How to Make a “Good Enough” Digital Photo Panoramic — Colorado Sky Sox Game at Security Service Field, Colorado Springs
© 2012 Peter Free
21 May 2012
Simple equipment and sloppy technique can still result in something good enough for the family album
Imperfections in the above baseball field panoramic do not appreciably detract from its utility as a memory enhancer.
It was created with a simple camera under difficult conditions:
The sun had just finished setting in the west (right) and its light was quickly leaving the east (left).
People were in constant movement, which is always difficult for stitching programs to cope with.
And the wind was blowing at least 40 miles per hour, leaving us with a good deal of dirt in our eyes.
Ordinarily, I would have fussed about achieving excellence. But I was curious to see what I could come away with using an early generation mirrorless camera and less than ideal technique.
Done “correctly,” I would have used a digital SLR and a panoramic head mounted on a tripod. That would have eliminated the artifacts that are not due to people moving.
How this panoramic was made
I used a Sony NEX-3, but did not use its automated panorama-making function. Third party stitching software usually produces better results.
I set the Sony NEX-3 to manual focus (at 25mm on the 18-55mm kit lens) and manual exposure (ISO 800, f8, 1/320th second).
I took 11 frames from left to right, trying to overlap each frame by at least one-third. Afterward, Kolor Autopano Pro 2.6 stitched them together.
I used Photoshop to fill in a missing vertical half of one woman prominently seated just right of center in the picture.
I left some other stitching errors alone.
Importance of manual settings
Using manual camera settings is advisable. Otherwise an auto-focus, auto-exposure camera will change focus and exposure from one frame to another. These variations make stitching software’s job more difficult than it needs to be.
Choose exposure to preserve detail in what you think are the more important aspects of the photo.
In the above Sky Sox picture, I thought the grass would be a good intermediate setting. The actual scene was already darker than my picture portrays it. Exposing for the sky would have badly underexposed the crowd and the field. I wanted to brighten the picture.
Choosing the focus point
Choose your focus point to accord with what you think should be the sharpest plane in the picture. Usually, this will be a point just far enough away (given your chosen f-stop) to ensure that infinity focus is also reasonably clear.
In situations in which you want the foreground sharp and the background blurred — and you are not using a panorama tripod head — you are apt to run into parallax problems that are too complex to deal with here.
Parallax is why I chose to leave my lens at the 25mm zoom length, as opposed to its 55mm maximum.
Had I used the longer focal length, the people seated in front of me would have been visually too close (relative to the background) for Autopano Pro to (a) properly stitch them and (b) still keep the background alignment looking as it should.
The NEX-3, 3C, 5 and 5n present a minor challenge in properly aligning sequential frames
If you choose not to use the NEX’s automatic panorama function (which allows you to do a simple pan of the scene), properly overlapping each panorama frame is a little more difficult to achieve than on a camera with an optical viewfinder.
This is because the Sony reverts to the actual scene between frames only after you re-press the shutter button half-way. That effectively leaves you temporarily blind between each picture. And the necessary shutter button-push introduces more chances for losing a level and parallel orientation.
An aside on black spaces in uncropped panoramics
After your software stitches a panoramic, you can check the accuracy of the innate sense of photographic level and parallel. You do this by looking at the top and bottom black spaces that the software leaves included in the panorama.
These black spaces are the result of the software’s attempt to include everything from each frame into the glued-together picture. The program takes (respectively) the topmost and bottommost edges of the “highest” and “lowest” frames in the sequence to define the overall height of the panoramic.
Frames that do not match these highest or lowest edges will not contain any photographic information at those edges. The software treats this missing information as black.
If you are poor at maintaining an identical camera orientation from one frame to another, your panoramics will contain more black filler than someone with a better sense of alighment.
Most photographers crop the black out.
The advantage to cultivating good serial camera alignment is that you have to crop less of the resulting panoramic than you do if the black spaces are unevenly distributed.
Of course, if you use a good panorama head, alignment will not be a problem.
The moral? — “Good enough” is often good
We perfectionists often have to remind ourselves of this.