hand-held

Turn Any Lens Into a Wide Angle Using Stitched Panoramas by Todd Henson

You’re walking around town and you’ve only brought a 50 mm lens. You know this can limit what you photograph, and that can be a good thing, forcing you to think more creatively.

Then you stumble across a great scene that is just too expansive to capture with 50 mm. You don’t have a wide angle lens with you. You can’t move back enough to get everything in the frame. What do you do? Move on, accepting your limitation? Maybe. But perhaps better still is to think more creatively and realize you can use your 50 mm lens to create a stitched panorama of the wide angle scene.

If you’re unfamiliar with stitched panoramas, the idea is to create multiple images, each overlapping the next. When you get home you can use software, such as Adobe Lightroom, Photoshop, or others, to merge all the images together into a finished photograph that captures more of the scene than a single image at that focal length could.

Handheld Stitched Pano Using 3 Images

3 Image stitched panorama of the Washington Monument.

Washington, DC is full of subjects worth photographing. One of these is the Washington Monument on the National Mall. In this case you may be able to move back enough to capture the wider view, but perhaps doing so would alter the perspective too much. If so, try creating a stitched pano as I’ve done here.

The 3 photos that were combined into the final stitched panorama.

You can see in the sample photos I created 3 vertical images. Look closely and you can see each image overlaps a bit with the next image. This is important to give the software enough information to properly stitch them together.

The 3 images in Adobe Lightroom.

I imported the images into Adobe Lightroom and selected all 3. I right-clicked to bring up the menu and chose Photo Merge. From within this I selected Panorama.

Panorama Merge Preview window in Adobe Lightroom.

This brought up the Panorama Merge Preview window, where Lightroom shows a preview of the stitched photo. The first thing you’ll want to do is choose which Projection to use: Spherical, Cylindrical, or Perspective. I won’t get into technical details here because it’s easy to just click on each one and see what effect they have on your photo. I most often use the default Projection Lightroom chooses, but sometimes I find a different one works better.

After you’ve chosen a Projection, notice how there is some white space around the edges of the photo. This is because I was handholding the camera and didn’t perfectly line everything up. This can also happen when using a tripod, but it will happen more often when you handhold. It’s not a problem, though.

Lightroom’s Boundary Warp control set to the full amount.

Notice the Boundary Warp control. It starts off with a value of 0, meaning no boundary warp. If you slide the control towards the right you will see the image begin to warp, removing the white space. Effectively, Lightroom is stretching parts of the photo to make it fit into the image space without the white space. This can distort parts of the photograph, but that’s not a problem with some photographs, those without a lot of straight lines or objects where you’d notice the change.

Lightroom’s Auto Crop option.

If you don’t want to use Boundary Warp because of how it distorts your image, you will need to crop the image to remove the excess white space. Lightroom has a checkbox called Auto Crop that will perform the crop for you. Just check the box and it automatically crops the image. Of course, you can always leave this box unchecked and manually crop the image yourself later.

When you’re finished click the Merge button, then sit back and wait for Lightroom to merge all the photographs into a single image. Once this is done you can make adjustments to the image as you usually do, adjusting exposure, color balance, contrast, and what not. Lightroom makes this entire process very easy.

Handheld Stitched Pano Using 4 Images

4 Image stitched panorama of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

In this example I created a 4 image panorama using the same steps mentioned above. However, this scene included moving cars. I present it here to show what you may see from Lightroom when there is something moving in your scene. Note, there are more advanced techniques to take care of these things, but I want to present just the basics, to show how quickly and easily you can create your own panos

The 4 photos that were combined into the final stitched panorama. Notice the locations of the cars, some of which move from frame to frame.

In this scene there were a couple vehicles close to me that were moving, which appeared in multiple frames. There was also a red taxi in the background that moved from frame to frame. I used default settings in Lightroom and it produced the final image you saw above. Notice how it chose only one version of the foreground cars, but it actually shows 2 versions of the red taxi. We see the same car twice in the final image.

