Composition tips when shooting in panoramic format.




In a recent trip to the Philippines I played quite a bit with the new automatic panorama features in my new Sony NEX-5N. I've always enjoyed shooting panorama photos and being able to see the result immediately (unlike with stitching software which requires a post-processing work flow) makes the experience much more pleasurable. Even if the in-camera stitching is not as reliable as the Photoshop built-in panorama stitching engine, you gain the benefit of immediate feedback and can re-shoot and re-compose as required. This experience got me thinking about panorama composition.... 

Why panorama?

It's hard to define the appeal of the panorama format. To some extent, it's the novelty factor. We are so accustomed to seeing photos in the standard aspect ratio coming out of our camera  sensors (6:4 rectangular for most) that anything different is bound to stand-out. But I believe there is more to it. The panorama format is also closer to the "natural" way we see and feels more familiar. It also feels more dynamic and modern...(or maybe it's the 6:4 rectangle that feels dated).

Panorama composition

So there are many factors drawing the photographer towards the panorama format. But how different is the task of composing the photograph in panorama versus the standard rectangular format? Surprisingly, the answer to me is "not very different". Actually, what I do find hard is to forget that I'm shooting in panorama and let my basic composition instincts work as they normally would. In fact, the most common mistake I see beginners make when first shooting panorama is to try to include everything the camera (or photo stitching software) gives them. Put a different way, it is easy to forget even the most basic composition "rules" (if there is such a thing; that's another discussion) when overwhelmed by the panorama results. This point is perhaps better explained with some examples, so let's look at a few.


Figure 1 shows a stitched panorama as it came out of the NEX-5N. Not a bad shot but there are some obvious problems with it. At the camera club someone thought me to think in terms of what we call the "border patrol" perspective. Look at the borders of your images and see if there are distractions. Our eyes tend to notice the edges as these are areas of change and contrast. In Figure 1 we have half of a boat on the left (a no-no in my book) and some small but noticeable black dot on the bottom right. These have got to go...

Then there's the number of boats in the photo. Most photos work best with an odd number of "subjects" (1,3,5 etc.). Even numbers feel uncomfortable and unbalanced as the eye wonders from one subject to another. In this case we have four boats (OK; four and a half which is even worst) so one boat has got to go.

 Figure 1 - Sailboats, Boracay Philippines

Sony NEX-5N, 18-55mm lens

The final result is Figure 2. Notice also that the sun setting over the horizon was placed in accordance with the "rule of thirds".


Figure 2 - Sailboats, Boracay Philippines

Sony NEX-5N, 18-55mm lens

Moving on to Figure 3... What attracted me to this scene was the guy in the center of the frame and the balloons over his head. This was obviously a poorly composed photo. Sometimes you just have to press the shutter fast before the subject moves and worry about composition (cropping) later. (You could say "shoot first and ask questions later" but please don't take this literally). This photo is also a good example of why I like more mega-pixels in my cameras (which goes against a fair share of "conventional wisdom" these days). When I crop a photo this much, I like to know that I'll still end-up with a decent resolution should I want to produce some prints in the future. In this case the orginal photo is 16MP whereas the cropped photo (Figure 4) is about 4MP. Would it have been better to compose it right to start with ? Absolutely! But it would be worst not to have a photo at all which is the choice one often has to face.


Figure 3 - Balloons, Boracay, Philippines

Sony NEX-5N, 18-55mm lens

Figure 4 is the final cropped version of Figure 3. Once again, the subject is place in the third of the frame (I'm a sucker for the rule of thirds). This was a case where I started with a "standard format" photo and ended-up with a panorama photo just by cropping. It is obvious once you think about it, but it is worth remembering that you don't need to shoot in panorama to end-up in panorama!



Figure 4 - Balloons, Boracay, Philippines

Sony NEX-5N, 18-55mm lens

And finally let's have a look at Figure 5. This one was auto-stitched in the NEX-5N  and I actually like the final result as is. There are three characters in the photo though the third one (towards the left) almost blends with the background. Not a bad photo, but a different interpretation is shown in Figure 6. In this case I focused on the character I found the most interesting and on the juxtaposition with the writing in the background wall. 

So there you have it. Panorama shooting can be a lot of fun and yield interesting results if you pay attention to the basics of composition. 

Figure 5 - La Isla Bonita, Boracay, Philippines

Sony NEX-5N, 18-55mm lens


Figure 6 - La Isla Bonita, Boracay, Philippines

Sony NEX-5N, 18-55mm lens

 Comments, questions, suggestions? You can reach me at: contact (at sign) paulorenato (dot) com