Set your camera to manual exposure mode (M). Do not use auto-exposure mode (A)


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Making Panoramic Photos


Ideal Camera Settings

Turn Auto Exposure Off*
Set your camera to manual exposure mode (M). Do not use auto-exposure mode (A).

Why: When the camera automatically adjusts the exposure for each shot, seemingly subtle changes in light can make the corresponding areas of two overlapping photos look totally different. When this happens, the final panorama can have big bands of light and dark.

Turn Auto White Balance Off*
Turn the camera's auto white balance feature OFF. Manually set the white balance and use that same setting for all of the shots in the panorama.

Why: When the auto white balance setting is on, slight changes in lighting conditions can cause the colors in one photo to differ greatly from the colors in the next.

Use One Exposure Setting*
Before you begin shooting, use the camera's light meter to find an exposure that works well for the entire range of shots. Use it. If it's absolutely necessary to shoot some shots using other exposures (because of dramatic changes in light) keep the other exposure settings as near as possible to the first.

Why: In general, panorama images stitch better in more even light. Changes in exposure setting can make the same exact (overlapping) areas of two photos look totally different. When this happens, the final panorama can show banding.

Use One Focal Length*
Use the same focal length setting for all of the shots in the panorama.

Why: Using different focal lengths can present inconsistencies that cannot be overcome during the stitching process.

Turn Off the Flash
Do not use a flash. Turn off the camera's auto-flash feature if it has one.

Why: A camera's flash has a limited range and a limited field of coverage and can create shadows that change shape and position from shot to shot. These inconsistencies make it difficult for the software to recognize corresponding parts of adjacent photos.

Do Not Change Size or Quality Setting
Use the same photo size (resolution) and photo quality (ie. fine) for all shots.

Why: Photos of different sizes cannot be stitched.

* Your camera model may not include this feature or option.

Using a Tripod

Use a Tripod Whenever Possible
When shooting photos for a panorama, it's critical to keep the camera on the same plane throughout all of the shots. The easiest way to do this is to use a tripod.

When shooting for 360 degrees panoramas, a level tripod ensures that the first and the last shots line up with each other.

If your tripod does not have a built-in level, you can buy a spirit level at your local camera shop that fits in your camera's hot shoe.*

Go Without a Tripod, Only If You Must
If a tripod is not available, act as one yourself by locking your elbows into your body and pivoting on one foot to turn in place. Pay close attention to the framing of each shot (horizon line) - keeping the camera level as you turn.

Use the camera's viewfinder (instead of the LCD) to frame and shoot your photos.

* Your camera model may not include this feature or option.

Photo Overlap

Use 25% to 50% overlap
Shoot the photos using between 25% and 50% overlap. You do not need the same amount of overlap for each shot – estimating the amount of overlap is fine.

For wide angle lenses use more overlap (50%).

Creating Photos Groups

By using one or both of the following methods to create photo groups, building a panorama in the software will be a little easier.

Shoot Sequential Photos in Less than 40 Seconds Time
The program has a unique feature that, with just one click, intelligently selects all of the photos that belong to the same panorama sequence. Because panorama photos are usually shot in quick order (less than 40 seconds apart), the program uses shot times (EXIF data) to create groups. By selecting one photo in a group, the entire group is selected.*

*This feature can be disabled by un-checking the Auto-Select by Group option.

Insert Divider Shots Manually
A simple way to divide one sequence of panorama photos from another is to insert (shoot) a black photo between them. Before beginning a new sequence, use the lens cap or a piece of cardboard to cover the camera…and take a shot. After you transfer the photos to your computer, it will be easy to see where one sequence ends and the next begins.

 

Big Ben's Panorama Tutorials

Determining the Nodal Point of a Lens


While it is not entirely essential to accurately position your camera for each image, it does make things a LOT easier if the lens is rotated as close as possible around its nodal point. By doing so, you remove parallax errors which may require a lot of retouching to make things look right in the finished panorama.

Determining the nodal point of a lens is quite easy to do visually.  You will need two vertical features to use as reference points e.g. a doorway, flag/light pole, corner of a all etc...  One must be very close to the camera, the other, far away.  You will also need an adjustable tripod pano head or a focussing rail to adjust the position of the camera relative to the axis of rotation. Accuracy will be in the order of 1mm for a circular fisheye lens.  Accuracy will be greater with the near object as close to the camera as possible.

