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Panoramic Photography

Panoramic photography is a technique of taking photographs with a much wider aspect ratio (ratio of horizontal to vertical) than a normal photograph. Although there is no defining ratio between a wide angle photo and a panoramic photo, the common thought is a panorama has a ratio of 2:1 or greater. A panoramic photograph can be either long and narrow, or tall and narrow.

There are many ways to achieve such a photo:

  • There are cameras with rotating lenses that scan an image onto a long piece of film with a pivoting lens on one side of a drum, and a slit shutter on the other. The film is usually curved so the lens is always perpendicular to the film plane being exposed. This works well for many photographs, but has the disadvantage of distorting anything that moves over the period of the exposure. The camera will elongate objects that move in the same direction as the shutter, and shorten those that move in the opposite direction. Note the wheels in the racing photo below. Fast cars are still drawn like this in cartoons and animated movies because people thought this defect makes the car appear to move faster.
Elongation of Moving Objects Caused by Using Slit Shutter
These were some of the first panoramic cameras dating from 1844. Although some forms of these cameras are still being made, they are not very popular.

  • Some people shoot a normal photo and crop to a panoramic format. This can work if you are using a larger format film, but if you use any format smaller than 4x5, you will lose film area, and resolution along with it.

    The best way to do this with 4x5 film is to use a split darkslide in place to only expose half of the film. If the photographer is careful, the camera can be repositioned, and a second exposure can be made on the other half of the film sheet with the dark slide reversed. If you try this, make sure you have replaced the full dark slide before removing the film holder from the camera.

Split Dark Slide - This one is from Chamonix

  • A very popular way to shoot a panoramic photograph is with a camera or film back made for this purpose. Although film use is overall on the decline, one niche area where film is king is in panoramic photography. There are film backs for large format cameras and complete cameras made for photographing panoramic photographs in many formats. Although there are view cameras being made for panoramic photography with film sizes up to 7x17" (and possibly larger), the most popular panoramic cameras use 120 roll film that has been made since 1901, and should be available for many more years to come. My camera of choice for 6x17 panoramic photos is a Shen Hao TFC617-A view camera with a dedicated roll film back which takes four shots on a roll of 120 film. I can use the same lenses on this camera as on my 4x5 camera, as both cameras use Linhof Technika style lens boards. I cannot use my widest lens on this camera (Nikkor 65mm f4) because the lens will not cover the film format.

Shen Hao TFC617-A
TFC617-A Back w/ Ground Glass
TFC617-A w/ Roll Film Holder
Click an image for a larger view.

  • A modern technique used with digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) uses a panoramic bracket that rotates the camera around the Entrance Pupil (sometimes referred to at the Nodal Point) of the lens, rather than around the center of the tripod. A series of photographs are taken, either in one row, or in multiple rows. These photos are stitched together using a computer program to form a large panoramic photo with very high resolution. These photos can be one long image, or a complete circle or sphere.