So be aware of moving objects. They can complicate creating a stitched pano, unless you’re ok with how the software chooses what to show, or you use more advanced techniques/software to manually decide what to show.

Handheld Multi-level Stitched Pano Using 6 Images

6 Image multi-level stitched panorama of the Smithsonian Castle.

In the 2 examples above I held the camera vertically to create a longer horizontal image. In this example I want to show that you can also create multi-level panos. In this case I chose to hold the camera horizontally, but you could also hold it vertically.

The 6 photos that were combined into the final stitched panorama. Lightroom is capable of handling multiple levels when creating a larger panorama. Notice some are even titled, as I was hand holding.

I started by taking a photograph of the upper left of the Smithsonian Castle. Then I panned to the right to photograph the upper middle of the building, and finally the upper right, each time overlapping some with the previous image. Then I moved the camera back to where I started on the left, but photographed the lower left of the building being sure to overlap some with the portion I’d photographed above. Then I panned to the right to photograph the lower middle, and finally the lower right. This created 6 images.

Please note, this isn’t a great photograph. It wasn’t the right time of day to photograph this scene, as the sun was above and behind this scene, which washed out the sky. But I wanted to capture the scene, and I wasn’t going to be there at a good time, so I did the best I could with the gear and skills I had at the time.

Once again, I imported everything into Lightroom, selected the 6 photos, worked through the options on the Panorama Merge Preview window, then made my usual adjustments after Lightroom had created the stitched pano. As you can see in the final image, the sky is still washed out, but I’m pleased I was able to capture the entirety of the building, something I just couldn’t do with my 56 mm lens.

In The Field

Ok, so hopefully I’ve convinced you stitched panos can be another great tool in your bag. If so it’s time to get out there and try creating some of your own. But before you do, here are some tips to make your life, and Lightroom’s, a little easier.

  • Take all of your camera’s exposure settings out of auto. Manually choose the white balance, aperture and shutter speed. The reason is you don’t want these settings changing from frame to frame, something that would make it more difficult to merge them into a single photo.

  • Set the camera to manual focus mode and focus on whatever is most important to you. The key is you don’t want the camera autofocusing on each frame as it can result in different things being in focus in different frames, which can make stitching more difficult.

  • If it’s a very wide scene you may have to compromise on your exposure settings. One side of the scene may be much darker than another side. In that case expose for the part of the scene that is most important to you, generally something in the middle range, and let the rest fall where it may.

  • Use a tripod if you have it. This will make it easier to line things up and keep the camera steady, reducing the amount you have to crop out later.

  • Use a bubble level if you have it, or a digital level in the camera if yours has one. This will help you keep things level and lined up.

  • If you don’t have a tripod, don’t worry. You can still hand hold your camera. All the photos in this post were handheld. Try to hold your camera as steady as you can. Face the middle of the scene, then pivot your body towards the left. Steady yourself. Line it up as well as you can. Create your first image. Then slowly pivot your body towards the right, making sure the next image overlaps the previous image by a decent amount. Stop moving, steady yourself, take the next image. Keep repeating this, pivoting towards the right between each image. Always be sure to steady yourself before clicking the shutter button. You don’t want your movement to create a blurry image.

That’s the basics of what you need to know. You can use almost any kind of camera to do this. In fact, many cell phones have apps that will automatically create a longer pano image as you pan the phone across the scene.

So head out there and give it a try. Let me know how it goes, and pass on any tips you have.


9 Creative Uses for Slow Shutter Speeds by Todd Henson

4 sec exposure of Washington Monument, D.C.

Using slow shutter speeds to create long exposures is a great way to add a little more creativity to your photography. The uses for slow shutter speeds are almost endless. Below are 9 examples.

