Panoramic Photographs of Mt St Helens

I have just made my first reasonably successful panoramic photos and while not perfect I thought it was worth sharing what I have learned so far and the lessons that I can pass on. First of all, you must have a sturdy tripod that you can lock down each of the angles of rotation separately. The only one you want to be able to move is the horizontal scan for a landscape or vertical for a tall shot, such as a waterfall. While we are on the subject of tripods, here is another tip that I just discovered. If you don’t have built in levels in your tripod, keep a level in your camera bag. For the shot shown at the bottom of this post, the tripod was off slightly which means that when assembled only the common area from all individual pictures becomes useable. I got fairly close, but still I wasted some picture space. Mount the camera in the opposite angle of motion. So for a landscape take vertical slices. This enables you to increase the total size and quality of the final picture.

Now, put the camera in fully manual mode and take off auto focus. This is very important as without doing this you will have different expose settings for each shot and they will not assemble correctly. So pan around the complete short you want to take and decide on the best overall settings. Yes – some of them may be underexposed, some a little over exposed. You need to make sure that the primary subject is exposed correctly and that everything else is just OK. The same with focus. Now you are set to start taking the pictures.

You want plenty of overlap between the frames otherwise the software that patches them together will not be able to do its job properly. Also, if you cannot find the full meta data about the picture jot down somewhere the lens settings and in particular the focal length. This will also be needed later on. When you take the shot, look at something in the field of view that you can use as reference for the next frame. This way you can ensure that you have plenty of overlap. Progress as quickly as you can so that conditions do not change while you are capturing all of the frames. In this shot there were 15 frames altogether and the lighting conditions were changing quite a lot as clouds passed by. In shots that include people or other types of movement, you don’t want to have the same person appearing in multiple frames, plus it may mess up the transition areas.

Having captured the frames, it is now time to piece them together. There are several tools available to do this, many of them free. Some of them are simple to use and other quite complex. I am lucky in that I use Canon equipment and they make a very easy to use application to do this. Given that it works from jpgs, I presume that even Nikon users can make use of this application. Interestingly enough, the application cannot work on RAW files, so I had to convert them to jpgs first. I did not do any processing of them (I may go back and try doing that step differently) and exported them from Lightroom as the highest quality jpgs that I could. To join them together, I just had to identify the frames, the order they are in and then tell it to get to work. This is where it asked me about the focal length of the lens. The reason for this is that all lenses create distortion as they move to the extremes and the software has to compensate for this before it is possible to stitch them together. That is the really clever piece of the application. Without it you pictures would look very strange, kind of scalloped along the edges. This is where I also found out about the tripod not being properly leveled as the entire picture was stair step slanted as I panned. Not bad, but as I said, some wasted image space and if it had been bad enough would have rendered the entire sequence unusable.

Interestingly, the Canon photostitcher could not properly output a jpg of the final image. I am not sure if it exceeds some aspect of the jpg standard, or it just a bug in the software, but I did successfully export it as a tiff file, which I could then read back into Lightroom to do some post processing on it.

I adjusted the black level and exposure, made some adjustments on things such as clarity and saturation and adjusted the sharpness. This is the image that I ended up with.

Now, it is far from perfect. I already outlined that part of the shot was wasted, but I can see bands on some of the overlaps. I am not sure if this was due to changed lighting conditions during some of the frames, or an imperfection in the software, or perhaps providing the wrong lens focal length. I picked a setting that was on their pull down and maybe I should have calculated it correctly as it wanted the focal length for a full frame sensor and I use an APS sensor which provides a 1.6X magnification on the lens settings. Since I was shooting at about 58mm, I entered 85mm, but it is closer to 93mm. Perhaps I should try and enter that manually and see if it makes much difference.

Overall, I am pleased with the photograph. It is large being about 80 MegaPixels and the jpg takes up close to 250MB. I am sure I could blow that up to an enormous print – if I could only find someone who could do it. Perhaps consider a triptych.

Brought to you by Brian Bailey

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