Shooting Panoramas, how Technology Democratised the Business

During the dark age of film photography, getting a panoramic picture meant getting a dedicated camera that could pan the lens at a 180 degree angle or more. In the 90s, there was the Widelux which did this splendidly and after that, it was the Hasselblad Xpan which I grew to love but could never afford. These cameras would use two 35mm frames to capture a scene, allowing for a wide angle picture which was very rare to find. For one, there was no way you could hand hold this steady enough and you needed a tripod to help you do the job. Picking a scene and how you exposed it was a matter of science, as the aperture was normally fixed (except in the case of the Xpan). 

After that, I never bothered to look into this genre of photography ever again until the late 2000s when I was asked by Sony to manage a project where one of the photographers, Paul Daly, was a professional panoramic photographer. Nomadic planet were asked to produce a series of pictures for Sony Asia Pacific using Sony DSLRs. 

To begin with, shooting a pano might seem easy but he had to do a lot of work to do with those DSLRs. First you needed a tripod, and because it was in portrait orientation you had to make several overlapping shots to ensure the computer program you used to stitch the picture was done correctly, and yes, you actually had to buy panoramic stitching software in order for this to work. 

Next was the lens, a 50mm for full frame would be just nice but Paul said he preferred 70mm or more depending on the subject he shot. Paul took beautiful panos, and each would take up to 20 mins to set up and shoot. That is how much work that went into the pano during the early days of the DSLR. 

I remember during my days with Sony Asia Pacific, they asked my opinion what would be the next big feature. I told them it would things like Panoramic photography as well as HDR. They shrugged, and I never brought it up again. This was in 2008/2009. Deep down inside I knew the technology would be able to make the whole process so much easier and it was in 2010 that everything became a reality. 

Pano Photography as an afterthought

In the days before this pano feature was introduced in DSLRs, panoramic photographers were professionals with a skill that only connoisseurs appreciated. Today, no one would give two hoots about them. If you wanted to try your hand at it using a film camera, you can't go wrong with a Horizon. 

Technology has made them redundant, and the business has been democratised. Anyone with a smartphone today has the ability to shoot a pano image without dropping any sweat. All it takes is a steady pose, holding your smartphone the right way and deciding on how the subject should flow in your picture. How technology had changed the landscape was exciting, and demeaning to professionals who had spent a good part of their life developing a skill for it. You can virtually capture a pano in less than 1 min...using a compact camera or your iPhone. If you compared that with the Panos of old, where you had to literally spin a DSLR on a specially built tripod, well, that's 23 minutes shorter and probably saved you a whole lot of time on a PC trying to stitch them together too. 

And if you had a business card that says you're a panoramic photographer, all you will earn is a shrug from the very people you wish to impress. 

Composing the Pano is not Rocket Science

One of the challenges of shooting panos the old way was to get the Horizon on a level. If you were shooting from a hill or a slope, you had to make sure you had a spirit level on your tripod to find out if you are on level ground. So if you are not, you had to make the collapse the tripod legs to have the correct fit. 

This was made redundant with the 3 axis camera stabilisation, which detected minute movements and adjusted it during capture. 

Rule of Thirds, redux. The Entrance occupies two thirds of the frame while the hotel building takes a third of the frame

So these days, the camera detects your panning movement as long as you hold it still, you can capture a panoramic image without the use off a tripod. All you have to do is hold your Android or iPhone steady, pointed at the direction you want it to flow and move along the horizon line. That's it!

And as long as you have compose the image using the rule of thirds, then you're ok. The rule of thirds here means composing your subjects using a grid of thirds, and it is not the conventional rule of thirds where the subject in focus should be within the middle four points.

Dividing your picture by thirds and then putting your main and secondary subjects within these one third frames helps to give it breath and space. If not, it would be a mess. 

How Technology is making even Easier

I remember shooting my first mobile panoramic picture using an iPhone 3GS. The quality of the image wasn't great but it got the job done. Today, with the higher spec iPhones and Android devices, where the whole processing and stitching of the image is done within the device, there is no longer a need to shoot with a DSLR. 

Even DSLR's these days support a panoramic panning function that you can opt to use without a tripod. That said, no idiot who knows how to use a camera could ever get this wrong.