sweep panorama

Panoramic Photography with Lightweight Cameras

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6 images from a GF1. Shot in RAW and stitched in Photoshop. Technology is amazing.

Recently I realised there was a feature I was missing from the Sony NEX camera that I sold last year. This is the sweep panoramic where you simply sweep the camera horizontally or vertically to produce a panoramic when taking the shot. I thought this was a great feature and one that I could have used when shooting the Ribblehead Viaduct in an earlier blog. My friend who had an iPhone with him at the time had this feature and I now discover I have something similar on my Samsung phone.

To be fair, the Sony Sweep Panoramic dealt fine with large detail but if something had lots of small detail like rocks in a landscape, it didn’t always work well (again, covered in an earlier blog). Additionally if you didn’t move smoothly or in a straight line you could get some strange results. It complained when you moved too fast or too slow. Worse still, if the subject or you were moving, well you probably needed to forget it. I’m actually starting to wonder why I miss it so much!

Now, some of the cameras I use also have a Panoramic Assist mode, for example where they show a faint version of the previous picture overlaid on the camera LCD to help you line up. Again this isn’t perfect and I find it slow to use which means it might not be suitable for many situations where you need to act quickly. The only real solution to this is a true panoramic camera such as my Xpan but then I am back to shooting film which I don’t always want to do.

If you are a RAW shooter and you want the best quality possible, you will need to shoot individual images and then stitch them in software. That’s exactly what I did with the image you see above. This is a series of 6 images shot in RAW using a GF1. I shot the images from a moving boat when passing this particular island and the angle of coverage is about 160 degrees. Quite an extreme set of circumstances to shoot panoramic and one where speed was the key.

If you are wondering how I lined up 6 images so quickly (the boat was travelling quite fast), I used the cameras gridlines. On all my cameras I have the gridlines turned on that divide the screen horizontally and vertically into 3rds. I make a mental note as I shoot of where the vertical grid line is on one side so that I can move the camera to align the vertical line on the other side when shooting the next image in the sequence. This ensures I overlap my images about a third which is ideal for putting through stitching software such as Photoshop’s “photomerge” function. The horizontal gridlines also allow me to judge easily if I have moved the camera up or down.

This takes a little bit of practice but shoot around 20 such sequences and you can become incredibly quick. The image above is 10” x 36”, shot in RAW and could be printed at double this size with some interpolation. The stitching is spot on and there were no telltale joins. I could never have achieved this with any other method

Sony NEX5 Sweep Panorama

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This interior of a shopping centre in Milan was shot using the Sweep Panorama of the Sony NEX-5

I have discussed on this blog in the past how I sold my NEX5 because I wasn’t happy with either the range or quality of the lenses. These factors were very important to me so I’m not saying the NEX5 is a bad camera. Quite the opposite in fact and there is one feature in particular that I deeply miss and that is the Sweep Panorama.

This is the ability to shoot a panoramic picture by simply releasing the shutter and moving the camera slowly and smoothly in a given direction. The camera takes images in quick succession and then stitches them into one long panoramic image in camera to produce a final JPG. If you have never used this feature I can assure you it is very addictive and makes shooting panoramic much easier than shooting and stitching multiple images in software. What has suddenly made me nostalgic for this feature was my recent trip to Whitby where my friend was using his new Sony camera and I would regularly hear the tell tale clicking shutter of the sweep panoramic.

With this in mind I decided to review some of my old sweep panoramic images such as the one shown above. Now whilst I am raving about the sweep panoramic there are a few limitations you need to be aware of – at least in the NEX5 at the time I was using it.

Firstly you need to set up the camera with the direction of sweep. Is it left to right, bottom to top or the reverse of one of these? This can take time and sometimes you don’t have the camera ready at just the moment you need it.

Moving subjects can be difficult to capture. Imaging you are standing on a beach and photographing a wave coming in. The wave will have moved slightly between each shot and the stitching usually couldn’t deal with this.

Moving elements in the scene pose a real problem for the Sweep Panorama

Finally there was the problem with stitching fine details which was magnified further when using a wide angle lens. Take a look at the sample below which shows this problem.

The in camera stitching also struggles with fine detail. Take a look at the figures on the wall closely and also the right hand window. None of these quite align properly.

This can of course be overcome with some work in Photoshop however I would rather avoid this and have a finished image where possible.

On a final positive note, the Sweep Panoramic seemed to overcome the problem with soft corners (although this may be due to in camera cropping).

For now then I will still have to lust after the sweep panoramic mode and continue to stitch my images in software.