What's Is the Best Choice: Cropping or Stitching a Panorama?

What's Is the Best Choice: Cropping or Stitching a Panorama?

The first thing that comes to mind when panoramas are mentioned is an extremely wide field of view. Often, you need multiple photos to cover such angles. A panorama can also be achieved by a crop. Which method should you use for landscapes? Cropping or stitching?

My first panorama was made in Austria at the foot of its highest mountain. The panorama consisted of six or seven photos in landscape orientation. After the prints returned from the print shop, I tried to put it together with some tape. It was awful. The taped panorama had a curve, and the lines did not fit at all.

Or course, this is something that is impossible to achieve without bending and curving the photos to compensate for the lens perspective. But that’s beside the point. It perfectly shows the reason why a panorama is often made in the first place. It’s the wish to have a field of view that is wider than any lens can offer.

A 270-degree panorama is easy with digital photography. With analog film and prints, it was nearly impossible to achieve. Now, you can capture a complete 360-degree circle.

Panoramas and Digital Photography

With digital photography, it has become quite easy to stitch photos together. Panoramas that cover 180 degrees are no exceptions anymore. Even a 360-degree panorama is possible, from single-row panoramas up to multi-row panoramas that have many hundreds of megapixels. The software will correct any faults in lens perspective. It will stretch and compress borders until it becomes impossible to see where one photo ends and the other one starts.

Stitching software like PTgui can combine multi-row panoramas quite easily. This is a two-row panorama of the famous lake at the Faroe Island.

Nodal slides offer the ability to correct parallax. They shift the rotation above the nodal point. The simplest nodal slides are for the horizontal pan; the more complex nodal slides allow both horizontal and vertical pan. Taking a panorama photo is almost as easy as a normal photo, no matter the field of view you desire, as long as you have the right equipment.

A nodal slide is advisable for shooting a panorama with multiple images.

The Reason for Stitching Multiple Images Into One Panorama

There was one reason why I tried to shoot a panorama with simple color film. I wanted to have a field of view that exceeded the 28mm lens I had back then. A wider focal length was not that common in those days, so a panorama was the only way to achieve that. With two photos, it worked reasonably well, but more than two was extremely difficult.

The wider field of view is exactly what panorama photography is intended for. It gives the ability to capture more of the landscape than you can achieve with the wide angle lens you own. In this era, a 28mm lens is not considered especially wide angle anymore. We now have the opportunity to use a 15mm focal length on a full frame sensor or even wider.

A 360-degree panorama of a nice sunrise at the Dutch Wadden sea. But is capturing everything the best choice?

If you still need an even wider field of view, a panorama is the way to go. Stitch enough photos together and you can go up to 360 degrees, which is all the way around. And you can also capture a complete 180 degrees in the vertical direction on top of that. It’s like photographing every inch of a ball from the inside and flattening it out.

If you want that field of view, you need a multi-image panorama. Get yourself a nodal slide or a full-size panorama head and go ahead. You don’t have to worry about composition, leading lines, or anything else. Everything is in the frame. The only composition ability you end up with is to decide where you want to have the borders of the image.

A nodal slide for multi-row panorama shooting.

A Reason for Cropping Into a Panorama

Unless there is a good reason for it, I don’t believe a panorama is the best choice for a landscape. Capturing everything is too easy. Often, a landscape photo benefits from the choices a photographer makes. What to incorporate in the frame? What has to be kept out of the frame? How does a leading line flow through the image, and how do you divide the most interesting elements in the frame?

Often, I prefer to crop into a panorama. It allows me to remove the parts that don't add anything to the image.

Taking a landscape photo with an ultra-wide angle is one of the most difficult things to do. Often, you get too much in the frame. Shooting a multi-image panorama will only capture more. So, why not choose to shoot one frame with the focal length that captures the field of view in the horizontal direction you desire and crop it into a panorama ratio?

When a wide angle is used, the angle is not only in the horizontal plane. It's also in the vertical plane, which is not always desired. So, why not crop the excess in post-processing? Remove a bit from the top and a bit from the bottom. You will end up with a nice panorama crop without the need for stitching photos. And you don’t have to bother with parallax or ghosting effects.

