#557. pano(D)rama

#557. pano(D)rama

This is a first reaction to our #555. Force for Positive Change call for reader engagement. Is it a guest post by Oliver, describing his trials and tribulations in creating wide-angle shots and panoramas. It is important for 2 reasons :

 

(1) Stitching is a greatly underrated technique that can give us medium format sensor size at a fraction of the cost. It helps me create square format medium format shots without cropping and losing resolution.

 

2 vertical frames stitched into a square

 

(2) I hope it encourages others to follow and experience the thrill of publishing their ideas 🙂

 

So, a big thank you to Oliver for this very interesting topic and article. The long and winding path is one we can relate to and the final 3 recommendations are very valuable to anyone wanting to start out.

 


 

Did you ever try going wide in photography ? Do you like working with wide-angle lenses ? Do you love depicting landscapes ? Are you a stitching fan ? Then this blogpost might be appealing to you.

 

First of all let me introduce myself as a guest writer at DearSusan. Please allow me to stay anonymous for the time being. Just call me ‘Oliver’.

 

Born as a son of a photographer I got my first plastic toy camera in early childhood. It had a wide-angle lens. That probably started it – my zest for going wide. Later followed experiences with the moderate fixed wide-angle on my mum’s Voigtländer camera. Still in school I got the SLR of a friend in my hands – and I was hooked. This was WYSIWYG and it had a 28 mm lens – 75 degrees of visual field and the possibility to compose in the viewfinder.

 

Wow.

 

Within a year I saved my pocket-money to buy an SLR with a 28 mm prime, myself. Sweat and tears came next. The first pouring down when searching for motives in the summer holidays, the latter pouring down when listening to the image critiques of family members …

To keep the rest of the story short, intensive search on the second-hand market lead to purchases of 20 mm, 17mm and a 16 mm full frame fisheye.

THAT ONE WAS WIDE. PERIOD.

 

Analogue Challenges

With the reduction of the focal length you have to get closer. Compose, be lucky – or both? I wonder whether this fisherman ever pulled out that fishing boat …

 

Wide. Angle.

 

Foreground. Background. Transition? Lines that the eye can follow? Sharpness point ? The message you want to transfer?

 

Vertically wide. Pear on rocks

 

The wider you go, the trickier it gets. Distortion bumps in. In those times before pixel peeping and digital manipulation, you had to:

  • watch the line of the horizon and get it leveled. You could only correct it slightly when cutting/framing the slides.
  • make sure that you only have subjects at the sides/edges of the frame that do not suffer from distortion.

 

Both are – to a certain point – still true for fisheye and panorama photography. Keep the horizon at the center of the frame and make sure that you rather have a distant lake or mountains/hills at the edges of the frame rather than ‘straight’ trees. The result can look very pleasing and natural although the distortion of 180 degree fisheyes by design is massive.

 

Still, in the film days, the format was always the same: 24x36mm. Panorama prints meant cutting and fiddling together. Panorama projection meant either masking the slides or more than one projector and very careful photography. Hasselblad/Fujifilm changed the game with their fascinating X-Pan/TX1 cameras. Still 24x65mm was limited in terms of panoramic photography. Projection and with that ‘cinematic experience’ was also an issue.

 

The Digital Quest

With my first DSLR the question of an adequate wide-angle arose again. The widest choice at that time was 12 mm (for APS-C). Got it. Had great fun with it. Wide angle photography in the European Alps. The crispness and saturation increase that a polarizing filter offered. Auto white balance of my semi-pro DSLR seemed to be at least good enough. Jpegs looked great – I had no idea what the Raw format was for, apart from wasting space on the small CF cards. 128 MB – with a horrendous price tag.

 

Sometimes I compressed the files even more to save space. The result ?

 

Wide lakescape

 

Look at the skies – compression artefacts. No raw, in such a situation, means no rescue.

 

Soon after, I discovered a stitching programme. Suddenly the limitations of all my previous ‘super wide angles’ were gone and the solution came up which created the topic for this blogpost:

pano(D)rama

Have you ever tried stitching together imperfect Jpegs with one of these very basic stitching softwares ? I got all the issues. And the blues.