1st Pano Shot
2nd Pano Shot
3rd Pano Shot
4th Pano Shot
5th Pano Shot
6th Shot Completes the Circle
Zenith (Straight Up) Shot
Click an image for a larger view.
The setup above is for a photographing Spherical 360x180o panoramic photos that will be viewed in Adobe Flash Player. It is shot with a full-frame fisheye lens, and the distortion is removed during the computer stitching process. Note that it takes 7 photographs to stich a panorama of this type, 6 around at 60o increments, and one straight up (the Zenith). An 8th shot, a Nadir (Straight Down) shot can be taken to complete the sphere, but the difficulty of shooting the Nadir sometimes outweighs the work involved in capturing and stitching the sphere. Besides, if you are looking straight down, your tripod and feet will be in the way of what is there, and you won't see it anyway. If the floor beneath your feet is not essential to the shot, rather than trying to hold the camera by hand and keep it level, keep your feet out of a fisheye shot, and handle the other difficulties involved, the empty space can be filled in using Photoshop. The Panoramic head in these photos is made by Really Right Stuff with leveling components from other companies added to complete the setup. These components are detailed below.
Panoramic Levels
Click image for a larger view.
One of the most important things to do when shooting a panorama is to keep everything level. Although the many leveling devices in the photo above may seem like overkill, all of them make the computer stitching of multiple images much easier. The devices and their functions are (from the bottom up):
    • A Tripod Leveling Platform - This platform mounts between the tripod and everything else. The principle is if your tripod platform is level, everything above it (when leveled separately) will remain level through the rotation. This is leveled first.
    • Three-Thumbscrew Level - Like a Surveyor's Transit level, you use the three thumbscrews, along with the levels above it, to level the tripod head. This is a separate action from leveling the tripod platform. There are several levelers available, but the smallest and lightest (great virtues for backpackers and those who like to travel light) is the Fanotec EZ-Leveler available from Nodal Ninja.
    • A Click-Stop Rotator - While not actually a leveling device, this is the logical place to explain it. Some manufacturers of Panoramic heads (including Really Right Stuff, who makes my Panoramic head) use a simple rotator with guide marks engraved to show degrees of rotation. While this works in theory, most Panoramic photographers like to have adjustable click-stops (indents that accurately tell you when you have reached the desired rotation point of the next sequential photo) as a part of their tripod head. This method is very accurate, and most importantly, repeatable, in case you need to reshoot a panorama. I still use the plain rotator on top of the Click-Stop Rotator so I can have a more flexible starting point. I can easily find the center point of my first image by centering the rotator and locking it down before using the click-stop rotator to space my shots. The blue screws on the click-stop rotator allow you to vary the amount of rotation between each photo. My choice of Click Stop Rotators is the Fanotec RD-16 rotator available from Nodal Ninja.
    • Level on the Rail - Manufacturers of Panoramic equipment seem to put levels everywhere, and I have no problem with that. The more reference points I have, the better I can assure my final image will be level.
    • An inexpensive Double Bubble Level - This leveling device is simply two spirit levels molded into the same acrylic block on opposite angles to each other with multiple flash shoe inserts that allow you to level on both front-to-front and side-to-side axes. This gives a final assurance of having a perfectly level camera.

  • A relatively new method of taking panoramic photographs using digital cameras is inspired by NASA, Ames Robotics Laboratory, Carnegie Mellon University, and Charmed Labs. The technique uses a robotic device (Gigapan) that controls the camera's movement as it takes a user-defined mosaic of photographs (sometimes hundreds of images) that overlap by at least 15%. The photographs are entered into a photo stitching program that matches detail from one photo to the next and blends them seamlessly into one large photograph with tremendous image detail. Once the image is stitched, it can be uploaded to the Gigapan website where it can be viewed in great detail. The Gigapan Robotic Devices were inspired by the cameras in the Mars Rovers that sent back mosaic photos to be stitched by computers at NASA.

    You can see the robotic camera mount I use (a BETA version of the final production robot) in the three images below.

Gigapan 1
Gigapan 2
Gigapan 3
Click an image for a larger view.

The photograph at the bottom of this page (the skyline of Tampa, Florida) was taken on this device, called the Gigapan Robotic Mount from Charmed Labs. It is made up of 162 images and the image size is .91 Gigapixels, which is quite small compared to other images taken with the Gigapan Mount. This was my first photo taken with the robot (a Beta version), and it was photographed with a point-and-shoot digital camera. I have since adapted the Robotic Mount to hold a compact Digital SLR (a Panasonic Lumix G1) that produces images with much higher resolution. That camera proved to be too heavy for the servo motors in the mount, so I now use a Nikon P700 compact camera with a lens that can extend to 200mm. These photos can be seen at the website,, and many can be viewed in Google Earth.

The Beta robots have been replaced with commercially available units in three sizes that hold compact (point-and-shoot), small DSLRs, and large DSLRs. They are available form Gigapan Systems.

Tampa, Florida Skyline