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Manfrotto ™
A Vitec Group brand

Shooting Coastal Panoramas

Shooting scenic photos can be fun and one of the most rewarding experiences you can have using your camera. Often, the view in front of your camera is too broad to fit into one single photo frame, and capturing that stunning sunset or expansive vista in its entirety seems challenging, yet it's actually quite achievable when you know what you're doing. With a good tripod and head, a little bit of know-how and some readily available software, you can capture the scene to later print and hang on your wall. This lesson will show you how to shoot multiple shots of a horizon from one point avoiding common overlap errors, then "stitch" them together into a panorama.

Topics Covered:

  • Choosing a Lens
  • Setting up and Leveling the Tripod
  • Setting up the Panoramic Head
  • Finding the Nodal Point
  • Programming Camera Settings
  • Shooting the Frames
  • Downloading Images to the Computer
  • Assembling Images Using Photoshop® Elements

 

Manfrotto Equipment Used:

  • Manfrotto 756MF3 MagFiber MDeVe tripod
  • Manfrotto 303 Panoramic/QTVR Head

 

Other Equipment Used:

  • Olympus 14-54mm f/2.8-3.5 Digital Zuiko Zoom Lens
  • Olympus E-1
  • Olympus Zuiko 11-22mm Zoom
  • Lexar 2 Gig 80x CompactFlash memory card
  • Lexar Multi-Card Reader
  • Adobe Photoshop Elements 2.0
 
The concept of this lesson is to shoot multiple images of a scene from right to left, or from left to right, then, like pieces of a puzzle, to join the series together into one panoramic image. The concept is simple and the execution should not be difficult if the plan of action is well thought out and followed.
 
 
Choosing a Lens

As you look over the scene you wish to photograph, one of the first decisions to make is how near you want the elements within the shot to appear. There may be trees or buildings that you want to see in detail. Maybe you like the look of an open expanse with objects farther off in the distance.

How near or how far the scene will look in your photo is dependent on the focal length of your lens. A small focal length is referred to as wide angle; this makes objects appear further away. A "normal" focal length lens makes objects appear pretty much as they would normally. A long focal length is referred to as telephoto and makes distant objects appear closer than normal.

Figures 1 , 2 , and 3 show three separate focal length settings and the resulting shot from each one. Each shot was taken from the same spot. Notice the difference in the apparent distance of objects that each focal length produces.
 


Figure 1


Figure 2


Figure 3
 
As you can see from these examples, there is a great difference in the look of the images because of the different focal lengths that were used. With the wide angle, more of the scene is included, yet some points of interest seem far away. With the telephoto, the same points of interest seem very close, yet much of the foreground area is lost.
 
 
Choosing and Setting Up the Tripod

When shooting the series of images that will make up the final panorama, a tripod is an essential. It will of course keep the camera steady so the whole sequence of photos is shake-free, but it will also ensure that all the images are on the same plane, which in turn helps to ensure that they join up closely. Although you can take perfectly adequate panoramas using a normal photographic head, we decided to use a special panoramic head on the tripod to help us rotate the camera around the right pivoting point and through the exact number of degrees each shot to maintain consistent overlap from image to image and avoid so-called parallax errors. This is very important when shooting precise panoramas that are easy and quick to stitch together back at home.
 


Figure 4
We chose a Manfrotto 756MF3 tripod (figure 4) for this lesson for two reasons. The first was portability, since we were going to be walking or hiking outdoors for these shots. The 756MF3's carbon fiber construction is both light and compact, which was just what we wanted, but it's also extremely rigid, again thanks to the carbon fiber. The second reason for choosing the 756MF3 was its ball-type mounting plate assembly that allows for easy leveling of the camera, even when the tripod itself is not plumb because it's standing on uneven terrain. This design is great for using with a panoramic head because, when shooting panoramas, it's imperative that the horizon is level. Sure, you can raise and lower each leg of the tripod to achieve the same results, but a leveling plate built into the tripod is a time-saver and makes shooting that much easier.
 
Setting up the Panoramic Head

We used a Panoramic head on the tripod to shoot our panorama scene. Specifically, we used a Manfrotto 303 Panoramic QTVR Kit. Since a panorama image is a series of still shots, this head takes the guess-work out of shooting all the images to make your panorama.

