Panoramas – taking the wider view

Panoramas can be stunning images. As long as you are looking at them from a close enough distance, they can replicate on page or screen the way we scan scenes in real life.

Look again at the picture at the top of the screen. Assuming you are using a computer screen rather than a phone, you will probably find you will have to move your eyes, or possibly even your head, to take the whole picture in.

This movement adds a degree of realism to the image and makes you feel “as if you were there”. As far as you can be, at any rate, stuck in front of your computer.

Slowing the viewer down

The process also slows the viewer down somewhat, and we discussed previously, getting the viewer to spend more time on your picture can usually only be a good thing.

Engaging peripheral vision

Key to the panoramic experience is the degree to which the viewer’s peripheral vision engaged. They remain aware of the content at the edges of the image while taking in elements from the centre. Again this is how we see things in the real world. it leads the viewer to feel immersed in the experience you put in front of them.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick
The Bass Rock from North Berwick

Panoramas – what qualifies?

Almost any wide-angle image could be a panorama, but for the purposes of this article, I’ll take a look at images that are at least twice a wide as they high. This is referred to as the “aspect ratio”: 2:1 is where we’ll start, but we’ll also look at 3:1 and even wider.

The key to viewing panoramas is to look at them closely enough to trigger your peripheral vision. If you were to hold an A4 sized picture (20cm high) at a comfortable viewing distance (about arm’s length), then a panorama would need also be 20cm high but anything from 40cm wide.

If you step back from the panorama it becomes easier to take it all in at a glance, and you would miss out on the scanning experience. If in doubt, get closer!

Click on each of the following images to view them at full size to experience the impact of each aspect ratio. Notice the potential for distorting the scene increases with the aspect ratio!

Aspect ratio of 2:1 - View from Bowmont Forest
Aspect ratio of 2:1 – View from Bowmont Forest
Aspect ratio of 3:1 - Smailholm Tower and the Eildon Hills
Aspect ratio of 3:1 – Smailholm Tower and the Eildon Hills
Aspect ratio of 3.5:1
Aspect ratio of 3.5:1. This has a very wide angle of view. The car the far right is ready to be reversed into the garage on the left!

The effect of wider

The wider the aspect ratio, the more the horizon will feature in the image. In the first image below with a 2:1 ratio, the viewer’s eye is drawn more to the aggressive looking clouds. In the second image, with a 3:1 ratio, the clouds are still there but the emphasis is more on the breadth of the scene.

Sunset over Hoy from Mainland, Orkney. Notice the clouds!
Sunset over Hoy from Mainland, Orkney
Sunset over Hoy from Mainland, Orkney. Notice the horizon.

Creating the panorama

There are a variety of ways of creating a panoramic image, depending on the features of your camera (or phone).

Cropping from a bigger image

Most of the time, this is the method I prefer, especially when using my usual DSLR. It creates files with more than 5000 pixels across so there is plenty of scope for cropping a file to the required size.

The camera captures image files with an aspect ratio of 3:2 – for every 3 pixels across the image, there are 2 pixels along the side. So, an image with an aspect ratio of 3:1 simply requires me to cut the image in half.

Cropping an image from a full size 3:2 original down to a 3:1 panorama
Cropping an image from a full size 3:2 original down to a 3:1 panorama

Selecting the area I want for the finished picture of Smailhom Tower also enabled me to place the horizon where I wanted it. In this case, I chose the classic lower third position. The tower is placed slightly left of the left-hand third which has the effect of stretching the scene a little further.

When taking the original photograph, it is advisable to consider the options for cropping later on. In this case, I positioned the horizon more or less in the centre of the frame to provide maximum flexibility while cropping.

Sweeping

Many mobile phones and compact cameras (and increasingly mirrorless cameras too) have a facility for creating wider pictures by scanning round a scene.  As you sweep the camera around, it keeps a track of where you are and guides you to complete the picture.  My compact camera permits panoramic images from the complete 360 degrees.

It also permits me to take panoramas in portrait mode. By holding the camera narrow edge upwards, I can maximise the detail I can capture as I sweep it around.

Piecing, or merging

Traditionally, panoramas were created by piecing together or merging multiple exposures. You can still do this depending on the software you use.  You need to ensure you leave enough overlapping details on each picture. On these examples consider how much of the Town Hall appears on images on either side.

Kelso Square and Town Hall pieced from 6 original image files
Kelso Square and Town Hall merged from 6 original image files

Composition

You can approach the composition of panoramic images in much the same way as for a classic wide-angle picture. Although, as in the Town Hall picture, you can get away with the “wow factor” for much of the time, you will find your panoramas more satisfying if you follow the usual guidelines for wide pictures.

Getting in close to at least one element of your picture can bear dividends, as can using strong diagonals across the picture. This gallery offers a few examples where I have used both those techniques to produce images with impact.

But just having the wow factor of a big sky is still a valid reason for creating panoramic images as this gallery demonstrates.

Problems

Panoramas can suffer from problems of perspective. This is especially the case when you follow my advice and incorporate elements close to the camera.

A swept panorama of Charlie and Pauline's kitchen at Allanton
A swept panorama of Charlie and Pauline’s kitchen at Allanton

You’ll also see problems if you try photographing straight edges from too close. In this case, the picture works really well, but I don’t often get that lucky.

If you try sweeping or piecing panoramas and your subject moves, you may end up with elements of the picture missing. Here a missing hand and other artefacts spoil a really nice study of two friends.

Joyce and Kristen at Woodside
Joyce and Kristen at Woodside

Just tell your subjects to keep still!

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