The diagram below shows what happens in the three possible situations.  Note that the relative positions of the objects on each side of the gap is determined from the nodal point of the lens, not the axis of rotation.

Legend

Rotation axis

Camera & nodal point

Rotation axis at nodal point



Gap remains constant

Rotation axis forward of nodal point



Rotating camera away from near object increases gap width

Rotating camera towards near object reduces gap width

Rotation axis behind of nodal point



Rotating camera away from near object reduces gap width

Rotating camera towards near object increases gap width









It is possible to create good panoramas in situations where a tripod is not practical and with enormous parallax errors. In practise, however, it is much more practical to use some means of accurately rotating the camera around the nodal point of the lens. Things get a whole lot easier.

There are many commercial panorama heads available, and don't get me wrong, they probably work very well, but a lot of people want to make something that suits the way they work. Which method you use depends largely on the way you work and what you want to be able to achieve.  My own approach involves a degree of manual stitching so while extreme accuracy is handy, it is not essential.


Handheld


With an 8mm lens it is possible to shoot a panorama handheld with no tripod support at all, although it will most likely involve a fair amount of manual retouching. To rotate approximately around the lens' nodal point, pick a spot on the ground and stand so that it is between your big toes.  When you turn your body, move so that the point on the ground is still between your big toes. This will produce a better result than just trying to turn on the spot.

A spirit level is a useful addition. I use one that mounts into the hotshoe of my camera. Some people prefer a single bubble but I find this one easier to see


Pros

Cons

  • No extra equipment required

  • Can require extensive retouching

  • Potentially difficult alignment

  • Difficulty increases with number of images required


The "Philopod"


As a bare minimum though, you really need to have the camera rotated reasonably accurately around he lens' nodal point. One method, first described by Philippe Hurbain  <http://philohome.free.fr/tripod/shooting.htm>, requires nothing more complicated than a weight and a piece of string. A spirit level is also extremely handy but not essential.  I've made and tested an "adjustable" version of this and it works superbly.

Components:



  • a rubber band

  • a curtain hook

  • a piece of string

  • a weight (fishing sinker shown)

  • a spirit level




I use it with a circular fisheye lens so the nodal point is pretty much at the front element. I can't place it at exactly the right spot but it's close enough to produce quite accurate panoramas.

By placing loops at regular intervals in the string you have an easy height adjustment. 

Just pick a point on the ground and position the camera so that the weight is suspended just above that point. Check the spirit level to make sure the camera is level and fire away. It take a little practise to get used to it but it works extremely well. 






Pros

Cons

  • Lightweight

  • Compact

  • Much less retouching of nadir

  • Handy in situations where a tripod is not practical e.g. up a tree, on a fence etc...

  • Can be tricky on windy days

  • Requires shorter exposures


The Panorama Head


Where there's hype, there's bound to be high prices. While you can buy panorama heads off the shelf there is some merit to making your own. Apart from the financial benefit, you can modify your design until you end up with something that suits they way you want to work.  Then you know exactly what you need should you come around to buying a commercial product. I first bought a focussing rail with the aim of shooting panoramas with my Hasselblad SWC. Since buying an 8mm lens for my 35mm camera I've added on bits and pieces to produce my own "panorama head". From the bottom up:


Figure 1.

  1. Ball and socket tripod head.
    Quick levelling of the tripod head checked via a camera mounted spirit level. .

  2. Focusing rail
    Secondhand, medium format focussing rail cost me bugger all.  A square film format or a circular image don't require rotation so you only need to move the camera in one direction to position the lens' nodal point correctly.

  3. A couple of spigots
    Since the correct position of the lens will include the focusing rail and tripod in the photo I added a few spigots to decrease the amount of image lost. (See Figure 2.) Insist on solid metal spigots. The first one I tried was crap and snapped off as I tightened the tripod plate onto it.

  4. Manfrotto tripod plate adapter
    I had initially used just a tripod plate but this gives a lot more support

  5. Camera and lens

  6. Spirit level.
    A two way spirit level is invaluable in levelling the camera. Spirit levels on the tripod can alway be out especially if something is bent (like the bottom of a camera)

What it's all for


The whole purpose of the panorama head is to position the nodal point of the lens over the centre of rotation of the tripod. Rather than rotate the camera I actually remove the focusing rail from the tripod, turn it around and place it back onto the tripod, using the hexagonal tripod plate to get accurate 120° intervals between shots. 