The role of the Manfrotto 303 head is to maintain a consistent horizon from shot to shot and to allow the camera to be precisely positioned so that it rotates around its nodal point between shots. The Manfrotto 303 also allows the user to set the degree of camera rotation set in relation to the focal length of the lens being used. For example, with a wide angle lens, it might take 8 separate images to cover a full 360° panorama; with a telephoto, you might need 16 images to cover the same 360° circle. The 303 Head has click-stop positions that allow you to position your camera perfectly to take each of these 8 or 16 shots - we'll show you exactly how to do this later in the lesson, but first we have to set the head and tripod up.
 
To attach the pano head to the tripod, position the base of the head over the mounting plate and mounting screw on top of the tripod (figure 5).

Line up the mounting screw with the pano head's threaded receiving slot, then secure in position by rotating the pano head onto the mounting screw (figures 6 and 7).


Figure 5
 


Figure 6


Figure 7
 


Figure 8
Like all Manfrotto's professional tripods, the 756MF3 has a mounting plate with three 45º angled pressure-set screws that firmly grip the head in place and ensure that any rotation of the camera won't loosen the head from the tripod. Hand-tighten these three screws (figure 8) for a secure fit.
 
As we mentioned above, we can easily make leveling adjustments to the 303 head since the 756MF3 tripod has a built-in leveling ball. It's the red semi-sphere at the top of the center column. When loosened, the mounting plate moves freely, allowing for positional adjustment so you can easily level your camera.
 
To loosen the leveling ball, turn the knob at the bottom of the tripod's center column. Tilt the head and mounting plate assembly until the desired position is found. Use the bubble spirit level on the head to find set horizontal by lining up the bubble inside the marked circle. Hand tighten the knob at the bottom of the center column to secure the leveling ball again (figure 9).

Figure 9


Figure 10
The Manfrotto 303 Pano Head has a quick release mounting seat to receive a mount hex plate attached to the camera (figure 10). This quick-release system allows you to easily take the camera off the tripod.

There is also a level bubble for gauging the camera's position relative to horizontal. Note that with this combination of head and tripod, we have multiple leveling bubbles - one on the tripod and one on the head. It's important to use the bubble that's closest to the camera. In this case, we use the leveling bubble on the 303 head to find the horizon and level the camera as seen in Figure 10.
The 303 Pano Head comes with an L-shaped bracket for mounting the camera. This bracket allows for quickly changing from vertical to horizontal and back in seconds without having to make any further adjustments to the tripod or pano head (figure 11). The vertical setting is useful when shooting panormic sequences with the camera in the portrait position, which of course helps get a taller final image, but requires more shots to be taken.

Figure 11


Figure 12
The camera mounts on the long side of the bracket.

To secure the camera to the bracket, line up the threaded female slot on the bottom of the camera with the mounting screw of the bracket. Hand-tighten the mounting screw to the camera then turn the gray outer nut to secure the camera to the bracket. Do not over-tighten (figure 12).
Place the mounting bracket over the Pano head making sure the quick release is open. Align the hex plate with the receiver on the head and gently press down until the lock clicks into place (figure 13).

Figure 13
 
The Manfrotto 303 Pano Head has two sliding plates that can be used for positioning the camera on the tripod because when shooting a panorama series of shots, it is important that the camera is oriented properly in relation to the tripod. The goal is to find the optimum rotation axis to avoid lens barrel distortion (aka parallax error) in your shots. This is called the finding the Nodal Point.
 


Figure 14
The tripod and head's rotation axis runs through the center column of the tripod. If you continue this imaginary line up from the top of the tripod through the lens, the nodal point, or ideal axis of rotation of the camera is roughly at the mid point between the front of the lens and the focal plane where the digital chip sits (figure 14).
 
Note
The following section is a more technical explanation of how to find the nodal point as it applies to this lesson.
 
 

Finding the Nodal Point

The nodal point of a lens is the point inside a lens where light paths cross before being focused onto the film plane or digital sensor. When taking the pictures for a panoramic image, you want to rotate the camera around a line that runs through (or very close to) the nodal point of the camera lens. Failing to do this may result in problems due to parallax during the stitching process. Parallax is the apparent shifting of foreground objects relative to background objects when you change your point of view or position. One way to experience parallax is to hold out your hand, and with one eye closed, place your finger over an object you see in the distance. When you close one eye and open the other, your finger apparently "jumps" relative to the distant object. This is parallax due to your point of view shifting a few inches, from one eye to the other.

Parallax is a problem in panoramas because they are generated from several overlapping pictures that have been "stitched" together to make one image. If an object which occurs in the overlap of two adjacent shots is near the lens, and the nodal point of the lens moves between the shots, then the apparent position of nearby object will shift relative to the background. When the software tries to stitch the two shots together, a blurring or ghosting will occur on the edges of the nearby object as the software blends the object's shifting positions with the background.

