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Widen Your Eyes To The Power Of A Panorama

Create better panoramic images with these quick and easy tips

Many landscape photographers like to create panoramic pictures – compositions that are wider in shape than the physical frame of their camera’s sensor. It’s a great way of getting a better photo of an interesting view – but while panoramas are relatively easy to create with today’s cameras and software, they’re not all that easy to perfect. In fact, they’re easy to get wrong. Try out some of these tips though and you’ll soon be on the right track. 

Using a panoramic framing can make sense of some scenes that would seem empty in a regular format. © Kingsley Singleton

How should you plan your panoramas?

Good panoramas take skill to achieve, and a big part of that is thinking outside of the viewfinder. Basically, many panoramic landscapes shouldn’t be panoramas at all. The wider framing makes them less interesting and weaker than with a regular framing. It’s only when you find a scene that deserves a wider format that you should use this technique. 

Look at the scene you want to capture and work out where it naturally begins and ends – if it’s wider than your camera’s frame allows, then take the panoramic route. 

Panoramas can help bring out tiny details in the landscape, especially when shooting with longer lenses. © Kingsley Singleton

What makes a good panorama?

Landscapes and city scenes need heart and balance – basically good composition – and this is just as true in panoramas as it is with regular images. The scene needs to read naturally from one end to the other, and pick out the most interesting parts of the location in a considered way. Deep scenes – those which scan from bottom to top – don’t tend to be suitable, unless you’re making your panorama vertical. 

Some scenes that wouldn’t work with a regular framing are perfect for panoramas. © Kingsley Singleton

How wide is too wide for a panorama?

Most good landscapes replicate what you can see with your own eyes, and so while it’s possible to make a 360º panorama, these views are too wide to have more than dizzying effect on the viewer. They’re unedited and therefore shouldn’t be considered proper compositions. 

Try to work with framing that’s no wider than 3:1, and often less so. Look to Hollywood movies, where even very widest films in history didn’t exceed 3:1. The Ultra Panavision format of 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty came pretty close at 2.76:1 – but most of the time it’s 2.35:1 or 16:9. 

Panoramas, while wider than a regular frame by definition, shouldn’t go too wide. The thinner the frame, the more difficult the image will be to balance. © Kingsley Singleton

How many frames will you need? 

Most of the time, panoramas are created by shooting and stitching separate exposures together in software. To work out how many you need, frame up one end of the panorama and then slowly turn through your chosen scene until you reach the end. Overlap the images by about 1/3 and you’ll have the number you need. 

If you’re framing horizontally with a camera that has a native 3:2 aspect ratio, like most DSLRs, you’ll probably need no more than two frames. If you’re shooting vertically, it might be more like 4 or 5.

Depending on whether your original frames are horizontal or vertical, you may need between two and five for a panorama. © Kingsley Singleton

How does panoramic composition work? 

Even though the frame is wider, traditional ways of balancing the composition can still apply. For instance, splitting the frame into thirds, or using the golden section and placing points of interest in those places still works, as do lead-in lines.

Panoramas can also function without the same need for foreground interest as regular wide-angle landscapes – in fact in these thinner frames there’s often no room for it at all – and this is actually a benefit when it comes to controlling parallax errors – points where the perspective changes between foreground and background which makes stitching difficult. So long as you create a balanced composition that leads the eye in to settle on the distant view, or a strong subject you’ll have no problems.

Symmetry can also work in panoramas. And there’s nothing to stop you from placing subjects centrally in a wider view so long as it makes visual sense and this works well for lone trees or isolated buildings. 

Placing your subject off-centre works just as well for panoramas as it does for regular framing. © Kingsley Singleton

What features on a camera can help with panoramas? 

Taking the multiple frame route out of the equation for a moment, many cameras now feature a ‘sweep panorama’ mode, including lots of models from Sony, Fujifilm and Nikon. Herein the camera is simply panned during an exposure and its processor creates an elongated image. This is a quick route and can give great results, but often the manual system of shooting and stitching separate files is more successful.

High-resolution sensors, like those in Fujifilm’s GFX System, Sony’s A7R IV, Nikon’s D850 or Z 7 and Canon’s EOS 5DS and EOS 5DS R, have enough pixels to make cropping a panoramic shape out of a regular frame easy and still leave you with a large image. The GFX System even has a 16:9 and 65:24 aspect ratio to let you shoot in a panoramic format. 

Fujifilm’s GFX Series include panoramic aspect ratios that crop the sensor’s output and let you shoot wider frames with ease.

What are the best lenses to use for panoramas? 

One of the most common problems in making panoramas comes from using very wide angle lenses. Because of their field of view and the perspective it creates, these lenses are difficult to turn through a panorama without creating parallax errors which will disrupt the stitching process. The barrel distortion common to very wide angle lenses can also be noticeable in finished panoramas as undulating lines.

Instead, try using focal lengths like 24mm, 28mm, 35mm or even longer like 50mm and beyond. You may need to shoot more frames, but they’ll be easier to stitch. 

Tilt-shift lenses like Canon’s  TS-E 24 mm f/3.5L or Nikon’s PC NIKKOR 19mm f/4E ED are very useful tools for making panoramas, too. Thanks to the larger image circle they generate, they can be ‘shifted’ horizontally or vertically without causing distortions or parallax errors, and the frames then stitched to make a wider composition later in software. 

If you avoid the widest lenses you’ll have fewer problems with distortion, while tilt-shift lenses are also a great option for panoramas.

How can you get better exposures in your panoramas? 

The wider the view, the more likely it is that light levels will change dramatically across your panorama. You could have shade at one end of the scene and bright sun at the other. For this reason, make sure you shoot in Raw format, which will give you a better chance of controlling the tones in editing. 

Taking an average exposure from the whole of the scene and dialling this in manually can also help, making sure the pictures aren’t too much lighter or darker than one another.

If you’re using ND grad filters to hold back a brighter sky, make sure you’re shooting from a level position, because as you turn through the panorama any tilt will soon become obvious. 

Shoot in Raw format and you’ll be able to control the highlights and shadows across the scene more easily. © Kingsley Singleton

How do you make panoramas more interesting?  

Once you’re comfortable with the basics of shooting a panorama, it could be time to take things one step further. For instance, try combining multiple photographic techniques along with your panoramic frames, like HDR or focus stacking. You can also experiment with more elaborate setups like day-to-night panoramas, where you shoot the same turn multiple times between dawn and dusk and merge the results later to show the passing of time. 

A day-to-night panorama. These images take several hours to complete, so are best shot from a harbour-side bar. © Kingsley Singleton