The diagram below outlines some key points of the panorama head.


Figure 2.

The blue line and shading show the lens' field of view. The nodal point of the lens, like most 8mm lenses, is close to the front element. There is no rear nodal point. The purple shading shows the position of the focusing rail without the spigots and the effective image cut off this creates, requiring a larger patch image. With my tripod fully extended the tripod head cuts off an area about 1m square on the ground which is easily patched from a vertical hand held shot.

Pros

Cons

  • Accurate rotation around lens' nodal point

  • Provides even yaw angles in increments of 60°

  • Quick Tripod setup

  • Quick release of camera for normal photography

  • Relatively economical (if you can get a second hand focusing rail)

  • Requires the upper portion of the head to be removed and rotated between shots. This can cause some movement of the tripod.

  •  0.5 - 1m of ground is obscured by tripod, requiring an additional patch image.

  • You have to be very careful not to bump the tripod between shots.


The Panorama Head MkII


OK so I finally bit the bullet and bought an off the shelf optional extra for my tripod head in the form of a Manfrotto panorama head.  I got sick of removing the focusing rail all the time between shots.  

The panorama head slots in between the ball and socket head and the focussing rail. The ball and socket head still provides the same function of simply levelling the whole setup while the panorama head provides the horizontal rotation (with click stops for fixed intervals).


Pros

Cons

  • Quicker to shoot a panorama.

  • Reduces possibility of bumping tripod out of position.

  • Adds an extra 600g to the setup so it will probably never come hiking with me.

  • This single component costs as much as the tripod and all of the spare parts used for the rest of the setup.


The Tilted "Philopod"


I haven't actually tested this out since I don't have the appropriate lens (yet) but here's my idea for using a tilted full frame fisheye handheld. It uses the same components as the basic philopod with the addition of a swivelling tripod adapter.

The camera is first aligned on a tripod, tilting the camera until a vertical line (e.g. a doorway) runs from one corner of the frame to the opposite corner. The hotshoe adapter is then swivelled until the spirit level is once again level and you're ready for action.

This could also be used for handheld panoramas with the camera in portrait mode.

 

Choosing the angles


Even though you are photographing everything you can see from one point, there are benefits to be had from carefully choosing where you point your camera for each shot. For example, lens flare can be a big problem and there are generally two approaches to this.

Lens Flare


Shoot one image with the sun in the middle of one frame. If you're using a circular fisheye and shooting 3 images then you will only have the sun in one image, the lens flare will be directly above and below the sun and not at some strange angle, and you will also have a seam that runs through the shadow of the tripod making it easier to remove your own shadow.

Another approach, most often seen in IPIX panoramas, is to place the sun at the edge of an image so that the two adjacent images get a similar dose of lens flare.  Having the sun in the picture will invariably create an image with different contrast to the rest of the panorama. I prefer the first approach, giving me a broad area across which to blend the contrast to match the adjacent images.

Reducing parallax errors


OK, in theory if everything is set up perfectly you don't have parallax errors...  but one way to minimise them is to shoot directly at the things that are closest to you.  Placing them in the middle of the frame and away from seams reduces the possibility of parallax errors.

Footprints and trampled grass


Many people set up their tripod, shoot the panorama and then shoot the nadir patch to remove the tripod.  By this time there are footprints all over the place, or a circle of squashed grass from where you've walked around the tripod.  Figure out where you're going to put your tripod and then shoot your nadir patch before setting the tripod up and making a mess.

Stand at 90° to the main light source (usually the sun) when shooting the nadir patch image to remove your shadow.


Edge sharpness


Edge to edge sharpness (or lack of it) can be as much of a problem as light fall off. For this reason it is important to shoot at an appropriate aperture to maximise sharpness. Circular fisheye lenses are generally quite soft around the edges at apertures wider than f8. I could supply sample images but I won't. Test your own lenses to see what YOUR optimum apertures are.


Nodal Point Alignment

The rear nodal point of a lens is the point about which a lens is rotated where close and distant subjects focused on the film plane maintain their relative positions to one another. Successful panoramic photography requires that the axis of the camera's rotation be positioned at the rear nodal point of the lens. Otherwise, foreground and background subjects change their relative positions when the camera pans, causing misalignments and stitching errors between shots.