If you are taking a panoramic image of a landscape where everything is far away, you can be considerably off the nodal point with little ill effect. Parallax is more of a problem when there are objects within a few feet of your camera or when you're shooting interior panoramas. In that case you should try to get your pan head's line of rotation as close to the nodal point as possible:

There are two orientations that correspond to 2 scale readings that you will need to find. The first is the location of the nodal point across the diameter of the lens. Begin by setting up your tripod and mounting the camera on the pan head as you would do for a Pano shoot. Be sure the camera is level. Find some nearby object to judge parallax with. Here, I set up near a light post, so that I can judge its hard edge with a feature in the background.

1.Move the vertical bracket holding the camera so that when you look at the camera from the front, the center of the lens diameter is directly over the line of rotation of the pan head. You can use a plumb line (e.g. a key tied to a piece of string, dangled in front of the lens) to help you find the position accurately.

2.Now you need to slide the camera backwards and forwards over the rotation point to find the position of the nodal point along the length of the lens barrel. Start off by placing the camera so that the line of rotation runs through the front lens element. The nodal point will be behind this position. Set your tripod so that you can rotate the camera and have the edge of a nearby, vertical object show up on opposite sides of a pair of shots. It will help to also have vertical elements in the mid-far distance of the shots.

4.If you have through-the-lens (TTL) focusing or a LCD display on your camera, you can use that to judge when you have found the nodal point by sliding the camera forwards until you reach a point where rotating the camera left/right has no effect on the position of the foreground vertical object relative to the position of the background elements. If there is any slight shift in the relative positioning of the two, keep adjusting the camera forwards until it is eliminated. If your camera has a viewfinder that is not TTL, the viewfinder lens cannot be used to determine the nodal point of the picture-taking lens, and you will need to take a series of photos and compare them to achieve correct nodal point positioning.

Once you've determined the nodal point of the lens, you can mark or record the correct position using the 303's millimeter scale engravings so you can quickly find it the next time you set up for a Panoramic shoot.

 


Figure 15
Programming the Camera Settings

We used the Manual Mode for our exposure setting to allow greater control over the aperture and shutter speed settings.

To set the E1 to the Manual Mode, turn the Mode dial on the top, right of the camera to the M setting (figure 15).
 
With the camera on the tripod and the CompactFlash card inserted, we set the resolution to TIFF for the highest quality image. The white balance was set to 5500ºK (daylight), the ISO was set to 100, and the focus was set to continuous Auto Focus. After a couple of test exposures, we set the aperture to f/9.0, and the shutter speed to 1/80 second. Your exposure may vary, but make sure you set a good exposure for the whole of your scene.

It is important that the same exposure level is used for each shot in your series, as this will make stitching easier and less noticeable.

Because we are shooting in the TIFF mode for higher resolution images, our image files will be rather large, about 14 megabytes. These means we could record 17 images on a 256 megabyte media card. We decided to use a Lexar 2 gigabyte CompactFlash card, which will let us shoot about 136 images at the set resolution.
 
Shooting in the TIFF mode will give us images that will be 6.4 inches high by 8.5 inches wide at 300 dpi (standard photo resolution) (Figure 16).

Figure 16
 
Insert the CompactFlash card into the camera (figures 17 and 18).
 
 


Figure 17


Figure 18
 
 
Shooting the Wide Angle Scene

For our wide angle scene, we will set our 11-22mm lens to 11mm. Once the camera, tripod, and pano head have been adjusted and levelled, there is one more adjustment to set with the pano head.

It is very important when shooting panoramas that each image sufficiently overlaps the previous image. This allows for easier blending of the images when "stitching" together in an image editing software.

Once the area of overlap is established, the pano head can be set to rotate the camera in even increments so that all frames will have enough overlapping space.

We framed up the first frame of the series. Since we are shooting from right to left, we chose an area on the left portion of the frame to be overlapped on the following exposure.
 


Figure 19
Figure 19 shows the area of overlap we chose for our series of shots. In shots with changing elements, in our case the waves, it is even more important to greatly overlap the images. This will help when trying to match images in the editing stage.
 
When the area of overlap is established, the pano head can be adjusted to rotate in even increments to give each subsequent frame the same amount of overlap.
 
To establish the amount of rotation we needed for a given lens, we set the camera to the first frame we wanted to shoot.

Notice the pan rotation scale at the bottom of the pano head. This scale is marked in degrees (figure 20).


Figure 20


Figure 21
The barrel of the pano head has a registration mark directly above the pan rotation scale.

