Zuber Photographics Home








Print Friendly  Print||All Topics>Photoshop>Techniques>Panoramas


Expanding field of view by combining multiple photographs

Generally, there are three types of panoramas.  The most common is where two or more images are combined horizontally to create the classic left/right panorama.  The second is where the images are combined vertically to create a top/bottom panorama.  The third, called a mosaic, is a combination of the first two.  For the sake of brevity, this topic will concentrate on the classic horizontal panorama.  However, keep in mind that the field and Photoshop techniques described here will be very similar for vertical panoramas as well.  Learning one will help you be successful in the other.


A good panorama begins well before the first image is edited in Photoshop.  This means certain field techniques must be followed before and during the taking of the photographs that will make up the panorama.

Panoramic Photograph Characteristics

First, lets discuss what makes individual photographs suitable for incorporating into a panorama. 

Field Equipment

What additional equipment is needed when taking the photographs that will make up a panorama? 


For those who take panoramic photography seriously, you may wish to invest in a panoramic tripod head.


Independent bubble level Figure 1.  Independent Bubble Level

Tripod level Figure 2.  Built-in Bubble Level

Hotshoe level Figure 3.  Hot Shoe Level

Field Techniques

     Show All Field Detail Steps   |  Hide All Field Detail Steps


Below are the steps needed to take the individual photographs.

Set up tripod for proper alignment

  1. Show/Hide the detail steps
    1. Set the tripod up in a location that will give you an unobstructed view of the entire area to be photographed.
    2. Use the tripod's bubble level (or a separate bubble level placed on the tripod) to ensure the top of the tripod is level.  Do not place the bubble level on the tripod head or camera.  At this point, we are only trying to get the tripod legs level.
    3. Decide if the camera should be oriented in either the landscape or portrait position.  This is irrespective of whether the panorama is a horizontal one or a vertical one.  It is valid to combine portrait-oriented photographs into a horizontal panorama.  It is also valid to combine landscape-oriented photographs into a vertical panorama.  The decision is strictly one of need.  The portrait position will give greater vertical coverage but will require more photographs to complete a horizontal panorama.  The landscape position will require less photographs, but gives less vertical coverage.
    4. Hand hold the camera and point the camera at the tallest object in the area to be photographed.  Change the focal length until the desired composition is achieved.  Change focal length by changing the lens or by zooming.  Remember to hold the camera in either the portrait or landscape position, whichever was decided in the previous step.
    5. Mount the hot shoe level on the camera.
    6. Mount the camera on the tripod head in either the portrait or landscape position, and recompose on the tallest object.
    7. Adjust the tripod head's controls until the camera is level in the horizontal (pan) axis while still properly composed on the tallest object.  It is fine if the camera is not level in the vertical (tilt) axis.  The vertical axis is dictated by the composition.
    8. Lock the tripod head's vertical control (the ball on a ball head and the tilt controls on a pan/tilt head).
    9. Keep the pan control on the tripod head loose and slowly pan the camera left/right to cover the entire area to be photographed.  As you move the camera, take note if the camera goes out of level.  Adjust the tripod and/or tripod head until the camera is horizontally level throughout the entire panning range.  Leave the tripod head's pan control loose in order to pan left/right as you photograph.
    10. At this point, the camera should be horizontally level throughout the entire area to be photographed while maintaining proper composition.


Set exposure

  1. Show/Hide the detail steps
    1. Point the camera at one of the key areas to be photographed.  Set the exposure as though you were photographing only that scene.  As each photograph is taken, do not reset exposure.  Use this one exposure setting for each photograph in the panorama.  This is to ensure a realistic final image.


      You can, of course, use your camera off-tripod to set exposure.  However, keep in mind if you are photographing in rapidly changing light (e.g. sunrise or sunset), by the time you mount the camera on the tripod and level it, the light will have changed sufficiently that you will need to recalculate exposure.


Take the photographs

  1. Show/Hide the detail steps
    1. Start at either the left or right side of the area to be photographed and take the first photograph.
    2. Pan the camera to take the next photograph.  Make sure 25% to 35% (no more than 50%) of the scene previously photographed is still in the viewfinder and take the next photograph.  This overlap is important for it is what will allow the individual photographs to be aligned correctly in Photoshop.
    3. Keep repeating until the entire scene has been photographed.


