Panoramic photography and how to shoot and create a skyline panorama in Adobe Photoshop

The first step in the process is to research and choose the location. A panorama works well when the location is beautiful. There are only so many places where you can take a great cityscape like this, so a bit of research is in order. I am lucky to work for a TV and a radio station. When I went to visit our sister station in Tampa, all I had to do was to ask on of the camera men where to take this type of shot. If you don't have a friend who's "in the know", try going through flickr or other social networks and look for photos like what you want to photograph, then ask someone where they took it. A lot of city specific groups have sprung up where a well placed query will yield results. A lot of photos on Flickr and other social networking sites are now geo-tagged, so you'll be able to figure out where they were taken.

I took this shot at Tampa General hospital, it was a great location because it's in a small island just off the mainland. The reflections in the water really make this shot special, so if you can swing it...look for water. If you don't have someone to ask, do a search on a photo site like Flickr for the type of shot you want and ask the person who took it about the location. The people there are usually pretty friendly.

The best time to take panoramic shots

I showed up at the location hours before sundown and that was really important. Because this was an unfamiliar location, I needed to find the best spot possible on the grounds. I first showed up with a tripod and my 40D and tried to walk around the multilevel parking lot, but I really didn't get very far because of my unfamiliarity.

Next, I tried walking up to the information desk and ask the security guard about the best place to shoot. He was somewhat apprehensive at first, but after assuring him I wasn't there to photograph the hospital, another guard showed up who was an avid photographer himself (lucky me). After dogging my 40D (he has a 5D), he gave me some pointers which took me back up to the parking lot. He suggested I take the shot from up there. It wasn't a bad location, but no quite what I had in mind.

The best places to shoot panoramas

This is my first try from the location the security guard suggested. I have to say, I really liked the location because it allowed me to get a very wide area of the Tampa area, however, I thought that the actual downtown skyline here was too little and lacked focus. When someone thinks of a skyline, you think of the main buildings in the downtown area. So I thought downtown should be more centered. Because of the layout of the parking lot, I couldn't take the shot I wanted here.

Luckily, I looked down and before the thought of vertigo hit me, I saw that there was a great walkway right next to the parking lot. So I packed up my gear and made it down to the same spot, but underneath the parking lot. I continued to walk down the walkway until I reached the point where the skyline was more of a focus.

The best time to shoot panoramas

This shot was closer to what I wanted with the downtown area becoming more of a focus. After I took several different versions of the photos that made up this panorama, it was time to wait. I knew that I wanted to take some nighttime shots. That's a little trickier because you have to wait for just the right time. Too dark and the sky doesn't have enough color. Too early and the lights in the buildings won't be one (you REALLY want the lights in the buildings to be on).

What camera settings to use for panoramic shots

For these types of shots you need to have a few things: First, a tripod will make the stitching easier later on, so make sure you bring one. It would also be better to shoot these in full manual mode. When you shoot in auto mode, the camera tends to mess around with the different variables ISO, F-Stop and Shutter Speed...it's not normally a problem if you keep pointing in the same direction, but as soon as you swing the camera into different positions, the variables will be different.

Moreover, you need to be able to control the length of your exposures. As the sun goes down, you're going to need longer and longer exposures. The picture above was a series of three 15 second exposures stitched together in Photoshop.

As time passes, you're going to want to adjust your camera settings because of changing lighting conditions. You want the photo to have a wide depth of field and be as clear as possible, so I prefer to start with a low ISO setting (ISO 100), and keep my f-stop high. I've gone as far as f/16. It's really not that critical because I'm using wide lenses, but I'd rather do longer shutter speeds than lower f-stops.

The position of the sun, even after it's off the horizon is important. It will color the background of your sky. It would actually be better if the sun was behind the buildings because I think it would give you a better gradient.

How to frame your scene for best results

Framing is really important in some of these photos because if a lot of your buildings are on the edg of the frame, it will be more difficult for photoshop to figure out how to stictch and your seams will be visible. I try to break up the image into chunks of buildings. Above, I would split up this panorama into three photos. The boat and the large building on the left would be on one frame. The main grouping of downtown buildings on the middle and the rest on the right. I had a few problems with some of the sets where the large building on the right had really bad seams.

I would probably shoot about six photos for the set above, but only use three when stitching them together. Sometimes too many photos will make it harder for the software to put the buildings together, but it's better to have too many, than too few. You're working on a limited amount of time.

The weather is also a factor, it will be easier to get a clear sky like this on a cold winter day. The high pressure in the atmosphere will make it harder for clouds to form...if you don't want any clouds...that is.

Overlap your pictures so that's there's about 30% of the same images in the photos. Use a single focal length, don't zoom in or out between takes. Keep the camera as level as possible during your photos.

Preparing your panoramas for Photoshop

I like to do a couple of things when prepping my image. First, I like to name them in the order that they need to be stiched. I'm not completely sure that it makes a huge difference, but I'm sort of organized that way.

What to do in Photoshop

The photoshop part is the easiest and most brainless. From the FILE menu, choose AUTOMATE, then select Photomerge.

Loading the images through photomerge

Choose the type of layout you want your photos to have ( I like reposition and auto, but experiment to see what you like), then hit the browse button on the right hand side of the dialog box. Choose the files you want in your panorama, then choose the options on at the bottom of the window (I like to use vignette removal and geometric distortion correction) and click OK.

Now go grab a cup of Joe...this will take a while even on a fast computer, especially if you have a camera with a high megapixel count and decide to shoot RAW (like me).

Cleaning up the panorama

A little bit of cleanup will be required on your images. Cropping, maybe some cloning. Don't worry about the little seams you might notice, they will be gone as soon as you merge the images. Experiment with the different settings and enjoy.

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