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PatriarchCropped1400

Panoramic Images: Tips for Getting More of the Tetons in a Shot

Wide Image Opportunities Abound in the Tetons!

FourParts

You can always simply crop a single digital image to “appear to be a panoramic image”, but you’ll be limited on how large you can print it. Cropped images will probably work fine for most web purposes. A 35 megapixel camera like a Nikon D800 gives a few more options in that regard, of course. The purpose of this page is to show how to take a series of individual images that can be “stitched” into a single, large image. Note: Images on this page are resized to fit the page, so click on any of them to see them much larger.

Patriarch1400

 Pano “Overview”:

To be honest, making panoramic images is surprisingly easy—however it often takes a little planning and a few special steps. When you look out at a scene, your eyes have the ability to “see” a fairly wide area. Most SLR (digital or film) cameras are confined to a 2:3 ratio. For many images, that might be enough, but in the Tetons, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to capture so much more. If you study the group of four images near the top of the page, you can see how simple it can be! Stay level and overlap each shot by about 25%. Back at the computer, the group of parts can be opened and “stitched” with a program like Photoshop.  In theory (and in practice) you “can” simply stand in one spot and handhold the camera to snap off three or four images. In reality, it helps to set the camera on a tripod and make a few simple adjustments to the camera for the series of shots. It is difficult to hand hold a camera dead level over a series of shots. It is also easy to miss the necessary overlaps.

PatriarchCropped1400

The image above was cropped from the four shot stitched pano. I find it easy to shoot extra wide and pick the prime area later. In the case of the Old Patriarch Tree image using all four parts, I didn’t like the way it was centered in the composition. I liked the cropped version much better. Stitched panos offer a lot more options!

Tools & Tips

Web_GitzoTripodLevel_May19

Get Set Up and Level! : This image shows the level built into the base of my Gitzo tripod. It is possible to level the tripod by adjusting the legs. Third party levels are available for many tripods if yours doesn’t have one.

Web_SpiritLevel_May19

Spirit Levels sell for around $23. I usually leave it on my D800 for landscape images. This is an “old school” method for leveling the camera using a ball head or other tripod head. Many of the newer cameras now offer a “virtual horizon” feature. I use it when I don’t have the spirit level on the hot shoe, and I have my virtual horizon set as one of the function buttons on the front of the camera for quick access. Once the tripod is level and the camera is level on the head, it is possible to pan the camera maintaining near perfect, level images.

Web_RRSLevelingBase_May19

Really Right Stuff Leveling Base: My original Gitzo tripod legs had a center plate with a 1/4″ stud used to attach to a ball head or other tripod head. Instead of having to level my tripod by adjusting the legs, I purchased a leveling base. I replaced the plate with a “bowl” as seen above. Common size bowls are 75 mm or 100mm. You can see how the ball can swivel around in the bowl, and once the knob is tightened, the base is level, even if the legs aren’t! (Note: Many different companies sell leveling bases. This one fit my Gitzo tripod model which didn’t have a center post).

Web_RRSLevelingBaseBubble_May19

It takes literally only seconds to level the head using one of these bases. Again, you don’t have to buy all the gadgets, but it can save time and energy. The key point is to be able to pan perfectly level.

Camera Adjustments

Most people have their camera set to auto focus and auto exposure. Some have auto ISO turned on, too. While you might get away with the auto settings, they can cause problems on a panoramic set of images. I’ll throw out a few examples. If you shoot out into a scene, the camera will probably lock onto an object with the auto focus…such as a barn. After panning to the next shot, the camera might lock onto a tree along the distant mountains if it can’t find anything else. When stitched, the varying focus distances will probably be evident. Similarly, if you shoot across a wide scene, the metering in the camera will probably vary considerably across the scene if left in auto mode. The sky might look light in one and dark in the next shot. If left in auto ISO, similar fluctuations can occur across four or five shots.

For panos, I can still let the camera meter a shot for me. Normally, I take a couple of photos of the subject as though it was a single shot, then review the resulting exposure settings. If my ISO is set (usually at 5880K), the other two variables are the aperture and shutter speed. If the test shot looks good at F/8 at 1/80th of a second, I switch to Manual exposure mode and enter those two settings. In other words, I don’t have to know that much about setting the exposure, I simply have to adjust to what the camera tells me is working. The second step is to focus on an object in the scene, then switch to manual focus by either changing the setting on the side of the camera or on the lens.

Verticals

Ready, Set, Shoot!

