Kaoko Hunters
Made by C. H. L. Hahn, 1930s. Natl. Archives of Namibia, A450 Hahn Collection. Reproduced here from a bad print in New Notes on Kaoko, Basler Afrika Bibl., Basel, 2000.

Introduction

Panoramas are images stitched together from several photographs (digital panorama photography, also called image stitching).

More generally, a panorama denotes a wide view of something. It appears that in 1792, the Irish painter Robert Barker painted views of Edinburgh on the inside of a cylindrical surface and exhibited them in London as "The Panorama". More general stuff here.

One might also stitch images simply to increase the resolution of the resulting digital file, ad infinitum. See The Last Supper at 16 billion pixels resolution, for example. A nice application of panoramic stitching is in high-end architecture photography (arbitrary resolution, after-the-fact perspective corrections). No view camera or tilt/shift lenses needed anymore.

Panorama cameras have been around since the late 19th century, using a curved film holder and rotating lens, for example. C. H. L. Hahn made panoramic images in Kaoko in Namibia in this way in the 1930s (see image in left margin, also here)!

There are many web sites on digital panorama photography. Just google. A great one without too much mathematical detail is pixelrama (only in German).

There are basically two ways to present finished panos: Print them (e.g., fine art landscape panos) or show them interactively on a web site or PC. See examples below.

Novoflex VR-System Panorama Head
Note fly on camera shutter.

Equipment

To play with panoramas, all you need is a digital (point-and-shoot) camera and panorama software (see below). You could of course also scan photos. It is desirable that the camera can operate in manual mode with a fixed exposure-shutter combination to avoid differences in brightness between adjacent images. You also want to keep the focus and white balance fixed. It is advisable to use a tripod when you scan your surrounding. Otherwise the stitching software might run into problems such a ghosting (double images) and you might loose a lot of image information at the top and/or bottom of the final image - the software has to properly align adjacent images!

Even with a tripod you can still get ghosting due to parallax error - ideally, the center of rotation should be the nodal point of your camera-lens combination. Practically speaking, the nodal point is that point that doesn't cause any relative displacement of vertical objects at different distances from the camera when the camera is rotated in the horizontal: Close one eye and hold up your index fingers at different distances from your eye. Now turn your head. The fingers move relative to each other because you aren't moving your eye in the nodal point. Thus you get a parallax error.

The solution is a panorama head (see image at left). It allows you to rotate the camera-lens combination around a point just behind the front glass of your lens (where the nodal point is usually located - the tripod socket of your camera is far away from this point!). The Novoflex VR-System panorama head consists of (from bottom to top in left picture, all the parts with blue components) a panorama plate, a "focusing" rack, an L-shaped quick release bracket and a 2-way bubble level. It costs about US$ 640.-. Expensive but good. Also, the L-form clamping plate (called QPL-Vertikal) can be used as an ordinary L-bracket for "normal" photography. This is a nice feature since both panorama heads and L-brackets are expensive. L-brackets are convenient to quickly change between vertical and horizontal camera orientation on the tripod.

With this kind of panorama head, the camera needs to be rotated in the horizontal plane. Otherwise your panorama is going to be curved/tilted. To produce so-called multi-row panoramas, interesting to make those "infinite" resolution images and spherical views, one needs a second arm/plate/bracket to tilt and keep the camera at a fixed angle with the horizontal. It is relatively eays to make one yourself and add it to the Novoflex VR-System. The VR-System Pro is a ready to use multirow head but it is crazily expensive.

In summary, what you'll really need is panorama software, a tripod with pano head is nice but not vital.

PanoramaStudio
... is highly recommended.

Software

No panorama (stitching) software, no panorama. Most pano software includes useful advice on shooting panoramas as well. All packages described below have trial versions. Free instructions on shooting and processing!

I looked at (see below for discussion of HDR-panoramas, web presentation of panoramas including hotspots etc.):

Arcsoft Panorama Maker: Creates horizontal, vertical and 360° panorama pictures. Easy to use, a good starting point but limited manual adjustment. US$ 40. The Pro version allows limited multi-row functionality (4X4 tiles) and more manual adjustments. US$ 80. Worth a try.

Panoramastudio: Creates 360 degree and wide angle panoramic images. Very easy to use, very good results. Ideal for beginners. Go from here. Includes a viewer using Java or Flash. Can't do HDR nor multi-row at present. Export for post-processing possible. Hotspot creation possible. Claims you don't need to use a tripod. Only for PC. Great value for the money: about US$ 43.

PTgui: Can do "everything", including multi-row, HDR (pro version), 360X180 degree spherical, you name it. Evolved from a graphical user interface for Panorama Tools (a difficult to use but extremely versatile library for creating panoramic images by Prof. Helmut Dersch). Now PTgui is a fully fledged stand-alone application. Moderately easy to use. Export for post-processing possible. PC and Mac. Also good value at US$ 127 (standard) / US$ 240 (pro; HDR, viewpoint correction, vignetting, exposure and white balance correction).

REALVIZ (Autodesk) Stitcher: Comes in Express version "for the hobbyist" and Unlimited version "for the professional panorama creator". The most remarkable thing is the high price. Otherwise I don't see what this can do which PTgui can't. The site has useful shooting advice and tutorials.

Adobe Photoshop CS3/Elements: The Photomerge function allows for the creation of simple panoramas (great for printing). If you have Photoshop, you have Photomerge. Use it for starters. Don't buy Photoshop if you want to create panoramas.

Microsoft Windows Live Photo Gallery can also create simple panoramas ("Create a cool panoramic view by combining multiple photos."). They can be viewed with Microsoft's new (cross-platform!) browser plugin (player) Silverlight ("Light Up the Web"). Silverlight is supposed to be an alternative to Adobe's Flash player. VERY limited panorama viewing capabilities so far.

