I do like PTGUI (Panorama Tools Graphic User  Interface). It may have one of the most awfully designed and overrun commercial website I can think of, there is no other option for me when it comes to stitching pictures. Perhaps – and for the good of all of us photographers – the people at “New House Internet Services B.V.” (PTGUI’s developers and distributors) prefer to spend their time on improving their product.

Most DSLR comes bundled (among lots of other – usually useless – software) with their stitching software. Hence many photographers being happy with them – or managing it with Photoshop CSx functions – do not know PTGUI. I am not able to change that situation; but if you do not know it yet, let me introduce you to the power of this little wonder.

Toulouse (Toulouse, France, 2009)

Panorama of Toulouse Riverside (Toulouse, France, 2009)

Features:

  • Automatic stitching (indeed…!)
  • Full control over the final result (manually set additional anchor points)
  • Live preview
  • Multi row panoramas
  • Projections calculations
  • Support for jpeg, tiff and png source images
  • Full support for 16 bit images
  • Layered output (Photoshop format)
  • QTVR ouput
  • Templates
  • Batch/Schedule stitchings
  • A bunch of settings everywhere to make your life easier

Compare this summary of features with the panorama generation tools that comes with ANY camera; you know this is not the same category. And that’s not all, the Pro version also offers (again, in summary):

  • Stitch and blend bracketed LDR source images into an HDR panorama
  • Tone mapping for HDR panoramas
  • “A Batch Builder to scan folders for panoramic source images and automatically create projects based on a template”

Is it difficult to use?

To be completely honest, there are easier software to use out there. Now, if you use a DSLR camera and know a few tricks about making panoramas, it is really EASY to use.

First of all, set the shooting mode to ‘Manual’. It is the best way to keep a consistent exposure throughout the panorama. To do this, look carefully – with your own eyes – where is the average tone (think brightness not color) in the scene. Take a reading and adjust a little up or down the exposure, if the scene needs it.

The focal is important, “the wider the better” is a wrong statement. Eventually use your longest focal, even if that means more exposures to treat later. You will probably have to crop your panorama, unless you use a tripod panorama head (see 2 paragraphs below), so keep extra room above above (=take too much sky/ceiling) and under (=take too much ground/floor) so you don’t loose much after cropping. A good thing is to shoot in portrait orientation.

Stick to a low ISO setting (noise does not blend well) and a fast shutter speed (1/125th works in most cases). Then start shooting. Try to keep 10% to 20% of the side picture each time you re-frame, more if the side is “subjectless”. Do not use a polarizer filter, the sun light will create funny stuff and you will end up with a sky going from white to dark blue. Here is an example:

Effect of Polarizers on panoramas (Montolieu, France, 2009)

Effect of Polarizers on panoramas (Montolieu, France, 2009)

Now it gets a little tricky : parallax and nodal points. If you never heard of those, take a look  respectively here and here ; they explain that better than I do, though it may get too technical.

In short, the lens needs to rotate around its nodal point to avoid parallax aberrations (usually creating bumpy pictures) in the final panorama. Think the camera turns around its lens instead of around your neck ; it requires a little practice. You need to move your body, not only turn your head. Don’t worry it will never be perfect without a panorama tripod head, and PTGUI is here to help.

Post-processing must be the same for all images composing your panorama, and the less you crop the better. If you use Lightroom or Adobe Bridge, copy/synchronize the settings for all the frames. Otherwise, you will get different exposure in the same panorama… And nobody wants that: it looks weird.

PTGUI does the rest

Once you have loaded your images, the program will find its way to align them and offers you a preview. For simple cases, you will be done already.

PTGUI aligns images automatically

PTGUI aligns images automatically

Where PTGUI kills the competition

Now, what happens if you have messed up at shooting? If your panorama is cylindrical but spherical? Or flat?

First of all: the control points. PTGUI lets you see, modify, create or remove the control points it uses to blend the pictures together. A control point is basically a point appearing in two frames (sometimes three). In the case of low light situations, some panorama tools do not “see” where are the control points. Another occasion is while dealing with pictures of patterns, misleading the automatic recognition of control points. PTGUI puts you in control of what is what and what goes where.

PTGUIs control points window

PTGUI's control points window

Projections and angle of view. PTGUI calculates the angle using the EXIF data of the pictures (using the focal length) and assumes a projection from there. Usually, it is a cylindrical projection. However, you can decide what angle it is with the preview mode (drag on the panorama : WYSIWYG), fix the orientation and change the projection mode on the fly.

PTGUI's Panorama Preview Window

PTGUI's Panorama Preview Window

Multilayers ouput: the best way to further process the final file. You will need to know a bit of Photoshop though.

PTGUI Multilayer Output

PTGUI Multilayer Output

To go further:

Marina Sands (Singapore, 2009)

Marina Sands (Singapore, 2009)

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