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Making panoramas

Moonstone Beach in Cambria, CA

Moonstone Beach in Cambria, CA

I love to make panoramas almost anywhere I take the camera. There are some examples on last week’s Mojave National Preserve trip, a weekend at Moonstone Beach, and the Fremont Peak Star-B-Q.

Making them smoothly takes a little practice, so I thought I’d pass on my pointers. I use a Canon 20D and Panorama Factory.

Panorama Factory is so good at stitching together the pictures, you really don’t need to make any special effort at leveling the camera. No tripod is required, just turn and shoot. But a little preparation pays off later.

Once I’ve found a spot to take a panorama, I mark the beginning by taking a black frame: Turn off auto-focus, put the camera in manual exposure mode, then cup my hand over the lens to make a black frame.

The pano pictures will blend best if they all have the same exposure. I’ll use the built-in light meter while panning around the scene, and try to pick a median setting that doesn’t go more than one stop or so toward over or under exposing. In a lot of scenes with a brightly lit portion, this might be a challenge.

I try to avoid using the widest-angle setting of my lens to avoid any vignetting, and like to choose a “50mm equivalent” focal length, which is 35mm on my Canon 20D. You might also turn off auto-focus to keep the camera from suddenly focusing close if you sweep across a foreground object.

You don’t always have a horizon line, but it’s a handy reference if you do. My Canon 20D has auto focus targets in the viewfinder that serve as a nice leveling tool. Work from left to right and give each shot a little overlap. That’s about all the care you need to take.

I’ll end the series with another black frame. Don’t forget to put your camera back into auto-focus and your preferred exposure mode. A low ASA setting will help keep the noise low.

I shoot all my pictures in RAW mode, so they have to be processed into JPEGs. I use Adobe Lightroom for that. Generally if the exposure and white balance look good, the pictures shouldn’t need any adjustment. If some adjustment is needed, the panorama will come out best if you can apply the same adjustment to all of the photos. Lightroom’s copy and paste settings feature is useful for this.

Once you have your collection of individual shots, you can start through Panorama Factory’s wizard to begin stitching them. Since you shot from left to right, the filename order will be correct when you import them to Panorama Factory.

(I’m still using V4 of Panorama Factory, so some of these settings might have changed, but I’m sure the basics are still valid.)

Remember you can import all of the pictures with one step, by doing a multiple-select in the file browser. (I always make an individual work directory for the pano pictures.)

After the import, select “Fully automatic” photo stitching, set the camera type, and yes to “Automatically detect focal length.” DO select “Correct barrel distortion,” and DO NOT select “Correct brightness falloff.”

Yes, do select “Automatically fine tune.” But do NOT take the recommendation to allow Panorama Factory to do exposure matching or exposure correction. You took care of exposure matching at the time you took the shots by selecting one manual exposure for all of the pictures. And, at least in V4 of Panorama Factory, I’ve found that it tends to posterize the image when it does any exposure adjustment.

Say “yes” to sharpen the final image. I use a setting of 50%, but feel free to experiment.

For an output format, I select “Image file only,” and set either “Partial” or “360 degree” panorama as appropriate for the series.

Here’s one note, if you select 360 degree panorama, and you have a full overlapping frame on each end, Panorama Factory sometimes does not find the 360 degree point and duplicates part of the image. Deleting one shot from the pano on either end will solve the problem.

I typically use the “Spherical projection.” Not sure why. :)

I have other tools for printing, so all I want out of Panorama Factory is the image. I’ll select “Prepare image for internet display” and “Maximum size.”

Now when you click “Next,” Panorama Factory will work its magic for a few minutes. Save the image at the end. When it’s all done, I’ll use Photoshop or VuePrint to make thumbnail versions for my photo album, usually 800 pixels wide.

Admittedly I need to try this with V5 of Panorama Factory, but I bet the process will be close.

Once you develop a rhythm for making panos, you’ll enjoy making more of them.  I always take the laptop along on a road trip, and frequently I’ll make the panoramas right there in the car while Jane drives.

I’ll try to make another post on how I mix them into a JAlbum photo album.

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