The Art of Digital Travel Panorama Photography

Jeff Pflueger: Like many places, Istanbul chuckles at efforts to capture it in a photo. Here's one way to get the last laugh.

10.04.10 | 10:50 AM ET

Stitched panorama of Blue Mosque by Jeff Pflueger

Istanbul laughs at efforts to capture it in a photo. It laughs like a frantic stock trader on the floor of the NYSE might laugh were he asked by a wayward tourist to smile for a photo.

A camera can never record the wondrous complexity of the place: the tastes of the seafood meze beside the Bosphorus, the sound of the call to prayer reverberating through sinuous Ottoman alleyways, or the bustle of suited businessmen and women among the mirrored skyscrapers. In Istanbul, a camera feels inadequate.

So standing inside the 400-year-old Blue Mosque, with intricate mosaics spanning from the carpeted floor to the enormous domed ceiling, I decided to make an image that took it all in—a panorama composed of many images.

Setting my camera to manual, I decided on an exposure that was appropriate for the entire scene before me. I steadied my camera with one hand to avoid problems with parallax, and shot nearly 30 wide-angle photos, overlapping each image with another. I photographed the entire floor and ceiling, and even the tourists on either side of me.

Later, I used the simplest free panorama creator currently out there: Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor) from Microsoft labs. ICE only runs on Windows, so when I’m using a Mac, I use the more complex (and feature-rich) Hugin. If I’m snapping a few pictures with an iPhone, I use AutoStitch.

Once I capture the images that will make my panorama (pano for short), I drag them into Microsoft ICE, and the software quickly stitches the images together.

Screen shot: Jeff Pflueger

Magic! But the result looks a bit odd, doesn’t it? When shooting panoramas, we begin to encounter a challenge more familiar to cartographers than to photographers: How to squash a sphere into something flat? In ICE there is a button to adjust the projection and “orientation” of the panorama. Then I crop the jagged edges and output the final panorama.

Stitched panorama of Blue Mosque by Jeff Pflueger

There is no reason to limit your panoramas to horizontal images. Across the way from the Blue Mosque in Istanbul is the Hagia Sophia. It was built by Christians in 360 AD and later converted into a mosque. Inside, I was fascinated by what seemed a wonderful coincidence: In a mosque, people pray toward Mecca. In a church, they pray toward the apse of the church. In the Hagia Sophia, these happen to be in roughly the same direction.

Giddy with my observation, I made several photographs for a vertical panorama: The entire ornate apse, the Christian mosaics juxtaposed with the Islamic decorations, the stained glass and the Mecca-pointing Mihrab—just slightly off from the orientation of the apse.

By combining several images into a panorama, I am making an image with far more megapixels (resolution) than a single photograph. Photoshop has a built-in way to zoom into the details of your very high resolution panos. In Photoshop CS5, simply open your completed panorama and go to File—> Export—> Zoomify. If you are interested in making extremely high resolution images, “Gigapixel” imaging is an entire subculture of panorama photography that is worth exploring.

Making a panoramic photograph won’t bring all of the music, mezes and mania of Istanbul back home to share, but it might just bring back a bit of the magic.

Jeff Pflueger

Jeff Pflueger is a San Francisco Bay Area based photographer and web geek. His adventure travel photographs involving all kinds of outdoor lunacy have been published in National Geographic Adventure, the New York Times, Men's Journal, Sunset and other publications.

7 Comments for The Art of Digital Travel Panorama Photography

Rich Cook 10.05.10 | 12:28 PM ET

Great article. I’ll definitely put that into practice. I wish, however, I’d known about this when I visited the Alabaster Mosque in Cairo earlier this year. It is amazingly similar to the Blue Mosque you photographed. Motivation to go back!

Gold Coast Photographers 10.05.10 | 9:40 PM ET

Thank you.  I have been toying wioth Pano for a little while now with some of my real estate shoots.  I will go and have a look at Hugin as i also use a Mac.  The Pano program in CS3 is acceptable but not always reliable with multiple images.  I am looking to do some Panos of some sites in my home town and this little program could be invaluable.  thanks for your post.

Ben Keene 10.07.10 | 3:28 PM ET

Great advice for bringing places to life, Jeff. And your apse/mihrab pano is incredible.

Laura 10.12.10 | 12:24 PM ET

This is really a neat article.  I’m not quite sure why the edges are jagged in the untouched panorama but maybe my visual geography is not as acute as this software.  Thanks for the recommendations on programs….I’ll have to check it out!

patrik 10.20.10 | 8:48 AM ET

Wow great work.keep it up and more power to you.

Andrew 10.23.10 | 4:52 AM ET

I never had a clue you can make panoramic photos using just Microsoft ICE
Great work

bayrak 10.28.10 | 11:39 AM ET

Thanks for the sharing

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