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How to Take Panoramic Photos

This column is about capturing those big scenes—those splendid panoramas accessible from Washington trails.

Bursting Sunrise Over Mount  Baker and the North Cascades. This expansive photo, looking south from Winchester Mountain above Twin Lakes, was captured with a Canon 8–15mm f/4L fisheye lens zoomed out to 13mm, giving an angle of view greater than 150 degrees across the horizon. As cropped, its aspect ratio is a panoramic 2.75. Specs: 13mm, ISO 400, 1/30 sec, f/22. Photo by Buff Black.


Stitching Wide (the easy way)

A great many of us have at our fingertips (day and night, inseparably) the means to capture panoramas: our smartphones. Switch the mode to panorama, press the shutter button, pan horizontally at a slow to medium pace, press the shutter button again. Done. No clunky aligning this edge with that edge anymore. The in-phone camera automatically stitches together many “slivers” of the scene into a seamless whole. Check out Doug Diekema’s Sunrise From Sahale Camp in the Mar+Apr 2016 issue for a great example.


Stitching Wide (more creative) 

While in-phone stitching is incredibly convenient, if you want more creative control, use a DSLR (or mirrorless or point-and-shoot) to capture a series of overlapping frames. This can be done freehand (steady now!) or with a tripod (use a panoramic head to reduce distortion). Postcapture, you can stitch the individual images together on your computer using Lightroom, Photoshop or another image editing platform. You can even process HDR (high dynamic range) images while stitching to ensure the composite image is well exposed.


Shooting Wide 

To capture an expanse in a single (unstitched) shot with a DSLR, reach for a wide-angle lens (fixed or zoom) with a focal length in the range of 35mm to 24mm or an ultra-wide from 24mm to about 14mm. (For reference, a standard lens is 50mm, and telephoto is 70mm up to 300+ mm. Even selfieready smartphones shoot wide these days. The Samsung S7 is at 26mm, and the iPhone 6S is at 29mm.) Going even wider, a fisheye lens at 15mm to 8mm can fit in a full 180-degree sweep of the horizon, spanning sunset to moonrise in one optically distorted frame.


Cropping Wide 

Panoramic images usually have an aspect ratio (AR: the ratio of width to height) of at least 2:1 and often 3:1 or higher. Smartphones and flatscreen TVs are mostly 16:9 (almost 2:1). If you stitch photos together (in-phone or on computer), you will likely end up with an AR greater than 2:1. But the aspect ratio of a DSLR image is only 3:2 (36mm W x 24mm H, for full frame), which is not proportionately very wide. In order to render it panoramic, crop to at least 2:1 and try 3:1 or 4:1, depending on the image.

Enchantments by Christopher Prochaska.jpg
Enchantments by Christopher Prochaska.jpgPanoramas can help you encompass the fields of rocky peaks seen across the Cascades. Photo by Christopher Prochaska.

Becoming Pro(ficient) with Panoramics

As you compose, capture and process your wider images, here are several ideas worth keeping in mind.

  • When capturing to stitch a panorama with your smartphone/camera, hold your phone/camera vertically in portrait orientation as you pan horizontally. This gives the image more height along with its elongated width. Otherwise the composite can turn out wide but too skinny.
  • When using wide-angle lenses remember that the focal length of a lens is dependent upon whether the DSLR sensor is full-frame or has a 1.6x crop. For example, a 16mm ultra-wide lens on a camera with a cropped sensor will be about 25mm.
  • When cropping remember, as always, that good composition is king. Sometimes a set aspect ratio such as 3:1 is great. Other times a custom crop will bring the image alive. Importantly, even telephoto shots can be cropped to be honorary panoramics.
  • When capturing panoramics think up and down, as well as side to side. There are plenty of vertical panoramas waiting for you to compose. How about a tall and thin riverto-ridge composition, or a ground-to-crown portrait of an old-growth evergreen.