 

Let’s name them:

  • white balance deviations led to quite a ‘colorful’ appearance of the resulting image
  • the polarized sky showed up like patchwork in the final stitch
  • the lack of distortion correction of the lens (in camera or in post processing) lead to mismatches in parts of the image
  • too little overlapping of the individual frames even exaggerated the above issues and produced ‘banding’ effects especially at the edges
  • tones were cut off through compression
  • colour fringing at contrast edges showed up
  • pixel peeping on a high-resolution screen worsened the psychological effect
  • moving objects leading to ghosting effects.

 

Wide. Polarised skies

 

Alright, Sir. You may take it as motivation to change your workflow, Sir.

 

Solutions

Here we are today. High tech cameras of 40-100 Mpix resolution paired with dedicated super wide-angle lenses and software lens profiles might make the above issues obsolete for you. Cropping to taste. Done. The price tag ? Very flexible in the upward direction …

 

I decided to upgrade my gear in a more affordable way and change my workflow.

 

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Take a medium resolution camera (15-20 Mpix) for bigger pixel size (light sensitivity per pixel) and less colour abberation sensitivity
  2. Select a lens which has good correction in 3 ways: A) peripheral abberation (colour fringing) B) distortion C) sharpness across the frame should be rather even at your working apertures.
  3. For this lens should be a lens correction profile in your RAW converter software (light falloff to the edges and distortion shall be corrected, as well as colour fringing if necessary)
  4. Use full frame lenses e.g. on APS-C-cameras to utilise only the best parts of the lens
  5. Shoot in JPEG and RAW
  6. Utilise a stitching software with good rendering possibilities – test them to see whether the workflow or automatisms are good for you before you buy …
  7. Make test stitches with your jpegs to preview and decide which way to go (selection of frames, white balance, sharpness, etc.) I use Zoner for that.
  8. Develop the individual RAW files to taste for this panorama (focus on white balance, which should be the same for all frames, sharpness levels, lens corrections)
  9. Output as high quality 16 bit TIFF files, as you have better colour depth and not all stitching programmes can work with Raw files
  10. Choose the files and the desired projection format (e.g. in Hugin)
  11. Start stitching the files together and brew a cup of tea. It may take some time to see the finished result depending on the size of the files and your hardware
  12. Enjoy !

? … ??????

 

panoDrama again …

The stitching programme (in this case Huging 2016 V2) confirmed good preparation of the individual files with the words ‘images combined with 730 control points. Average deviation after optimization 0.6 pixels’. Everything seemed fine, till I saw the result.

 

64 Mpix of crap:

 

Wide. Black.

 

This is NOT a night panorama taken with a defective camera !

 

Explanations are missing, still. I used a powerful Win 8.1 machine with a good graphic card, develop the files from Raw using the very capable Capture One solution with dedicated lens and camera profiles. The stitching freeware Hugin is said to be stable and very good in its iterations. There are plenty of tweaks and projections – but none worked for me. The results look like the above …

 

So what now ? Writing off the hardware investment and meditating in a cave in order to get rid of emotional imbalances ?

Nope.

 

Re-Creation

I tested Affinity Photo for Windows. This new software looks promising. The iteration works faster than Hugin but with a good to very good result on my PC. It can fill in patches after the stitching process automatically (works well in sky areas – but not at all for branches/twigs and other structured stuff). The workflow with ‘personas’ is different, but one can get used to it.

 

It looked like all tech quirks had been solved. Which leads the topic back to the qualities and the creative process of the photographer.

 

So starting the process again, I selected a couple of shots for another panorama, developed them properly, stitched them together and was happy with the result. In fact that happy that I wanted to have a print on acrylic/aluminium dibond in the size of 2×1 meters.

 

Looking at the file size I realised that the aspect ratio was about 2,2 x 1,0, not the desired 2×1. Cropping would have cut off important parts of this particular mountain view and disturbed the amazing symmetry in this panorama. The idea came up to expand the skies. Simple idea, difficult to realise in your software if you aren’t a pro. The next hours were spent on all different sorts of trials and error. From copying parts of the skies, mirroring, patching, copy paste/brush techniques and everything I could find in my programmes. All efforts lead to results which looked like patched in one way or the other.

 

The next day I opened up one of the files and it looked perfect in 2:1 aspect ratio. Even when pixel peeping. There is no rational explanation for it. It was like the creator himself had worked on it during the night.

