3 Steps to Create a Super-wide Panorama

After I posted the image below on Instagram, I got a few requests asking how I created this wide-angle panoramic view…

I love shooting with a 14mm wide-angle lens. It allows for some breathtaking compositions. While it is very wide, there are occasions when you need something much wider. A 12mm or fisheye lens may be wide enough to deal with such situations, but that isn’t always an option. Even if you’ve bought such a lens and brought it with you to a particular location, it may not be wide enough. And the image quality with a fisheye can be very limiting. I’ve had great results correcting distortion using the Imadio plugin for Photoshop, but the resulting field of view isn’t much better than my 14mm lens.

Those challenges make wide-angle panoramas an attractive solution in many cases. The basic idea is that you shoot multiple overlapping views of the scene with your lens, and then combine them in Photoshop. It sounds intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy to do.

 

 

Good source images:

A few quick words before the Photoshop work. The whole process requires good source images. Give everything more space than you think – you need extra pixels at the edges, and a lot of overlapping pixels in adjacent images for Photoshop to work its magic. Advanced users of this technique can get away with shooting fewer images, but the complexity goes up quickly. For the occasional scenes where I use this approach, I haven’t found it worth my time to obsess with the technique – I’m ok with a little bit of overshooting when it guarantees the shot.

An easy answer is to shoot with 50-80% overlap from one frame to the next, and use a tripod. If you have one, a geared head is much easier for shooting one or more rows of images than a ball head. I personally love the Arca Swiss “Cube”, which I used to capture the images in this tutorial.

If you have very close foreground objects (within a few feet of the lens), you should use a “nodal slide” to correct for parallax, or be sure to use substantial overlap in your images. I prefer to use a nodal slide, but did not have one with me when I shot this scene, so I used used heavy overlap. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it – just use a lot of overlap like I show in the video.

And note that if you’re using a wide-angle lens like I did, you should not expect to see much increased resolution in the final image. Most of the pixels will be duplicates or tossed out. If you want to create a super-wide perspective in higher resolution, capture the scene with a longer focal length lens.

 

Step #1: Merge to Panorama

If you’re using Lightroom, select all your images then right-click to choose Edit In / Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. When the Photoshop dialog appears, choose “blend images together”.

If you are not using Lightroom, send all your images to Photoshop. You can use File / Scripts / Load Files into Stack to put all open images into the same document. Then select all the layers and choose Edit / Auto-Align Layers.

In either case, I recommend using images which have lens corrections enabled, and of course, do any critical RAW adjustments before you send the images to Photoshop. Also, the “auto” option typically works best, but if you have any issues just try cylindrical (for a single row of source images) or spherical (for multiple rows).

If the image does not properly align, check your image for overlap, missing frames, or moving elements. I’ve found that most of my failures have resulted from trying to merge images that were not suitable (for Photoshop, many dedicated stitching programs can do more with less, but they are also more complex to use).

 

Step #2: Put the merged content into a single layer

At this point, you’ll have a large image with a lot of funny distortion. Before you can fix that distortion in the next step, you’ll need to put everything into a single layer. There are two fundamental ways to do this.

You can select all layers, right-click, and “Flatten Image”. This creates a small file that can be viewed in Lightroom. However, it prevents you from going back later if you find any problematic edges from the merge that might need to be fixed. And if you don’t convert it to a Smart Object, it also prevents you from having some important flexibility after the next step.

The other option is to select all layers, right-click , and “Convert to Smart Object”. This will allow you to go back and fix any problem edges you might find later, and this has saved me from a lot of re-work on more than one occasion. The downside to this approach that it creates very large files. In most cases, it will require saving in the PSB (Large Document) format, which will prevent you from seeing the image in Lightroom (since it does not support the PSB format). It can also take a very long time to open and save such a complex document.

If you are a Lumenzia user, you have an easy third option which I would recommend. Click on the Lumenzia menu and choose to “Convert layers to linked PSB”. This will put your layers into an external PSB as a Smart Object. This offers several advantages: you’l have the ability to edit the Smart Object at any time, you can view the parent image in Lightroom, and the parent document can be opened and saved very quickly (with my demo image, save times dropped from 90 seconds for a regular PSB document to 5 seconds for the parent document created by Lumenzia).

 

Step #3: Adaptive Wide-Angle

Select your layer and go to Filter / Adaptive Wide Angle. This awesome tool is designed to remove distortion not only from wide-angle lenses, but also from wide-angle panoramas.

There are only a few controls you need both with in this dialog. The correction should be set to “panorama”. At the top-left are the “Constrain Tool” and “Polygon Constrain Tool”, which are the key tools to let you correct the image.

The polygon tool is great for subjects like buildings that need to be straighten in two dimensions at once. Most images just need the basic constrain tool, which lets you define lines that should be straight.

To use the constrain tool, click and drag between two points that should be on a straight line. Reference points like horizon lines are the best place to start. Watch the “detail” window at the right to see precise cursor alignment with important edges. Once you’ve added a constraint to straighten, you can click and rotate the lines as needed to correct the image. A very helpful option is to -click the rotation handle, which will force the line to be horizontal or vertical.

Keep adding more correcting lines until you have fixed the image. If you are unsure which elements should be straight, just make some guesses and then try manually rotating them to improve the image. If you make a mistake, you can use <ctrl/cmd>-Z to undo (or <ctrl/cmd>-<alt/option>-Z to undo multiple times). You can click on an adjustment to make it active and then hit <del> to remove it.

If important image detail moves outside the preview window’s borders (the true edges when you zoom out, not the limits of the screen when zoomed in), you should use the move tool (at top left) to drag the content back into the window.

It is generally best to avoid using the “scale” slider, as this will resample the final image. Don’t worry about whether your image fills the preview or not, you can easily crop after you’re done.

When ready, click OK to finalize the adjustment. If you are working on a Smart Object, you can double-click the Adaptive Wide Angle filter on the layer at any time to continue refining from where you left off. This is much easier than starting the process over from scratch, which you’d have to do if you aren’t using Smart Objects.

At this point, you’ve got a wide angle view and can proceed to process it like any other image. You will likely want to crop it at this stage (bear in mind that “delete cropped pixels” option has no effect on a Smart Object). If there are any small areas missing pixels after cropping, you can select them with the magic wand, then go to Select/Modify/Expand and choose 2 pixels, and Edit/Fill/Content Aware to help complete the image.

The thumbnail shown on the video above is my final image after further processing with Lumenzia to bring out more color and detail in the scene.

 

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