5 Tips for Panoramic Photography

Can your camera do the sunset justice?
Can your camera do the sunset justice?

You're standing on a mountaintop after a long hike, admiring a lovely sunset. The view is so gorgeous, you take a photo. But the camera just doesn't capture the expanse of what you're looking at. What you see is a panorama -- an unobstructed or complete view of the area in every direction. So why can't your camera see the same thing?

A panoramic photo can help you capture the entirety of the landscape or skyline in front of you. Think of it as a wide angle without the distortion. Some cameras come with a panoramic feature or helper. However, you can craft your own panoramic photos by taking several shots and then digitally "stitching" them together.


It might sound complicated, but it's a relatively simple thing to do. And, there are many software programs available to automate the task. In this article, however, we'll assume that you have access to photo editing software like Adobe Photoshop and a digital camera with a standard lens.

Learn how to take and make high-quality panoramic photos on the next five pages.


Image Composition

The rule of thirds
The rule of thirds

Whether you're taking a panoramic photo or a regular photo, the first step in taking a good one is image composition. A classic technique for image composition is called the rule of thirds. Even though it was developed for standard photos, it also works for panoramic photos. Here's how the rule of thirds works:

Think of the image you're trying to capture as being divided into thirds, horizontally and vertically, meaning your image comprises nine squares, three wide and three tall.


Do you see where the lines intersect? Experts say that you should put the main focus of your photo at one of those points.

Also, for panoramic shots, concentrate on the middle (horizontal) three blocks. This is called center dominance and will give your photo depth and balance. You can see in the example above that the mountain range in the far horizon travels across the center of the photo.

For a good photo, take the time to find an interesting angle. Look at things from a different perspective. You might zoom in on something in the foreground to give the picture more impact. Keep an eye out for objects that might make your photo unique. For example, let's say you're taking a photo of the sea and sky from a boat. Think about adding the bow of the boat into the very bottom of the photo to add interest.

Lastly, ensure you have good lighting. The best picture in the world won't mean much if it's overly dark or overly bright. We'll talk more about lighting and exposure later.


Take a Lot of Photos

After you've composed your image, you're ready to take some photos. We recommend using a tripod because you'll want your camera to stay as level as possible as you rotate it while taking your shots. If you don't have a tripod, then rotate your upper body but keep your feet planted to the ground as much as you can as you take your photos.

Since your camera doesn't take panoramic views automatically, you need to take several photos in order to capture the entire vista. Make sure you overlap the edges as you take your pictures, so you can stitch the panorama together properly later. You don't want to get home, get your images on the computer and find that you have a few pieces missing. Each photo should overlap about 30 to 50 percent.


Start taking photos at the very left of what you're trying to capture, and keep going until you reach the very right. Keep the camera as level as possible. Don't change any of the settings in between photos -- if the lighting or exposure levels are different, the photo will very clearly looked stitched together. Also, take your photos quickly. Outdoors, things can change in an instant. The sun can go behind a cloud and change the lighting. Or a wind might kick up and start blowing things around. So work fast.


White Balance and Exposure

Your camera should have settings for white balance.
Your camera should have settings for white balance.

White balance and exposure settings are very important when taking a panoramic photo. This is why we warn against using the "panoramic" setting on your camera if it has one. With many cameras, the auto setting doesn't lock down the exposure and white balance, which means it could vary from photo to photo. And then once you stitch the photos together, it will look uneven with visible "seams."

To manually set white balance, consult your specific camera's manual. However, it usually works something like this: On your camera menu, you should be able to set or evaluate white balance. To do that, point your camera at a piece of white (or neutral gray) paper and press the shutter, making sure the paper fills up the entire lens. Ensure the paper is in the same light as where you'll be taking the panoramic photo. After you press the shutter, your white balance should be all set and locked.


To set your exposure speed, you can use the "P" setting on your camera -- "P" stands for "program mode." After setting it to P, point your camera at the main focus of your photo. Press the shutter down halfway -- this focuses the camera and sets the exposure. Note the f-stop and shutter speed values after you do this. Now, set your camera to manual mode (usually "M"). Set the controls to the same f-stop and shutter speeds you just noted.

Also, don't use your polarizer if you have one. It may result in banding and uneven backgrounds.


Stitch the Images

Now that you're back from your trip to the Grand Canyon, you're ready to put together all the pieces so you can show off your gorgeous panoramic photos. After you have the photos downloaded to your computer, open your photo editing software.

Adobe Photoshop has a plug-in that automates the photo stitching process. If you don't have Photoshop, there are a multitude of software packages out there that can help you with the process. Chances are one was included with the software that came with your digital camera.


Open all your photos in the software. Usually the software will have an "auto" option that stitches everything together using default settings, or you can choose to have more control.

Keep in mind that you can't just line up your images, stitch them together and leave it at that. If you do, you will see that the images won't line up perfectly. If, for example, your photo has a lot of horizontal lines, they will appear bent at the seams. Software for panoramic photos will "warp" the photo a little bit to give it perspective that will align and blend the photos together.

Once you've combined the pictures into one fabulous photo, don't forget to save it! Then you can make any touch-ups or further photo edits to your picture.


Choose Your Subject Wisely

It's tough to take a panoramic shot of a place like Times Square because it's always changing.
It's tough to take a panoramic shot of a place like Times Square because it's always changing.
Jumper/Getty Images

Not everything is suited for panoramic photography. You can't create a good panorama when there is a lot of movement. For example, it would be nice to take a panoramic photo of a place like Times Square in New York City. But because of all the people, cars and blinking lights, your images wouldn't line up correctly. A speeding yellow taxi that appears in one frame is not going to appear in the next. The news ticker in the background will have different words on it in all your shots.

Your best bet for optimal panoramic photos is choosing subjects that don't move. That's why landscape photography lends itself so well to panorama -- photos of mountains, skylines, seascapes or forests. When you think about panoramic photos, you usually think of horizontal views. But you can do a vertical panorama, too -- perhaps a skyscraper, waterfall or the Eiffel Tower. The possibilities are endless.


After you've stitched together your panorama, print it. Perhaps that lovely view from a mountaintop in Colorado will decorate your wall after you have it enlarged, printed out and framed.

For more tips on photography and hobbies, check out the links on the next page.


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Related Articles


  • Cross, Jason. "How to Take Huge Panoramic Pictures." ExtremeTech. Mar. 9, 2009. (Dec. 12, 2010) http://www.extremetech.com/article2/0,2845,2342653,00.asp
  • "Landscape Photography Tips." Practical Photography Tips. 2010. (Dec. 12, 2010) http://www.practicalphotographytips.com/landscape-photography-tips.html
  • Neuman, Chad. "Using Photomerge for Stunning Panoramic Photos (and some tips for shooting panoramics)." http://photoshoptutorials.ws/photoshop-tutorials/general/basics/using-photomerge-for-stunning-panoramic-photos.html
  • Rowse, Darren. "How to Create a Panorama with Photoshop and Photomerge." Digital Photography School. 2010. (Dec. 12, 2010) http://www.digital-photography-school.com/creating-a-panorama-with-photoshop-and-photomerge
  • "Understanding Panoramic Stitching Using Photoshop." The Luminous Landscape. 2010. (Dec. 12, 2010) http://www.luminous-landscape.com/tutorials/stitching.shtml
  • Wrate, Tim. "The Rule of Thirds for Panoramic Photography." Tim Wrate Photography. Oct. 28, 2010. (Dec. 12, 2010) http://timwratephotography.wordpress.com/2010/10/28/the-rule-of-thirds-for-panoramic-photography/