360 Panorma Photography Basics!

Have you ever heard of a panorama? Sure you have, who among us has never stood on a mountain, above a valley, or in the middle of a busy evening street, experiencing the fullness of the moment before us, and as a photographer probably wishing we could capture the entire scene at once?

Indoor 360 degree panorama.

My purpose in this post is to introduce you to production of a 360° panorama – a seamless image that shows a scene all around you. For the more experienced and demanding reader I will also move to full equirectangularity towards the end. I will, however, assume this is the first time you have ever been introduced to a panoramic workflow.

Prerequisite: know what you want!
I can’t stress this enough – nothing I say later is important if you do not choose a good subject. Your equipment can be improved within a blink of an eye, but your eye will need to be trained.

There are tons of resources that will tell you four cornerstones of panoramic photography: foreground, middle ground, background, and practice. But they are usually not dealing with panoramas of more than 180°, so I will add a few words of wisdom when we get to technique. For now, let’s start with equipment.

Tiny planet photography. It’s created by taking a 360 degree photo and editing it into a tiny planet.

Basic Equipment Needed For 360 Degree Panorama Photography:

• Wide angle lens
• Telephoto lens (optional)
• Panoramic tripod head
• Tripod or monopod (you can also use a stake, a post box, anything you can turn your camera around on)

A tripod, or any sort of stand is almost indispensable. There are ways to make a panorama without it but due to various factors it is best to have one. The monopod is more or less just a way to remind yourself not to move too much. Good enough for light users and forgiving scenes.

The lens can also be any focal length that you want; as I elaborate later it depends on your style and preference. The specialized head is optional for hobbyists but highly recommended when shooting with a telephoto lens.

Quick Intermission:

Fastest Way To Getting Quality 360 Panorama Images? Get a 360 Spherical Camera.

The camera pictured to the left is a Ricoh Theta V. It is able to take high quality video in 4K. It will take 360 degree video at 30 frames per second, in 4k.

In addition it will take 14 megapixel images and they will be 360 degrees. All you have to do is click the button.

Lastly, you’ll be able to achieve three hundred and sixty degree spatial audio. This camera has 4 mic’s which allow you to record directional audio independently. The audio you record is playable in any stereo device.

Getting Started – Setting Up The Camera:

For this example I will imagine a heavy tripod with a full frame camera. Usually photographers preferred to place their frame into vertical position, as this should compensate for the loss of vertical space when you pan around, but modern theory contradicts this approach, stating that vertical shots create more distortion.

Personally I don’t see much difference between one and the other, aside from having need for less seams when using horizontal.

However, every photographer should consider minimizing parallax. I do not mean the villain from Green Lantern, parallax is a physical phenomenon where objects in distance move slower than those near you, so the objects that are closer to you in your scene will seemingly have a slightly different location when you turn your camera around.

This description is not very accurate, but the term is. Either way, depending on the severity of parallax the image can end up having visible seams or the software can fail to stitch it outright. So let me tell you how to get rid of it!

360 degree photo from a cafe window.

Use the nodal point of the lens. This is a location within the lens where light rays are most condensed, typically near the eyeris. The panoramic heads I mentioned earlier are designed for this purpose. Additionally make sure your tripod head turns on a completely level plane.

You will also want perfect or equal sharpness throughout your image, so set your focus to manual and do not change it after you begin. To improve the sharpness you will also want to use an external trigger or the timer, and make sure to enable the mirror lockup option if you have it.

Technique:
 The act of photographing is straightforward after you set everything up. From the start you should have been thinking of the foreground – middle ground – background, but for a very wide panorama, especially a 360° type you need to be aware of the scene all around you, and plan your composition accordingly.

Tiny planet photo.

Do not forget to give every photograph 25%-30% coverage over the previous one. To make a 360° panorama you will have to come full circle with the and finish on the first picture, again with 25%-30% coverage.

At this point we start getting into equirectangularity, so the first thing I have to say is that if you don’t have a fisheye lens a good rig becomes very important. You will need to take enough photos to cover the whole dome above you and below, and it becomes easy to miss a spot or misalign it.

360 Panorama Photography Software.

360° panoramas are a projection onto a cylinder. With its Adaptive Wide Angle filter in CC Photoshop has made a leap in usability, but its projections are still limited to planar panoramas. You can still make a seamless one if you use Filter-Other-Offset and mask the two edges together.

It is somewhat counter-intuitive that Adobe is an authority in graphic arts but until their adaptive wide angle filter came out they really weren’t very effective in this area. I started using Hugin years ago, and I had no reason to change to anything else since. As I am most familiar with it I will mostly speak from this perspective.

Equirectangularity:

Also known as 360 by 180 degree panorama. Like the planar panorama is a projection onto a cyllinder, so is this a projection onto a sphere. I can name only two programs from the top of my head that can handle equirectangularity: Hugin and PTGui. You may wish to check PTGui out as well, as it has become increasingly popular.

Hugin workflow:

Hugin consists of three modes – Simple, Advanced and Expert. For simple panoramas you can just follow the Simple mode Assistant tab – 1. Load the images, 2. align the images, 3. stitch the panorama and it will do most of the work automatically.

Advanced is basically Simple mode with more control given to the user, while Expert feels like it works on a completely different power scale. Because Hugin’s Expert tab can be confusing let me share my recently improved workflow (simplified):

  1. Add images
  2. find control points
  3. open control point view table, select and delete control points above suggested level
  4. optimize from anchor, or optimize by view and yaw.
  5. repeat step 3 through 4.1 until mean distance is small enough for your liking
  6. optimize by “everything without translation” until mean distance is less than 1
  7. photometric optimization
  8. stitch
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