Creating a Picture that Draws the Viewer In

When people see my fine art landscape panoramas they often comment that the picture seems to draw them in and surround them. Its not a coincidence that people feel that way, its part of the construction of the image. My panoramas are typically about 30 inches tall and about 80-90 inches wide. The image above is 30” x 80” at 300 dpi in native camera resolution (not upsized). At this size, most photographs, even those
made with large format cameras, start to lose detail or pixilate but mine don’t. That’s because they are assembled from an array of overlapping images.

Shoot Overlapping Images

The image above was assembled from 12 individual images. So that’s my first secret to creating a captivating landscape panorama – keep the details sharp. I like to shoot with the Canon 5DS camera because of its 50 MP sensor yields a 30″ x 20″ print at 300 dpi. You can begin to understand the
power of shooting overlapped images with a little math; 12 images 20” wide set side by side would create a mural 240” wide but the stitched panorama is only 80”. That’s a third of the available pixels. This amount of overlap allows more precise stitching across a wide scene.

Pick Your Vantage Point

When I approach a site, I walk around and look from many vantage points. I’m looking for a wide field of view as well as interesting objects in the foreground. It is best to step back and hold your hands in front of you in a box and imagine the framing of the final panorama before setting your camera into position. When
setting the overall frame for the panorama, every individual frame must be previewed to assure the horizon is where it needs to be compositionally – end to end. I select a spot where my view is virtually guaranteed to be unobstructed by the passing people. If you shoot 10-12 images per scene, you may find it difficult to remember why you liked the scene because the slices are just pieces of the puzzle. You have to assemble it to see the big picture. I try to shoot a wide angle shot of the scene before and after the set of panoramas so I can remember what the scene looked like before I stitch it in post processing.

Select the Right Lens

Selection of a lens is the next critical decision. Since I’m looking for the highest resolution images possible, I want to select a lens that when shooting portrait orientation that there is just enough foreground and sky in the picture. This tends to work best with a short telephoto but in the image above, I shot with a 50mm
prime lens to get more of the sky and foreground. Focal lengths less than 50mm are not recommended because the distortions at the edges do not stitch together nicely. Remember, the reason we’re shooting a panorama is to get a wide angle image with an undistorted perspective; something that looks like human vision, not bird’s eye vision. Most of the panoramic images I shoot are shot with a 100 mm prime lens. This allows me to get nice narrow slices of the landscape without distortion. Distortion makes the merged panorama images look strange, especially on a wide panorama. Keeping a normal perspective is the second
key to drawing people into the picture. Since all the images are shot with a telephoto as someone walks closer to the picture it seems to magnify itself with details. Then walking back and forth, the visual cylinder follows the viewer into all the different parts of the seamless scene. Its like being inside a movie.

Set Up Your Tripod

I make sure the footing of my tripod is solid and not subject to vibration. Once the legs are securely stationed, I use the built-in level to make sure the camera will be level and can be rotated level with the horizon. Deviations from horizontal introduce effects that may add artistic effects but distract from “human vision” images. Pointing up or down will introduce keystone effects especially when architecture is involved. If the horizon is not perfectly level, the stitched panorama will slope off to one side requiring rotation of the final image and significant cropping of the top and bottom of the frame.

Expose for the Scene

Once the camera is set up and leveled on the tripod, its important to make a manual exposure readings. A wide panorama will often have very different lighting across the scene and some of the frames may require
exposure adjustments. The sunset scene was bright shooting into the sun and dark on the periphery. This scene could have been shot as a HDR panorama for better exposure but I was able to shoot it without making bracketed exposures and combining as a HDR image. I did however adjust the exposures as the camera panned across the horizon. Finding the midpoint and the range is critical before beginning. I should note that this can be tricky as light may be rapidly changing during a sunset or sunrise. The aperture must remain constant for all shots in the scene. Changing the aperture will change the depth of field and magnification of the image making it difficult to create a perfectly seamless panorama. The ISO must also remain constant to keep the resolution and noise in each frame from changing. The shutter speed is the only parameter that can be changed to compensate for exposure differences and the longest shutter speed
must not be so long that motion blur occurs. Check the exposure range to verify your longest shutter speed. With a tripod, you should be able to shoot as slow as 1/30th second but I try to shoot no less than 1/60th
or with a telephoto the inverse of the focal length (ie 1/100th with a 100mm lens). At this point you may be able to set your camera to aperture priority, locked ISO and let the camera make the exposure adjustments. The metering must be set at center weighted or averaged so the exposure readings will change slowly as
you pan the camera. With 50% overlap of each shot the gradients in exposure are likely to remain within ½ f/stop.

Shooting the Panorama

Now that your camera is set up and you’re ready to shoot, start at the right side of your scene and begin making your shots. The right to left shooting makes it easier to see the panorama when reviewing the images in chronological sequence in post processing. Each shot should overlap the prior shot by at least 50% of the frame, 66% is even better. At 66%, if you have a bad shot, you can still remove it from the series and there will be enough overlap to stitch the image. The 50% guideline is to make sure the slices are narrow enough that changes in perspective, exposure, and complex content can be seamed together without distortions or vignettes. A 66% overlap means that each new frame captures 1/3rd new content and the remaining 2/3rd content was in the prior frame.

Sunset Scenes

When shooting a sunset, shoot the scene several times to capture the optimal light. I’ve seen some photographers get impatient after shooting the scene five or more times thinking they got it only to find back in the digital darkroom they missed it. Have patience, start shooting early, keep readjusting your exposure settings as the sun goes down and keep shooting until dark. Raise your ISO as needed, perhaps
open your aperture, shoot with a fast lens. If you are an advanced shooter, you may want to try capturing the scene in HDR with exposure bracketing. Remember here too, the aperture must be constant in every shot varying only the shutter speed.

Advanced Planning

Advanced planning of your framing and exposure settings, as the light changes, pays off. If you did shoot bracketed images and want to process the panorama in HDR, you must create the HDR image for each frame before seaming them together into a panorama. Large overlaps will be helpful here too. Be sure to create the low contrast HDR for each frame, combine the frames into the panorama, then apply the toning to the image. Be aware that the seams may become very noticeable when the image is toned if the exposures have even the slightest differences. Another possibility… carefully positioned frames shot as the sun sets can create unique sky and city light images. Try HDR blending several shots of the same images
taken at different times perhaps 15-30 minutes apart to get beautiful city lights, building definition, and colorful skies with stars.

In Closing

As I mentioned at the open, fine art photography isn’t just about taking a picture. There’s a lot of technique to be applied before, during and after the image is captured. It involves a confluence of vision, imagination, planning, execution, equipment, and technology.




The Making of a Fine Art Landscape

By Sam Dobrow – (c) Copyright 2020