shots without changing anything. If you don't know how to do manual settings, or (more likely) your camera isn't equipped to do so, don't worry - most beginner Pano shots are simple, uniformly lit landscapes, such as my sample above, and the camera will automatically keep the same settings through the entire sequence. It is only when shooting interiors, or night time city scapes, that things could get a bit tricky.

Also keep in mind that Panoramas don't always have to be horizontal - when you really get good at it, you could shoot two or more sequences in two or more rows, to make a really large scene, or, more commonly, you could shoot one sequence with your camera held vertically, as I talked about here on my very first Blog Post.

Now, when you get your digital files home, open your Stitching Software, load your sequence of files into the application as directed, and the rest is usually very automated. I use a program called "Hugin". If you own a Canon camera, chances are it came bundled with "Canon Photo-Stitch", which does the job very well. Normally, the software will automatically make corrections to such things as the tilt and light changes, or even movement of clouds in the sky. When it's done, it will show an image on the screen with a weird looking frame that will need to be cropped. Some Applications have the cropping built in, while others will require an export to another program that does cropping. When completed, give the stitch results a new title, save it and then make any other adjustments like brightness and contrast as you normally would.

OK so with that out of the way, I'd like to mention other methods of making Panoramas - I know of five. The first is to simply crop one shot to Panoramic dimensions. Very easy, but it requires a very wide angle lens to get in enough scenery to make it worthwhile, and also is not preferred, because you are using up a lot of Depth of Field which the camera made in that single shot, and you basically end up cropping it out - and so in trying to keep the best looking part of your picture, you end up eliminating a good part of the field depth your camera was trying to create.  On the other hand, when using a sequence of shots with a stitching application, you can fully maintain the depth of filed, and it really helps in making your Pano shot look spectacular.

Three of the other four ways of making a Panorama involve film cameras. First, I had an EOS Elan IIe Japanese Market version which had a unique "Panorama" switch on the back (I just sold this camera on Ebay). That switch simply made a mask over part of the single 35mm film frame, giving a panoramic dimension to the single shot by cropping the frame on film within the camera. Disadvantage - this is exactly the same as cropping a single shot using software, and it will not make the most of the Depth of Field. The second way is to have a dedicated Panoramic Film Camera, like the Zenit Horizon Kompakt, or other old classics. There are other very cheap "toy" Pano Cameras available which use a fixed focus wide angle plastic lens with a wide frame which makes one extra wide exposure on the film. Third, and perhaps most interesting of all, we have Sackville's own Thaddeus Helownia. Now, I'm not sure that Thaddeus would refer to his work as "Panoramas", except for the actual dimensions of his work. He achieves this using an extremely large Technical Camera, which provides an 18" X 24" negative, as described here. He then prints from a Panoramic crop of this negative, said print actually being a contact print that requires no enlargement. Amazing stuff really.

Finally, the newest way of doing a Panorama is with the newest compact and smartphone cameras, which allow you to "sweep" across a scene, making the wide picture automatically within the camera as you go, by taking several rapid exposures as you pan across. I've never yet tried this with mine.

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