Free Photography Tutorials, Beginners to Advanced

Shooting Panoramas

This tutorial will show you how to shoot multiple shots of a scene, panning as you go, and then stitch the shots together to make one large file capable of producing a large print to hang on the wall. This technique is most often used to make panoramas of landscapes, like the one below. You could, of course, shoot the whole thing as one shot and crop the top and bottom of the picture if you have a wide enough lens to get everything in the frame, but then you would just have a normal, low resolution file. The object of this exercise is to produce a large file from which you can make a decent size, high quality print. The full size version of this photo is 11,548 x 3464 pixels, so it is possible to make a good quality print up to 40 inches wide (about one metre).

Sunrise over the sea a multi shot panorama

Another reason you might use this technique is when you are shooting a scene and space is limited, you can't get far enough back from the subject or you don't have wide enough lens, and you just can't get the whole scene in one shot. This technique will actually work quite well with a large group of people as well, you just have to be extra careful where you make the joins between the photos, don't cut where someone has moved between shots. So what do you need to do?

In the Camera

There are various ways to tackle the shooting, some say you should shoot in upright format to minimise distortion, and I think that can be a good idea. The only thing with that is, you then end up with more shots to put together and therefore more work to do. Using a tripod is a very good idea, provided that you set it up properly and the camera is level, as the shots will match up better, you avoid the possibility of accidentally tilting the camera between shots. However, in the shot above, I didn't do either of these things. I'm not saying you shouldn't, of course you should, all I'm saying is that it is possible to get away with snapping away hand-held, in horizontal format, and you can sort the whole mess out afterwards. So don't think that, just because you left your tripod at home, you can't take the shot. Just make sure you keep the camera as level as you can and make sure there is plenty of overlap on each picture.

You need lots of overlap, as you will see in a minute, so that you can match up the photos, it's a bit like doing a jigsaw puzzle. Also, if the camera is tilted differently in each shot, as it can be when you shoot without a tripod, you will need to rotate the pictures as you match them up, which can be a bit of a pain but not impossible.

My panorama was made up of five shots, which you can see below, but you can do this with as many or as few shots as you want.

a series of five original shots for stitching panoramas

Starting the stitch

At this stage of the proceedings you could just shove the five shots into some special stitching software and let it do its worst. I have tried one or two of these programmes and I have not really been happy with the results. As with all automatic processing, it's OK if it works but if it doesn't, or at least not to your satisfaction, what do you do? I think it's far better to learn to do these things yourself, then you can tweak it to your hearts content until you're satisfied with the result. I'm going to show you how to do this in Photoshop but the principle will be the same in any photo editing software, as long is it has layers.

Start whichever end you prefer, I have started on the right. Open the first photo and extend the canvas to the left a sufficient distance to accommodate all the frames.

To do this select image->canvas size ... to open the dialogue box below.

shooting panoramas - extending the canvas

In the anchor box, with the nine squares, click on the right middle box to select it. This will ensure that the new canvas width will be added to the left of your picture. Then choose a new width, it doesn't really matter if you make the picture too wide, you can always trim the excess off at the end, so leave plenty of room. Choose white as the canvas extension color and click OK. You should end up with something like the picture below.

shooting panoramas - the extended canvas

We can now start adding the other pictures. Open the next picture and drag it over your canvas. This will create a new layer with your next picture on it. Make sure it is the next picture in the sequence of course and that the new layer is above the old layer in the layers palette. Reduce the opacity (you'll find the slider at the top right of the layers palette) of the new, topmost, layer to 50% so you can see what you are doing while you match up the two layers by moving the top layer over the right spot. When you are getting near to a fit, use the arrow keys on your keyboard to nudge the layer into position.

shooting panoramas - matching up the layers

Above you can see layer 2 is almost in position, a couple more nudges and the match will be perfect.

