HDR Vertical Panorama
The basics behind capturing and stitching a HDR vertorama / tiltorama are almost the same as an equirectangular panorama. The only difference is that a vertorama / tiltorama represents a vertical field of view. If you are new to this kind of photography, please familiarise yourself with my previous posts: Vertical Panorama, Equirectangular Panorama and HDR Panorama to get an overview of HDR and panoramic photography.
Vertical panoramas, vertoramas or tiltoramas, as some people call these types of images, can be captured handheld or with a panoramic tripod head mounted on a tripod. Whichever method you’re going to use, you have to take into consideration some limitations of the two. I’ve already discussed shooting handheld HDR panoramic photography in my previous posts on HDR panorama so let me just summarise. First of all, light conditions inside buildings can be extremely challenging. Secondly, you will have to shoot with smaller apertures in order to get a decent DOF, as distance between different features of the building can be significant. Finally, if you are shooting with a DX format / APS-C sensor / “small frame” camera, there are limitations in terms of high ISO. It’s clear now that panoramic head is very essential in HDR panoramic photography if you want to produce good quality photographs. However, mounted on a tripod it can be bulky and, most importantly, not allowed in some places. All in all, if you want to become, a serious panoramic photographer you should master both techniques. Obviously, it’s natural to start with a tripod and panoramic head and then move onto capturing these images handheld. After all, the essence of panoramic photography is the right camera rotation and, as Klaus Herrmann demonstrated, it is possible to capture amazing vertoramas / tiltoramas handheld. All you need is to work on an effective technique and workflow.
First, for more information on capturing vertoramas / tiltoramas refer to Farbspiel’s HDR Cookbook, the most comprehensive panorama shooting manual I managed to find on the Web, in which Klaus demonstrates a setup he managed to develop. However, if you are using a Manfrotto 055/190XPROB tripod, or a similar tripod with a centre column and a panoramic head such as the Nodal Ninja, simply put the column in landscape mode as demonstrated in the picture below. Provided your head is set up properly for the lens you are using, it will still rotate around the nodal point, even if your camera is now in landscape orientation. Note that this setup will only work with panoramic heads equipped with a rotator. If you are using a generic brand without a rotator, your tripod head has to have panoramic rotation.
Another set-up for tripods without a centre column is demonstrated below. Simply, set your tripod’s ball head (or any other head which can be tilted this way) to landscape mode.
So, once you find a good spot (churches work the best) set up your tripod and start shooting your vertorama / tiltorama using your camera’s auto-bracketing mode, capturing two brackets (-/+ 2EV) with each picture in RAW. One last word of advice. Always try to step back and capture the image from a distance. Vertoramas tend to be very distorted after stitching so the further away you step back the less distortion you will get in the final image.
Once you have all the pictures ready on your hard drive, convert them to 16bit TIFFS in a dedicated RAW converter such as Lightroom 3, Photoshop RAW or Aperture. Since your camera only created 0EV and +/-2EV brackets, you will also need to create additional brackets such as -/+1 EV, -/+3EV and -/+4EV. Just adjust the exposure slider and export the brackets in 16bit TIFFS. The reason for creating such heavily underexposed brackets as -4EV is to pull some details out of the brightest areas of your vertorama / tiltorama such as windows etc. Once you have all your brackets ready, stack them in Photomatix Pro or Aurora HDR. I like to use the available presets but you can experiment with the settings to achieve a desired effect. As seen in the picture below, after stacking all the brackets in Photomatix, you should have 4 pictures ready to stitch. Also note that these pictures were taken with a fisheye lens but any wide angle lens is fine.
Next, you will have to stitch all the pictures into a complete vertorama / tiltorama. The software of my choice is once again Autopano giga but Hugin will also work. One final word of advice. Before loading the pictures into Autopano giga, rotate them to portrait orientation.
Open Autopano Giga and load the pictures. Since some HDR software removes all the EXIF data, you will have to enter it manually. Just click on ‘image properties’ and a separate window will appear.
Here, highlight all the pictures and select the right information from the drop down menus. Then click on ‘ok’.
Then, click on ‘detect’ and the software will set up control points and align the images. Then, you may edit your vertorama / tiltorama, in case you need to adjust the control points, or render it straight away.
After stitching the final image should look like this:
Now all the fun begins. As you can see the output image above looks nothing like the final vertorama / tiltorama. Remember, you will always have to crop and edit it further. It is time-consuming, but the final product will be definitely worth it. The key to a stunning vertorama / tiltorama is in the right editing. The software I use is Adobe Lightroom 3, Adobe Photoshop CS5 and a couple of plug-ins such as Topas DeNoise and InFocus.
First of all, crop your image maintaining a good overall symmetry. Sometimes you will need to straighten it or even use the different types of adjustments in Photoshop to maintain image symmetry (e.g.: Edit – Transform – Warp or Distort, sometimes I even had to use the Puppet Warp option). Then, you need to decide which elements, the ceiling or the floor of the vertorama / tiltorama you want to show or crop more. Next, adjust the global settings such as contrast, clarity, blacks, lights and work on the curve. After every adjustment, always go back to the previous setting to see how the new adjustment affects the image. It’s really easy to get carried away and over-process the image ruining it at the same time. Next, analyse the image for colours and elements and decide which individual colours are worth saturating or desaturating. Use the ‘Selective Colours’ adjustment in Photoshop or work on ‘Adjustment Layers’ in order to saturate or desaturate individual colours. You may also increase the contrast of some elements of the pictures working with separate layers. Finally, sharpen the image and reduce any noise (Topaz DeNoise or Lightroom’s noise reduction work fine).
There are three dedicated Flickr groups in case you need inspiration:
If you are interested in exploring HDR panoramic photography, make sure you subscribe to Farbspiel’s HDR cookbook, which is currently the most comprehensive HDR photography blog on the web and take a look at his amazing panorama set.
Also, there is a very detailed HDR tutorial on Picture Correct.
Thanks for reading and good luck with your panoramic photography.
Update: As of 2015, I’m officially fed up with having to argue with people in different public buildings over the use of tripods, which are often banned without any good reasons. I abandoned the setup I discussed above (tripod + Nodal Ninja) and stopped using an 8mm fisheye lens as it creates too much distortion. Now I shoot with the Nikon 20mm f/1.8 . Ken Rockwell has a good review of this lens so have a look if you are interested. It is a wide angle lens with a large aperture so now I can shoot my vertoramas / tiltoramas handheld even in dark places. In the most extreme cases, I captured an entire vertorama / tiltorama at f/1.8 and the image was exceptionally sharp. Also, I often bump up the ISO to over 1000 as I have a full frame body now. You can easily reduce the noise in post-processing anyway. Since the lens comes with a hefty price tag, you may still want to use the setup discussed above. Once you master it and become fascinated with these images, then you can invest in a large aperture wide angle lens and start shooting handheld. Just remember to rotate the camera around the Nodal point. Happy shooting!
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