      Remember, do not change exposure, f-stop or focus while taking the photographs.  Changing f-stop or focus will cause differences in depth of field between photographs and will make it harder to combine the images into a panorama.



      Use caution when including fast moving objects, such as gusting clouds or rapidly moving water, in the panorama.  Moving water, such as ocean waves, will be difficult, if not impossible, to properly align across multiple photographs.


Import the photographs

Whether the photographs are film or digital, how they are imported into the computer needs to be consistent from photograph to photograph.

  1. If scanning film, whatever adjustments, resolution and bit depth you use for one photograph needs to be identical for all of them.  Keep in mind that most, if not all, corrective techniques should be done to the final panorama, not to each individual photograph.
  2. If the photographs were captured digitally, import all the photographs the same.  Keep resolution, bit depth and white balance the same from one photograph to another.

Create the panorama

The techniques discussed here will be limited to combining the individual photographs into a single panoramic image.  Other techniques, such as color correction, exposure correction, etc. are discussed in other areas of this web site.

We will take this image...

Left image

combine it with this image...

Right image

to create this panoramic.


Photoshop photomerge steps

Photomerge is Photoshop's feature that automates many of the manual steps (described below) used in creating a panoramic.  Whether or not you use Photomerge or other stitching software instead of the manual steps depends on how much control you wish to retain for yourself.

  1. Show/Hide the Photomerge steps
    1. Click File > Automate > Photomerge.  The Photomerge Source Files dialog box (Figure 4) will be displayed.
    2. Tell Photomerge what files to process by selecting the appropriate option in the Use drop down box.  The options are as follows.
      • Files - Photomerge will use the files you select using the Browse button.  The files will be listed in the scrollable text box.  A file can be removed from the list by highlighting it and clicking the Remove button.  The files can be from more than one folder.
      • Folder - Photomerge will use all the files in one or more folders.  You designate which folder to use by clicking the Browse button.  Once a folder is selected, the files in the folder will be listed in the scrollable text box.  A file can be removed from the list by highlighting it and clicking the Remove button.
      • Open files - Photomerge will use the files that are currently open in Photoshop.  A file can be removed from the list by highlighting it and clicking the Remove button.
      Photomerge Dialog Box

      Figure 4. Photomerge Source Files Dialog Box

    3. Check the Attempt to Automatically Arrange Source Images box.
    4. Click OK.  Photomerge will begin analyzing the images and create the panorama.  Once complete, the Composition dialog box (Figure 5) will be displayed.
      Photomerge Dialog Box

      Figure 5.  Photomerge Composition Dialog Box

    5. Check the composition.  If Photoshop could assemble the images, the panorama will appear in the Work area.  Otherwise, they will appear in the Lightbox area.  You can drag the images from the Lightbox area to the Work area to assemble the panorama manually.  If you assemble the panorama manually, as you overlap images, Photoshop will automatically align them wherever it detects similarity if the Snap to Image option is checked.
    6. Choose a setting.  Under Settings, there are two options: Normal and Perspective.  Normal displays a 'two' dimensional panorama as shown in Figure 6.  Perspective displays the panorama in a bowtie shape to give more of a three dimensional look.  An example of a perspective panorama is shown in Figure 7.  The thinnest part of the bowtie is called the Vanishing Point.  By default, the middle image is the vanishing point image.  The vanishing point can be changed by clicking the vanishing point icon Vanishing Point icon in the upper left of the dialog box and then clicking the desired image.  This image will then become the vanishing point.  The vanishing point icon is only available if perspective is chosen.

