Welcome to (The Occasional) Photo Tip of the Day! Please also visit my main site jeffwignall.com. Text and photographs Copyright 2016 Jeff Wignall.

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Widen Your View with Panoramic Stitching

I have always been a huge fan of panoramic photography, but have always been frustrated that it took either a very expensive camera or a very time-consuming manual path to create them. Back in the 80s and 90s, just before digital came around, there was a sudden boon in the interest in pans and there were a few camera companies (Fuji, was among them, I think) that made very expensive medium-format panoramic film cameras, but they cost about $2,500 as I recall. These cameras produce huge medium format negatives (some are 17" long, I think) and the images, when well done, were nothing short of spectacular. The pros who had them--and there were quite a few during the peak of the fad--were selling pan images in stock for considerable fees. I wanted one desperately, but just could never bring myself to find a couple of grand for what might turn out to be a toy.

There were also a few 35mm format wide view cameras, including the Widelux, which was the most famous, and then a Russian version called the Horizon (and I eventually got one of those and still have it). Another company, Noblex, made them, too, but I don't believe I ever used one. The 35mm cameras were nice, they were fun, but they just didn't have the impact of the larger-format cameras and they also had some mechanical issues because of their design. I only used the Horizon a few times because it used a swing-lens technology (the lens pivoted over a curved film plane and used a slit-type aperture to write the images) that wasn't very reliable. The concept was perfect and was based on the design of the original Cirkut camera (circa 1904) and when the cameras worked well, the images were nice. But so often the lens would hesitate or just stop and then the image was garbage.

The more artistic and crafty way to create pans was to simply shoot several (or many) overlapping views of a scene with a traditional camera and then assemble the images (prints) together into a very wide (or very tall) collage. David Hockney, painter/photographer/artsy guy, became famous for this type of work and his book Cameraworks was a collection of collages and pans made from 35mm cameras and the book blew my mind--and still does: the book is out of print (I bought a bunch of copies for $5 at the old Yale bookstore when they first came out--wish I had bought a ton more) and sells for a couple of hundred bucks used! If you see it for sale cheap at a used at a book sale, grab it. But Hockney was (and is) a genius and though I tried, I am apparently not a genius and was never able to imitate his vision or skill.

OK, so skip ahead a few decades and enter the digital camera. One of the first and coolest things that I discovered about digital editing and digital cameras was that you could use a process called "stitching" to shoot any number of overlapping images of a subject and then "join" them together (Photoshop and Photoshop Elements do it automatically, so no skill is required for that part) into spectacular digital pans. I have had so much fun shooting pans since I discovered this method that it seems like a gift of the photo Gods to me. After all these years, I can shoot the kind of panoramic image that I want and there is no special skill (or expensive camera) required. The trick is just to shoot a series of images of a wide scene (or a tall one, don't forget) where each frame overlaps (say about 30-percent) from the previous frame. Then use your editing software to stitch them. Using a tripod helps a lot and having even lighting across the scene helps, too.

For the shot of Stonington Harbor in Maine shown here, I used a high-end compact Olympus camera (a 5mp camera) and took five overlapping images and then stitched them together. The resulting image (at 300dpi, or print resolution) is 26-inches wide. When I get a few minutes I'll write a full tutorial and post it on my main site. (There are nearly 100 tutorials there already, by the way--all free!) Is this a cool concept or what? I guess I still love panoramas as much as ever!

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