Should You Shoot Panoramas?
Panoramas Part 1
When you hear the phrase “panoramic photo” or "panorama”, you probably think of a photo with an extremely wide and narrow aspect ratio like the one above. These photos can give you a much wider perspective than you can get in any one frame with even a super wide angle lens, and can really make great, unique-looking photos. In the case of the shot above, I had no lens wide enough to capture the composition I wanted in a single frame. Even if I had, cropping the resultant 24MP, 4x3 image to this aspect ratio would have left me with a single shot of only around 13MP, so half quality of what the camera is capable of. By instead stitching together 10 handheld shots in Lightroom, the resulting image is an 84.5MP panorama, which is hypothetically 6 and a half times as detailed as taking the wide angle shot and cropping. Resolution (Megapixels, MP) is not everything when it comes to detail and image quality, but it certainly helps. These high MP panoramic photos look great when printed or set as a background on a high resolution monitor, but they do have their limitations.
Limitations of Panoramas on Social Media
One drawback to extremely wide panoramas is that they usually don’t look good on social media platforms. For one, the ideal shape of a post on Instagram is 4:5 in terms of real-estate on the page. When you take a super wide shot and confine it to a phone screen, that just means you end up making the image way shorter in height in order to fit on the screen width-wise, minimizing the amount of screen your shot is taking up. It just doesn’t blow up on people’s devices as big as square or 4:5 crops. There are some workarounds to this. You can post a 3:1 panorama as 3 separate 1:1 photos in Instagram, and swipe through the individual pictures to see the rest of panorama. On Facebook, you can upload as a 360 photo, where you can do pretty much the same thing. Neither of these allow you to see the entire shot at one time to get any feel for the composition, so I don’t consider either one to be ideal.
More importantly though, both Instagram and Facebook limit the number of pixels of an uploaded photo to well below what your camera is shooting. For instance, a square cropped image on Instagram will display at 1080x1080; less than 2MP. A standard 4:3 image will display at 1080x600; less than 1MP! Since both platforms are limiting the long side of the image, a pretty typical panoramic aspect ratio of 2:1 would be shown at 1080x540; half a megapixel. What started out as a nice, larger-than-life image you took to get MORE detail is uploaded and viewed at a quarter of the quality as a standard 1:1 image. It may not seem worth it to shoot panoramas if you’re only uploading to social media. Large panoramas are typically shown in print or on a photographer’s website where they’re not limited by the same size constraints as on social media. (It is worth noting that even to upload the above picture to this website, I had to scale the image down to 50%, because the full-resolution version was too big to upload. This site is run on Squarespace, probably the most popular option that photographers use to host online portfolios.)
Panoramas In Standard Aspect Ratios
Since more standard aspect ratios tend to look better on social media, you may decide to stick to 4:3, 1:1, or 4:5 crops for that application. There are also times for composition reasons that you may not want a super wide aspect ratio, but you can still benefit from the increased detail of panoramas. Below is a 6 shot panorama I took of the natural arch at Bellsmith Springs. It doesn’t look like a panorama, because I ended up cropping it to 4:3 aspect ratio. I had a 12mm lens, and I probably could have backed up enough to get this same shot in a single frame. Why did I shoot it as a panorama, then? The answer is again, detail.
At the bottom right, you can see roughly the 6 images that make up the panorama. The camera was turned vertical, and 6 shots were taken of the scene. The individual frames are not shaped like a 4:3 sensor, because there was a lot of overlap between shots which gets cropped out during stitching. You want that overlap to make sure the stitch goes smoothly. I also tend to shoot more overlap in the areas of highest interest or detail just to make extra sure that the stitch goes off without a hitch. (You can always choose fewer images to include in your stitch, but you can’t add in ones you didn’t take while on location.)
After losing all of the overlapping portions of frames, this shot ended up being a 34MP image, even though the camera only has a 24MP sensor. It’s not a huge difference in resolution, but those extra megapixels help resolve the fine detail in the rock better than a lower resolution image. Astro photographers often use panoramas, not only for the increased field of view for maximum amount of sky, but also to bring out maximum detail in the stars. The resulting aspect ratio is moot at that point. They’re just trying to cram as many megapixels as possible into their final photo. Landscape photographers with already high MP cameras often do the same.
You may be wondering why you’d shoot panoramas at all in the age of social media sharing. If Instagram is displaying your photo at 1 or 2 MP, isn’t it pointless to shoot high resolution photos that are ultimately going to end up on social media? Not really. For one, in my experience, the better quality image you start with, the better it’s going to end up looking after Instagram or Facebook gets done butchering it. Also, I never want to spend the time and energy to travel to a location, set up the camera perfectly, and spend a bunch of time snapping shots, just to go home with a picture that only looks good on a phone. If I’m going through the trouble, I want it to have potential other uses outside of social media: prints, portfolio use, etc. In my personal use, I don’t run into the need to shoot panoramas often, but it’s another useful tool every photographer should have in their tool bag.
Stay tuned for Panoramas Part 2, where we go through the entire process of setting up, shooting, and editing a panorama.