+



Nodal point misalignment




Different space between foreground radio and background door











+



Nodal point alignment




Same space between foreground & background elements

The position of this nodal point can be different for every lens. However, on wide angle lenses it is often found between the midpoint of the lens and the aperture ring.

Unfortunately, lens manufacturers do not mark nodal points on the lens barrels, so VR photographers need to determine this position before shooting. This is done by mounting camera and lens on an adjustable VR pan head and observing the relationships of foreground and background subjects through the viewfinder as the camera is panned. Alignment of the panning axis with the rear nodal point of the lens can be achieved fairly precisely this way. Note however, that this only works if the camera has a reflex or through-the-lens viewfinder.

If your camera is not a single lens reflex, or the viewfinder does not show exactly what the lens sees (as is the case with rangefinder, twin lens reflex, point and shoot, and most consumer digital cameras), then your nodal point alignment will probably have to be done by trial and error. Many digital cameras have a video output jack, or can display a live video image on their LCD screen. Since the image is generated by the image sensor inside the camera, it is possible to use this quite effectively for nodal point alignment.

This alignment is important for the best quality results. However, it becomes less critical the further away your subjects are from the lens. As long as your closest subject is 3-4 feet (or more) away from the camera, nodal point misalignments cause few, if any, stitching problems - particularly when using very wide lenses. One should always avoid sloppy shooting technique, but knowledge of the degree of forgiveness involved can be a tremendous help when you find yourself unable to use a tripod or pan head at all. Nodal point misalignments increase in significance the closer your foreground subjects are to the camera.

There is a rule of thumb that the time, care and expense that you don't devote to proper technique during shooting, will be multiplied 10 times over correcting in post production. While today's digital imaging technologies make it possible to fix just about anything after the fact, you are usually far better off doing things right up front, than you are trying to "fix them in post."

Nodal Point Alignment Process

To find the nodal point of a lens, first mount the camera and lens on an adjustable VR pan head. The camera should be mounted in a portrait (vertical) orientation with the center of the lens positioned directly over the pan axis of the VR head.



vs.



Nodal point mislaigned




Nodal point aligned

Stitched result - note ghost images




Stitched result appears seamless

Step 1: Make sure that the VR pan head is level on top of the tripod. Most VR heads include a round bubble level that you can use. Check to make sure the head remains level by watching the bubble level(s) as you pan the camera and head 90° or more.

Double check that the camera is mounted squarely on the VR head, so that it is neither tilted up or down, nor crooked in relation to the head. You can do this by looking through the viewfinder after the head is leveled. Make sure that vertical lines in the scene are vertical in the viewfinder, and that the horizon appears in the middle of the frame.



A hot shoe bubble level is a good addition to the levels built in to commercial VR heads, such as the Manfrotto 303SPH shown here.

You can check the leveling by using a bubble level attached to the camera's hot shoe. These bubble levels are available from many camera stores. Be aware, however, that your camera's hot shoe may not be perfectly aligned with the film gate inside the camera, especially if the viewfinder has been bumped hard or is dented at all. Ideally, you'll want both the bubble levels on the camera and the VR pan head to remain centered as you pan around.

Step 2: Next, align the optical center of the lens directly over the axis of rotation of the pan head. This is usually done by looking at the front of the camera and adjusting the camera on the pan head so that the center of the lens is directly over the center of the panning mechanism.








Center lens over axis of rotation




Align nodal point over axis of rotation

Step 3: Once you have the lens centered over the pan head rotation axis, you can find the nodal point by adjusting the camera forward or backward on the VR head. This process is a visual one, and will require you to have a vertical edge of some sort in your foreground that you can line up with another vertical edge in the background. Adjust the camera forward or backward while looking through the viewfinder as you pan the camera back and forth, trying to find a position over the pan head rotation axis that keeps the foreground and background subjects consistently aligned.

Optimally, you'll want a foreground subject less than a foot away from the front of the lens, and a background subject at or near infinity focus. Good vertical background lines include edges of buildings, windows, door jambs, etc. (assuming the structure is plumb). Foreground subjects should be easily moved and as close to vertical as possible. Examples can include the edge of a hardcover book standing upright on a table, a light stand or the edge of a box.