 

Anyway, this sentence leads to the very beginning within the creation process. So here is my additional advice for you as a creator and photographer:

1) when creating the single files, leave enough space around your object, so that you have sufficient space for A) leveling the panorama B) cropping to a standard print format. Either by selecting a wider focal length or taking 2 or more rows of photos

2) choose a software that works on your system. Test the workflow, whether it suits you.

3) concentrate on 2 or maximum 3 focal lengths so that you get the experience, which one works best in which situation (sharpness, lens deficiencies, field of view etc.). Personally I changed to more moderate focal lengths like 20/50 mm for APS-C which equates to about 35/80 mm in full frame (35mm) terms. Extreme focal lengths are much more difficult to optimize and often bulkier/heavier.

 

Enjoy your creativity and … go wide !

‘Oliver’

 


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2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    jean pierre (pete) guaron February 11, 2017

    Shooting with primes, all too often you can find yourself in an awkward position – unable to make drastic changes to the distance between you and the subject, and chasing rainbows trying to fit it all in, even with a w/angle.

    This is one amazing area of digital post processing. Early panorama programs seemed to me to be a bit awkward, in stitching shots together. I don’t understand all the computer geek stuff – I’m happy just enjoying what the geeks come up with – but if I was to take a wild guess, I’d suggest they’ve tweaked their algorithms (I think that’s what it’s all about), and current panorama programs can produce mind blowing outcomes.

    After my last trip to France, I came back with a number of shots that fell into this area. I’d have to check it out, but I think it was just a function inside Photoshop Elements 14 that I used – and it did an amazing job, stitching shots of adjoining material.

    One was the main entrance to the Petit Palais in Av Winston Churchill, in Paris. I found I had two shots, one favoring the left side of the entrance and the other favoring the right side. Joined them in seconds – out popped a “panorama” with a far more impressive view of the entrance. It seems now, looking at the joined version, the problem was formats – my DSLR shoots 3:2 and what the subject of this shot needed was a square format, like the Rolleis and ‘blads and Bronicas gave.

    I was mightily impressed, because it was the first time for ages that I’d used a panorama program, and last time I was “gluing” sections of record covers together, but having great difficulty with the joins. (The covers came back to my memory seeing your first shot – the B&W one of the courtyard, where you’d stitched 4 shots together. It was a similar sort of exercise, so when I saw your courtyard shot I knew exactly what you meant).

    This time, with an architectural subject, it seems to be a perfect result – not a trace anywhere to “give the game away”. And to do that on a very evenly colored stone surface was an extremely demanding test – nothing to camouflage the slightest weakness in the joining process!

    I was so impressed and encouraged by that one, that I tried another one – a view of Carcassonne from across the river, from the edge of the new town – I had two shots that I thought might look better as a single panorama – fed them in, and out popped a perfect result. I thought before I pushed the button that this time it would be far more demanding, because the original two shots had a significant difference in exposure – so the result blew me away completely. Again, it appears to me to be perfect – even with the luxury of being able to enlarge it many times bigger, on screen, to check it out from one end to the other.

    So I’m right there with you, Oliver.

    If I was setting out to do panoramas, I’d invest in a tripod head that gives the ability to pan smoothly – cutting down on the risk that the tops and bottoms of adjoining panels are out of alignment with each other. Yes you can do that with most ‘pod heads, but a proper panning head will still give a superior result and is worth the extra if you do a lot of this work.

  2. Avatar
    Oliver Seidel February 14, 2017

    Dear Jean Pierre,

    thanks for your comments and suggestions.
    1) The courtyard actually is Pascals’ work. Credits to him. It opened up my mind, too. I loved the square format of my fathers’ 6×6. So I will try this 1:1 ‘panorama’, too.
    2) Panorama head: yes, absolutely. Nowadays I have little time to plan photographic work, therefore hardly ever use a tripod apart from studio work. My workaround is: taking a top lens (28-35 mm full frame equation – due to the good correction of these lenses, stitching gives very good results) with a correction profile in my RAW converter. Shooting in portrait orientation in RAW. No polarizer. Developing all with a medium white balance calculated from the individual frames (to taste). Adobe Camera Raw sometimes gives the more punchy appearance at fewer clicks than Capture One. Don’t want to miss any of them and highly esteem their different approach.

    Enjoy !

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