      If the perspective setting is selected, then the Cylindrical Mapping option will become available.  This option will try and remove the bowtie shape.  My experience shows that Cylindrical Mapping gives similar results as the Normal setting.
      Photomerge Normal Results

      Figure 6.  Photomerge Normal Setting

      Photomerge Perspective Results

      Figure 7.  Photomerge Perspective Setting

    7. Decide how you want the Photoshop file created.  The Advanced Blending option and the Keep as Layers option are mutually exclusive.  Advanced Blending will perform basic tonal adjustments and smooth the overlap areas when the file is created.  To preview the results of Advanced Blending, check Advanced Blending and click the Preview button.  Keep as Layers will keep each image as a separate layer and will allow you to apply adjustments to each layer, or all layers, as needed.  However, with Keep as Layers, you will need to smooth the overlap edges manually.
    8. Click OK to create a new Photoshop file with the panorama.
    9. The panorama is now ready for whatever additional adjustments you deem necessary.


Photoshop Blending Mode Steps

    Show All Blending Mode Steps  |  Hide All Blending Mode Steps


  1. Show/Hide the high level blending mode steps
    1. Set resolution, bit depth and canvas size of initial photograph.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. Open the first photograph you wish to start with.  Usually it is the far left or far right one.  For the sake of these instructions, we will assume the far left photograph.  Thus, the photographs will be combined left-to-right.
      2. Make a duplicate of it and close the original.  This duplicate will become your panoramic master so give it a meaningful name.
      3. Set resolution and/or bit depth.  When combining photographs, the file size will increase with each image added to the panorama.  Therefore, for those who digitally capture their images at a very high resolution (e.g. 4000 ppi) and/or bit depth (e.g. 16 bit), you will need to decide upon a ppi and bit depth that does not stress your computing environment, but gives you the resolution you need.  Unfortunately, there are no set rules.  But keep in mind that 16-bit images take up twice the space as 8-bit.  Also, remember that a panorama is usually not enlarged as much as a single image.  Therefore, the ppi does not need to be as high as you usually need.  To set resolution, click Image > Image Size (or right click the document window title bar and select Image Size).  In Document Size, type the new Resolution, leave Constrain Proportions and Resample Image checked, and click OK.  To change bit dept, click Image > Mode > 8 Bits/Channel.
      4. In the Layers panel, double click the layer name Background and rename the layer, such as image 1.
      5. Click Image > Canvas Size (or right click the document window title bar).  In the Canvas Size dialog box, make sure the middle anchor is highlighted.  Middle anchor.
      6. Change the unit of measure to pixels and change the height value to the current height value plus 50.  For example, if height is 3600 pixels, change height to 3650.  This will give a 25 pixel buffer top and bottom to allow for the fact that when the photographs are horizontally aligned, they will not necessarily be perfectly aligned along the top and bottom edges.  We will remove excess space once the panorama is complete.
      7. Click OK.  The canvas height will be increased.  Because we renamed the Background layer, the added area should be transparent.
    2. Set resolution and bit depth of second photograph.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. Open the second photograph to be added.
      2. Make a duplicate of it and close the original.
      3. Change its resolution and bit depth to match the first photograph.  Make a note of the photograph's width in pixels.
      4. In the Layers panel, double click the layer name Background and rename the layer, such as image 2.
    3. Add the second photograph to the panorama.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. On the first image (the panoramic master), click Image > Canvas Size again.  This time, click the middle left anchor, as shown here.  Left middle anchor.
      2. Change the width value to the sum of the current width plus the width of the second photograph.  For example, if the current photograph is 1000 pixels wide and the next photograph is 998 pixels wide, change the width value to 1998 pixels.
      3. Click OK.  The canvas width will increase to accommodate the first and second photographs.
      4. Make the second photograph the active document.
      5. Shift + click the layer name and drag it to the panoramic master.
      6. Make sure the layer just added is the topmost layer.  If not, drag it to the top.
      7. Close the second image document without saving it.
    4. Using the Move tool, make the initial alignment.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. Lower the opacity of the image 2 layer to 50%.
      2. Activate the Move tool Move tool.
      3. Drag the second image over the first image until it is approximately aligned.  See Figure 8.  Use the arrow keys to get the alignment closer.  It may be desirable to zoom into the overlap area using Ctrl + + (Control plus the + key).  For Apple users, it would be Command + +.  Use Ctrl + - (Command + - ), to zoom back out.
      4. Change layer opacity back to 100%.
        Reduce opacity of top most layer

        Figure 8.  Lower the opacity of the top most layer in order to align the two layers.

