Boo's Digital Photography Tutorials.  No. 2

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Photographing and creating panoramas with the Canon 300D.

Back to the Tutorials listing :: English Lake District panoramas

Coniston from the northern corner, facing south west.  Please click for a larger view.  Large file!

I don't claim to be an expert at panoramas, when there are so many stunning ones out there, but I do enjoy taking the shots for them and putting them together - and certainly experience is improving my results. Questions are often posted in the camera forums asking for tips on setting up photographs to make good panoramas, so this is my personal technique.

Setting up to take the shots

My own technique is to work in manual mode for everything to ensure consistency between frames, with a reasonably tight aperture for DOF, f11 usually gives reliable results and I use hyperfocal distance to focus carefully to ensure good depth of field. I pan the scene first and watch the exposure meter and see where the scene looks brightest and set the exposure in manual mode for that point in the panorama - it's vital that you use the same exposure for every shot - so you must work in manual, any other mode will change the exposure as the scene changes and your individual frames may end up looking very different, which is difficult to join. The same is true of white balance (WB), don't use Auto WB as this may make adjustments to the colour cast, either choose one of the presets, or a custom one for the scene.

If you set exposure for the brightest frame, it might make some frames too dark initially, but it's easier to lighten those areas locally than recover blown areas of sky, you invariably have one frame where there's more sky showing, or bright highlights, as you can see in the scene above, the second quarter from the left is considerably brighter than the right hand half of the frame.

Hyperfocal distance focusing:

I have a quick DOF rule I apply for landscapes, based on Hyperfocal distance. Hyperfocal distance is a point in space in front of you that is determined by the aperture and focal length of the lens - and if you focus at that point, everything from half way between yourself and the hyperfocal distance and to infinity will be in focus. So if the lens aperture and focal length determines that the hyperfocal distance is 12 feet - everything from 6 feet away to infinity will be sharp.

My own quick rule of thumb that's easy to remember is 11:30. That's all I remember - at f11 and 30mm, hyperfocal distance is 11 feet (it's actually 12, but the easy to remember version works close enough).
   [The Langdales: I realise I take this scene often, but it's so stunning and always looks very different at differing times of year and weather.  Warning, large file!]
So I set my aperture at f11, focus on something 11 feet away at around 30mm focal length and everything in the scene should be sharp - as long as nothing is nearer to you than 6 feet. If your key scene elements are further away than that, you can open up even wider - f8 would work very well - right at the lens sweet spot - for objects further away. The f8 rule of thumb to remember would be 8:18 : At f8 and 18mm, hyperfocal distance is 8 feet away.

The way I tell if it will work, is to focus using Autofocus at the point in front of me that I calculate to be the appropriate hyperfocal distance for my scene and settings, then switch the lens to manual focus. If I then scan over the scene with my finger on the shutter button and touch it over elements in the scene at different distances that I want in focus - if I get the red blink of the focus point in the View Finder and the green focus lock spot in the display - I know those points will be in focus when I frame and take the shot. I remain in manual focus for the series of shots as I find it gives good consistent joins between the frames.

Framing your overlap:

Many people work with a tripod and there is much discussion about pivoting around the nodal point to get accurate geometry, but I personally haven't taken that much care to date, purely because I don't have a tripod yet that can do the job justice, but I'd recommend at least the use of a tripod unless you're confident hand holding and have a solid technique. I've written a bit more about nodal points and tripod use in the section below. Until I get a suitable tripod, I have been using my trusty shoulder pod (Cullmann model 0800) as I always have it with me and I feel confident in using it. I position myself so that I'm squarely facing the middle of the intended scene and I swivel at the hips, leaning back slightly, rotating to the extremities of the scene. I practice a few times to develop muscle memory and to plan the shots and ensure I can reach each extremity without any body adjustments, then I start to take the photographs.

I take the first frame at the left and then gently rotate to the right, watching the scene carefully in the view finder to keep the horizontal in the same place. As I take the first shot, I note what detail is under the right hand focus square on the focussing screen and when I rotate, I place that same detail under the left hand square and I repeat this through however many shots I take, usually 4 or 5, many more than this gets problematic on geometry with the curves. I've found that to be a decent workable overlap for stiching.