Once the camera is level and the settings are locked down, the next step is capture the images. I’ve always shot from left to right, though I am not sure if the software requires it. The theory is to overlap each shot by about 25%. This give the software a good chance to identify common elements when stitching the parts. Normally, I look at something along the right side of the shot as I snap it, the pan slightly to allow for the overlap, then repeat. If you are going to err, I’d suggest overlapping more than less. The image set at the top of the page was taken with a Nikon D800 35 mpx camera. The set of images just above were taken a few years ago with a Nikon D300 12 mpx camera. I haven’t needed to shoot the D800 in vertical orientation, but it made sense on the D300.

While I don’t do it every time, I usually adjust my camera to shoot with a second or two “shutter delay”. (Shutter Delay is option d-4 in my shooting settings, but it might be different on your camera). This allows the mirror to settle down before the actual exposure. While taking sunrise photos, light can change quickly, so I watch my histogram and adjust the shutter speed fairly often if one set starts looking overexposed. I tend to take three or four sets of each image, just in case I miss the overlap or shake the camera on one set.

A Few Technical Points

Web_GitzoSetup_May19

This is my normal setup. You can see the Gitzo tripod legs, RRS leveling base, Arca-Swiss z-1 Ball Head, RRS L-Bracket, Camera Body and Spirit Level. I set this up this afternoon to take a few shots for this blog post, but after taking the photos, I see a mistake. Actually, I am happy I made the mistake for this purpose. The issue is a technical one. A camera has something called a “nodal point”. The nodal point of a lens is the point inside a lens where light paths cross before being focused onto a sensor plane. You can do a search for Nodal Point and read all the technical discussions you can stand. For the absolute best pano image, the idea is to get the nodal point directly over the center of the swing of panning motion. Really Right Stuff sells all kinds of rails and clamps to help get this exact. For most of what I do, I’ve never felt I needed all of it.

If you study the image above, you can see my camera is not centered over the center of the tripod head. It is too far to the right of center. More than likely, the nodal point is slightly forward of center, too. I’d definitely fix the left-right centering in the field. In fact, RRS adds a small circle with a line through it on their L-Brackets to help center it over the center of the ball head.  For most landscape work, I don’t worry about the half inch difference front/back issue. However, if you were to be doing architectural panos, purchasing the nodal rails would probably be worth the investment. One last technical point—L-Brackets are almost essential for doing pano images when working in the portrait orientation.

Post Processing

If you are shooting JPG images, most of the adjustments like hue, saturation, white balance, and so forth are “baked in” your images.  RAW images usually need some adjustments for hue, saturation, sharpening, noise reduction, white balance, and so forth. There are two basic options. First, it is possible to use a program like Lightroom to make some global adjustments to a single image out of the group, then “sync” the same adjustments to the remaining images in the set. That’s the way I usually prefer to do it. The other alternative is to stitch the set of raw files first and then adjust them in Photoshop as a single image. Either way, the idea is to adjust all of them equally.

Photomerge

Adobe’s Photomerge utility is often used to stitch parts of a panoramic image together. There are other third party programs, but I’ve found Photomerge to be plenty capable without spending more money. If you don’t own and use Lightroom, you can simply go to the File pull down and click Automate, then Photomerge.

Photomerge

Photomerge’s Menu: From this menu, click Browse and find the files that make up a Pano group. I suggested clicking Blend Images Together and Vignette Removal and using the default Auto choice. After picking the group of files, hit Okay and sit back. The resulting file will show up in Photoshop with multiple layers. This program has become so good, I go ahead and flatten it immediately. (Layer>Flatten) Crop and finish the image as normal.

Using Lightroom to Get to Photomerge: Select the group of images in Lightroom, then go to Photo>Edit In>Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. The same dialog box will appear with the selected images displayed in the Source Files list.  Check the same boxes and hit Okay. Flatten the image and do the fine tuning as desired.


2015 Addendum:

Adobe added a new feature in Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC, well worth mentioning here.  It streamlines the workflow considerably and  will help reduce the number of files I keep. Here are the basic steps:

Pano Updates

Select the pano parts. You can process them before combining them, or process them after the stitching. Either way, you’ll be working on your digital negatives all the way through. More on that in a minute.

Screen Grab

The new commands are located under Photo>Photo Merge> Panorama (shortcut Control-M)

Dialog Box

After clicking Panorama in the previous box, you will see a preview thumbnail and a button to Merge the images as seen above.

Stitched Image

New Stitched Image: The results looks something like this. The resulting file will have the same file name as the highlighted image with “-Pano.dng” appended to it. This new dng files is fully editable and is still a digital negative. If Auto Crop was turned on, it will be cropped to the usable image area, but you can go to the crop box to adjust it as desired.

