Before I start the article, I would just like to say that I really do think that panoramic images work best when they are viewed large… So, click on any image in this article to view it full screen!
I remember the day well. It was a damp afternoon at the Franz Josef Glacier in New Zealand, and I had just finished taking an (admittedly poor) shot of the glacier reflected in the mirror like waters of the small kettle lake known as Peters Pool. I was in the process of packing my gear away when I noticed someone walking towards me pulling a large flight case and, apparently very heavy tripod upon a luggage trolley. Now, by my very nature I am quite an inquisitive person – especially when tripods are involved. So, we said our hellos and I couldn’t help but ask the gentleman what he was pulling within a flight case to a small backcountry lake. He answered with a simple explanation, it was his camera! And he proceded to open the box and let me see what was inside… and it was a thing of pure beauty. Sitting within was a Fujifilm GX617 medium format panoramic film camera, a behemoth of a letterbox shaped camera designed to capture a large panoramic image on a piece of film measuring 6 x 17 centimetres. To put this in context, at the time I was shooting on 35mm film.
The weird thing about that random encounter is that it made me start to notice more and more the panoramic posters, cards and calendars that were being sold in New Zealand at the time (back in the year 2000!). I slowly found myself becoming hooked to the format but the chances of me ever being able to afford a dedicated panoramic camera were extremely remote. And even if I could, the logistics of backpacking around the world with a camera that required a flight case would be preposterous.
There was a problem however… the seeds had been sowed and I found myself being more and more pulled towards panoramic images. A chance visit to the Peter Lik Cairns gallery in 2001 probably didn’t help matters! So, when I did finally return to the UK towards the end of 2001 (just 18 months on the road(!)) it probably shouldn’t surprise you that I started looking at what my different options were for shooting panoramic images. And believe me when I tell you that it has never been simpler to shoot panoramic images than it is now!
Essentially you now have three different ways to create panoramic images. You can either choose to use a dedicated panoramic camera, crop your digital images to a panoramic format or stitch a sequence of images together to create a large panoramic format. But which one is the best?
Using a dedicated camera
So, jumping back to my life memoir(!), when I was commissioned for my first book in 2002, I was fortunate enough to receive a payment for the use of my photos, (now this may sound strange but generally book publishers now give you a royalty payment based on sales and not a fee for use of photos, anyway, I digress) and with this payment I finally purchased my first panoramic camera – The Hasselblad X-Pan. The shot above was taken using this camera.
The main advantages of using a dedicated panoramic system is that it is very easy to compose your shot and you are maximising the quality of your final photograph by not having to crop into your image in any way. However the main problem with using a panoramic dedicated camera is that they generally all use film. Now, as I discussed in this recent article, shooting film can actually drastically improve your photography. However, it can prove to be an expensive pastime especially if you wish to view your film captured images on your computer via the processing of scanning. Back in the days of film, it was always expensive to have panoramic film scanned simply because it wasn’t that common a format. Considering that we are now in the digital era, it is hardly surprising that it is even more uncommon and, consequently, still quite expensive to have scanned.
Keeping on the subject of cost, panoramic film cameras are also now surprisingly expensive compared to the more standard formats. For example, the X-Pan and 45mm lens which I used for the above shot cost me £1500 secondhand from a dealer. It would now cost you approximately £3000 on eBay.
But, before you think I have totally abandoned the idea of using a dedicated film camera, I still have a secret hankering for a Fujifilm GX617. There is just something magical about viewing a 6 x 17 centimetre slide. However, the preferred alternatives of my bank manager are below!
Cropping your image to a panoramic format
This is actually now my preferred method but this is entirely due to the fact that I have used a Fujifilm GFX 50S Digitial Medium Format camera for the last couple of years – and it just so happens to have a 24 x 65 mm crop function a.k.a as the X-Pan crop. This doesn’t happen to be a coincidence as the Hasselblad X-Pan was actually designed by Fujifilm (and marketed as the Fujifilm TX-1 in Japan) so it kind of makes sense that Fujifilm would want to incorporate some of their medium format heritage (OK, so the X-Pan / TX-1 actually used 35mm film but it had this nifty trick of being able to expose across two frames giving you a 24×65mm image captured on film) into their digital medium format cameras.