If the foreground subject moves in the same direction as you are panning relative to the background object (i.e. the foreground subject moves toward the left as you pan to the left), then the lens is mounted too far behind its rear nodal point and the camera needs to be adjusted forward. If the foreground subject moves in the opposite direction relative to the background as you are panning (i.e. the foreground subject moves to the right as you pan left), then the lens is mounted too far in front of its nodal point and needs to be adjusted backward on the pan head.

Once you have the nodal point of the lens positioned properly over the center of rotation of the pan head, the foreground and background objects will remain stationary relative to one another in your viewfinder as you pan the camera.

Step 4: Lock this position on your tripod head by tightening any adjustment knobs or screws. Then be sure to mark this position so that you can quickly return to it when using this camera and lens combination again.

Finding the nodal point for other camera or lens combinations is virtually identical. However, the process can be more difficult with consumer or non-SLR digital cameras, because you do not see the actual image being focused by the lens when you look through the viewfinder. With most of these cameras, the viewfinder contains its own miniature optics that roughly approximate what the lens of the camera records. These viewfinders therefore cannot be used for nodal point alignments.



Use LCD monitor for nodal point alignment with digital cameras such as this Nikon Coolpix model.

Many of these digital cameras allow for use of their LCD screens as a "live" video monitor, showing the image that is captured through the camera's lens by the image sensor inside the camera. You can use this "monitor" ability to align the nodal point, panning back and forth while watching the relationship between foreground and background subjects, just as you would looking through the viewfinder of an SLR camera.

For digital cameras that don't have the monitor capability, you will have to shoot a series of foreground/background images on a trial and error basis, and perhaps even download them to your computer, in order to determine the proper alignment of the nodal point. Kaidan, a popular manufacturer of VR photography equipment, makes a number of molded or preset pan heads for specific digital cameras. If they have one available for your particular camera, the nodal point alignment will already be incorporated into the head design, and you can simply mount your camera and shoot without even thinking about nodal point adjustments.



Camera-specific VR heads, such as this one from Kaidan, are available for a wide variety of consumer digital cameras. These heads are pre-aligned for the nodal point of the specific camera/lens.

Once you have the nodal point aligned, you should carefully mark the position on the VR head so that you can quickly return to the proper alignments every time you shoot with that camera and lens combination. You will need to align every camera and lens that you use for panoramic photography in this manner. The nodal point is likely to be different for every lens, even between lenses of the same focal length from the same manufacturer. I have two ultrawide 18mm Nikkors, one an autofocus f/2.8 lens and the other an older manual focus f/3.5 lens. They both have different rear nodal point positions, and thus require different alignments, even when using the same camera.

Rather than having to align the nodal point every time they shoot, many VR photographers simply use a single camera and lens combination with a VR head that is pre-aligned.

Some photographers will even dedicate separate heads, each to a specific camera/lens combination that they use regularly. There is a definite weight and bulk disadvantage to this method, since one has to carry a different pan head for every combination of camera or lens you might use, but those who do this tend to pack them in separate kits. For example, one kit might include a pre-aligned head with a camera and ultrawide 14mm lens for shooting interiors, while another might include a 24mm lens, more suitable for outdoor and landscape panoramas.

The best approach I've found seems to be to commit a single camera and lens as your principal panoramic VR kit. I shoot 95 percent of my work with the same Nikon camera body, 18mm lens and preset pan head. Having too much equipment can be almost as problematic as having too little. When in doubt, keep your equipment choices as simple as possible.


Photo Shooting Checklist

Print this checklist and take it with you when you go out to shoot panorama photos.

 Turn Auto-exposure OFF

 Turn Auto White Balance OFF

 Turn the Flash OFF

 Use the same exposure setting (slight variations if necessary).

 Use one Focal Length for all shots in the sequence

 One Size/Quality for all shots in the sequence

 Use a TRIPOD whenever possible – especially when objects are near to the camera

 If a tripod is not available, lock elbows and pivot on one spot – keep camera level.

 Use at least 25% overlap for each shot

 Use 50% overlap when using a wide angle lens

 Go beyond 360 degrees when shooting for 360 degrees panoramas – mark your tripod with a piece of tape

 Create time-based groups – wait no more than 40 seconds between shots

 Insert visual dividers (black shots) between sequences – use a lens cap or piece of cardboard

 Be aware that an object in motion may cause problems when stitching

 Be aware that scenes without much detail (cloudless sky over flat sea) are more difficult to stitch

 

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