Advantages: The previous methods involved creating either PSD, TIF or JPG files first, then stitching them. This new features allows users to continue to have full editing tools on a first generation digital negative. The preview lets you see quickly if the parts will work. If not, it notifies you before it attempts to merge the entire image. The new dng file is automatically added to the current Lightroom catalog. In previous versions, the output folder needed to be synced.

Modified Workflow: Normally, I shoot two or three shots of each pano set, just to be safe. Occasionally, one image out of a set will be out of focus or blurry. Occasionally, I don’t overlap enough for the software to combine the images effectively. In the past, I picked a set, ran it, and inspected the results—but kept extra sets because of the effort required to check all of them. Now, I create a HDR-Pano folder with images that need merging, then copy them to my Mac through the network connection. In LR on the Mac, I merge each set, then delete the parts. I keep the resulting DNG files only. (I let the Mac process them while I work on the PC—so this is a step others might not need). The DNGs are moved back to the PC where they are imported in to the catalog. I can keyword and process each DNG, or delete duplicates if desired.  Lastly, I now have one single image to submit to the US Copyright office, instead of all the files I would need to create a composite.

Quicker: Sometimes it takes longer to try to explain the steps than it takes to actually do the same steps. For the panos, I simply select two, or three or four images in a pano set, hit 9 to temporarily assign a rating color, hit Command-M, wait for the preview and then click the Merge button. That takes only seconds. It takes roughly a minute per pano part for the Mac to process the set. After the processing, the original parts remain selected and I hit the Delete button to remove the parts permanently.

HDR Panos: I should mention the HDR feature in LR6 and CC. The process is exactly the same for HDR files as Pano sets. Just select the HDR option instead in the pull down menu. It is also possible to do HDR Pano images within Lightroom 6 and CC. Shoot 3 to 5 HDR images for each segment of the pano set. In Lightroom, process each of the HDR sets, then select all of the resulting DNG files and run the Pano option on them. In the end, you’ll get one fully editable DNG file.

Adobe Lightroom Key Features Chart: The HDR and PanoMerge features are included in the boxed version of Lightroom 6, as you can see on Adobe’s site. You’ll also notice a column of features only available in the Creative Cloud version, like the new DeHaze feature.


 

Shooting Considerations & Comments

Once you get the hang of making panos, you’ll begin to “see” pano opportunities. At some point, you’ll likely begin to realize how limiting a single 2:3 image can be! Even with a good tripod, leveling base and all the cool little gadgets, it is a good idea of shoot a bit “wide”. Or put another way, give yourself some extra elbow room to allow for distortions, slight variances in off-level and so forth. Some wide angle lenses will create additional distortions that will need adjusting and cropping. It is possible to do vertical panos, too. Photoshop’s Photomerge is not designed to handle vertical panoramics, but all you have to do is rotate all of them 90°, run Photomerge, then rotate the final image back to -90°. It is also possible to do HDR pano images by processing each HDR set as a unit, then stitching the resulting images into a single final image. Just remember to process each of the parts the same. If you really get hooked on panos and want to make absolutely huge images, check out GigaPan.  Lastly, it is possible to include wildlife in a pano image. It might take a little pre-planning. Get set up, take the shot of the animal as it strolls by. Then  shoot the shots of a pano and assemble them later. There are a few considerations like clouds and shadows to deal with on some shots.

Some contests prohibit “composited” images. The rules may or may not accept stitched panoramic images, even if the original intention was to keep someone from adding a grizzly bear into a scene when it wasn’t there originally. When I am “experiencing a wonderful” scene, I typically snap off a few images with a wide angle lens just to have them, then pull in tight and do the pano parts. It’s just a safety net! For this blog, I do the same thing. I might take one or two knowing they will be posted to the daily pages, then buckle down and do the serious pano parts for the portfolio.

A Real World Outing

I wrote most of this article on a Monday night so I’d have something to post Tuesday night or Wednesday morning. Tuesday morning, I drove out to the barns on Mormon Row and did a few panos to compliment this post.

SunriseBarnScreenGrab2

The image above shows the four images I captured this morning. I selected the second image in Lightroom, then the other three. I assigned them a “9” which put the blue dot around them, making them easier to keep together. If I had another set, I’d give them a 6, 7, or 8. Since the second image has the barn and Grand, I made some adjustments to the hue, saturation, highlight, shadows, and so forth, then hit the Sync button to apply the same settings to the other three. With all four selected, I clicked Edit In> Panorama in Photoshop. When Photomerge completed, it opened in Photoshop with the image at the top and with four layers as seen in the lower left screen grab. I flattened the image.

