Panoramas – tripod -vs- software

Last post I found that for casual use, the new version of Photomatix did as good a job as lugging along a tripod.

The other obvious use of a tripod for landscape photography – besides long exposures to capture subtle colors – is for panoramas. But what about software that does the alignment for you? And special mounting hardware that makes sure you are rotating the camera body around the image plane? How does all this stack up against software?

My choice for panorama stitching has always been autostitch. It’s fast and reasonably featured, and best of all, free.

How well does it stitch non-tripod shots? Pretty well; here are four shots, taken by simply rotating at my waist and clicking away, and merged with autostitch:

(Click for full sized image.)
Mt. ChesterPentax K20D, ISO 200, f/4, 1/500 sec, 16mm, 4 exposure pano.

There are some cheats you should know about:

– I metered the scene between 1/350 and 1/750 from dark to bright, so I used AE-Lock to hold it at 1/500th. Manual mode would have worked just was well. This means there is less variation in exposure across the entire pano, and the software doesn’t have to do unnatural things to flatten the exposure ranges closer together. It does mean the sky blew out near the sun… next time I’ll try using the brightest part of the image as the exposure base and see what happens.

– I kept all foreground objects as far away as possible. No tall grass, no rocks, etc. The shift in position of objects gets exaggerated the closer you get, so keep everything at a distance. The mid ground is far enough away that it doesn’t shift much against the background, Mt. Chester.

– The software didn’t 100% match the features of the left part of Mt. Chester exactly. There was some slight ghosting that took about 5 minutes in the GIMP (my image editor of choice, also free), using the clone and heal tool to clean up.

– The lens I used is ‘rectilinear’, which means that even at 16mm it tries not to act like a fisheye. I could have used a longer focal length, but that would have meant a two row pano. Hand-held, multi-row panos are still possible; I’ve done up to 4×4 like this, but the distortions are so severe that you lose a lot to cropping (to clean up the rough edges).  At 16mm I was able to get the foot of the rocks and the peak of the mountain in the background in a single image row.


Other than slight image alignment ghosting, I think autostitch comes out on top for panos like this; after all, the software AND tripod stay at home, which means a lighter backpack.

For interiors and man-made objects that have lots of straight lines, a tripod and good mounting is the only way to go.  I’ve not tried this one yet, but something like a Nodal Ninja should do the trick; it looks light enough to hike with, and strong enough to hold up a full sized dSLR.

2 Responses to “Panoramas – tripod -vs- software”

  1. 1 Tim
    September 11, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    i’ve tried Autostitch with similarly good results. But Autopano Pro is pretty much as simple and automated to use, and when Smartblend is selected for the final rendering process it cleans up those odd bits of ghosting etc remarkably effectively.


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