How to Create The Best Lightroom Stitch Panorama
How to Create The Best Lightroom Stitch Panorama
The Lightroom stitch panorama feature was introduced back in Lightroom version 6 and was an immediate hit with users. Since then, Adobe has added further enhancements but at the same time adding more options. In this tutorial, I’ll explain the best way to stitch multiple images together using the Photo Merge feature of Lightroom Classic 11.5. We also look at a few problems you might encounter, how to avoid them, and explain how they could affect the quality of your finished panorama.
To create the best quality panorama stitch in Lightroom, you first need to capture the image. This has a much bigger impact on the quality of the finished panorama than many photographers realise.
Shooting the Panorama
We need to return to basics before we look at the Photo Merge feature of Lightroom, because many photographers have become sloppy when shooting panoramas.
When panoramic or panorama stitching software first came out, it was complex and difficult to use. You needed to spend a lot of time manually lining up features in the individual images you were stitching. Quite often, this also involved shooting images using a special panoramic tripod head and finding the nodal point of your lens.
Adobe changed all this by releasing a panorama stitching feature in Photoshop and then later Lightroom. Adobe removed the need for the special tripod head and manually lining up features in the image. Now you were free to shoot handheld and the software does the rest. This has lulled many photographers into adopting poor habits when shooting a sequence of images for a panorama.
Panorama Capture Advice
Let’s look at a few recommendations when shooting a panorama if you want the best results when stitching it Lightroom.
Shoot Using RAW Format
First, capture the individual images for the panorama with your camera set to shoot RAW format.
By shooting in RAW format, you’ll ensure Lightroom can produce the highest level of quality when it stitches the various images. RAW format allows Lightroom greater flexibility to correct any exposure problems. It also allows the correct lens modules to be used for better optical quality.
Use a Tripod
Keep your camera level (or vertical) and preferably on a tripod whilst shooting a panorama.
Although Lightroom can stitch handheld photos, it produces less distortion if you shoot using a level tripod. When stitching a panorama, Lightroom will rotate and distort the individual photos to create the best possible blend. The less distortion, the better the results.
Overlap Frames in the Panorama
Be sure to capture a sufficient degree of overlap between the individual frames in the panorama.
This helps Lightroom align the different frames for stitching. It can also help to reduce the amount of distortion applied to individual images before they are stitched. A good rule of thumb is to aim for at least a 30% overlap between the frames.
Rotate the Camera 90 Degrees
To produce a higher resolution, larger size panorama, rotate your camera 90 degrees.
It’s easy to get into the habit of shooting panoramas with the camera in the landscape orientation. This tends to produce narrow but longer panoramas. Rotating it to be vertical or in the portrait orientation will produce a taller panorama. Whilst you will need to shoot more individual frames to achieve the same width, the finished panorama will have a higher pixel count.
Set a Manual Exposure
Shoot the images in your panorama using the manual exposure mode of your camera.
As you rotate the camera through the panorama, you will find the exposure often changes between frames. This means Lightroom may struggle to correct the different exposures to stitch the frames into a realistic panorama.
Before shooting a sequence of images for stitching, check the exposure of each intended frame. After identifying the brightest, set a manual exposure for that part of the image. All the frames in the panorama should be shot using this exposure. Lightroom will then need to make much less of a change to blend the different exposures.
Despite my own advice, I sometimes forget to set the exposure manually as in this example. Here are two frames that I want to merge into a panorama.
You can see the variation in exposure between the two images. Lightroom will need to blend these when stitching the panorama, which means it’s doing more image processing. Now let’s look at the stitching process in Lightroom to find the best settings.
Select The Images to Merge in the Lightroom Library
The first step in stitching the panorama is to select the individual images to merge. You can do this in the Library module by holding down your Cmd key (Mac) or Ctrl key (PC) whilst clicking on each image in the grid view. You should then see the thumbnails of the individual images you want to stitch highlighted.
Next, right click on one of the selected images to display a popup menu where you can choose the “Photo Merge” option. Under the Photo Merge option, you will find three sub-options. These are HDR, Panorama and HDR Panorama. We will use the standard Panorama option in this tutorial to stitch our images together. You can also use the keyboard shortcut of Cmd + M (Mac) or Ctrl + M (PC) to launch the Panorama Merge dialog.
Avoid This Stitching Mistake
A common mistake to avoid when stitching panoramas in Lightroom is to process the individual images before trying to stitch them together. Firstly, Lightroom ignore the adjustments you apply to the RAW files so it’s a waste of time. Secondly, if you generate and try to stitch image files (rather than RAW files) Lightroom can’t use the lens profiles.
Many cameras now embed lens profile data into the RAW file which Lightroom uses to improve image quality. If Lightroom can’t read the lens data, you will see a warning message in the dialog (this sometimes happens with RAW files as well). When this happens, you can still stitch the panorama. It’s also worth trying to set the lens profile manually for the images using the Lens Correction panel in the Lightroom Develop Module.
The Lightroom Panorama Merge Dialog
After clicking the Panorama option in the Photo Merge menu, you should see the Panorama Merge Preview dialog displayed.