This extreme wide angle lens allows me to get close to the surf. But it captures too much of the sky also. By cropping into a panorama, I can remove the sky I don't want and end up with a nice wide view.

What About a Lot of Resolution?

There is one possible downside to a crop: you lose resolution. If the pixel count of the camera sensor is high enough, that doesn’t have to be a problem. Most of the time, it doesn't matter if the photo has only 20 megapixels instead of 24 or 30 megapixels.

But if you are in need of a lot of megapixels, you can find the solution in a multi-image panorama or even a multi-row panorama. Don’t feel the need for an extreme field of view. Just capture the field of view that you like, and use a longer focal length to increase the amount of resolution. This way, you can capture a landscape with a 35mm or 50mm lens that also could be captured with a single 15mm focal lens. This way, you don't use stitching for an extreme field of view, but for resolution purposes.

If you need a lot of resolution, stitching a panorama is the way to go. This is the result of stitching in PTgui.

When to Crop and When Not to Crop

When do you need a multi-image panorama, and when is a crop sufficient? This is something that only you can answer. After all, I don’t know your needs. But you can use the following guidelines for choosing the best way for you:

  • If you need an extreme field of view, use a multi-image or multi-row panorama.
  • If you want to have a normal field of view but in a high resolution and a panorama aspect ratio, use a multi-image or multi-row panorama with a longer focal length. 
  • If you want to have a normal field of view and a panorama aspect ratio, but an increase in resolution isn't necessary, crop the image in post-processing.

The edited image of the Faroe Island. It spans about 270 degrees and could not be captured with one wide angle lens. Still, sometimes, it's better to focus on details in the landscape instead of capturing everything.

Bottom Line

The three ways of shooting panoramas all have a purpose. Which one suits you can be decided by your own needs. I find a normal panorama crop the best choice for most of my needs. But that’s personal. There is no rule that tells you what to do. 

Let me know in the comments below how you prefer to make your panorama and why. I would love to learn more about the reason behind that decision.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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Of course, certain applications demand stitching:

For me the decision is usually very simple. Unless it is something that I believe is going to be a real candidate for a pretty large print or if there is a defined subject that I envision as a pano but don't have a wide enough lens then it is to take the single shot. I am in a drone photo group where there are a few people who stitch panos and love to brag about how many individual captures are in the stitch yet I know for a fact they never print anything large. In almost all cases they could have just backed the drone up and gotten a more reliable single shot. Most of those photos by the way don't even really have a defined subject, they are just panos for the sake of bragging about stitching a pano IMO.

Nice and useful article. I like the longer lens stitched panorama’s because of the small details in the photo. Once produced a panorama for a wall in a waiting room in a hospital. The wall was about six meters long, it took a lot a photo’s taken at 70 mm. it was fun to see my work that big.

Pano is also good when you want to hike lighter. Then, I just took a 24-70mm and a tripod. You can achieve shots of wider view by stitching. I would carry a tripod anyway because you need it for low light or long exposure. That saves me the weight of one lens, the 16-35 is 675 g I believe. Now there are lighter alternative at around 350 gr but then it saves me money!

I shoot panorama when there is more than one subject interconnected and spread out to tell a story - such as this one.

n the days when I could only use a Canon 5D MII, creating a panorama was often necessary to get a landscape image with a reasonable resolution. Especially if you wanted to use a simple, cheap 50mm lens. With this I achieved an image quality that is in no way inferior to today's cameras.

What I have also used very often is a vertical panorama of 2 to 3 pictures on top of each other when I wanted a portrait picture. Especially when shooting architecture in narrow alleys, I can create a shot like this with 35mm, for which I would need at least 20mm. And this reminds me of another point: I usually created panorama shots with 35 to 70 mm at optimal aperture. Usually something between f/5.6 and f/11, depending on the lens. This prevents vignetting and distortion, which the software can't always work out. A panorama with 16 to 24mm can have unsightly distortions at the respective edges of the image, which are also clearly visible in the finished panorama.