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Back to Basics: Panorama Photography Tips for Nature Photographers

Photo by Mike Cavaroc Panoramic images have long been used to capture a wide angle view that the human eye cannot naturally take in all at once. In...

Photo by Mike Cavaroc

Panoramic images have long been used to capture a wide angle view that the human eye cannot naturally take in all at once. In the days of film photography, specialty cameras were manufactured specifically for taking panoramas, using curved film holders and clockwork drives to scan a line image into an arc.

While you can still find similar cameras today (Lomographic cameras, for example), digital photography has greatly simplified the process. The technique most photographers employ is image stitching, using Photoshop or another editing application to stitch two or more consecutively captured photos together.

Panoramic images are great for capturing sweeping landscapes, and professional nature photographers should definitely get this skill under their belt – especially if you’re looking to selling prints, because they tend to be a big seller.

Photo by Mike Cavaroc

The good news for nature and landscape photographers is that you don’t need a lot of extra equipment to successfully shoot panoramic images. Cityscapes, for example, need a certain amount of precision and special panoramic equipment to prevent distortions. You also don’t necessarily need to worry about getting the entire background in super sharp focus. Buyers will be more interested in the emotional connection they make with the scene, rather than focusing on every little tree or branch.

For more panorama photography tips, we turned to Mike Cavaroc of Free Roaming Photography. Mike is an experienced wildlife and nature photographer based near Grand Teton National Park and Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where he shoots majestic landscapes on a daily basis. His “Panoramas” gallery inspired us to learn more.

Think outside the 3:2/4:3 ratio

Most photos are in a 3:2 or 4:3 rectangular aspect ratio. “Sometimes, the standard rectangle doesn’t represent a landscape’s features at its best,” says Mike. “I typically shoot a panorama if all the elements I’m trying to work with don’t fit exactly into a standard frame.”

Use a camera with built-in level

Mike recommends the Canon 7D for shooting panoramas, but any camera with a built-in level with do. “They allow me to do a quick pan of a potential panorama and see in real-time if the camera is straight or not,” says Mike. Keeping your “subject” (i.e. mountain, lake, forest, etc.) straight will make image stitching exponentially easier.

Photo by Mike Cavaroc

Invest in a ballhead

There are a lot of fancy mounts and cradles out there that claim to take your panoramic photography to the next level, but all you really need is a high quality ballhead on a tripod that can be locked and rotated. “A ballhead that can pan fluidly makes going from one shot to the next much smoother,” says Mike. He recommends Manfrotto’s products.

Avoid wide angle lenses

Unless you’re shooting night photography (where you’ll need a wide angle and long shutter speed to capture the starlight), wide angle lenses tend to create too much distortion. You’ll likely need to crop the corners of each frame, and might end up with small, lower resolution images. Mike actually likes to use a telephoto lens to capture sunrises, sunsets, or any other scene that focuses on the daytime sky. “I use a telephoto to focus in on the best parts of the light over the mountains, for example.” Choose one point near “infinity” and focus there.

Photo by Mike Cavaroc

Shoot f/8 or higher

Ideally you want to get as much of the scene in focus as possible. Depending your lens choice, and how close your nearest foreground object is, you’ll want to set your aperture to f/8 or higher. Also be sure to shoot in Manual Exposure and set your lens to Manual Focus. The most important thing is that all your images have the same exposure and focus so that they stitch together correctly.

Shoot with a slow shutter speed

“Regardless of subject, a relatively slow shutter speed always helps,” says Mike. “That way, if a bird, plane, or something similar flies through, it won’t show up in the final image.” Mike also recommends using a neutral density filter during daylight hours. Take a few practice shots to make sure your images are too under or overexposed.

Photo by Mike Cavaroc

Overlap 25-50% of the image

Overlap is the amount of each frame that will essentially blend together in post production. As you move from one exposure to the next, pick a stationary object like a tree in each frame so the it’s easier to know where to stitch the final images together. “25-50% overlap allows a bit of room for error,” says Mike, “and if there are any erratic properties that I happened to have included, or if something didn’t quite line up for some reason, I still have plenty of both images to work with.”

Learn layer masking in Photoshop

You can use photomerge in Photoshop to automatically stitch your images together into a panorama. But if you want more control over the process, you can use layer masking. “Layer masking allows me to erase the overlying layer without actually affecting the layer itself,” says Mike. “As a result, if I wind up going in too far or goofing up the blend in some way, I can always add it back.”

Photo by Mike Cavaroc

Here’s an overview of Mike’s layer masking process:

Each photo is imported into Photoshop through Camera RAW with minimal adjustments made, since I prefer to do my main editing in Lightroom. White Balance and Lens Correction are just about the only two things I edit before importing. With each photo open separately, I take one “end” and expand the canvas space to have plenty of “wiggle room” and begin dropping each photo in as a new layer, roughly overlapping the previous layer.

Once they’re all in making a rough panorama, I’ll zoom in at 100% to accurately line them up, typically on the horizon line, overlapping them roughly 25-50%. From there, I start with the top layer, apply a layer mask, and begin masking out that 25-50% which exposes the underlying layer. I typically look for where any distortion on the top layer ends so that eventually both layers look exactly the same.

I continue that process until I have a seamless panorama. I then double-check for any inconsistencies, flatten the layers, save it as a TIFF, and import it into Lightroom to begin my basic edits.

Print on canvas or metal

Mike recommends selling canvas or metal panoramic prints because it eliminates the need for custom frames. “I find that standard panoramic prints come with the extra baggage of framing, so I enjoy the fact that canvas and metal are typically ready to hang as is,” he says. “When done properly, they show off the aspect ratio quite powerfully.”

Go vertical

We tend to think of panoramas as horizontal images, but you can also create beautiful vertical panoramas – waterfalls and reflection pools are prime subjects.

Photos by Mike Cavaroc

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