Nodal Points and Parallax Errors:

  [A longer focal length and avoiding close elements in your scene, will avoid parallax errors.  Large file!]  When you take a series of frames of a horizontal scene from a fixed rotating point, objects at different distances from you appear in different relative positions from one frame to the next and consequently when you overlap those frames, if one point lines up, another one won't - that's called parallax errors - and this is usually what is responsible for poor joins - it's more obvious the greater depth front to back in the scene between details - a flat scene in the distant on the horizon might not show this as much as one with items closer in the foreground as well. It typically shows as a double ghosted image or smudged looking details where you stitch images.

You can illustrate this phenomena to yourself by holding up your finger and looking at it with one eye only - align it with an object behind it in the room and then swap eyes - the finger appears to jump in the scene - that's parallax. When your finger is close to your face it jumps a great deal, at arms length, less so. That's why panoramas with foreground and distant detail in the same scene are often difficult to join well. If you don't have a way to counter this phenomena, try restricting yourself to panoramas of scenes with details at a constant distance from the lens and no foreground objects, they'll be easier to stitch and give more satisfying results.

To counter parallax errors, you need to rotate your camera at the right pivot point to fix this geometry - this point on a camera is known as its nodal point - and it isn't under the body of the camera where you normally pivot on a tripod - it's further forward usually, somewhere under the lens (as it's the point within the lens where the light converges) - so you ideally need to fix the camera to the tipod using some form of bracket that displaces the camera backwards behind the centre pivot of the tripod. Where this actually is, needs to be calibrated individually for each lens (there are tutorials on-line of how to do so) - once done, when rotating to make shots for a panorama, the rotation takes place at the nodal point and eliminates, or at least reduces, these parallax errors and therefore the details of the scene under the joins are much easier to match. Your tripod needs to be good and level of course - any tilts or angles will undo the geometry advantage of using the nodal point - so invest in a spirit level too.

Don't be tempted to take frames at wide angle.

Another tip I can pass on, gleaned from experience - don't work fully wide angle on focal length unless you're properly set up with a steady tripod and calibrated panorama head/bracket. Although it's tempting to do so to get more in each frame, the distortion of scenes at wider angles is more pronounced and damaging to the pano. If you're using the kit lens, set the focal length no wider than 30mm, it's much better to take 5 frames at 30mm than 3 at 18mm, you'll be happier with the results. Most of us have learnt that from experience.

I habitually shoot in RAW mode, so that I have more latitude and ease of working if I need to adjust the exposures for some darker areas. The Coniston panorama shown above is the result of 8 blended frames in total - 4 exposures taken across the width of the scene, with two versions developed for each frame, one each for the sky, (which I exposed for as this was the interesting detail) and then I developed a lighter one for the landscape and blended each frame from 2 copies to get more detail in the scene on the land, much more range than the camera can record with a single exposure. I then stitched the four newly merged frames in the PhotoStitch software that comes with the camera. There are many more sophisitcated tools for stitching panoramas, but PhotoStitch is about as easy as it's possible to be and will give gratifyingly fast results with great ease. I've since progressed to using Autostitch and have found the results very good indeed - but you need to adjust from the defau lt settings, which tend to give very unsatisfactory results.

Once your panorama is stitched, it may be necessary to open the file in your image editor of choice and make modest adjustments in the regions around the joins, sometimes detail can become woolly and plain areas like sky can darken slightly where they overlap. Some gentle work with the clone tool can improve the situation. My own favoured technique is to open the original frames and select the affected area from one of the frames with a feathered selection, copy it and paste it over the poor bit in the panorama - on most occasions this cures the problem.

Because I work in RAW, it's easy, whilst developing your frames, to see if the exposures and colours are good in the regions around the joins. It is my practice to use the dropper tool to check the RGB value of particular points that I know appear at each end of two adjacent frames. Any tiny adjustments can be made if it looks necessary, whilst developing the frame from the RAW file.

May the light be kind to you!

Windermere from the foot of Gummer's How at the south east corner.  Please click for a larger view.   Large file!

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