How to stitch challenging panoramas

I’ve previously posted several tutorials on how to create panoramas with Lightroom, including details on adaptive wide angle and how to stitch HDR panoramas in one step. Lightroom does a beautiful job in many situations, but panoramas aren’t its main focus and it can’t handle every job. That’s where a dedicating panorama program becomes a critical tool. They look daunting, but don’t let that stop you. If you know the few controls that really matter for most tough jobs, it’s actually super easy and you’ll learn how to quickly get the job done in this tutorial.

Important tools for shooting and processing panoramas:

While you don’t need all the fancy tools I use to capture panoramas, they do make your life easier by helping to capture the best quality source images. They can help ensure you get images that will stitch, simplify the stitching workflow (avoid more complex fixes), and help you keep more of the scene (by avoiding cropping due to gaps or slanted results).

The tools I used for this image edit include:

  • PTGui: The dedicated panorama stitching software I use for more challenging panoramas like this one. The “pro” version is not required for the type of work I showed here. The key benefits of the more expensive version are dedicated support for stitching multiple exposures (“HDR”) and batch processing if you plan to do a lot of this.
  • Arca Swiss “Cube”: This is a very expensive geared head, but built to last forever and it adds tremendous value if you shoot panoramas or architecture. If you need to shoot on a budget, this is definitely optional. Ball heads are fine and there are cheaper geared heads (but try them and make sure you don’t get one that feels loose when the camera is attached).
  • Really Right Stuff series-3 leveling base with hook: Whatever head you swivel on top of your tripod, it should be perfectly level and a tool like this makes the job so much easier than fiddling with the legs. There are different options for different models, call B&H if you have questions. I like the version with a hook so that I can hang my bag from the tripod for extra stability.
  • Really Right Stuff slider rail: This lets you offset the camera a little so that it can rotate around the “nodal” point, which avoids parallax that can make stitching very difficult in scenes where the foreground is within 10 feet or so of the camera.
  • Really Right Stuff pano head: If you wish to shoot multi-row panos like I used in this demo or anything where the camera doesn’t stay perfectly level, you’ll also want a head designed for vertical movement. If you only plan to shoot single-row panos, want to watch your budget, or travel as light as possible – just get the slider rail.
  • Luminar: For the light rays in this demo. It has nothing to do with panorama specifically, it’s just a nice filter effect for the final image.
  • Lumenzia: My luminosity masking panel, for more control of Luminar. It is also unrelated to the pano itself.

If you are on a budget, the most important tools here are PTGui, a slider rail for the nodal point, and ideally a leveling base to make life easy. If you do not have the time or tools to shoot on a leveled tripod with adjustment for the nodal point, you’ll want to capture images with a much higher degree of overlap from frame to frame. These extra images will help compensate for lower-quality source images.


How to stitch using PTGui:

I’ve been using PTGui for probably 10-15 years. It used to be be rather complicated to use, with a lot of complex option. These days, it just looks complicated. It’s quite simple now if you just follow the following steps:

  1. Open the Project Assistant. This should be the first thing you see, but you can navigate there via Tools / Main Window and clicking at the top of the left hand column.
  2. Drag and drop your or click “load images” to provide your source images. I recommend using TIF images you have processed with your desired white balance, etc. PTGui will accept RAW files, but there’s no real benefit in my opinion since it will not allow you to export the final image as a DNG (this is the primary advantage Lightroom overs PTGui and I’d love to see support added here too).
  3. Click “align images“, which should take you to the panorama editor window.
  4. In the panorama editor, try the different projections to find the best starting point. Use the cylinder for single-row panos and the sphere for multi-row. Be sure to try the “rectilinear” option in the drop down.
  5. Drag the horizontal and vertical sliders to help zoom the image area to your content.
  6. Click and drag the image to set the center.
  7. If the image needs rotation, click the popout options at top right, then numerical transform, and try + or – 0.1 degrees for roll. Click apply to update.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 until you have the composition you like with either no gaps or ones you can fill via content-aware in Photoshop.
  9. Close the panorama editor or go back to the main window via Tools / Main Window and look for the “create panorama” section in the left hand column. You can skip all the other stuff.
  10. If this is your first time, select TIFF, 16-bits, LDR blended panorama (or HDR blended panorama if you are providing multiple exposures), select AdobeRGB or your preferred colorspace and check “use source image color space if possible“. Then go to File / Make Default to save these settings as the default for the future. Be very careful to ensure you are using 16-bit output.
  11. Click “create panorama” and look for the final file to be places next to your source images. Open it in Photoshop to finish editing.

Of course, feel free to explore those advanced options as you need, but they are overkill for most properly shot sequences of images.

Note that I deliberately allowed the converging verticals (keystoning) here. I had the camera pointed up a considerable amount and no amount of correction would straighten everything without tradeoffs. Personally, I like the look in this case. It’s  not slightly off, it’s clearly a choice. And it helps things flow visually towards the light source. If you would have wanted more correction, you could try the following steps to get this alternative version below.

  1. Adjust the pitch in PTGui’s panorama editor in the numerical transforms (in the same popout where you can rotate the image). By placing the centerpoint low in the image, the top gets stretched out to keep the columns more vertical.
  2. Try playing with the projection settings for horizontal and vertical compression in the projection (same popout on the right)
  3. Zoom out to keep critical edges. This will leave enmorous areas of blank pixels, which will need to be cropped later.
  4. In Photoshop, use the Adaptive Wide Angle filter (ideally on a Smart Object created from the output of PTGui). The capabilities here were a bit limited because of my use of a tilt shift lens, but using the “polygon constraint tool” on the ceiling helped further straighten bowing lines in the ceiling.
  5. Crop.

Here you can see the results. Personally, I do not like the dramatic change in column thickness nor the distortion in the ceiling. There is no free lunch when you shoot ultra-wide looking up, tradeoffs are part of the game. I could have shot head-on from the second floor, but then I’d lose the scale in the stairs. I prefer just embracing the scene for what it is. It makes you feel a little small relative to this incredible architecture.


How to add light rays using Luminar and Lumenzia:

To add light rays using Luminar 4:

  1. Right-click your image in Photoshop and convert the panorama to a Smart Object. This will allow you to change the filtering later as needed.
  2. Go to Filter / Skylum Software / Luminar 4.
  3. Click on the creative tab (the icon looks like a painter’s pallet) and then Sunrays.
  4. Click “place sun center” and then click and drag the white dot to where the light should come from in the image.
  5. Increase the amount to a high value so you can see it, adjust the various other settings to optimize the look, and then finally decrease the amount as desired.
  6. When you are done, click “apply” and then you may wish to paint with a soft black brush on the Smart Filter mask to reduce or remove the effect in some parts of the image.

To enhance the light rays using Lumenzia:

  1. Click “Dodge” to add a transparent or gray dodge and burn layer.
  2. Click Diff(+/-) and choose the “lighter” option. This will help target pixels which are brighter than those around them.
  3. Click and drag the slider to right to use a larger radius of comparison. Small values will target edges and you’ll need larger values like 200-500px to target the light rays.
  4. Click “Sel” to load the Diff preview as a selection.
  5. Paint on the dodge layer with a white brush as low flow through the selection to enhance the rays.


Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. See my ethics statement for more information.

Greg Benz Photography