Also interesting: Autostitch and its commercial derivatives.

About HDR (High Dynamic Range): HDR is especially useful when shooting landscape panoramas since some or all of the images, e.g., when the sun is included, might be scenes exceeding the dynamic range of your sensor. Some pano software can directly deal with bracketed exposures or files in hdr format. But it is of course also possible to prepare (blend and tone map) the partial images using HDR software before feeding the results into the stitcher. I'm currently not sure which way is better. Try it. The same goes for lens corrections (distortions, vignetting, ...): Most pano software can do this or it can be done using, e.g., the RAW converter. I prefer the latter because I think that nothing beats DXO Optics. There are also HDR panorama viewers... And ADR players: Adaptive Dynamic Range means that the brightness of the whole image is being adjusted depending on the mouse position and brightness. This is close to how human visual perception works and is especially great when the scenery contains large areas of very dark and very bright areas. This is a technique that only works with panarama viewers (obviously). The best player is the Shockwave-based SPi-V by fieldOfView. This is really a great playfield!

Stitching for classic fine art panoramic prints involves assembling the images and projecting them onto a plane, obviously. Here, emphasis is on the quailty of the output: no seams or brightness differences, no ghosting, no distortions, no softening (= no loss of sharpness due to re-sampling). For normal interactive web presentations, some of these factors are less important since the resolution will be low anyway (to save bandwidth and to allow fluid motion). This is different for high quality offline PC presentations and for "zoom in" "infinite resolution" images.

Most pano software allows export of the finished panos as images (also as layers for post processing) and as "movies" for Quick Time, Flash or Java-based viewers. The PURE Player by Immervision requires a special format. Other players (viewers) are included with some of the stitching packages.

Using hotspots, it is possible to link several panoramas, useful for web-based virtual tours in real estate and tourism, for example. KML-based export allows to georeference the panoramas using Google Earth (KML).

In summary there are a lot of things to play with... And it's easy to get lost in technical stuff and neglect the actual picture making. However, once the technicalities are under control, the creative possibilities are great.


Examples

Some examples of how (not) to do it and a hint at what's possible. I'll supply high quality interactive samples once I get the chance to make some...

1) Fine Art Panorama For Printing

Panorama of Rantum Harbour
Stitched from three vertical images. I used a Shenhao 4X5 view camera with a Canon EOS 5D as a digital back. This made an excellent print.


2) A First Try at 360

My Garden
So far, so good. But I used AV-mode instead of manual exposure mode. The result are brightness differences and seams (see red arrows) the stitching software couldn't fix. Use manual exposure!! Stitched from 12 images taken in vertical orientation at 28 mm focal length.



OK, now for something interactive. This is low quality and only serves as a demo as to what can be done. You'll need the Quicktime plugin, the flash player, Java, respectively. Further down I offer a downloadable panorama for PC (high quality offline viewing). In the Quicktime version I left the "hole" visible, i.e., I set the viewing parameters such that the parts of the sphere not covered by the panorama remain visible as black space - scroll the view up/down by dragging the mouse. Panoramas "without holes" are called spherical panoramas. One has to take additional images of the ceiling (zenith) and bottom (nadir) and stitch the images as spherical panos.

Embedded as Quicktime...



... as Flash...



and in Java (using PTViewer).



Microsoft Silverlight

Microsoft Silverlight is supposed to be an alternative to the Adobe Flash Player. The only way I was able to generate a panorama for viewing with Silverlight was to submit an entry to a panorama competition by Microsoft: The competition site uses Silverlight to display the panos. This is quite ridiculous, however. The pano angle of view got chopped arbitrarily and all you can do is shift the image around, no projection at all. But probably this will change in the future...

3) Excursion in my living room

An about 180 excursion in my living room
Now in manual exposure mode - no more brightness problems! But note ghosting at Felix' head - he moved during exposure. Stitched from 4 images at 17 mm focal length.


Creative (ab)use of projections
Pretending that an ~ 180 view is a 360 view. Nice.




4) Blue Bridge

Blue Bridge
This one is quite ok - except for the shadow of the camera on tripod... (needs to be photoshopped away) Stitched from 9 images @ 17 mm and not yet cropped. You can see how each image gets warped for stitching.



About the Blue Bridge: Conceived in 1863 to overcome problems with the rotting wooden bridges, it seems to have been constructed in 1865, making it one of the oldest surviving iron constructions in Northern Germany. It is located between the villages of Techelsdorf and Grevenkrug in Schleswig-Holstein and bridges the river Eider which is a tiny remnant of the original glacial valley you can see in the panorama. The Blue Bridge is commonly known as the Bridge of Engagement (not military engagement, romantic!).

Nothing embedded into this page this time, here is a download [3,469 KB] for PC: It runs standalone and has much higher quality than what can be shown online. You can resize the window. Try it.


Blue Bridge in HDR
HDR certainly makes the scene interesting and greatly increases the "information contents". However, HDR resp. the existing techniques/software don't always work... Here, I tone-mapped the individual images first and then stitched them.


3 + 2 = 5) A Virtual tour

OK, to finish up (for now), here is a minuscule virtual tour. By clicking below you'll be in my living room (or in the garden). But now the terrace door is a hotspot which links both panos. I can imagine real fun here! You need the Quicktime plugin to see this (it can also be done in Java).

Select to start in garden [798 KB] or living [197 KB]


Contact us if you have questions, want panoramas of your garden, fine art pano prints or a virtual tour of your castle...!

(Christian Goltz)



Printable Version

Sigma DP1
Sandproof Housings