Panoramic Photography with Craig Gowens

The Austin SMUG group held its June meeting on Thursday, June 28.  About 20 photographers attended the meeting at the Parish Hall of the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Austin.   Our speaker this month was one of Austin SMUG's own, Craig Gowens

Craig is an Austin based landscape photographer focusing on the scenic vistas of America's National Parks, Monuments and Forests as well as the diversity of state parks in Texas.

  He has a portfolio of stunning panoramic landscapes and his presentation covered his methods of image capture and the post processing of panoramas.

Craig began with a brief history of panoramic photography and equipment. It was interesting to hear of the challenges photographers faced with early equipment. Things have changed a lot over the years and suffice it to say that modern wide angle lenses and digital cameras make things a lot easier these days.

Like any serious photography task, some planning is in order before running out to capture a landscape panorama.  The biggest decision is choosing your lens.  More specifically, you need to decide what focal length to use.  The focal length will determine how much of the sky and foreground will be in your composition.  The relative size of foreground to background elements will be affected by the focal length.  It is important to remember that short focal lengths (wide angles) will make elements in the distance appear further away and longer focal lengths have a compressing effect on a landscape scene.

Hedrick Point - photo by Craig Gowens

Virtually all lenses exhibit some distortion and this is particularly true with wide angle lenses. The effect is typically more pronounced with zoom lenses. Well corrected prime lenses are the best choice. If your wallet is fat enough, a tilt-shift lens is the optimal choice. Barrel distortion is going to be a factor with most wide angle lenses and that will need to be corrected as much as possible in post production before before stitching the images into a panorama.

In addition to your camera and lens, you need a few more pieces of gear. You need a remote shutter release to avoid inadvertently moving the camera during image capture. A good sturdy tripod is a must. Top the tripod off with a good panoramic head with index marks. On a budget, any head with a smooth rotating base will do. You want to be able to rotate the camera and lens as closely around the point of no parallax as possible in order to avoid parallax issues in stitching. This point is generally right behind the front element of the lens. A good panoramic head will have adjustments to help you accurately center the lens.

After discussing the necessary equipment, Craig offered some tips for capturing the images that will make up a panorama. It is best to shoot your images in the portrait orientation. This will minimize the effects of distortion and it gives the stitching software a longer edge to work with in order to find the commonalities. He recommended having 20-40% of overlapping area in your shots to make the stitching processor easier for the software to work with. You also need to leave room for cropping around all sides due to lens distortion. It is a good idea to get an extra shot on either side of your range to ensure that you capture everything. Your exposure should be in manual mode and you'll want to choose a shutter speed that is the best average exposure across the scene. Shooting bracketed exposures at each interval can be done if you want to use an HDR post processing method.

Craig gave a quick demonstration of his post processing workflow.  He prefers to start with Adobe Lightroom to make adjustments such as lens distortion correction to each image. Next, he exports to TIFF or JPG and opens all the image files in Adobe Photoshop for stitching and cropping.  In the case of HDR processing, Craig processes one set of bracketed images in Photomatix and uses those settings to batch process the rest of the images.  The individual tone mapped files are then stitched together in Photoshop.  Once the stitching is complete, the image needs to be cropped to the desired size.  Finally, the image can be touched up with any desired software adjustments.

Wild Goose Island - photo by Craig Gowens

Panoramic images seem a little less daunting to create after seeing Craig's process. He did a great job of breaking down what initially seemed like a complex process into a relatively simple workflow.