Creating a Panorama with Lightroom & Photoshop

By Steve Anchell Back to


Creating panoramic photos is a fun and easy way to add to your repertoire. In fact, once you learn how easy it is you might even become addicted as many have. The definition of a panorama is an image that has a 2:1 or greater ratio of sides, though ratios up to 3:1 are considered to be the most visually pleasing. Even so, it is not uncommon to see panos that have a 4:1 or even greater ratio.

Good panoramas begin in the camera. While it may seem logical to record the subject using horizontal orientation of the camera, a vertical orientation will usually provide better results. The first choice is whether to use a tripod or record the images handheld. It depends on the purpose of the photo. For anything critical, such as an architectural assignment for which I am being paid, I use a tripod and a bubble level for precise alignment. For anything personal, such as Silvergate Bridge, which I am using as my example in this article, I almost always work handheld.

To begin, set your focus and light meter on manual. As you move across the scene you want your focus to remain at the same distance so that the background, middle ground, and foreground maintain the same degree of focus throughout. If the exposure changes from one frame to the next, compensate by changing the shutter speed only; never change the aperture, as this will alter the depth of field.

One more suggestion: begin any panoramic sequence by photographing either an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport or your hand. The Passport will allow you to standardize the color temperature in Lightroom (LR). No Passport? Then at least photograph your hand stretched out in front of the lens. You won’t be able to use it for accurate color balance but if you repeat this at the end of your sequence it will allow you to know where the sequence both begins and ends.

It doesn’t matter how many images you use to create your pano but you must overlap each image by 15% to 50%. The amount of overlap depends on the lens: the wider the lens angle the greater the overlap. My standard lens for panoramas is a slightly wide 35mm with a full-frame Nikon D700. Experience shows that an overlap of approximately 20% is required for this combination. It doesn’t have to be exact, guesstimate as closely as you can.

Holding the camera as level as possible, both front to back and side to side, move from left to right, or top to bottom, when recording sequential images. Once you determine the left side of the composition look for something that is easily recognizable, for example a fence post or a rock, preferably 50% or more towards the right side of the image. Make the first exposure. Then move the camera to your right making certain that the marker object is 20% inside the left edge of the frame and record the second image. Keep the horizon or other horizontal element both level and the same height in the viewfinder.

Look at Figure 1, which shows the first three images from this set of eight. I used the left side of the front pier as my marker in image 1. In image 2 I have placed the left side of the pier approximately 20% inside the frame. My next marker is the right side of the pier. In image 3 I have placed this 20% from the edge.

After importing your images into LR begin by organizing them. Select All, Cmd/Ctrl+A (Mac/Win), and apply a color label to identify the images in this pano set. You can do this by typing a number 6 through 9.

If you do a lot of panoramas the images can spread out across your Library screen, hogging all the space. Stack all the images for a particular panorama. To do this select all of the images and go to Photo>Stacking> Group Into Stack, Cmd/Ctrl+G, Figure 2.

Now that you have created a stack for storage, unstack them (S) so you can work on them and create a panorama. Next go to Photo>Develop Settings>Match Total Exposure, Figure 3. This will bring the exposure of each image into line with the first photo selected.

Next, type the letter ‘W’, which will jump you to the Develop module and simultaneously open the White Balance Selector. Make certain that all files are selected and that AutoSync is active at the bottom of the Develop panel. If you have a ColorChecker Passport image use it to standardize the color balance, if not

then adjust the balance to be the same for all of the images. This pano was created before I had a Passport. As recorded, the white balance on the first image was 5600K with +5 Tint. With AutoSync enabled I adjusted the white balance to 7000K which has the affect of warming the image. If you look at Figure 4 you will see I have also adjusted the Shadows (+90), and the Whites (-70), and added some Clarity (+35), for all the photos.

You are almost ready to create your panorama. Before you do, though, I will make a suggestion. Not all images will stitch together seamlessly in a panorama, and even when they do they sometimes don’t look like you thought they would. For this reason, if your images are RAW files, and you are using 12 or more images, it can take 5 to 10 minutes to stitch them together in Photoshop (PS), only to find out you need to remove one or two to make them fit better. Or perhaps one of the images needs custom tweaking before the stitching is made.

A better strategy is to convert your RAW files to low res JPEGs for a test run. The same images that took five minutes using RAW, will stitch together in less than a minute using JPEG. Once you have created the perfect pano using JPEGs, make your final pano using the original RAW files.

The way to do this is export the files to a subfolder inside their current location. I call this folder JPEG for Pano, Figure 5.

With the RAW files highlighted, open Photoshop> File>Automate>Photomerge, Figure 6. If you took my advice and created a sub-folder with JPEGs to use for a dry run choose Use: Folder, then select the folder where the JPEGs are located. Choosing the JPEG for Pano folder will leave both sets of images, RAW and JPEG, in the dialog box. Highlight the RAW images and delete them from the action.

Choose Auto for Layout, and at the bottom choose Blend Images Together. Depending on the image you may wish to choose Vignette Removal or Geometric Distortion Correction, Figure 7. Click on OK and the merge will begin.

What you see on the screen in PS is the rough pano, Figure 8. By using a vertical camera orientation to record the scene I have maximum height and foreground in the image. Had I used a horizontal camera orientation the result would have cropped the top of the bridge span and most of the foreground. If you have CS5 or later hold down Cmd+Shift+Opt+E (Mac) or Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E (Win) to create a new layer at the top of the Layer stack on the right side. Use the Magic Wand tool with Add to Selection en- abled, to select all of the empty areas surrounding the rough pano. Then go to Edit>Fill and choose Content Aware. PS will attempt to replicate the image into the surrounding blank areas. On this image it has done a great job on the foreground but not so good on the bridge span, so I will simply crop that area out, which I would have had to do anyway, Figure 9.

Finally, use the PS Crop tool to clean up the rough pano and complete the image, Figure 10. To save the file in LR Click on File>Save (Cmd S/Ctrl S) only. Do not save by any other means. By using File>Save the completed pano will appear as a PSD file in Lightroom alongside the original files, as I mentioned earlier. Once again in LR open the pano in the Develop module and make any additional global or local corrections just as you would for any original image file. That would include dodging or burning local areas, sharpen adjustments, additional color correction, etc.

Once you are satisfied with the completed pano there is one last piece of housekeeping that needs to be done. Re-stack the individual images (S) then drag and drop the complete pano on top of the stack. If the pano is not on top then reopen the stack (S), highlight the completed pano only and go to Photo>Stacking>Move to Top of Stack (Shift S). From then on the pano will be on top so that you will always know what is below in the stack.

Resources: Adobe Lightroom 4 &

About the Author

Steve Anchell
Steve Anchell is an internationally published photographer, teacher and writer. His books The Darkroom Cookbook, The Variable Contrast Printing Manual and The Film Developing Cookbook are international photography bestsellers.