Shooting High Res Panoramas

Painted ValleyPainted ValleyA view from the trail heading up to Montcleff Ridge, but facing Thousand Oaks. Taken 2 hours before rain came through the area.

I love shooting panoramas! In fact, I have an entire gallery (here) of nothing but high res panoramas. Although you can use a smart phone to capture a pano, it won't be high-res, and can't be enlarged very much. At home, I have some of these mounted and hung at 4' wide, and if I had room I'd print them bigger since most of these super wide photos are up to 8' wide. These panos are not one photo, but instead are composites of multiple images, in many cases 3 to 4 frames wide. The detail is from light HDR processing as well, so when I have a pano of 3 frames wide, it actually consists of 9 images (3 exposures for each photo). It's something that you can do with most modern DSLRs, provided you have the usual Adobe software complement these days (Lightroom and Photoshop). I've been refining the process of capturing and developing these panos over the past few years, and here I'd like to show you an example of the primary steps involved with making one of these monster photos.


First, below is a pano that I'll use as an example, it's just a simple pano of Thousand Oaks, taken in terrible lighting, but saved to an acceptable version thanks to the processing involved. You can also download the full size image so you can zoom in to see the detail.

T.O. Mall to Tarantula HillT.O. Mall to Tarantula Hill

And, here's a picture of me taking a shot like this (it wasn't this shot, but it gives you an idea of the gear). My brother took this of me one day while out on a pano hike, if I knew he was going to take this I wouldn't have posed so dorkily. Anywho...I find it easiest to use a monopod instead of a tripod: it's lighter weight to pack, and I get quick control of my movement. I tend to always shoot during the day, so I use a fast enough shutter speed not to worry about a little movement from the pod.


I also use a prime lens, in most cases either Nikon's 28mm or 50mm prime f/1.4. Then, set all your adjustments manually: set white balance to 5600 Kelvin (or at least something consistent), ISO 100, and then shutter and aperture to your liking. Set your camera to shoot in brackets of 3 at 1-stop each, and to shoot in continuous mode. And, most importantly, make sure you are shooting in'll thank yourself later in post processing.


Next, focus on a distance object and lock your focus. Then pan to your first frame, and click off 3 continuous shots. Pan enough to overlap the last shot by 30%, and then click off the next 3 shots, etc., until you've completed your pan.


Once you download your photos, you'll see why we shot in brackets of 3. Here is a screen shot of two of those 3-shot brackets. Shooting this bracket at 1-stop each has the original exposure, then a darker exposure, and a lighter exposure. This allows you to now blend a perfectly lit exposure that compensates for both the sky and the ground: something you can't do in broad daylight.


Note that I only bracket at 1-stop, although I could do 2 stops or more. This has worked as a sweet spot for me to get a nice even tone of exposures for daylight, even on cloudy days.


Next, I use Lightroom to process my RAWs to TIFFs. You can click on the image to the right to see the settings. All I do is check a couple of boxes under "Lens Correction", and also sharpen things up to right under 50, with a slight mask (if you don't know about using the sharpening mask in Lightroom, you may want to Google's an invaluable way to sharpen only the ground, not the sky).


Then, in Library mode in Lightroom, I copy the develop settings for this one picture, select all the photos, and paste those settings. Lastly, I export all of these photos as 16-bit TIFFs.


Now that I have all of my TIFFs, I then use Photomatix to blend my brackets into HDRs. A copy of Photomatix Essentials runs about $40 and is WELL worth it for making HDRs. You can though use Photoshop's HDR feature if you so desire, but I've found Photomatix to ROCK!


The picture on the right shows the settings I used. You can tweak as you like, but I want to merely blend the exposures and not get surreal halos that many photogs do with HDR effects. In the hold days, we'd have to use split neutral density filters on a lens to make an even exposure. But shooting digitally now, this method of blending brackets via HDR is much, much more accurate (simpler, and lower cost). The important thing here, just like in the camera settings and Lightroom as well, is to processes each 3-bracket HDR the same. So after making these adjustments on the first HDR you'll process, leave them that way for the remaining HDRs. When you save them, save them as TIFFs also.


Now you should have a collection of the HDR TIFFs. This is where it gets really easy. All you need to do is open Photoshop, then Files, Automate, Photomerge, which will give you this dialog. There are tons of tutorials on-line on how to use this Photomerge feature, so I won't get into it in too much detail here. I will though note that I use the "Cylindrical" Layout, which just seems to work best on most everything I shoot. 


After Photoshop's Photomerge is done, it's just a matter of cropping, content filling, and then adding adjustment layers to enhance colors, tone, saturation, levels, filters, etc. This is all left to your artistic license, so Photoshop away!


The key in putting together a pano is to use Photoshop's Photomerge feature. The key to getting consistent photos to work with is to shoot and process everything consistently. And to get optimal exposure, shoot in brackets and consistently process lightly-blended HDRs. It takes a heck of a lot longer than shooting a pano with a smart phone, but the results will be stunning, with massive pictures you'll be proud to hang on your walls.


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