shooting panoramas - layer in position

After you have got the layer in position, return the opacity to 100%. The next thing to do is balance up the two pictures by adjusting the levels of one of them until the join line all but disappears. The best way to do this is open the levels palette and move the middle control to lighten or darken the picture (If you're not familiar with levels have a look at this video). There shouldn't be too much difference between the shots but there will be a little as the auto exposure in your camera assesses each shot separately. Once you have got the two shots matched as near as you can (sometimes the line stubbornly won't disappear altogether), You can apply a mask to the topmost layer and, with a large soft brush, soften the join between the two shots.

shooting panoramas - applying a layer mask

Layer Mask

Above you can see the result of the layer mask application, also you can see the layer palette which shows how it is done. To apply a layer mask, first select the correct layer then click the small icon a the bottom of the palette, the one to the right of the fx button, the rectangle with a circle in the middle. This creates the layer mask as indicated by the white rectangle to the right of the top layer. As you paint on this layer with a black brush, parts of the layer beneath are revealed. In this case all we want to do is soften the join between the two layers to hide it, so a single vertical stroke with the brush will do the trick. Incidentally you don't have to paint your straight lines freehand, if you put a dot of black at the top, then hold down the shift key while you put a dot at the bottom, the two will be joined by a straight line.

As you can see, the join between the two shots has now completely disappeared. We can still see a join line at the top of the picture but you can crop that off at the end.

What can go Wrong?

As I said earlier, sometimes you will need to rotate a picture to make it fit properly, you can do this using free transform which can be found on the edit menu. On selecting free transform you will see a marquee around the selected layer. Move your cursor near to a corner but outside the marquee and the cursor will change to a bent arrow, which signifies that you can now rotate the layer. You can move the layer using the arrow keys on your keyboard or by putting your cursor anywhere inside the marquee and dragging.

Sometimes your layer won't fit properly because it is too tall or too short, this is due to a slight distortion as you pan the camera and will be more apparent when shooting at shorter focal lengths. You can make the layer fit by pulling the top or bottom edge of the picture using the same free transform tool. As you can see free transform is a very useful and powerful tool.

Finishing Off

Once you have all your layers in place, trim the picture with the crop tool to get rid of any white bits and the job is done. On my picture at the top of the page, you will notice that I have added extra black at the bottom of the picture just to improve the proportions of the picture, which I felt were a little too letter box shaped, also it puts the horizon a third of the way up the frame, satisfying the rule of thirds.

Make a Sequence Using the Same Montage Technique

The technique is basically the same when used to make sequences such as this one. The only real difference is that making sequences requires more work on the layer masks (see my video tutorial on layer masks). This sequence was shot handheld at around nine frames per second. Life would have been a lot easier if I had used a tripod and shot with a wider angle (or further away) as then the background would have been the same in every picture. However, when you are skiing around the mountains it's a bit of a problem taking a tripod with you, especially the big heavy beast that I have, so I had to do without. This meant I had to match each shot with the one before using the same techinque as for the panorama shot, then I had to cut out the skier using a layer mask, a very long job indeed but one I quite enjoy, I find it quite therapeutic. Actually I only had to cut around the front of each skier as each picture masks the one beneath it. I started from the left and built up the layers one by one. One problem I had doing this photo was that, because I had followed the skier with my camera quite closely, I didn't have all the snow in the middle pictures. Luckily I had taken some pictures earlier of people who hadn't jumped so high and was able to 'borrow' the snow I needed from those. So all together there are fourteen layers in this image.

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Focus Stacking

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Macro 1:1

How to get those ultra close-ups in focus.

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Shooting a panned sequence of shots and stitching them together to make a panorama.

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Techniques to help you capture those golden moments.

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Photography in the Snow

Getting the exposure right in all that white.

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Sports & Action

Tips on how to capture fast action.

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Travel Photography

Take better holiday photos without losing your sanity.

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Wedding Photography

A complete 'how to' for weddings, with an accent on crowd control.

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Working with Models

Bribing people to sit for you.

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