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Beginner's guide to creating flash panoramas with a compact camera and a small budget.

There are many excellent tutorials on how to create panoramic photos on the web. However, most of them involve buying an SLR camera, new (expensive) lenses and an (expensive) panoramic tripod head attachement. It is true that for professional quality panoramas this equipment will help, however it is possible to get something 90% as good with far, far less expensive equipment.

In fact, all of the panoramas on this site were produced using the following:

  1. Canon S45 digital compact camera (4 megapixel) -although almost any digital camera will do.
  2. £15 tripod from a local camera shop
  3. free software.
Canon S45 image

So, my message is: anyone can take good quality panoramic photos using equipment they probably already own.

Here's how:

1.Use a tripod:

It doesn't have to be expensive. Using a tripod will allow your images to fit together seamlessly. You can create a panorama without one, but it is much easier with one.

Preferably use one that has a spirit level built in to allow you to level it (see Step 2). My tripod cost about £15 and is perfectly adequate for my purposes.

photo of tripod on rocks

2.Level the tripod:

After attaching your camera, adjust the tripod head and legs until you have the camera completely level. If you don't do this then your panorama will turn out wonky!

spirit level on tripod

3.Set camera to use fixed exposure (if possible):

Many cameras (although not all) allow you to manually adjust the camera exposure settings. Some cameras have a 'panorama' setting which fixes the exposure automatically. Check your camera's User Manual if you're not sure.

Why bother? Cameras usually change the exposure depending on the brightness of the scene. In a panorama, the lighting across the scene can vary greatly depending on sun angle and surface brightness. If you leave your camera to compensate for this by automatically changing the exposure for each image then it makes it much harder to create a seamless panorama and you may be able to see the joins in the finished product.

4.Take the photos with some overlap:

Right, so now you're all set. Your camera is on a level tripod and the exposure is fixed. Start taking your pictures. I suggest that you zoom all the way out first to minimise the number of photos needed to complete your panorama. Make sure that you have some overlap between each image.

Some points to bear in mind:

i) Sunny weather:
In bright sunshine, if you're using fixed exposure, then some of your photos can end up being over-exposed. This is minimised if the sun is high in the sky, or alternatively wait for a cloudy day.
ii) Variable sun conditions:
On some days it can be sunny one minute, but cloudy another. This can create a headache for panoramic photographers as some photos will be in sun and others gloomy which can cause stripey panoramas. Advice: just take note of whether the sun is out when you begin and only take the subsequent photos in similar lighting conditions.
iii) Waves:
Photo stitching software these days is really fantastic, but no matter how clever it is it will always struggle to create a seamless image if there are moving objects (such as the sea) in the frame. If you are doing a panorama on a beach then I suggest trying to minimise this problem by timing your photos such that waves are just about to break each time. That way you have a better chance of getting a good stitch!

5.Stitch the photos

Note: if you're sending your panoramas to tresco360.co.uk and have got this far then your work is now done! There is no need for you to stitch your images -you can send your individual images to me and, time permitting, I'll do all the hard work!

For those interested in doing it themselves, read on... OK, so you have a complete set of images and you're thinking "How do you stitch them together into a single panorama?".

The good news is that the software you need to do this is free.

Hugin: I thoroughly recommend you download this great software which will produce excellent quality seamless photo stitches. (I used to use the Canon PhotoStitch software that came with my camera, but believe me -it is not in the same league as Hugin).

Hugin screenshot

There are some good tutorials explaining how to use Hugin. Basically, you can load load in all your images into Hugin, click a button and after a few minutes thinking it'll produce a nice perfectly stitched panoramic image! Wonderful!

finished panoramic image
Stitching advice: sun-glare problem
90% of the time, Hugin will do a great job on it's own with no help required. But occasionally, it'll produce funny results. Most of the problems I have had are related to over-exposed images. In these images, the software failed to accurately pick 'control points' (i.e. the common points in the image overlaps used to automatically align the images) and instead appeared to pick tiny scratches in the lens as common points. The resulting stitches were obviously wrong. My solution to this was to go to the "Control Points" tab and delete all the control points from the offending frames (Making sure to delete them not only from adjacent frames (1-2,2-3, etc) but also those two frames apart (1-3,2-4, etc). Then I manually selected about 10 or 15 control points in each frame pair and restitched. Sorted.

6.Display as Flash Panorama on a website:

If you want to display your panorama on your own website then one good method of doing this is to use FlashPano. This can be bought for about €40. It does require a small amount of technical ability to setup though (a basic understanding of HTML would help). Also, it works best using 'cube' format images which Hugin does not output. To create these I output my images as 'Equirectangular' from Hugin and the converted to cubes using 'pano2faces.bat' in the DOSUP utilities

Example of FlashPano in action

For those wanting a more point and click solution Pano2VR by Garden Knome Software software is available.

A free flash panorama player "PanoSalado" is also available although I haven't used this yet so can't comment on it's quality, but I'd be interested to hear any reviews.

So, you're done! Hopefully you should now have everything you need to create your own panoramic images! Enjoy!

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