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Camera setting for a perfect panorama picture

Many photogaphers screw up this essential detail

Jaro Kurimsky

Panoramic pictures are taken to capture the context of a setting; it’s about what’s around and in what state or condition. The technique behind the panorama is to take various photos that can be stitched together and give the illusion of one shot. We have to do it because there is not such a thing as a panoramic lens. The widest one is Canon 11-22mm on full frame body and is still incapable of capturing a full, 180-degree panorama.
Most people use their phones to make panoramic pictures, but even with a phone, you can’t reach a high level of volume, detail, and over-all photographic quality. This might be possible in five to ten years, but not now. At the moment, you have to have a decent camera and learn the necessary skills in order to capture a panoramic photo. Taking this kind of photo is quite easy after you understand a few basic principles and get little bit of practice. There are three basic rules on how to set your camera in order to get good looking panorama. Here they are:

1. All shots should be taken with the same camera setting

To take a panorama, we have to take a series of photos and then stitch them together on the computer. In order to have a smooth and consistent image, all photos must be taken with same settings such as aperture, time, and ISO. Why can’t you put your camera in auto mode? After all, doesn’t auto mode take really nice pictures? The answer is this: because the lighting condition changes as you move the camera to cover all area what you want to capture,  auto mode tends to adjust the setting to a different condition. Look at the following picture. It’s my very first panorama, which I took in Spain back in 2006.

volcanic mountain yellow colour
Yellow mountain – Montaña Amarilla, Tenerife, Spain

So, to get correct shots that you can put together without ending up with the appearance of stitched pictures, you have to switch your camera to manual mode. You can usually do this by adjusting the mode dial wheel on the top of the camera or by opening the setting menu in the camera. Once the camera is set in manual, I follow these guidelines to make sure I have the correct setting:

ISO: Lowest possible, never auto! The following picture is an example of auto ISO in panorama:

mountains after sunset with bit of sunshine on the peak
Sunset in El Teide National Park, Spain
F-stop: In the sweet spot of the lens, or at the point most useful for generating the desired effect

Time: To capture as many details as possible

The first two points are pretty easy. Just set ISO 50, 80, 100, 200, depending on what your camera can do.  You probably already know the lens’s sweet spot, but if not, read this blog post on how to find it. When it comes to setting the time, the way to find the correct value depends on your camera and the shooting conditions. My main rule is that I have as many highlights as possible. Let’s look at an example.

Example #1
The first is overexposed and part of the sky completely lacks details and colours. This problem can’t be recovered with software:

A shot with too much exposure
The red area shows the part of the picture that has no details
All you can get from original shot

Second is correctly exposed; it looks dark at the bottom, but dark parts can be recovered with software:

This one looks dark, but is correctly exposed
This is how it looks after the dark places are recovered 

Example #2
When taking a panorama with strong, direct sunshine, it’s important to take a few trial shots to see what exactly gives you enough details and the ability to recover dark areas:

This shot is too underexposed with dark areas showing too much noise after recovery; not acceptable quality

Original shot
Recovered dark areas

Correctly exposed to get both, very bright and dark area as well:

Original shot
Recovered dark areas and colours

When I’m explaining this concept in workshops, many photographers ask me: “So, how much can I underexpose and still get decent recovery of dark the parts? How will I know when I can’t go any further?” Well, it always depends on camera body. The best way is to take a series of different exposures and compare them at home on your computer. In the field, you usually can’t see much on the display anyway. You learn this value by experience. In my camera, I can go four stops lower and it still looks good.

2. Manual focus

When taking panoramic shots, it’s not essential, but very convenient to have a manual focus. Simply focus on a distant object and then turn off automatic focusing on the lens. With automatic focusing, there’s a good chance that a panorama of  twenty-five pictures will end up with one or two images that are wrongly re-focused and you’ll get blurred shots. You won’t notice until you’re going through the photos later. In this way, turning off the automatic focusing saves you time. So remember, focus before and turn it off! When you’re taking a panorama of the night sky, it is essential to focus first via LiveView in manual mode. No camera can focus correctly only on the light of the stars.

the beach lit by light of full moon
Bournemouth beach on full moon night

 3. RAW picture format

For me, it was a breakthrough to start shoot in RAW format. What’s RAW format? It’s all possible data that the camera’s sensor is able to capture and store without any processing. By contrast, JPG is already processed, compressed, and has lost a lot of its original information in order to take up a small space on your memory card or hard drive. The difference is like what you experience when you cook with raw ingredients or adjust a recipe to include already pre-cooked food.
You can do a lot in JPG format, but you never get the best your camera can give you. If RAW format is not available, use a flat-looking profile for JPG and manually set White Balance. Here is example of a panorama taken only in JPG format, in manual mode, and with a very basic camera Sony NEX 3n. Advanced HDR technique was used, too.

View from the cliff to the beach on cloudy day
The East Cliff view, Bournemouth, UK
In a nutshell, that’s how to set your camera when you’re taking panoramic shots. With this kind of photography, it’s never been more true that practice makes perfect. Go out there and take lots of shots in various conditions. If you have any questions, comment below!

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