How to Shoot Panoramas in HDR

Shooting a panorama photograph in HDR is the same as shooting a traditional panorama except that you take three to five times the number of photos. This takes into account brackets for each section of the panorama. You process the results as high dynamic range images and then tone map them before you stitch the whole thing together as a panoramic view.

The best way to start is to start:

  1. Select a scene and configure your camera to shoot brackets for HDR.

    Use whatever bracketing method your camera supports and that you’re comfortable with. You might not be able to use certain auto modes, depending on your camera. (See the next step.)

  2. Tweak specific settings for panoramas.

    Ideally, you want your camera in completely manual mode (so white balance, focus, and the center exposure for the brackets don’t change willy-nilly), but this isn’t always possible. At a minimum, try these tweaks:

    • White balance: Take white balance off Auto and set it to the conditions (sunlight, cloudy, and so on). This way, it won’t change from one frame to another even if the lighting is different.

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    • Focus: Switch to manual focus to maintain a consistent depth of field (the focal point won’t move to and fro within the scene).

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  3. Mount and level your camera on a tripod.

    Don’t skip the leveling. You want your camera to rotate about an axis that is as true to vertical as you can get it. Rotate your camera and check that it stays level when you point it in a different direction.

  4. Determine your framing strategy.

    Relax and take a few minutes to plan this. At a minimum, try for three frames. Center the subject of the panorama in the center frame, making sure to always have good overlap.

    If you need more than three frames and have a strong subject, center the subject as best you can in one frame and shoot the same number of frames on each side, balancing the panorama. Overlap shouldn’t be a problem with this scenario — you’ll have plenty.

    As you can see, the number of frames you need depends on the angle of view of your lens and the scene at hand. Wide and ultra-wide angle lenses require fewer shots to capture the same scene compared with lenses of longer focal lengths.

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    Try to overlap each frame by about one-third, as seen in the figure. Overlap helps the panorama program stitch (assemble) the frames by providing good reference points. The more reference points, the greater the possibility of a successful stitch in your assembly software.

  5. Check the alignment of each shot.

    This can be a dry run where you don’t take the photos, or you can go ahead and shoot them. The important part is checking out landmarks that help you identify the boundaries of your frames and how much overlap you’ll get.

    As you can see in the example, trees make outstanding landmarks. In fact, anything that stands out from the background — and vertical objects seem to work best — serves as a landmark.

    If you have a tripod with a compass, you can make a note of the reading for the center point of each frame.

    Take a few meter readings along the way to see whether exposure varies from one side of the panorama to the other. HDR is more forgiving than single-exposure panoramas because of the brackets (the point of HDR, really).

    Make sure you capture as much dynamic range of the scene as possible while not blowing out any highlights. Decide on a final exposure. If in extreme doubt, shoot a bracketed panorama with one central exposure (the 0.0 EV point); then capture another with different settings.

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  6. Pan to the right-most frame and double-check the exposure.

    Sure, you can try to shoot the center frame first and then move left and right, but it’s more natural to shoot left-to-right or right-to-left. Make sure the exposure you decided on is dialed in and set.

    Shoot in Manual mode so the camera can’t change the exposure. If you’re in a semi-auto or automatic mode, the camera can change settings every time you check exposure.

  7. Shoot the first bracketed set.

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  8. Pan to the next frame and shoot another bracketed set.

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  9. Pan to the next frame and shoot another bracketed set.

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  10. If necessary, continue shooting frames to complete the panorama.

    This figure shows the fourth and final set of brackets for this panorama.

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  11. This figure shows the final, tone mapped panorama.

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