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Tip of the Week: Use a Tilt-Shift Lens for Panoramic Photos

Tips & Tricks
Figure 1. A panorama taken with the Fuji X100's built-in pano feature.

Figure 1. A panorama taken with the Fuji X100's built-in pano feature.

Every week, we post a photography-related tip on our blog. These tips are typically inspired by questions we get from our customers. Sometimes we might feature a technique tip, and sometimes a gear recommendation. If there’s something specific you’d like to see in this section, let us know. Email us at [email protected]

There are many ways to create panoramic images. You can start with a really wide-angle lens, then simply crop down to a long, narrow band to create a “faux” panorama. You can also use the built-in panoramic functions of cameras like Sony’s NEX and Alpha series, as well as Fuji’s X100 and X-Pro1. You can also simply take a series of pictures and stitch them together in Photoshop, or, if you’re really into panoramic photography, you could rent a pano-head from us, like the ones from Nodal Ninja.

Today, we’re going to talk about one of my favorite ways to create panoramas. All of the methods above have some shortcomings that make it a bit harder to create good panos. Using a wide-angle lens and cropping, for example, leaves me with a lower-resolution file than I’d like. The built-in pano features in some cameras is neat, and I do use them (as shown in Figure 1), but they’re also relatively low-res JPEGs. Pano heads are great for this sort of work, but you have to find the “nodal point” of each lens you want to use, and that takes quite a bit of work.

Figure 2. Example of what a tilt-shift lens can do. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Figure 2. Example of what a tilt-shift lens can do. Courtesy Wikipedia.

Tilt-shift lenses are a great alternative for creating panoramic images. Traditionally, these are used by architectural and landscape photographers to avoid distortion or “keystoning” of buildings and structures. The camera and lens is placed so that the sensor is parallel to the object being photographed, and the front half of the lens is shifted upward or downward to include the parts of the images needed. You can see the practical application of this in Figure 2, an example taken from Wikipedia.

The cool thing about a tilt-shift lens (or a perspective-control lens, in Nikon parlance) is that they can shift in either a vertical or horizontal plane. It’s the horizontal shift that we can use for our advantage.

In Figure 3, you can see that I have an image consisting of the San Francisco skyline. That image was taken with a Canon 5D Mark II and a 45mm f/2.8 tilt-shift lens, with no shift at all.

Figure 3. Straight (unshifted) image of the San Francisco skyline.

Figure 3. Straight (unshifted) image of the San Francisco skyline.

Figure 4 shows part of the Bay Bridge now, but the camera hasn’t been moved or panned to add that coverage. Instead, I simply shifted the front half of the tilt-shift lens to the left.

Figure 4. Left-shifted image of the skyline.

Figure 4. Left-shifted image of the skyline.

Figure 5 shows the rest of the skyline to the right of the straight-on image shown in Figure 3.

Figure 5. Right-shifted image of the skyline.

Figure 5. Right-shifted image of the skyline.

After that, it’s just a matter of bringing the images into Photoshop and aligning them together. In this case, I discarded the image shown in Figure 3, as the other two shots, taken with the lens shifted to the left and right, respectively, had enough overlap for my needs.

As you can see in Figure 6, I have the two images on two separate layers, with a layer mask to ensure a smooth blend between the two. It took minimal alignment to get them together, because the tilt-shift lens ensures that your perspective doesn’t get skewed.

Figure 6. The two images, stacked in Photoshop.

Figure 6. The two images, stacked in Photoshop.

The resulting image is about 32.7MP in size, and after a little bit of straightening, cropping, and a black-and-white conversion in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, I’m still left with a 24MP image that will hold up nicely for a large print. The final image is shown below, in Figure 7.

Figure 7. The final image, finished in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Figure 7. The final image, finished in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Tilt-shift lenses can seem intimidating, but they really aren’t. Check out our range of Canon and Nikon tilt-shifts, as well as some new ones from Schneider. If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to leave us a note in the comments below.

 

All images, except Figure 1, are courtesy of and Copyright © 2012, Sohail Mamdani. All rights reserved.

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Sohail Mamdani is a writer and photographer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. You can find his portfolio on his website at sohail.me as well as on 500px and Flickr.

Comments

  • [...] Making panoramic images is one of my favorite things to do, and I tend to go to some lengths to make them. My tool of choice is usually something along the lines of a Canon 45mm TS-E lens, and I use a technique I described in a previous Tip of the Week piece, “Use a Tilt-Shift Lens for Panoramic Photos.” [...]

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