An online book of Common Sense Photography, by Rhett Stuart

How to Take Digital Panoramas


Digital Panoramas are digital pictures “stitched” together with software like Photoshop®. They are really fun and can be a great reminder of the house you are moving from, the mountain top you climbed, or a favorite spot you want to remember.

Remember to use a tripod for keeping your photographs level, otherwise you will have to crop some off the top and some off the bottom of the pictures in you panorama and you will wind up with a narrow strip. Keep the tripod itself level so the photographs are all horizontal and level. Also remember to overlap each image by 20-40%. It makes it much easier for the software (and for you) to match up the panoramas later.

Something that is very important to remember is to set the exposure for the part of the panorama you really want to turn out the best. Then manually set your camera at these settings, to insure the most important part of the panorama will be exposed correctly. Then take several pictures for the panorama at the same manual settings.

Set up the camera for manual shutter, manual aperture, manual focus, manual white balance and manual ISO so nothing changes as the camera is rotated on the tripod. The reason for this is you don’t want some of the pictures darker or different then others. They won’t match well. I want all the photographs exposed and focused the same so afterwards when I align them they match each other perfectly!

Using a panoramic tripod head is very useful for close objects in the panorama. These tripod heads set the camera back off the tripod head so the “nodal” point of the camera is at the axis in the center point of rotation. Basically, the front of the lens stays in the same place and the rest of the camera spins around it. The nodal point or optical center of a lens is usually about 15-20% back from the very front of the lens.

To properly understand this, close one eye and look at an edge of your computer monitor and compare what shows behind it. Then open the other eye and close the first eye. The perspective changes between the edge of the screen and what is behind it. Panoramic pictures of close objects shows this different perspective when the camera is turned on the tripod. The photographs don’t match up well later on the close up objects. The problem of the background shifting in relationship to the foreground when the perspective is changed is called parallax.

To avoid parallax find the nodal point of your lens by guessing at it and rotating the camera around. The perspective shouldn’t change between near and far objects, they should remain lined up the whole time as the camera rotates. This will take a little adjusting. Once you find the nodal point for your lens, remember where it is to make it easier the next time you do a panorama.

Using a panoramic tripod head allows for the lens nodal to rotate right in the center with the rest of the lens and camera swinging around it prevents this parallax problem with close objects.

There is software available to turn your panorama into a 360 degree picture you can view with QuickTime VR. Quicktime VR can “spin” the photograph around and around 360 degrees, and up and down with the mouse, giving you the effect of actually being there! It is like looking through a window and being able to move the view anywhere you want! Quicktime VR also has a visual effect of seeing clearer in the very center as you spin it, just like our eyes see things clearer in the center. Very neat! You will need to use a panorama tripod head with Quicktime to avoid parallax “ghosting” that appears when the images don’t line up correctly.