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 Nature Photography :: Tutorials :: #12

Previously published in Digital Photography + Design magazine.

When you think of panoramic photos I would bet that super-wide photos of rolling hills, or weirdly distorted building interiors, are the first things that spring to mind. Well, as they say in the classics, “It ain't necessarily so”, the modern digital panorama can have just about anything as a subject.

Traditionally panoramic photos have been taken with cameras specifically designed for the job, either a fixed lens type like the Linhof Technorama, or cameras with rotating lenses like the Noblex. Fixed-lens cameras, despite producing a wide-looking photo, typically sport a 90mm lens, which on the 6x17cm format, is just a mild wide angle. The photos are not as wide as they look, but at least there is no discernable distortion.

The rotating-lens cameras do produce very wide images, up to 360° in some cases, but unless used carefully they can produce some very weird distortion.

That's all very interesting but, as the owner of a digital camera, what do you care? You have the ability to produce stunning panoramic photos similar to those made by special panoramic cameras, with little or no investment over and above the camera you already own. Yes I know you can spend a fortune on a specialised panoramic tripod head, but it's not strictly necessary, all the photos accompanying this article were taken hand-held.

If you define a “panorama” as I do, which is to say any collection of contiguous images that have been stitched together to form a single photo, then your world opens to vast array of possibilities. Using digital stitching techniques we can have the best of both worlds, straight-looking photos, or extreme wide-angle shots.

I often shoot panoramas of wildlife, flowers, and insects. Of course there is a caveat, the subject must be stationary for at least a few seconds, but apart from that there's no reason a grasshopper is not just as valid a subject as the field in which it lives.

Now many of these photos have quite narrow fields of view (FoV) and could have been made with a lot less work by simply cropping a single exposure, so why bother with the extra hassle? As a working photographer I am naturally trying to sell my photos in one form or another, and generally, the larger the image the larger the cheque. Even if this doesn't apply to you, just imagine how big a print you can make from an image 7,000 pixels in length, I even have one that's 20,000 pixels wide that would make a very nice 100-inch mural. That's 2.5 metres wide, and without any up-resing; try that with a single exposure, even with the latest 16mpx cameras.

With the examples in this article I hope to convince you to think outside the square a little, and start seeing all kinds of things as possible subjects for the panorama treatment.


Fig 1: Freshwater Croc, Windjana Gorge, Kimberley, WA.



6342x1951 pixels, Canon 70-200mm f2.8 L-series zoom with 2x converter.

Image #10516

Freshwater crocodiles are not particularly aggressive, and those at Windjana are more passive than most. Still, I don't fancy the idea of sticking a $10,000 Linhof Technorama and wide-angle lens in its face, not with those teeth.

In the digital world however it's a snap to get this kind of photo at a resolution high enough to produce a huge print. With a print resolution of 200dpi, as used by Lightjet printers, I would theoretically be able to print this image 32” wide. However it's common to get good prints that large from a file produced by a single-exposure with a 6mpx camera, so we should be able to do better here. As this file has over twice the pixels, it should make a very respectable 60” print.

Even though this is a combination of three horizontal photos, the FoV is only 25° as the shots were taken with a 640mm (35mm equivalent) lens.


Fig 2: Sturt's Desert pea, Glen Herring gorge, Pilbara, WA.



FoV 39°, three vertical exposures, 1946x5328 pixels, Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens.

Image #10538

The Sturt's Desert pea flower is very long and narrow, which makes it an obvious choice for the panoramic treatment. This image consists of three vertical exposures with a 100mm macro lens and some fill flash.

I lay on the ground with the side of my camera resting on the dirt, then tilted the camera to make the three exposures. Using that technique the lens wasn't rotating anywhere near the it's nodal point, I got away with it this time because there are no areas at the exposure junctions that include both near and far objects. Therefore parallax is not an issue.

When the subject is this close however, not rotating around the nodal point will often cause the images to be all but un-stitchable.


Fig 3: Ghost Gum, Redbank Gorge, West MacDonnell ranges, NT.



FoV 133x128°, four horizontal exposures, 6888x5988 pixels, Canon 17-40mm f4 L-series zoom.

Fig 3b: The four frames as shot.  
Fig 3c: The four frames as distorted by the panorama software.  

I discovered this tree while exploring Redbank Gorge, but didn't know how to photograph it. It was growing on the edge of a cliff and there was no way I could get further away, so I just made four exposures as I panned along the trunk and up to the branches. Apart from ensuring that I had a reasonable overlap, I paid no attention to the normal rules of rotating around nodal points and keeping the camera level.

Because of my “poor” technique it's impossible to create a straight photo, but I quite liked the shape created by my panoramic software as it tried to make sense of the data it was given.


Fig 4: Fortescue Falls, Karijini National Park, WA.


FoV 131x105°, five horizontal exposures, 5891x5195 pixels, Canon 17-40mm f4 L-series zoom.

Image #12588

With this image I had the same problem as with the ghost gum at Redbank Gorge, that is, a wide subject and a narrow ledge from which to shoot.

I took a series of five horizontal exposures starting at the top right, and working down to the bottom left. After stitching I had a similar-shaped image to Figure 3, but this time I decided to square the edges off.

Having done that I played with ideas to put my odd-shaped image back in the square. After many ideas I settled on a background that is a desaturated version of another panorama taken shortly after, from the opposite side of the waterfall.


Fig 5: Grasshopper, Boreline Road, Pilbara, WA.


Two horizontal exposures, 4856x1904 pixels, Canon 100mm f2.8 macro lens.

Fig 5a: The two frames as shot, note the misalignment.  

Who would have thought a grasshopper would be suitable fodder for the panoramic treatment? This shot has an FoV of only 15°, not exactly a typical wide panorama.

Why is this image only 1904 pixels in height, when my camera has a sensor that's 2048 pixels vertically? If you look at figure 5a you will see that I goofed a bit with the alignment, and therefore had to crop the image. This is something to watch out for with all panoramas, misalignment will cost you pixels, and pixels are one of the main reasons for using this technique in the first place.


Fig 6: Diamantina River, Birdsville.


Two horizontal exposures, 2981x2981 pixels, Canon 17-40mm f4 L-series zoom.

Image #30684

I know I said to think outside the square, but was talking figuratively, not literally. This image, taken of the Diamantina River at Birdsville, illustrates a quick and dirty approach to panoramas. While still half asleep I peered from the back of the FWD and noticed the light, with no time for tripods or anything I grabbed my camera, jumped from the car, and made two hand-held horizontal photos, one for the top half and another for the bottom. Seconds later the moment had passed. This photo didn't even need special stitching software; because it has a large black area through the middle, it was just a matter of combining them manually along that line.

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