SunriseBarns_WebBlogExampleMay20_clonedfigures1400

With the layers flattened, I did a tiny bit of rotation to make the valley floor horizon line look straight, then cropped it as seen above. The clouds thickened in the East at about the time I took this image. By the time it broke through the clouds, most of the morning color was becoming washed out. If you look at the uncropped image above, you can see how the set of four images were aligned horizontally. If your tripod is not level, each shot will be “stairstepped”, even if the camera was level.

SunriseBarnStairStepped

This image shows how the “stair stepped” image might look after being stitched. Photoshop will usually do a good job of aligning the horizon line, but the stair steps will greatly reduce the height of the useable portion of the composite—as seen in the outline of the red box. Hand holding a pano set of images will usually result in something similar, plus it is equally difficult to keep the camera perfectly horizontal over a series of four or five shots.

SunriseBarns_WebAdjusted1400

Additional Adjustments in Photoshop.

Grand Teton Pano Locations

Over the years, I’ve taken panoramic images in most locations of the Park. It takes a little time to start “thinking pano”, but once you do, it becomes apparent just about any place can be good. While many think of panos as super wide shots, I often take a “pano” of just two images. I tend to limit the parts to about 5, but I’ve done as many as 15 verticals…maybe more. Of course, file sizes can get huge. When reading a post like this, it might sound like a lot of time and effort to get set up. It takes quite a bit of effort to try to describe the process of taking Panoramic images, but in the field, I can level my camera and make the necessary camera adjustments in about 2 minutes. I simply go into “auto pilot” from doing it so many times.

Here are a few of my favorite pano locations:

  • Mormon Row and the Barns
  • Snake River Overlook
  • Schwabacher Landing
  • Shadow Mountain
  • Wedding Trees
  • Oxbow Bend
  • Anywhere along Jackson Lake and Jenny Lake
  • Old Patriarch Tree
  • String Lake
  • Willows Flats
  • Sleeping Indian
  • Miller House
  • The Meadows near Arizona Creek

MillerHousePano1400

First Light at the Miller House on the National Elk Refuge: I think this is a great example of how a panoramic image can capture a scene. (Click the image to see it much larger!) There are a lot of elements in this scene, but I think they tie together nicely and balance each other. The wispy morning clouds add to the scene without overpowering it. Your eyes flow along in the scene and get the payoff of the distant Tetons. Someday, I’d like to capture the same scene with low morning fog behind the house, with just the tops of the ridge on East Gros Ventre Butte and the Tetons protruding from it.

BlacktailButte2013

The Grand and Evening Clouds: Taken from the Gros Ventre road last winter.

This post is intended on helping most readers get their feet wet doing panoramic images. There will be lots of additional tutorials on the Internet, some of which will be dense with techno-babble and iron clad rules. Some sites and tutorials will be promoting the need for nodal rails, clamps, or leveling tools and software. I like my leveling base for speed and ease of use, but it is simple enough to do panos with just the aid of a good tripod and either an inexpensive spirit level or use the built in “virtual horizon” feature in their camera. This post is focused on the Tetons, but once you get the concept down, there will be panoramic opportunities almost everywhere—including every state, and city or town. Get out and shoot some panos!

Oh yes…one last thing! I own an iPhone capable of taking seamless panoramic images in one motion. They are actually quite amazing, but they are currently no match for a high end DSLR camera, good technique, and steady equipment!

Click Here to see a few of my panos at Teton Images.

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Comments (6)

  1. Wyomingresident

    Great post! I’m glad I subscribed! -wyomingresident

  2. John Tienter

    Thanks for the instructions, very inspiring. Will give shooting panoramic this week end. Will post a link on Nikonians, hope you don’t mind.
    Wonderful images, thanks again.

  3. Hi John,
    Thanks for posting! No, I REALLY appreciate it when people post links and comments about this site on other sites like Nikonians, Fred Miranda, Naturescapes, Yellowstone.net, Trip Adviser and so forth. They’d prefer another reader post it than me tooting my own horn there! Thanks again! MJ

  4. Kathy Harrison

    Aloha Mike,

    Thanks to your careful description of the panoramic photo process I bit the bullet and upgraded my old Manfrotto tripod with an L bracket and a leveling base. Your way of teaching is exceptional and greatly appreciated. Mahalo. Lynn and Kat

  5. Nice educational blog, Mike. With the new Lightroom 6 it is fairly easy to put together a pano. But putting together a great pano includes steps from setting up a tripod to stitching together 4 or more pieces to the puzzle. Your article will help me to recognize the opportunity for a pano, and the steps to making it great. By the way, with the new Lightroom 6 is it easier to do a vertical pano? Your article isn’t real clear to me about that.

  6. Hi Randy,
    I am not sure when they added it, but you don’t need to rotate the images now. The software figures it out automatically. Cheers! MJ

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