Lens and focal length
I use exclusively one single lens with a focal length of 50 mm (full format) for panorama photography. On the one hand, this is because I am too lazy to do the setup of the nodal point adapter for multiple lenses, and on the other hand, because 50 mm with its neutral representation of the size ratios is generally a good compromise of field of view and distance for the human observer. It is not for nothing that this focal length is often referred to as the standard focal length.
The light intensity is rather secondary for a lens in panorama photography, because thanks to the tripod, the exposure time plays only a minor role while the ISO value is as low as possible at the same time.
Camera settings for panorama photography
Anyone who has ever taken on a climb of several hours with heavy luggage including camera equipment and then looked forward to the result of panorama photography probably knows the feeling of having to realize later during panorama stitching that the images are unusable. All the single images look quite nice on their own, but unfortunately they can’t be used for a panorama because they might have become too dark, are out of focus or look uneven. I speak from my own experience…
So what settings should you pay attention to when shooting with a panorama system?
I usually rarely shoot in manual mode, most of the time I use aperture priority and only worry about setting the aperture, ISO and exposure compensation, while the shutter speed is selected automatically. For panorama photography, on the other hand, I always choose manual mode. This has the following background: I want to achieve that every single image is taken with the exact same parameters. Imagine the image of a flowing river, photographed with different exposure times. In one image the water is frozen in motion and sharp, in the other it is blurred and soft due to longer exposure time. Blending these two images is likely to present any stitching software, no matter how good, with unsolvable problems. For this reason, you should always choose the manual mode of your camera.
Automatic white balance (AWB)
The automatic white balance is often activated and in most cases it makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, this mode leads to a different color tone and different brightness nuances in the image when you pan the camera – this is also a problem that cannot be solved when composing the individual images. In addition to the manual mode, you should also set the appropriate manual white balance (cloudy, sunny, artificial light, etc.).
Since the camera is mounted on a tripod, you normally don’t need a stabilizer. On the contrary, it can cause your image to be blurred. There are few things more annoying than finding out that one out of ten frames is garbage – and I guarantee it will be a frame right in the middle. So: stabilizer off and mount camera firmly on tripod and panorama head.
Telephoto lenses are rare when shooting with a panoramic head. But if you want to use such a setup, please keep in mind that camera and lens sometimes oscillate for a short time after you have touched the tripod, for example to turn the panorama head to the next position. So it’s better to wait three to four seconds before pressing the shutter button to avoid vibrations despite the tripod.
Remote shutter or self-timer
The shutter mechanism also falls into the category of shaking: make absolutely sure that you press the shutter remotely or using the self-timer. The risk of the camera shaking minimally and ruining the image is just too great. Especially in windy conditions, however, this can be a bit of a challenge, so sometimes weighing down the tripod with a backpack can help. In extreme cases with very strong wind, it can be useful to hold the tripod while shooting and shoot with the stabilizer activated and short exposure times to minimize shaking.
By the way, speaking of wind, never underestimate the force that wind has on a camera with a large telephoto lens on a tripod with a panoramic system. It’s better to hold on too tightly than to risk expensive collateral damage to your camera and lens.
By using a tripod you should and can keep the ISO as low as possible (for most cameras this means ISO <= 100). Especially if you want to present your panoramas online in an interactive viewer, zooming in is another way to interact with the image. Here it would be a pity if image details would be lost due to image noise caused by high ISO values.
Which aperture is the right one for panorama photography? You can probably already guess the answer: it depends. Basically, you aim for a continuous depth of field in the image (and thus also in the panorama), which is more in favor of medium to higher aperture values. Depending on the situation, however, it may also be to shoot with the aperture wide open. It is important to set the aperture manually and consistently so that there are no different areas of sharpness in the various individual images. You should also use the hyperfocal distance to ensure that all areas from front to back are in focus in each individual image.
Histogram and exposure compensation
Panoramas in which you shoot subjects of varying brightness as the camera pans are a bit of a challenge. Here you can either create an HDR panorama (HRD stands for High Dynamic Range) or try to find a compromise in brightness. The brightness you choose should make it possible in post-processing to darken images that are too bright and lighten images that are too dark – ideally without losing details in the image. Such situations are especially common in scenes with the sun setting or rising on one side and darkness falling or coming to an end on the other. In such a case, if you set your exposure compensation based on the images with sun (i.e. darken the image), the images without sun will be completely black – the other way around, the images with sun would be completely overlit, while the darker areas would be correctly exposed.
The only thing that helps here is trying out different exposure correction settings and some practice to be able to estimate how much correction is too much later on during post-processing.