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Tips for Shooting Hand Held Panoramas

It has always been thought that shooting panoramas required the use of specialist equipment and techniques. But advancement in the field of digital photography has brought the technique even to some of the modern mobile cameras. The panoramic mode featured in modern cameras is very simple to operate.

How to Shoot With Cameras That Have a Panoramic Mode / Function

Put your camera in panoramic mode; Point the camera towards the starting point of the desired image; Press the shutter button; the camera will then indicate to move the camera to the left or right, once you start moving, it will indicate you when to stop; pause for a fraction of a second to enable the camera to record the shot, once it is done, the arrow will again appear telling you to move the camera; the whole process is repeated till the desired / pre-set number of frames are captured. The camera will then proceed to automatically stitch the images together to form the panorama. The Process can’t be made any simpler than that can it?

hand held panorama
Photo By David Denicolo

But the vast majority of point and shoots and DSLR’s out there do not have this panoramic feature built into them. So in this article, let us discuss some tips that will help you capture great panoramic shots while hand-holding the camera.

Shooting Panoramas Hand Held

While it is possible to easily capture panoramic shots hand holding the camera an understanding about what happens during the process especially of parallax issues and how to avoid them will go a long way in ensuring that you get your shot right. Firstly let us have a look at situations in which hand holding the camera to shoot a panorama will work

•    The scene being shot is bright enough to give fast shutter speeds at the desired aperture.
•    There are no elements close to the camera in the scene
•    The lens bring used is of longer focal length

What is Parallax Problem?

Parallax refers to the shift in the apparent position of an object in relation to its background when viewed from different lines of sight.

A simplified illustration of the parallax of an object against a distant background due to a perspective shift. When viewed from "Viewpoint A", the object appears to be in front of the blue square. When the viewpoint is changed to "Viewpoint B", the object appears to have moved in front of the red square. Source – Image and Description – Wikipedia.

A practical example that is easy to do is to hold a finger in front of you and look through it at a far object; close your eyes alternatively and see how the finger held in front of you moves in relation to the background when viewed with each eye.

Parallax is a major issue when attempting to stitch the shots together as each shot will be slightly different from each other and the software will have a hard time aligning them all, if the degree of parallax effect is severe then you will have issues with your final output.

How to Avoid Parallax Issues While Shooting Panoramas Hand Held

Typically specialized devices like the panoramic heads overcome the parallax issue by making the camera rotate at the nodal or pivot point for the chosen focal length. When shooting hand-held, one trick is to imagine a line that starts from the middle of your camera lens and extends down to the ground. This should be your pivot point and it will be roughly accurate for most scenes and focal lengths. To achieve this try to move your feet in a small circle around the camera.

panoramic photography
Photo By Paul Olegario

Try to shoot scenes which has very few or no foreground elements. If at all there is a foreground element try to place it dead in the centre of the frame.

Panorama Shooting Tips

1.    Orientation of Camera for Vertical and Horizontal Panoramas

If you are shooting a horizontal panorama shoot with camera held vertically and if you are shooting a vertical panorama shoot with the camera held horizontally. This helps maximize your field of view and hence the coverage of the resulting image.

2.    White Balance Settings

You would want your white balance settings to be consistent across all images that will be stitched. Best option is to manually set the Kelvin; if you are not so confident about it or if your camera does not allow you to do it second best option is to choose a white balance mode other than the Auto White Balance Mode.

3.    Focus Lock

In order to achieve consistent focus, first focus on the main part of the frame (usually the central elements) and then shift to Manual Focus Mode, so focus does not change in between shots.

4.    Shoot In Aperture Priority Mode

Shooting in Aperture priority mode lets you choose the desired aperture (consider depth of field required for the scene) and the camera will take care of the shutter speed required. However before doing the actual shooting, take a reading from a couple of points and check the shutter speed measured by the camera, if it is low to effectively handhold the camera try increasing your ISO.

5.    Start from Left or Right

Always start shooting from either the extreme left or the extreme right of the scene. Never do things like first shoot from centre to the right and then shooting from centre to the left etc.

6.    Overlap Each Shot

Remember to include a portion of the previous frame in your current frame. Ideally it should be 30% so the last 30% of your previous frame should constitute the first 30% of your current frame. This serves are the reference points for the software that stitches the images and helps it align the different frames perfectly.

7.    Use Girds or Focusing Points as Guides

The focusing points or Grid display could be used to serve as guide marks to align your shots consistently.

8.    Use the Live View Mode

Try shooting with live view enabled, you would find it easier than shooting through the view finder and you will be able to better align the camera to the nodal point across shots.

9.    Pause a Moment before each shot

It is important to pause a second before each shot, some photographers tend to fire away multiple shots in one motion completing the panorama. However this is not the right way to do and it will give you many problems later when stitching the shots. Pause a moment and make sure everything is aligned properly, you have included 30% of the previous frame in the current one, the camera has not shifted in the vertical direction (while shooting horizontal panoramas) etc. 

Photo By Steve Crane

Moreover if you have enabled the Image Stabilization / Vibration Reduction feature in your camera it takes a little time to settle down after the camera has moved (approximately half a second or so), some advanced lenses which have 2 stage Image Stabilization when put in mode 2 will actually detect motion in one direction and disable the stabilization in that direction, interpreting it as motion induced by panning purposefully. So pause for a second, take a breath, make sure everything is aligned and then shoot the next frame.
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