A to Z of Photography: Panoramic Photography and the Pillars of Creation

A to Z of Photography: Panoramic Photography and the Pillars of Creation

With this installment we revisit the whole sub-genre of panoramic photography. Literally(!) a wide subject, discover the history behind it, the software to create it, and the competitions to enter. Once you've scrambled your way through the panoramas, discover one of the most beautiful photos in the universe. Read on.

Panoramic Photography

Standing on the promontory, you gaze in awe at the vista before you, a huge expanse of space that seemingly sucks you in to a void, drawing you deeper and deeper. The vastness seems all the more claustrophobic, cloying at you. The panoramic scene has a special place in the human psyche such that when we are presented with it, our visual senses are overwhelmed. It manages to completely saturate our field of view, and as vision is our strongest sense, the result can be mesmerizing. Perhaps that is why we feel an absurd need almost to fall in to a scene - it can be hypnotic.

Unsurprisingly the panoramic takes a special place in photographic history. But first, what is a panorama? This seemingly innocuous question is more troublesome thant it might at first appear, simply because we have to provide a hard bound to how we envisage it. Wikipedia describes it as wide-format photography or one that presents a horizontally elongated field of view or, more simply, a wide aspect ratio. The human field-of-view is about 160 by 75 degrees, so panoramic is at least as wide as that, which approximates 2:1.

The 35mm format is 3:2, so a panorama is considered wider than this. But why 3:2? George Eastman (and Kodak) first manufactured 35mm film, adopting the roll film format. However it was William Dickson's creation of the pre-cursor to the movie camera, the kinetoscope, working for Thomas Edison that popularized 35mm film with 18x24mm frames. The film ran vertically with four perforations on each side giving a 24mm width. Why 18mm high? Possibly because it gave 16 frames per foot of film (possibly 16 frames per second?). It was Leica that really defined the format by innovatively turning the camera sideways to give a wide image frame. This was doubled to two movie frames high, so moving to 36x24mm with eight perforations per frame and giving an aspect ratio of 3:2

So what makes a good panoramic photo? Perhaps the best place to start is Epson's Pano Awards which shows that the format is alive and kicking with some amazing vistas to behold. Competitions are about playing to contemporary tropes whilst still offering some new insight and refreshing perspective. In short, being able to tell a story that hasn't been told before.

In the film world, shooting panoramic was difficult without a bespoke camera or darkroom manipulation, although the 1980s did see panoramic mode added to many cameras that shuttered the top and bottom of the frame. Professional photographers also used swing cameras with long exposure times that allowed much wider captures. There have also been some stunning examples of panoramic photography, my favorite from the Library of Congress (see more in the Panorama Collection) was captured by George Lawrence in 1906 in the immediate aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fire. More remarkably, this was take from a kite flying at 600m using a 22kg camera creating a single 17x48" contact print!

However it was digital manipulation, and subsequently digital cameras, that has revolutionized panoramas, revitalizing the format. Being able to stitch multiple images together allows the ultimate flexibility in creating new compositions. Distortion free panoramas with perfectly overlapping frames require rotation around around the nodal point of the lens, something that early photographers understood. However the true power of computational photography has come to bear over the last 10 years with PTGui a good example of stitching software that also makes color and tonal corrections enabling the production of seamless panoramas. Lagging behind in features is the open source Hugin, which is also remarkably capable. This functionality is now widely supported with Lightroom, Photoshop, and Affinity photo all performing well. However it's been the integration of stitching in to cameras and smartphones that has caused an explosion in their creation. As with much smartphone photography, it's the capability to capture images that once took a professional level SLR and computer from a device that fits in your pocket that has been transformative.

It's this latter point that has seen great strides including vertical panoramas, Gigapans, and 360/VR immersive environments. Which takes us back to the start of the article — panoramas are intended to be hypnotic because they overwhelm the visual senses. All of these technologies are natural cousins to the panorama and cement it's place in to the photographic lexicon.

Pillars of Creation

No, not the Terry Goodkind novel, but the iconic photo of the Serpens constellation in the Eagle Nebula taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. Crucial to the success of Hubble was getting it above the Earth's atmosphere which gave it an unadulterated view of the galaxy. Shot in 1995 (although the image below was recaptured in 2015 with the newer Wide FIeld Camera 30), it shows elephant trunks of interstellar gas (molecular hydrogen) and dust which are in the early stages of forming a new star. The constellation is 5000-7000 light years away, with the left-most pillar about four light years long (that's 23 trillion miles!). The Eagle Nebula was actually discovered as far back as 1745 and is one of the more spectacular formations, however Hubble imaged it in much more detail than previously achieved.

Scientists Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen from Arizona State University created the image and creation is the right word. It is actually a composite of 32 images taken from four different cameras. Whilst a "normal" camera will record blue (about 400-500 nanometers), green (about 500-600 nanometers), and red (about 600-700 nanometers) light, this image works at 502 nanometers (oxygen), 657 nanometers (hydrogen), and 673 nanometers (sulfur) which were then re-mapped to blue, green, and red. Regardless of its creation, it is a breathtaking image that is beautifully imaged and deserves its iconic status in the pantheon of photography.

Other Ps

Other P's that didn't make the cut in this article include palladium process, Luis Gonzalez Palma, Max Pam, paparazzo, panoramic, Trent Parke, Norman Parkinson, Martin Parr, Irving Penn, Gilles Peress, Jozsef Petzval, photo booth, Photo League, photogram, photogravure, photolithography, photosculpture, Photo-Secession, photosensitivity, PhotoShop, Paint Shop Pro, phototype, Pictorialism, pinhole camera, pixel, platinum print, Polaroid, Herbert Ponting, portraiture, positive, post-production, print, projector, Panasonic, Pentax, PhaseOne, Profoto, Praktica, Phottix, panning, posterization, push processing, Photograph 51 (image), Phan Thi Kim Phuc (image), Pale Blue Dot (image), and punctum.

A to Z Catchup

Alvarez-Bravo and Aperture

Bronica and Burtynsky

Central Park and Lewis Carroll

Daguerrotype and Frederick Douglass

Exposure and Harold Edgerton


Family of Man

Nan Goldin and the Golden Triangle

Hyper-lapse and Horst P. Horst

Image Stabilization and Into the Jaws of Death

JPEG and William Jackson

Lenna and Leica

Inge Morath and Minolta

Noise and Helmut Newton

Paul Outerbridge and the Orton Effect

Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Body images courtesy of the Library of Congress and NASA, in the Public Domain.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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