Managing Digital Photos For Building Panoramas

Digital photo management for creating panoramic photos. Photo by James BurkeLast week in our blog, a MerlinOne digital asset management customer and panoramic landscape photographer, Walt Stricklin, wrote about his experience exhibiting his work in China (Read his blog). Walt and I share an interest; I too enjoy shooting panoramas of landscapes. I started shooting panoramas in college, but in those days, the only way I had to stitch the photos together was with masking tape. These days, high-resolution digital photography and photo manipulation software such as Adobe® Photoshop®, make the process of creating and printing panoramic shots so much easier.

Reading Walt’s blog made me think that maybe there are other people out there who enjoy taking and stitching panoramic shots together – especially since a lot of our digital asset management customers are photographers. With that in mind, I thought the process of creating panoramic shots might be a good blog topic.

I don’t have a huge collection of lenses and I have never been a huge fan of the distortion caused by super wide or fish-eye lenses. For me, shooting panoramas and stitching the individual photos together is a much more faithful way to capture a wide landscape. Like my colleague David Breslauer, I Recently had the opportunity to visit Arches National Park (Read David’s blog). For anyone who hasn’t had the chance to visit Arches, it’s an amazingly beautiful location to capture wide landscapes. While there I spent a lot of time taking sequential pictures that I would later convert into panoramic shots. To maximize my pixels, I always shoot with my camera in the portrait (vertical) orientation.

Once I returned home and transferred all of my shots onto my computer, I gathered all of the images, which made up each panorama, and put them in folders – a folder for each panorama. When I use Photoshop, I always use a method that is as non-destructive as possible – that way I can always get back to the original image at any point in the process (probably the nonlinear editor in me). I even use Adobe After Effects® to build the layered Photoshop file – by doing this; each layer is named for the filename of its original file. This helps in finding the original files, which make up each layer if I need to find them later in a digital asset management system.

Although Photoshop has an Auto-Align Layers feature, I prefer to align the layers manually. Aligning manually enables me to start on any of the layers and work outward to the left and right edges. When aligning a layer, I place it on top of the previous layer, reduce the opacity to about 50% and use the Free Transform feature; this allows me to see the layer I’m matching against, and to rotate the layer I’m aligning, if necessary. When I have all the layers aligned, as best as I can, I will use a matte to blend the two layers together (a non-destructive compositing technique). I will cut the matte along naturally occurring vertical lines in the image; this will make the seam much less visible. After I have the layers blended, I generally have to adjust the tones of some of the images in the composition. Again, to preserve the original layer, I use Adjustment Layers (usually Levels and Hue/Saturation) above the layer I want to affect. When adjusting the tone, I always concentrate on the ground portion of the shot first – I do the sky in a second pass.

Panoramic photo with rough placement of individual images. Photo by James Burke
Once the ground portion of the shot is complete, I begin the process of making a “second pass” on the sky. I place all of the current layers in a New Group (folder) and then duplicate that Group. The Group that is the copy is the one that will contain the adjusted ground layers. I create a matte for this Group that allows the sky portion of the bottom Group to show through. It is in this bottom Group that I work to adjust the tones of the sky.

Panoramic photo with individual images corrected and blended. Photo by James Burke
After I’ve adjusted the sky just the way I like it, the panorama is complete. I can load the finished Photoshop file into my Merlin digital asset management system and link it to each of the individual files that made up the shot. That way any search for the finished panorama will easily find the photos that made it up.

Posted by James Burke
Photos by James Burke

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