Panoramic shots of the reef at Walindi in Papua New Guinea, put together using the methods detailed here
THE CORAL REEFS OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA are jam-packed with life. Located in the heart of the Coral Triangle, these reefs mean business. Even with a 10.5mm fisheye lens locked into place during a recent visit, I felt confined by the 3:2 ratio of my viewfinder.
I found it an unachievable challenge to capture the endless photographic opportunities and expansive seascape that sprawled out beyond the limit of visibility in every direction. To capture the essence of this destination, I started to think beyond the limited perspective of a single frame.
I had been experimenting with landscape panoramic images using a tripod and specially designed panoramic head by Nodal Ninja. This allows the photographer to position a camera in portrait orientation and take a series of overlapping images (around 25% overlap), and then later stitch them together using post-processing software to create creative high-resolution panoramic landscape scenes.
This type of specialised equipment and accuracy can be applied under water, but it would be very time-consuming to set up and would mean dragging around an impractical amount of equipment.
It soon dawned on me that I could attempt this method from a single point on the reef by holding my camera steadily in a horizontal format and panning my body along the horizontal axes, stopping intermittently to capture a similar series of images to create my first attempts at underwater panoramic photography.
I hope the following tips and tricks may help you on your way to creating your own underwater panoramic images.
A wide-angle lens is the key to this technique – I used a 10.5mm fisheye on a DSLR. However, the wider the lens the greater the distortion, which can be problematic when it comes to stitching the final panorama.
A rectilinear wide-angle lens such as a 12-24mm (DX) or 16-35mm (FX) is likely to provide the best results.
Visualise the scene and try to pick subjects that will fill the entire frame and result in a complementary composition. Experience and practice will help you develop the skills to visualise panoramas in the field.
If you’re in midwater you need excellent buoyancy skills and must remain in the same location as you pan to capture a series of images. If you happen to drift up or down in the water column, your images are unlikely to stitch properly during post-processing.
Often the best results can be achieved by placing your fin-tips on the sand and rotating your body across a single horizontal axis as if you were a monopod. It’s important to do your best to keep the camera level on both axes for near-perfect alignment during stitching.
• Use manual exposure and white balance and don’t change settings between frames, which leads to uneven areas of tone across the final image.
• Obtain the correct exposure for the brightest frame in your series and be sure to check your histogram and blinking highlights (only a few highlights should be blinking in the brightest frame).
• Autofocus on the main part of the scene you want sharp and then switch to manual focus, and hold your position to shoot the images. If the camera starts refocussing part-way through the scene you may end up with at least one of the frames out of focus.
• A large aperture (>f11) is recommended to give you the greatest depth of field through your scene, but you will also need a relatively fast shutter speed (>100th sec) to ensure that the image is sharp. Some experimentation between a suitable combination of ISO, shutter speed and aperture based on your shooting conditions will be required before you commit to your final attempt.
• By shooting RAW you will ensure that you capitalise on the highest resolution available on your camera, which is of benefit when processing your images and also results in the highest resolution panorama.
• Do a test shoot of your series to check your exposure and focus, and ensure you are perfectly positioned before attempting the final series.
The optimal conditions for this technique are clear shallow waters complemented by grand vistas, such as wrecks and coral-reef scenes. Make the most of the available natural light to illuminate your scene by positioning the sun at your back. This will result in a uniform and easy-to-manage exposure throughout the entire scene.
If you plan to use strobes for fill light, see that these are on low power, to allow for reduced recycle time between frames.
• Shoot from left to right. The images will load in your browser from left to right, so it will make it easier to keep track of your series when you’re back home on your computer.
• Before you commence the series, take a picture of your hand with a finger pointing in the direction in which you’re about to pan.
• Use viewfinder grid display to assist in keeping your series straight. For example, line up the top of the reef or other feature with one of the grid lines to optimise your chance of straight shooting throughout the entire scene.
• Pan slowly and accurately. There is no need to hurry to the next image unless you are struggling to hold your position. This will give your strobes time to recharge between frames. Keep an eye both on the entire scene and in your viewfinder – this will help you ensure that you’re panning accurately to the next frame.
• Shoot more images than you need. I usually aim for around six frames with about 25% overlap. The more overlap you have, the greater the chance of obtaining a successful stitch. The greater the overlap, however, the more images you will need to obtain the ideal 3:1 ratio.
• Stop to take each frame. There is a natural tendency to pan through the whole scene while clicking frames along the way. By stopping, you are ensuring the sharpest images possible, and can concentrate on your composition.
• Be sure to keep an eye out for additions to your scene, such as interesting fish or divers, and wait for these elements to move into a complementary position before shooting the frame.
• Once you have downloaded your memory card, place each series into its own folder, so that you can keep track of each attempt.
• Highlight all the RAW images of a single series and drag them into Adobe Camera Raw (Photoshop) so that all the files open at once – the series thumbnails should appear on the left side of the screen.
• Be sure to hit Select All at the top of the thumbnails, which will ensure that any adjustments are applied to all image files in the series. This will mean consistent and continuous exposure and tonal range across the entire scene.
• Minimal adjustments to exposure, highlights, shadows, white and black points, and clarity may be required in Adobe Camera Raw.
• Save the processed images as TIFF files back into their folder of origin.
There are many software options, from all-encompassing programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Lightroom to powerful specialist stitching programs such as PTGui. Here is a short overview:
Adobe Photoshop: Go to File and from the dropdown menu select Automate and Photomerge. In the pop-up box, select Browse to find your processed TIFF files, and for the layout select Auto. These do a good job, but as an alternative choose Cylindrical and remember to tick Vignette Removal before hitting OK, and save as a TIFF file.
PTGui: Confirm your camera and lens parameters and select Align Images. The Panorama Editor automatically applies control points to your images before aligning them. The Panorama Editor then shows a preview, which can be adjusted by editing individual images, by repositioning the panorama as a whole, by setting the centre point, or by changing the projection and blend modes.
Select Create Panorama, save as a TIFF file if you’re happy with the blended preview, or save as a PSD file if you want your blended image also to contain the original image files as layers. This can be useful if there are stitching issues, which can be fixed later by using the brush tool to add and subtract elements within an adjustment layer in Adobe Photoshop.
Adobe Lightroom: Import the series of images and select all. Right-click on the highlighted series and select Photo Merge, then Panorama. The Panorama Merge Preview display appears with the output image displayed.
Choose Auto Select Projection if you want Lightroom to select a layout projection automatically. Otherwise, choose your own projection (Perspective, Cylindrical or Spherical) depending on which produces the best panorama.
Finally, select Auto Crop and then Merge to create the panorama and place it in your catalogue. The panorama will now be saved as a RAW file, so it is possible to make RAW adjustments to the processed panorama – a major benefit compared to the other programs above.
Crop & final adjustments
Open your final image in Adobe Photoshop and enlarge to 100% to review and ensure that key elements have been lined up and that there are no unusual or mismatched features in the final panorama. Choose the Crop tool and crop the image as desired; you can set-up a traditional 3:1 panorama crop ratio at this stage if you wish.
Final adjustments to levels, curves, saturation and sharpening can now be made to complete your perfect underwater panoramic image.
My thanks to Walindi Resort, where I was able to hone these techniques.