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Solving the Panorama Parallax Problem

Updated: Feb 14, 2021

Longs Peak from Many Parks Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Longs Peak from Many Parks Curve, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

I hate spending money on camera gear. I particularly hate it when I buy something I think I really need, and it turns out I only use it rarely. So I’m always looking for ways to create the images I envision without spending still more money.

Take panoramas, for example. Does shooting high-quality panoramas require purchasing specialized panorama hardware? The answer is sometimes yes, sometimes no. Let me explain.

Setting up a panorama of a distant subject requires just two steps. First, adjust the length of the tripod legs to level the chassis, the base of the tripod head, which is the plane of rotation as you pan the camera left to right. Second, level the camera itself from left-to-right so horizontal lines are horizontal. (By itself, leveling the camera is not enough; you have to level the chassis as well.) Put all camera controls on manual (manual focus, manual exposure, etc.). Pan the camera to the first camera position and shoot a frame. Pan to the next camera position, being sure the two frames overlap by about 30 percent, shoot the next frame, and continue. You don’t need a special panorama head for your tripod.

Of course, the best panoramas, like most good landscapes, usually have some kind of close-in foreground. Now you have an issue: parallax. To understand parallax, hold one finger up in front of your face, close one eye, and rotate your head left to right. You’ll see your finger move in relation to the background. That’s parallax. It occurs because your eye is not centered on the axis of rotation of your head. Examine figures 1 and 2 below, which show what happens when you shoot the components for a two-frame panorama with a 16mm lens about three feet from the foreground, without correcting for parallax. Notice how the tripod and light stand don’t line up in front of the same part of the background. For example, the light stand aligns with the front entryway of the distant house in figure 1 but is well to the left of the entryway in figure 2. You’ve just thrown your stitching software a wicked curve ball. Where should it put the light stand in relation to the background?

Figure 1. The left-hand component of a two-frame panorama shot with a 16mm lens about three feet from the tripod and light stand. I did not use a nodal slide.