On the left of the dialog is a preview showing the stitched panorama, whilst on the right you have the adjustment controls. These adjustments provide some control over the stitching process allowing you to improve the quality of the finished panorama. Here the controls are divided into two groups as numbered.
Group 1 – Projection Settings
The projection settings control the process Lightroom uses to stitch the images. You’ll probably find that for most cameras with a regular lens (not fisheye) the Cylindrical option (number 2) produces the best panorama. The Spherical setting (number 1) can also produce good results, but you will probably find the panorama height is flattened slightly. You can see a comparison of the two projection settings below.
Notice how the Spherical setting (1) is slightly flatter than the Cylindrical setting (2).
Unless you’re using special equipment, Perspective probably won’t work well, especially with wide angle lenses. It’s still helpful to check which projection you think is best by trying all three.
Group 2 – Editing Adjustments
In this second group, there are five different settings in Lightroom Classic 11.5. Let’s look at two before we get into Cropping.
Use the Auto Settings option to have Lightroom apply automatic corrections to the stitched panorama. This is not to be confused with the exposure blending of individual image frames; Lightroom always applies exposure blending when stitching to even out the brightness across the panorama.
Using Auto Settings is like clicking the “Auto” option in the Basic panel of the Lightroom Develop module. After stitching a panorama with the Auto option, if you check the settings in the Basic panel of the Develop module, you’ll find Lightroom has adjusted the panorama DNG file.
Most of the time it’s best to edit the merged panorama manually in the Develop module. A possible exception is when merging an HDR Panorama as Lightroom often produces acceptable results.
The Create Stack option is especially useful for organising images that are being stitched into a panorama. Stacks are Lightroom’s way of grouping related images to help you manage them in the Library module. When you tick this option, Lightroom groups the separate image frames together as a Stack along with the merged panorama. This keeps the component images together in case you want to recreate the panorama in the future.
Cropping the Panorama
The remaining options in the dialog are “Boundary Warp”, “Fill Edges” and “Auto Crop”. Each of these can have a significant impact on the quality of the stitched panorama.
Using the Auto Crop option causes Lightroom to crop away any white space around the edges of the panorama frame. This creates the largest panorama without distorting or stretching the individual images. Whilst this creates a high-quality panorama, the downside is that you lose some of the image.
You can see the effect of using the Auto Crop option on our panorama below.
Here the top image is the original stitched panorama with white space around the edge of the frame. Below this is the same panorama when using the Auto Crop option. Notice how much of the image we lose by doing this.
With the fill edges option, Lightroom tries to fill in the white space using content copied from other areas of the image. Sometimes it does a remarkable job as in this example, but you do need to check the finished panorama carefully. Often you can find areas of repeating content or where clouds in the sky don’t align properly. When this happens you can usually fix the problems using the Lightroom Clone and Healing Brush Tools.
Below you can see the result of using the Auto Crop option top and the Fill Edges option bottom.
Notice how the bottom panorama using the Fill Edges option retains the feel of the wide-angle lens used to shoot the images.
The Boundary Warp adjustment is a slider which you can use to warp the individual frames being stitched. This allows Lightroom to stitch the individual frames without leaving any white space around the edges of the panorama.
Problems can occur using Boundary Warp when Lightroom needs to apply a lot of warping to fill the edges of the frame. This can prevent some frames from stitching cleanly, which can be an issue with landscapes. Look closely and you often find gaps in distant hills or horizons where the frames don’t stitch cleanly.
Because the Boundary Warp is a sliding control, you can use it in combination with the other settings mentioned. For example, applying some warp to a panorama together with the Auto Crop option will produce a taller panorama. Equally using the Boundary Warp with the Fill Edges option may produce a better result because there is less empty space for Lightroom to fill.
When you are satisfied with your settings, click the Merge button to stitch the Panorama. The stitched panorama is then saved as a DNG file to the same folder as the individual image files and is added to your Lightroom Library. After Stitching the panorama, switch to the Lightroom Develop module to finish your editing of the image.
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Stitching Vertical and Multiple Row Panoramas
Having covered the various options that you can use in Lightroom to stitch panoramas, it’s worth mentioning two special situations. The first is the vertical panorama where you might shoot a sequence of images from low to high, perhaps to capture a tall building. Here you should follow the same shooting suggestions shared earlier in this article. Lightroom will then be able to handle the stitching automatically in most cases.
The second is where you might shoot a panorama using two or more rows of images. Again, follow the advice earlier in this image and try to overlap each row with the previous by around 30%. It’s then likely Lightroom will be able to stitch the images automatically. It’s extremely impressive what Lightroom can achieve, and it can usually sequence the images correctly for stitching.
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As you will no doubt realise, there are trade-offs with each of the panorama stitching options in Lightroom. None is perfect but when you understand what each does, you will be able to select the best for each panorama.
What’s also extremely important when stitching panoramas is that you take care when shooting the sequence of images you want to stitch. Shoot with a sufficient overlap between frames to make the stitching easier, try to minimise the distortion required for stitching, and manually set the exposure settings of the camera. By shooting carefully you should be able to create an excellent stitch panorama in Lightroom.
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