Panorama and HDR

It will not be an overstatement to say that I believe assembling panoramic views to be one of the best things about digital photography. There are several reasons for this. First, I will never again suffer for the lack of a wide-angle lens. No matter what lens I have packed for travelling (usually the kit lens, because it is the smallest and lightest), I know that if I cannot include in a single shot the desired viewing angle, I can shoot the scene in two, three, four or as many takes as I need and then later on my computer assemble the parts to have a single panoramic view.

Lake Kerkini, Greece, panoramic view with Mavic Air

Of course, this takes some time, but it is worth the effort. It saves you the trouble of carrying a wide-angle lens around. Also, most wide-angle lenses result in edge softness and vignetting in the corners of the photograph, while a panorama composed of several shots will be sharp and detailed in all areas. What is more, a single photograph with the wide-angle shot will have an X-megapixel resolution, while the stitched panorama will have a resolution of 2x, 3x, 4x, etc., practically unlimited resolution. The more photos the panorama is composed of, the higher the resolution of the photograph will be. Every blade of grass, leaf or pebble is captured with many more points. The result is a picture which impresses with its exceptional detail.

BAK rest-house, panorama composed of 6 vertical shots, Canon 5DIII, Vivitar 17/3.5

Technically, assembling a panorama is easy even if we shoot without a tripod. The important thing is to make sure that there is an overlap between the elements in the photographs. What we see in the right edge of one shot should also be seen in the left edge of the next one. After that all you have to do is arrange the shots in any given photo stitching software and let the programme do the rest.

Many of the landscapes I have shot were made in this way – panoramas stitched from individual photos.

panorama from 4 vertical shots, Canon 20D, Canon 18-55/3.5-5.6
panorama from 6 vertical shots, Canon 20D, Canon 18-55/3.5-5.6

If for a panorama you arrange photographs one next to the other, HDR (high dynamic range) photography is arranging the shots one on top of the other in order to achieve a more dynamic image. Increasing image dynamics means having more detail both in the brightest part of the frame and in its darkest shadows. Our eyes easily adapt to light and we see all this detail, but a camera usually does not perform so well. That is why we need to assist the camera with further editing of the frame.

Many modern cameras and telephones have an in-built HDR function. Using it is not always a good decision because the software applies a single algorithm for the entire picture. We have no control over its individual parts. There is still no software with an innate aesthetics sensor. That is why it is better to this type of editing manually using an editing software. In this way you can chose exactly what action to apply to exactly which areas of the photograph.

The photograph on the right is a merger of the first two. The camera itself cannot produce such an image. If the exposure is set based on the light areas (the first shot) the shadows will not have much visible detail. If exposure is set based on the dark areas, you will lose detail in the light areas, the sky. This is why in this case you have two shots added as separate layers in the editing programme. A part of the upper image was erased using the erasure tool in order to see the detail of the lower layer (third frame). You can see the result in the last frame.

In landscape photography we usually combine the two methods – stitching a panorama and HDR. The following photograph is a combination of 9 separate shots. Three vertical brackets of three shots with different exposures each.

Sony Nex7, Sony 16-50/3.5-5.6

This result, of course, can be achieved with a single shot, but at the cost of carrying much more equipment.

This photograph has an interesting story. I went to shoot the sunrise on the rocks and there I came across a friend of mine, doing the same. He was equipped with a high range DSLR, an ultra wide-angle lens, a tripod, a filter holder and graduated filters. All the equipment probably weighed more than 5 kilograms and could fit in a backpack. I had a pocket-sized tripod and a mirrorless camera with a pancake lens which could also fit in my pocket. Because I did not have an ultra-wide angle lens, I had to take three vertical shot to be stitched into a panorama later. Also, I did not have a gradient filter, but the sky was much brighter than the shadows in the stones in the foreground, so each of these three vertical shots had to be shot in brackets. This means three versions per frame – one with correct exposure, one overexposed to be used for details in the shadows in the stones and one underexposed to be used for details in the clouds and the sky.

After a couple of days I met this friend again and I asked him to show me his photograph of the sunrise. I was curious. He showed me an identical photo. The difference was that he had carried a five-kilogram backpack full with equipment and I had carried my equipment in my pocket. Another difference was that he had produced the photograph with a single push of the shutter button, while I had spent half an hour on the computer assembling the different shots. There is always a price you have to pay.