Note the position of the mark on the barrel to the scale.

Turn the camera, while looking through the view finder until the second shot is framed.

Check the number below the registration mark. The difference between this number and the starting number is the degree of rotation (figure 21).
 
As we have stated, it's better to overlap more rather than less to make post production of the shot easier. So if the amount of movement is in between two degree settings on the barrel, choose the lesser of the two.

We established our degree of rotation to be 30º. We placed the rotation set screw into the 30º threaded hole. From this point, the pano head will click stop into place in 30º increments (figures 22 and 23).

Note:You will also see a "n" number above the degree number on the barrel of the Pano head, these numbers relate to the number of shots you will need to make a full 360 degree turn at each setting.
 
 


Figure 22


Figure 23
 
 
Frame up the first shot again. Take an exposure and look at the result. If the exposure is good, rotate the pano head to the next click-stop. Take your next shot. Rotate the pano head again. Keep going until all of your n exposures are made.

The following four shots were shot with our wide angle 11-22mm tele lens set at 11 mm (figures 24 - 27). The first shot will be the right side of our panorama scene and the fourth shot will be the left side
 
 


Figure 24


Figure 25
 
 


Figure 26


Figure 27
 
 
Shooting the "Normal" Scene

For our normal shot, we will use the same 11-22mm lens set to 22mm. The degree of rotation will need to be reset for shooting this series.

We reframed the first shot and decided how much to overlap the next frame. A starting point was chosen on the pano head rotation scale, then the pano head was rotated until the second shot was framed. The amount of rotation was 20º, so the set screw was placed into the 20º hole on the pano head (figures 28 and 29).
 
 


Figure 28


Figure 29
 
We reset the first frame and started making our exposures. We took the following nine shots, each one overlapping the previous shot (figures 30 - 38).

This is the series of shots we will use to show how to stitch the panorama scene together on the computer.


Figure 30
 


Figure 31


Figure 32
 
 


Figure 33


Figure 34
 
 


Figure 35


Figure 36
 
 


Figure 37


Figure 38
 
 
Shooting the Telephoto Scene

For the telephoto shot, we changed the 11-22mm wide angle zoom for a 14-54 telephoto zoom lens set to 54mm. Again, the pano head needs to be reset to accommodate the change in focal length.
 
Following the same procedure shown before, we established the pano head rotation to be 10º. We set the pano rotation to 10º, reframed the first shot, and exposed our next series of shots (figure 39).

Figure 39


Figure 40
The individual shots of the telephoto series is shown here. Because we focused our attention on a narrower arc of the horizon, there are seven images to stitch together (figures 40 - 46).
 


Figure 41


Figure 42
 
 


Figure 43


Figure 44
 
 


Figure 45


Figure 46
 
 
Downloading Images to the Computer

Okay! You've shot all of your pictures and are ready to get them on your computer. The first thing to do is to turn off the camer and remove the memory card.

The images are imported from the memory card and into the computer by using a media card reader. We used a Lexar USB 2.0 Multi-Card Reader that can read various types of media, including the CompactFlash card we used for this lesson.

To connect the card reader to the computer, use the supplied USB cable. (figures 47 - 50).
 
 


Figure 47


Figure 48
 
 


Figure 49


Figure 50
 
 
Insert the Compact Flash card into the card reader (figures 51 and 52).
 
 


Figure 51


Figure 52
 
 
Copy the images from the media card into a folder on your computer.
 
 
Stitching Photos with Photoshop® Elements

The piecing together of the images is referred to as stitching. A photographic manipulation software is used to electronically "stitch" the images together. Photoshop Elements is a scaled-back version of Photoshop designed for the non-professional photo enthusiast. Elements is available for under $100 and has many of the features of the full version of Photoshop. For this lesson, we are using Elements 2.0. The full version of Photoshop, or any one of a number of other image manipulation software packages, can also be used.

We will stitch the 9 images taken with the 22mm lens setting to create our panoramic image.
 


Figure 53
We opened our 9 images in Photoshop Elements. Take a look at Figure 53. The desktop has the Main Menu at the top of the screen, the Toolbar to the left, the active image file in the center, and the layers palette to the right. The Options Bar for the currently selected Tool from the Toolbox is just below the Main Menu. You can set the palettes anywhere you like on the screen by click-dragging from the top bar of each palette.

Notice in the Layers palette that there is currently one layer named Background.
Figure 54 shows the Elements Toolbox with the name of each tool. For this lesson, we will use the Zoom, Eraser, Move, and Crop tools.

Figure 54
Shooting Coastal Panoramas - Continued