From my experiences, here is my two-cents of how to do it.
For exposure, only use Aperture priority mode or Manual mode on the camera. Avoid Shutter priority, Program and other auto modes, as you should keep aperture value consistent across all images. Even with Aperture priority mode, you need to make use of the AE-L (auto-exposure lock) button so that all images will have same exposure, instead of one being brighter, another one being darker. It looks bad if one part of sky is blue, but the next part of it is white. Use smaller aperture f8 or f11 to have large depth of field, to have much of the scene to appear sharp.
Switch to manual focus mode on your lens. If you choose AF-S, single servo auto-focus mode, (AF-A and AF-C are no good for our purpose here,) after making the first attempt of auto focusing — press shutter-release button half-way, still switch it to manual focus on your lens, so that the focus plane won’t change across all images. There is, of course, another way, which involves changing the behavior of the AF-L (auto-focus lock) button and use that button to do the focusing job, hence the shutter-release button won’t try to re-focus for each image.
For focus area mode, switch to single point mode and use the center point to focus, as the center of any lens has the best image quality and best focus accuracy.
A tripod is much helpful when taking panoramic photos. Also, if you prefer all images are absolutely leveled, use 3-way panhead with level bubble for precise adjustment. With it, you don’t have to crop much after merging the images. You can get away with ballhead. But it just won’t be perfectly leveled. The end result would be you have to crop a lot in the final image.
As for focal length, try not to use the widest angle, for example, 18mm of the 18-55mm kit lens. At the shorter end of the lens, i.e. 18-20mm, most lens suffer a good deal of barrel distortion at the edge of the image. For single image, maybe you can live with it or even hardly notice the distortion. But for a series of images to be merged later, it’d better not. I normally use 24mm.
Most people will use the camera at landscape orientation for panorama. It seems logical at first since one doesn’t have to take so many pictures to be merged later. But have you thought of by using landscape orientation, you actually cut off a lot at top and at the bottom? Human eyes scan a scene at a very fast rate, from left to right, from top to bottom. Therefore people are easy to be pleased from what they see when standing at a grand open space, for example, facing the beach or looking down from a mountain. A landscape image limits the view to only the middle area. So I suggest turning your camera to portrait orientation to capture more. Of course, you need to take a few more pictures to cover the same width of the scene hence the final image size is larger. Nowadays hard drive per GB is so cheap, a bit larger image size shouldn’t be a big issue.
Finally, align the center of the view finder with the horizon and allow some overlaps between each image when taking the shots.
I use Photoshop Element to merge them because Nikon camera doesn’t come with any. There are also other software to use. For example, Canon cameras come with PhotoStitch. Hugin is free, open source software. But I feel it’s too complicated for novice users.
Examples. If you have checked out my traveling blog Rome and Florence and Pisa, you’ve probably have seen this and this. But I’m not particularly fond of those two. Maybe I was in the rush when I took them. Here are two more that look better.
This one was taken at Hohenschwangau, Germany, in October 2009. The lake is called Alpsee. That trip was the first time ever I use a DSLR camera. It’s a Nikon D5000 and I’m still using it. And this image was the first ever panorama I created from 4 or 5 images. Not bad, isn’t it?
This one was taken in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, last October, from probably 10 images.
The whole process seems complicated. But once you’ve tried a few times, the flow is quite easy to follow. Practice, practice, practice. It’s just the way it is. No photographers become professionals by just reading.
What I’ve said above may not be perfect. Any comments are welcome. Or if I missed anything, let me know.
Copyright © 2011. Jenson Yu. All rights reserved.