Examples of Slow Shutter Speeds

1. Waterfalls

Waterfalls are a classic example of using slow shutter speeds creatively in landscape photography. As you slow the shutter speed the water begins to blur, turning into a silky smooth flow instead of frozen droplets of water. The shutter speed you choose will depend on your personal preference and the speed of the water. How smooth do you like the water? Do you want to show a little motion but still capture some of the raw energy of the water? Or do you want to completely blur the water into a rolling milky stream? This technique almost always requires a tripod to stabilize the camera during the exposure.

Here I show examples of several waterfalls and rapids shot at different shutter speeds so you can see the effects different shutter speeds have. At faster shutter speeds (shorter exposure) you can see more movement in the water. At slower shutter speeds (longer exposure) the water turns into a milky flow. Which image is best is a personal preference.

2. Whitewater Sports

When shooting sports you can use faster shutter speeds to freeze the action, or use slower shutter speeds to add a little creative blur, showing motion. Whitewater sports, such as kayaking, is a great example of adding a little drama by slowing down the shutter speed and capturing motion blur in the water, and sometimes in the athlete as well. As with waterfalls, which shutter speed you choose is personal preference, and a factor of what you’re trying to capture. Perhaps you want to fully freeze the athlete but show a little motion in the water spray. Or perhaps you want a longer exposure to show a lot of flowing motion in the water. The longer the shutter speed the more difficult it will be to capture a sharp image of the athlete, but depending on how the athlete is moving it can be done. And a little motion in the athlete is not always a bad thing, especially if you’re trying for a more artistic photograph. This technique can be performed hand-held or with a tripod. If you use a tripod loosen the head to allow you to move the camera.

3. Landscapes with Water or Clouds

Long exposures can still water in a landscape or blur moving clouds in the sky. Longer exposures are more likely to still the water, and longer exposures will blur the clouds more. If the clouds are moving very fast or you use a very long exposure you can turn the clouds into nothing more than white streaks in the sky. If the water is reasonably flat you can sometimes still it enough to show reflections that more closely match the subject. Instead of wavy reflections you can capture straight ones. You can see an example of this in the photo of the Washington Monument. This technique usually requires a tripod.

20 sec exposure. The water near the camera is perfectly still and the clouds show some motion blur. The extra gold and blue tones are caused by a Singh-Ray Gold-N-Blue polarizer.

4. Turning People into Ghosts or Removing People from a Scene

Have you ever been to a monument or other scene that you’d like to photograph without any people, but there are too many people around and they never leave the scene? Sometimes you can use a very long exposure to eliminate most or all of the people, provided the people are moving fast enough. Slow the shutter down (use a long exposure) and you will start to blur the motion of the people. Slow it down enough and the people won’t even show up in the final image. This doesn’t always work, but give it a try. This technique is best used with a tripod.

To create ghosts you choose a middle ground shutter speed, something slow enough to blur the people, but fast enough to capture them. You really have to experiment with this technique. Which shutter speed you choose depends on how fast the people are moving and how blurry, or ghost-like, you want to capture them.

Many people have become ghosts in the first photo below. The second photo uses a slower shutter speed, but it's not long enough to make the fast moving people completely disappear. You can still see some blurred motion from them. But if I'd taken an even longer exposure, perhaps 10 or 20 seconds, most of the people would have disappeared.

5. Stationary Panning

You can capture some very dynamic photos if you stand still and pan with a moving subject, using a slow shutter speed. The goal is to try to capture the subject mostly in focus but blur the background. This takes a lot of practice. Examples of this are photographing bicycles or vehicles as they pass by on the street, and capturing birds in flight. This technique is most easily performed hand-held. If you use a tripod loosen the head to allow the camera to move.

6. Panning While Moving

Similar to stationary panning, but this time you are moving while panning. The subject could be stationary or moving. As an example of a moving subject, you could photograph a moving motorcycle from a moving car. For a stationary subject you could photograph a farm and fields from a moving car. Objects closer to the camera will exhibit more motion blur than objects at a distance. This technique is most easily performed hand-held.

1/20 sec exposure from the passenger side of a moving car (I was the passenger, not the driver). Notice the motion blur of the green field.

