I rarely crop my images. There's nothing wrong with cropping; I just find that most of the time, the relatively wide 35mm frame works for me.
But every now and then, I want something wider. Really wide. Perhaps 10 times the width of a traditional 35mm frame. A serious panorama.
It wasn't long ago that to make a panorama you needed a special camera. One of the more popular cameras was the Hasselblad XPan. It was an extra wide 35mm camera that shot two frames side-by-side at the same time. You could get an image twice as wide as you could typically.
Today, you can make extreme panoramas by shooting as many digital frames as you want and then stitching them together later in software. You can even make complete 360 degree panoramas, capturing everything around you.
Instead of fitting the entire scene into your viewfinder, you turn your camera on its side, zoom in, capture one part of the scene, move the camera left (or right) a tiny amount, and capture another. Repeat the process until you have images of every part of the scene that you want to be in your final image.
Later, you import all of these images into your panorama software, which sorts them and stitches them together into one single image.
The image at the top of this post is made up of 22 different frames. The final image is more than 45,000 pixels wide and could be printed 16 feet wide without going through any image enlargement process! In fact, in one part of the image, you can see a few antelope feeding:
If I were simply to have cropped this panorama out of a single frame, I would never have captured this kind of detail.
The past few versions of Photoshop have included Panomerge, which creates panoramas for you. It works well and it's what I use. Other photographers like to use specialized programs, such as Kolor Autopano Giga or Panorama Maker Pro. They may be worth the extra cost, but I haven't tried them.
Regardless of the software that you use to stitch the images together, there are a number of things you should do to make its job easier. If you're someone who likes to "fix it in Photoshop later," keep in mind that even minor errors and discrepancies between images can ruin your entire panorama.
Clean your camera first. It's bad cloning out dust spots in one frame. If your panorama is made up of 22 images, you'll have to fix each dust spot as much as 22 times.
Make sure your camera and tripod are perfectly level. If your horizon is even the slightest bit crooked, it will throw off your entire panorama. Every single frame in your series should be level.
Overlap each frame by at least 1/3. The software needs to be able to see how all of your images fit together. It's sort of like a jig-saw puzzle. The more your images overlap, the better the final panorama will turn out.
Manually set your exposure and white balance. If the exposure or color tone varies from one frame to the next, you'll get an odd blotchy panorama. Given the techniques that the software uses to blend the frames together, that blotchy look can be difficult if not impossible to fix after the fact. Avoid that problem by making sure that every frame is captured with identical settings.
Consider your computer's limits. If you have an older computer, you probably don't want to try extreme panoramas. It takes a lot of memory and computing power to stitch the images together. If your machine is short on power, stick with panoramas that consist of only a handful of images. My computer has 8 gigs of RAM is running a 64-bit version of Windows 7. Even with that power, it took about a half hour to make this panorama.
Panoramas can be a great way of capturing a wide landscape. These tips will help ensure that your final image lives up to your expectations.
(Follow Kevin's photography through his Living Wilderness Facebook page.)