Hack 19 Get the Big Picture with a Panorama

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They say two heads are better than one. When it comes to showing the "big picture," many heads?er, shots?are definitely bigger than one.

Many people are frustrated by their inability to capture the majesty of awesome natural monuments such as the Grand Canyon. I've heard this phrase a dozen times: "This picture doesn't really do it justice. It looked so fantastic when I was there."

Bad photography isn't the culprit here; inadequate coverage is.

Let me ask you this: if you went to the Grand Canyon and had to look at it through a toilet-paper tube, how impressive would you think it was? Probably not much. The same thing happens when you try to capture the magnificence of a vast location with single shots on your point and shoot. This doesn't mean that you have to go out and buy a camera with a superwide lens. Instead, put the magic of digital photography to work for you.

Almost every digital camera available today is capable of creating breathtaking panoramas by stitching together a series of shots into one gigantic, seamless scene. Back in the days of film, you probably played around with this technique by taping together snapshots to make a bigger picture. One of my favorite artists, David Hockney, put a creative spin on this technique with works such as "The Brooklyn Bridge Nov 28th 1982" and "Pearblossom Hwy." Hockney's works are usually referred to as photographic collages. But the concept is similar to our exploration here?taking a bunch of small images and combining them to make a big picture.

Unlike Hockney's work, however, our panoramas are very linear, moving from left to right. If your camera has a Panorama mode, use it; it helps you capture the images in a way that's easier for your computer to deal with later. That's the process. You shoot 3 to 12 pictures, moving from left to right, then upload them to your computer where they can be stitched together as a sweeping vista.

Let's start with the shooting technique. You'll get the best results if you use a tripod, and you'll have even better luck if you have a bubble level to go with it. That way, you can align your camera to keep a straight horizon line through the entire picture-taking sequence. If your tripod doesn't have a built-in level, go to the camera store to buy one that attaches to your camera's hot shoe.

See Figure 8-19 if you want to know if your camera has a hot shoe or not. It's a bracket, typically about the size of a postage stamp, primarily designed to accommodate an external flash.

Look for a location with the sun to your back. Most panoramas cover about 180°. You want the lighting as even as possible on that scene so that you don't have abrupt shifts in the color of the sky, which makes it more difficult to stitch together the scene and end up with continuous tones.

Once you have your camera mounted and aligned, swing through the scene and follow the horizon line to make sure it stays level.

Don't compose the shot in such a way that the horizon line splits the frame in half. Either move the horizon line down to the lower third of the composition, making a big-sky shot, or move it to the upper third of the frame, creating a rich landscape.

If your camera has a Panorama mode, enable it. Otherwise, just make sure you overlap one third of the frame as you move from shot to shot. This will give your computer lots of information to stitch the scenes together.

Swing the camera to point in the direction of your left shoulder and shoot the first frame. Move the camera one frame to the right (remembering to overlap the scene by one third) and shoot again. Work all the way through the sequence until your capture the scene in the direction of your right shoulder.

Review your images on your camera's LCD monitor. If you like the way they look, you're finished. Otherwise, recompose and shoot the series again.

If you don't have a tripod with you, shooting a panorama is still possible. Put the strap around your neck and extend the camera until the strap is taunt. Align your first shot to the left and fire. Don't move the camera after the exposure. Instead move only your feet and align the next shot. Essentially you have turned yourself into a human tripod.

Pay close attention to the horizon line as you work through the sequence. You won't get the full height of the scene by using this method, because you're bound to misalign the camera slightly as you work through the series of shots. But you can crop the picture after stitching and still get an amazingly good panorama.

Here's an example of the technique in action. Standing on a balcony overlooking New York's Grand Central Station gives you an inspiring view. So why does the picture in Figure 2-6 look so uninspiring?

Now take a look at Figure 2-7. Ah, now that's better! By stitching six shots together from a Canon Digital Elph S-400, I was able to show how Grand Central really looks to my friends back home.

Cameras with a Panorama mode will label the pictures differently than your standard single shots, so you can easily identify them when you start working on the computer. The normal image file will look something like IMG_0001_JPG. But on Canon cameras, for example, panorama files should read something like this: STA_0006_JPG, STB_0007_JPG, STC_0008_JPG, and so on. You can look at these files and right away know which one was first in the series (STA), second (STB), and so on.

Once your pictures have been uploaded to your computer, you can either use the stitching software that came with your camera, or the Photomerge function in Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CS. Either way, the software will endeavor to stitch together the sequence of files into a continuous composition. The more careful you are when you record the scene, the more success you'll have when working on the computer.

Figure 2-6. An uninspiring photo of an inspiring view

Even if your camera doesn't have a Panorama mode, you can still use Photoshop to connect the shots. The pictures won't be labeled differently, so you'll have to preview them, figure out the order in which they were shot, and then move them into Photomerge. Photoshop will take it from there.

Figure 2-7. A panoramic composite of the same view

One of the great advantages of shooting panoramas is that your 3-megapixel camera suddenly becomes an 18-megapixel monster when you stitch together six 3-megapixel shots. You can make prints that are 3 feet wide instead of just a regular old single-frame 4" 6".

Many camera stores carry frames in panorama dimensions. You can print your final composition on 8.5" 11" inkjet paper, trim it, and display it in one of these frames. I guarantee that it will make a much more powerful impression than the original 4" 6" print that just didn't do the scene justice.