[Originally published February 4, 2020. Minor updates November 5, 2022.]
I’ve been playing with 360° photography for over a year. I find this to be an enjoyable variation to my regular photography.
The simplified explanation of the process is to shoot enough images to capture all directions, then stitch these images together into a special format. I sometimes use a drone to capture the images, and sometimes a camera on a tripod. The result is a spherical image, viewed as though you are at the center of the sphere and can look in all directions.
On my tripod, I use a panorama attachment, shown here, that allows the camera to pivot horizontally and vertically around the optical center of the lens so that the resulting photos align properly.
This panorama attachment has a pivoting base with detents that help position the camera at the right intervals. Using the 10-22mm lens shown above, I take eight shots in a horizontal circle to have enough overlap between shots to stitch them together properly.
When I create a panorama from a drone, I am currently using a Phantom 4 Pro, which has an automated panorama mode where it takes all of the images with one press of the “shutter.”
When the panorama is assembled from the individual images, it can be viewed with a special viewer on my computer. I publish some of my images on a website, Round.me, that specializes in displaying 360° panorama images. Unfortunately, I can’t display the images as panoramas on this website.
I am going to use an image that I shot at Gates Pass outside Tucson, AZ, this past November as an example . There is a small knoll just off the road that I climbed up to take the photos from. I set my tripod on the highest rocks on the top and took 37 images. The images were taken on manual exposure, all with the same exposure. Because there is a wide range of lighting, from shadows to full sunlight to shooting directly into the sun, I shot the images in RAW to best capture the shadows and highlights. I could also shoot bracketed exposures to capture the full tonal value, but I have found that shooting RAW in this situation yields images that I can work with to get the results I want, and it is a bit simpler than bracketing the exposures and post-processing those (although I have also done that).
Back home I import all of the images into Adobe Lightroom. In this instance, I started by doing an “Auto” process on all of the RAW images, which lightens the shadows and tones down the brightest highlights (like the sun!), then change a few other parameters (primarily Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation) to make the image a bit more to my liking. I might also do some additional brightness adjustments if I feel that is necessary. I then export all of the images as JPEG files.
I use a program called PTGui (https://www.ptgui.com/) to create the panorama image. It is a very capable program, and can process HDR or RAW files directly, but I feel I have the control I want in a way that makes sense to me by doing the initial processing in Lightroom. Once I have the JPEG files, I import them all into PTGui. It will automatically (and magically!) align the images. Once they are aligned, if there are any problems, I can “assist” PTGui to find matching points in adjacent images. I usually only need to do this when some of the images include almost all sky or water.
It the panorama is shot from the drone, I can’t shoot straight up as the camera is mounted below the drone, and the drone blocks the camera’s view. That leaves a hole in the sky above. In this instance, I use a special mode of PTGui to export an image of the “top” of the panorama. Then I use Photoshop to fill in the hole with “sky color” similar to what is around it, and then “reassemble” the panorama with PTGui.
When using a tripod, I can shoot straight up, but the tripod is in the way when I shoot down. So when I am finished shooting all of the images, I pick the tripod up and take a shot of the ground where it was. Many of the images from the tripod pointing downward contain parts of the tripod, such as the camera platform or the tripod legs. I can select these images and indicate to PTGui which parts of particular images should not be used. If I don’t to this, some of the tripod will show up in the resultant panorama.
Once I’ve done all of the point matching and/or masking, if needed, PTGui creates the panorama photo, which is a JPEG file in a format that panorama programs can interpret. If viewed with any “normal” photo program, the image looks quite distorted as shown below. Even though I took the tripod out of the panorama, you can still see its shadow. Here is the Gates Pass JPEG image. Click on the image to view it in Roundme. Once the image opens up, click and drag with your mouse to spin the image around, or zoom in and out with your scroll wheel.
You can also view this on a tablet or iPad. With the right browser, you will be able to look in different directions just by turning the tablet.
To see all of the panoramas I have published, check out my Panorama Page at roundme.com/@garystebbins. When on that page, click the “TOURS” button to see the panoramas I have published. Some of the images here have been shot with my camera on a tripod, while others have been shot from a drone. Keep watching this site, as I will be adding new panoramas from time to time. 🙂