Wide angle lens alternative: photo stacking in postprocess

High quality wide angle lenses can be pretty expensive. And bulky and heavy too. So if you try to keep your payload to the minimum like me, the dilemma what lenses to carry precedes every trip. Time to time, I exercise the idea of purchasing wide angle lens like the new Sigma 12-24mm f/4 Art, but until then I have to get along with my Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8. That doesn't mean I have to sacrifice the wide perspective. I learned to bypass the problem by photo stacking. And because the landscapes I shoot are often high dynamic range scenes, things are a bit more complicated than just stitching a panorama...

The workflow

Wide angle lenses are handy especially for landscape photographers - like myself - so I will explain my workflow on examples from this area. But the principles are the same and with some tweaks you may apply the workflow also on architecture photography etc.

I use the stacking "bypass" method when I face a scene that is just too wide to be captured, using the widest focal length available on my lens. The whole trick starts on location, where I need to break down the scenery into several pictures I can use later.

On location

The following example shows the wides possible shot of Pravcice Sandstone Gate (Pravčicka brana), the nature monument in Northern Bohemia. You may see the gate, the restaurant. You cannot see the beautiful view to the right or the rock on which I stand.

Pravcice Sandstone Gate | Nikon D800 + Nikkor 24-70mm @ 24mm | 1/30, f/11, ISO 100

Pravcice Sandstone Gate | Nikon D800 + Nikkor 24-70mm @ 24mm | 1/30, f/11, ISO 100

To get all these elements into one frame without a wide angle lens, I took several photos from left to right. To get best results, these are the basic rules:

  • Use a well levelled tripod - the images will be steady and overlaps consistent.
  • Shoot in portrait orientation for best panorama stitching and less cropping.
  • Set camera to manual mode and keep the same settings for all photos.

High dynamic range complication

30 photos takes for postprocess stitching into HDR and panorama

30 photos takes for postprocess stitching into HDR and panorama

The challenge with this scenery was however the difference in light conditions between the dark left side and very light sky on the right side. So I had to break the third rule above. To ensure each of the photos for panorama stitching has details in shadows and no burns in highlights, they actually must be HDR photos. Oh yes...

So here is the math: to stitch the panorama, I needed six HDR photos. And for each of these HDR photos, I needed to shoot five photos in exposure bracketing. Therefore, to get the material for post process, I had to shoot 30 photos...

 

Post process stitching

I use Adobe Lightroom to process my photos. You may use also Photoshop or any other software capable the two key operations for this technique.

1) Build the HDR photos

First step is to combine the same photos into HDR. In my case I had to perform this operation six times, using the five source photos for each section.

Six HDR photos created from the source photos, five for each. No further editing.

Six HDR photos created from the source photos, five for each. No further editing.

2) Merge HDR photos into panorama

In the second step, I merged the six HDR photos into one panorama. Lightroom offers three stitching methods and I recommend you try which one suits the particular scene best.

3) Final photo editting

Once having the photo I wanted, I add some final touches in the develop module of Lightroom - and bellow you may see the final photograph.

P.S. One side effect of stitching all these photos coming from D800 into just one: the dimensions of the final image. The original has impressive 12,666 x 7,759 px :-)

Pravcice Sandstone Gate (Pravcicka brana) in National Park Ceske Svycarsko (CZ) | Panorama and HDR stitched from 30 source photograps | Nikon D800 + Nikkor 24-70mm

Pravcice Sandstone Gate (Pravcicka brana) in National Park Ceske Svycarsko (CZ) | Panorama and HDR stitched from 30 source photograps | Nikon D800 + Nikkor 24-70mm