As the Fujifilm GFX 50S is a mirrorless camera, it means that you can preview and compose your images via the EVF in your desired aspect ratio – be that a rectangle, square or panoramic. This effectively makes the GFX a digital X-Pan although it comes at a cost to your wallet and your back. It is undoubtedly a large camera and the lenses are, quite frankly, huge. And as for the cost, well, lets just say that the original, film based, X-Pan almost starts to look a bargain! However, as the GFX 50S is digital, there are no running costs as such.
Of course, we are still looking at a lot of money for the above options but the ability to compose a panoramic in camera is unsurprisingly useful. Furthermore, you can re-crop your image during the post-processing stage (as long as you shoot in RAW) meaning that you can recompose your shots if required after the event. Of course, you can crop any image from any camera to a panoramic format during post-processing and it is a viable option for a simple panoramic workflow.
The lighthouse shot above is a good example of why both the dedicated camera and cropping option are preferable to the following, more common, method of creating stitched panoramics. Movement in stitched panoramics can be a real issue but the cropped image above was as simple as taking a regular, non panoramic image.
Creating a stitched panoramic
Now whilst the above two options are probably my preferred methods for creating panoramic images, there is no denying that stitched panoramas have their advantage especially in the final resolution of the resulting image file. Simply put, you can create far bigger prints using even the most modest of digital cameras.
The method behind creating a stitched panoramic is relatively simple. You need to capture a sequence of images, with the framing of the shot slightly over lapping the previous one, and then you combine the images using post-processing software such as Adobe Lightroom to create a final large panoramic.
Of course there are some technical considerations to be kept in mind when taking the shots; every image has to have the same exposure and be focussed on the same point, effectively dictating that you shoot in full manual mode with fully manual focussing. Keeping exposure in mind, you need to determine the best exposure for all of the frames and you also need to work very quickly or the light (and required exposure) may change during the sequence. Luckily the post processing side of things is now actually really simple with a number of software packages being available which can stitch your images together with relative ease.
To give you an idea of the image size you can expect to achieve when shooting stitched panoramas, the above shot was captured using a 16mp, fixed lens camera but the resulting file was the equivalent of a 60mp camera. It would produce a lovely 44 inch wide print!
As for the actual number of images you require to take a panoramic image, it all really depends on the orientation of your camera at the shooting stage. I would really recommend that you always shoot your camera in a portrait format and capture approximately 9 frames (of course your choice of focal length will depend on the scene but I wouldn’t be going wider than using a 35mm lens). This will probably be more frames than you actual require but it does mean that you will have a little bit of scope to change your composition during the post processing stage. It is probably of no surprise that I recommend that you use a tripod for taking this sequence of shots.
The image above was captured using a slightly different method, which happens to be my preferred method when shooting for stitched panoramics. This shot was stitched from 3 separate, horizontal (landscape) orientated images which were taken using a specialist architectural lens known as a tilt-shift lens.
Generally these lenses are used to control perspective distortion however in this instance I used the shift function to move the lens 3 times, taking a shot at each setting. First it was shifted left, and then moved to the middle before finally shooting an image with it shifted to the right. The advantage of using such a lens is that the shifting process of the lens is far quicker that turning a camera on a tripod, and the resulting images will stitch together perfectly – every time! I also find it far easier to compose panoramic images using a tilt-shift lens as opposed to the vertical, camera turning method.
Sticking with the composing of panoramic images, I tend to find that it is a more intuitive process compared to composing regular images. Whilst the rule of thirds, odds and leading the eye can all be useful I like to compose my panoramic images like the pages of a book… with the content based around the viewer looking at the final image in a left to right motion.
Whatever you preferred method of panoramic photography, I can assure you that it is great fun to experiment with different compositions that simply wouldn’t work with a regular format. And you won’t even need to use a trolley to transport your camera!