Pano Myths

As with lots of photography, there are long standing myths and misunderstandings surrounding panoramic photography. I hope to dispel some of them. It may even lead to be pano photos.

You need a wide-angle/fisheye lens to take spherical panoramas

LouvreYou can make a spherical panorama with practically any lens, the limit may be your patience rather than the equipment. The longer the focal length, the narrower the view and hence the more photos required to take a panorama. At the one extreme, fisheye lenses with greater than 180 degree field of view can create a spherical panorama with only two shots. At the other end, multi-gigapixel spherical panoramas have been created using telephoto lenses and thousands of shots. In practical terms, one can trade-off convenience and versatility of using a wide fisheye lens against the high resolution of a narrower rectilinear lens.

You need to rotate the lens around the nodal point

It is not called the “nodal point”, you have to rotate the lens around the entrance pupil, or otherwise called the no-parallax point. There are actually several nodal points but none of these are the no-parallax point of a lens. A discussion of the differences between the entrance pupil and the nodal point can be found here.

You must lock exposure/use manual exposure

Glen Coe LochanEarly panoramic stitching programs merely arranged and blended photos together to make a panorama. For the blends to not stand out, the individual frames needed to be the same brightness, hence the advice to lock the exposure or use manual settings to ensure the same aperture/shutter/ISO settings. For quite some time now, panoramic stitching programs have been able to analyse the overlap between frames and calculate their relative brightness and incorporate this information when remapping and blending the images together. This means that you can expose each image optimally to capture shadow and highlight detail, the final quality of the assembled pano will be better as a result. Aperture priority usually works well.

I must use a tripod to take panoramas

It depends. For best quality results, a panorama head and tripod is preferable but in certain situations you can take spherical panoramas handheld. There are various techniques, but one is to use a virtual monopod, like a Philopod made from a weight and some string. Sometimes you can simply be very careful and try to rotate yourself and your camera around the no-parallax point as best as you can. Taking lots of photos usually helps with minimizing shot to shot parallax. These only work if the shutter speed is not too long.

HDR is great/terrible

Sunset over Pacific QuayHigh dynamic range (HDR) photography is a misused term. It is often used to refer to ultra saturated contrast adapted tone-mapped images when in fact the “HDR look” is not specific to HDR photos. The “HDR look” can be applied to any photo, true HDR or not. HDR is simply a technique of creating an image file where the pixel brightness values are not restricted to lie within a narrow range determined by the limitations of conventional image reproduction techniques such as monitors and prints. For example, a shot in bright daylight with objects in shade may have a contrast range much greater than could be captured by a conventional camera. By taking bracketed exposures, the information in the very bright and dark areas could be combined into single HDR image. The problem is how to represent this data when displayed on a print or screen that cannot simultaneously display this wide range of brightness. This is where tools can be used or abused. Tone mapping is a way of squeezing the bright and dark areas of the image into a range that will be discernible. A local contrast adaptation is used along with boosted saturation resulting in the “HDR look”. This is not mandatory, there are much more subtle ways of translating an HDR image file into something that looks natural. An HDR photo can also be rendered so to look exactly like a normal photo with crushed blacks and blown highlights if you throw away all the extra brightness information. What gives “HDR photos” their look is not HDR but extreme tone-mapping.