8 Tips for Photographing Panoramas

Stitching software makes creating big, detailed panoramas from a series of photos easy. Here's how to shoot for the best results.

1. Use Free Software to Make a Panorama

Of all the benefits that going digital has brought to photography, perhaps none is cooler than easily making a panorama. In the old days, if you wanted to take a panorama, you needed a special camera, or you had to tape together a set of pictures. (That's right: You'd use sticky strips of tape to connect a bunch of photos that didn't quite go together.) Today, of course, perfectly joined panoramas are easy to create using your favorite photo editor or a free panorama stitching program.

2. Control the Exposure

To shoot a panorama, you take a series of overlapping images. If you've ever taken a panorama on a sunny day, you've probably seen bands of light and dark running through the final image, the result of your camera's using a different exposure for each shot.

You can't easily fix that problem in an editing program. To prevent it, set your camera to its manual exposure mode and keep the same exposure locked for each photo. Not sure what exposure to use? Point the camera at the brightest and darkest parts of the scene, and note the exposures it recommends--and then set a value in between.

3. Don't Shoot in Wide-Angle Mode

Most panorama stitching software can accommodate a wide range of focal lengths, but these programs generally work best if you stay away from the wide-angle end of your camera's zoom range. Instead, set your lens to its "normal" range, anywhere between 35mm and 80mm. Here's what it can look like when you try to stitch together a scene shot with a camera set to a wide angle of about 20mm--your panorama software will have difficulty in matching up the edges.

4. Shoot Left to Right

You can shoot a panorama in any direction: Start on the left and take each successive shot to the right, or do it the other way around. As long as you get sufficient overlap between photos, you can take them in any order you like. If you make a habit of shooting from left to right, however, when you see all of the thumbnails in your photo organizer later on, you can easily tell that you have a series of photos that are intended to be part of a panorama.

5. Take It Outside

In shooting a panorama, you can encounter problems with parallax: When you take a photo and turn slightly to capture the next part of the scene, objects close to the lens appear to shift in relation to objects in the background.

Check out this panorama that I took of an indoor scene--it looks as if I've captured ghost furniture. What's going on? The post and chair appear to have moved left to right compared to the background, as I rotated the camera. That's parallax, and I don't know any way to avoid it. The lesson here is that the best panoramas aren't taken indoors, and they don't have prominent objects in the foreground.

6. Beware of the Curve Effect

When you get right down to it, panorama stitching software transforms a series of photos into a virtual wide-angle photo. Sometimes your completed panorama can appear as if you shot the scene with a fish-eye lens. That means long, straight elements (such as roads) tend to curve and bend--as in this photo. Believe it or not, the driveway is quite straight in real life. The closer you are to your subject, the curvier some parts of your photo may look. The solution? Try to capture scenes with a uniform, distant vista: Close-ups don't work for panoramas.

7. Overshoot and Crop the Edges

Because your panorama stitching program creates a wide-angle image from a series of photos, the edges of your resulting panorama will curve in a way that makes cropping the photo into a nice, even rectangle difficult. You'll also get variations in the top and bottom edges of your photos. This panorama, for example, is composed of ten individual shots, in two rows. I'd have to crop away quite a bit to produce a neat rectangle. Keep this in mind, and always shoot more of the scene than you think you'll want in the final panorama.

8. Shoot Vertical Panoramas

Most photo editors can stitch a vertical panorama just as easily as a horizontal one. Don't feel limited to stitching traditional panoramas: Take a set of shots, one atop the next, to photograph a skyscraper or statue. This photo of Seattle's Space Needle, for example, is composed of three shots taken vertically.

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