    5. Use the Difference blending mode to finalize alignment.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. Change the layer blending mode of the image 2 layer to Difference.  The Difference blending mode calculates the 'difference' between the base color (image 1) and the blend color (image 2) to arrive at a result color.  If the result color is black, this means the base and blend colors are identical.  And it is this black result color we are looking for.  Because it is these black areas where the two images overlap perfectly.  See Figure 9.  If you do not see a black overlap area, make sure the image 2 layer is the topmost layer and it is this layer whose blending mode is Difference.  The blending mode of the image 1 layer should be Normal.
        Difference blending mode

        Figure 9.  The Difference blending mode can be used to locate perfectly aligned areas.

      2. Activate the Move tool Move tool.
      3. Use the arrow keys to move image 2 to get as much of the overlap area solid black.  It is doubtful that the entire overlap area will be black.  You are looking for the alignment that gives you the most black result color.  At this point, images 1 and 2 are aligned and the next step is to remove the excess overlap.  Leave the blending mode to Difference for now.
    6. Use a layer mask to 'erase' excess overlap.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. Make sure image 2 is the active layer.  Click the Add layer mask icon Add layer mask icon located at the bottom of the Layers panel.
      2. Type d the set the foreground/background colors to black and white.  Type the letter x until black is the foreground color Black foreground color
      3. Examine the overlap area and find the blackest path running from the top of the overlap area to the bottom.  Keep in mind the path may not be a straight line.  This path will become the edge of the transition area between image 1 and image 2.  What we want to do is use the layer mask to hide that part of image 2 that is to the left of the path.  If you are aligning your photographs from right-to-left, then we would need to hide the area to the right of the path.

        In Figure 10 below, I have drawn a yellow line indicating the darkest path from top to bottom.  In this particular example, the area to the left of the yellow line would be masked.  This yellow line is for illustrative purposes only and does not have to be drawn as part of your workflow.
        Darkest path

        Figure 10.  Just to the right of the highlighted area is the darkest path.  Therefore, the area to be masked is to the left of this.

      4. Activate the Brush tool Brush tool.
      5. Make sure the layer mask is active.  Otherwise, as we paint, we will be painting in the image and not in the mask.
      6. Select a soft, semi-soft or medium edged brush of an appropriate size and paint to the left of the path you identified earlier.  See Figure 11 for the results.  Photoshop brushes for photographers can be found on the Downloads page.


        If you use a hard edged brush, then the edge could be visible.


      7. Change the blending mode of the image 2 layer to Normal.
        Blend images by erasing overlap

        Figure 11.  Using a layer mask, we hide all overlap to the left of the darkest path.

    7. Repeat the above steps, starting with Step B, for the remaining photographs.  Show/Hide the tips
      1. As you combine the images, you will need to use Image > Canvas Size to increase the width of the panoramic master.  If you need to increase the height, that is ok.  If you need to increase the height a lot, this means the camera was not horizontally level as the photographs were taken.
    8. When finished combining all photographs, use the crop tool to remove excess space.  Show/Hide the detail steps
      1. Type the letter f until the image is in full screen mode with menu bar.  This displays a gray background.
      2. Ctrl + zero (Command + zero) to fit the image on the screen.
      3. Type the letter c to make the Crop tool Crop tool the active tool.
      4. In the Options bar, make sure Width, Height and Resolution are all blank.  This will allow the cropping of the image without resizing or resampling it.  If the Options bar is not visible, click Window > Options.
      5. Click in the image and drag the Crop tool over the panorama.  See Figure 12.
        Crop the panorama

        Figure 12.  Use the Crop tool to trim the top and bottom.

      6. To change the shape of the crop area, use the cursor to grab one of the corner handles or one of the side handles and drag.
      7. To move the selection, click and drag inside the selection.  Do not click near the center marker, else the marker, and not the selection, will be moved.
      8. When finished, press the Enter key to crop the panorama. To abort the selection, press Esc.
    9. At this point the panorama has been completely assembled and you are ready to perform corrective and/or enhancement techniques as needed.