Creating panoramas with Photoshop and AutoPano Giga

Lately, I’ve started trying to do some serious work with panoramas. It’s an interesting challenge that requires you to really push yourself a photographer, both artistically and technically. It’s been a lot of work, but I can now create images such as this shot of the Holmenkollbakken ski jump in Oslo, Norway.

I thought I’d devote a post to reviewing my experience with my two favorite options: Photoshop CS6 and AutoPano Giga.  I’ll start with Photoshop, as it’s my first choice.  Photoshop has offered the ability to create panoramas with its Photomerge tool since CS2.  I find the results are both seamless and easy with single row panoramas. And CS6 now offers the amazing “Adaptive Wide Angle” filter.  I don’t know how I lived without it.  Basically, it offers a simple way to correct a huge range of geometric distortions you are likely to encounter when you create a panorama – especially if you are shooting architecture  (note that I did not use that filter on this photograph, as I actually like the sense of motion it creates in this image).  If you are shooting a horizontal panorama, I recommend turning the camera vertical (portrait orientation) so that you have the maximum number of vertical pixels without having to shoot a couple of rows.  This will save you time, and it will minimize the need to work with more complicated software. Both Adobe Lightroom and Bridge have options to automate the process.  First, do all your RAW image processing (exposure if needed, pre-sharpening, etc).  I recommend using the built in lens corrections at this stage (this is a critical step for any wide angle lens).  When working in Lightroom, simply select the images you want to merge, right click, and choose “edit in / merge to panorama in Photoshop”.  Photoshop will open a dialogue with a few simple options.  If I’m shooting a horizontal panorama, I typically choose “cylindrical”.  I also check “blend images” and “vignette removal”.  Click ok and you’ll have a pano in no time.  At this point, you have a collection of layers that give you the option to change blending in order to correct any stitching artifacts.  When using a proper panoramic head (more on that below), I typically find the results look great with no retouching.  The most likely scenario where I’d need to do more work is when I have some sort of movement in the image (cars, trees blowing in the wind, etc).  Once you are satisfied with the results, you can flatten the image into a single layer (or select the layers and and option-right click to select merge visible and you will get a merged layer and keep your originals beneath for possible future use).  Now select filter / adaptive wide angle to start correcting any geometric distortions.  There are two basic tools, one for lines and one for polygons.  Mostly, I just work with the lines on sidewalks, edges of buildings, horizons, etc.  I have used the polygon tool on occasion to select an entire building, as the results look much better in the corners than using a series of line based corrections.

While Photoshop works fantastically well for single row panoramas, I have found that I need more control to successfully merge a panorama composed of multiple rows of images.  PT Gui is well renowned as an excellent tool, but I prefer AutoPano Giga (the advanced version of AutoPano Pro).  I’ve had no problems getting excellent results from AutoPano Giga (some reviews suggest that PT Gui may excel in a few situations such as complete spherical stiching, but I am focused on creating prints, not virtual reality tours).  There are instructional DVD’s offered on Kolor’s website (or for digital download to avoid shipping costs) and I highly recommend them.  The software is tool far too complicated to sum up in a blog post.  That being said, the graphical user interface is very good, and I think Kolor has done a good job making an incredibly complicated and powerful tool fairly user friendly.  Overall, I love AutoPano for creating complex panoramas, but I recommend using Photoshop first if possible because it is far more simple and intuitive and the Adaptive Wide Angle filter will not work with panos created outside of Photoshop CS6.

To use either of these programs, or any stitching software, you need to start with high quality photos.  If you shoot a scene in the distance, you may get away just using a standard tripod or even hand-holding the camera.  However, best results come from using a panorama tripod head designed to rotate around the nodal point.  In fact, shots of close objects demand it.  The trouble is that (due to parallax) near and far objects will move in relation to each other as you pan the camera, unless you rotate the camera around its “nodal point”.  I could get into a detailed explanation, but the bottom line is that if you don’t use a tool to rotate the camera precisely, you are either going to spend an enormous amount of time correcting the image or never get a seamless integration of the photos.  Really Right Stuff also offers incredibly good pano heads if you want to spend top dollar.  Personally, I use a “Nodal Ninja” and have been very happy with the results.

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