7. Air Shows

Air shows hosting aircraft with propellers are a great place to try slower shutter speeds. When an aircraft has a moving propeller it’s best to try to capture some motion in that propeller. Creating a photograph of a moving plane with a perfectly frozen propeller just doesn’t look right, it looks fake. But capturing some motion in the propeller helps convey the motion of the aircraft. This technique can be performed hand-held or with a tripod. If using a tripod loosen the head to allow the camera to move.

1/50 sec exposure. This is another example of stationary panning. I was standing still while panning with the moving aircraft.

8. Zooming During Exposure

If you have a zoom lens you can really get creative by using a longer shutter speed and zooming the lens during the exposure. This is best performed from a tripod, but you can also try doing this hand held. The key is experimentation. Try zooming out during the exposure, then try zooming in during the exposure. They give different results. Try different subjects, different angles. Look for colors that can blur during the zoom.

9. Moving Camera During Exposure

This technique doesn’t require anything but a camera with a lens. Any camera will do provided you can use slow shutter speeds. You don’t need a tripod. All you need to do is move the camera during the exposure. You don’t even need to look through the viewfinder if you don’t want to. Experiment. Try different subjects, different shutter speeds, different motions. I don’t do this very often, but it’s something worth trying and I’d like to put a little more time into it. The results are usually far more abstract than many forms of photography. You may create photos of abstract blurs of color. Or perhaps you partially pan on a subject, then move elsewhere and create something close to a double exposure.

2.5 sec exposure while moving the camera. Notice the multiple ghosted images of the Jefferson Memorial.

How to Get Slow Shutter Speeds

Hopefully I’ve convinced you to try some long exposure photography. But how do you do it? How do you slow the shutter speed down? There are various ways to achieve slower shutter speeds (longer exposures), depending on what gear you have available.

  1. Shoot on an overcast day, when there is less sunlight, or at night. There’s less light at these times, so the camera will require more time to capture enough light to create the photograph.

  2. Use a smaller aperture. This means apertures with higher numbered f-stops, such as f/16, f/22, f/32, etc. This will limit the light entering the camera and allow you to lengthen the exposure, as the camera needs more time to capture enough light to create the photograph.

  3. Keep your ISO low. Some cameras use ISO 100 or 200 as the standard setting. Keep it here, or try the lower settings. ISO is the camera’s sensitivity to light. If you raise the ISO, for example to 800, the camera becomes more sensitive to light and requires less time to capture enough light to make the exposure. Note that higher ISO’s are, generally, also more prone to noise (grain in film). To create longer exposures set the ISO low, so the camera needs more time to capture enough light.

  4. Use a polarizing filter. A polarizer, in addition to polarizing the light, will also block some of the light entering the camera. Most polarizers will block between 1 to 2 stops of light. This will allow you capture slightly longer exposures. Combining this with a low ISO and a small aperture may be enough to let you get the shutter speeds you want.

  5. Use a neutral density filter. If you want really long exposures you may need to purchase some neutral density filters. These are dark filters that block some light. Think sunglasses for your lens. They’re called neutral density because they are supposed to be neutral in color, not introducing color casts. However, some filters, especially less expensive ones, do alter the color somewhat. You can usually correct this in post processing. Neutral density filters come in many different strengths. For very long exposures look at some of the 5, 10, or 15 stop neutral density filters out there. These will let you capture multi-minute exposures.

  6. Combine any or all of the above to get even slower shutter speeds. Be aware, though, if you use too many filters with wide angle lenses you may begin to actually see the filter in the corners of the frame. If that happens you can remove filters until you no longer see them, zoom in or use a lens that isn't quite as wide-angle, or create the image and crop it in post.

As a reminder, if you use really slow shutter speeds you may need a tripod, or some other support, to hold the camera steady during the exposure.

There are many other uses for slow shutter speeds. But I hope the few examples I’ve shown will prompt you to go out and experiment. Try different shutter speeds of the same scene, see how the different speeds affect the final image. You may be pleasantly surprised by some of the results.