Aerial Panorama Technique

South of Quebec City July 2017. Photo by Dennis Dimick

South of Quebec City July 2017. Photo by Dennis Dimick

Shooting panoramas (or even just single images) from passenger airplanes first requires getting a window seat with a clear view.

The best viewing spots in coach are the first few rows, so try to get as far forward as possible on the side away from the sun in front of the wing. That way your view is not blocked by a jet engine. Then hope that the window lines up with your seat.

Unfortunately, there are very few seats in these planes that allow good photography. And if you are behind the wing try to sit as far back as possible in hopes of getting a clear ground view.

When booking your flight, notice the flight time of day. Earlier and later flights offer best light for landscape shape and detail. Plastic windows in airplanes severely degrade the view if sun shines directly on them, another reason to sit on the side away from the sun

A wider view without a wide-angle lens

The advantage with aerial and ground panoramas is that they allow a wider view without needing a wider angle lens.

I shoot many panoramas using the equivalent of a 35mm lens on a full frame camera. Combining several images into a panorama creates an angle of view equivalent to a 24mm, 20mm or wider lens, but has the visual look of a more moderate focal length like 35mm that avoids wide-angle distortion.

Foreground details appear closer and more detailed than they would in a single frame of the same scene taken with a 16mm or 20mm wide angle lens.

And, of course, these merged images achieve far greater resolution, as I’m combining anywhere from five to eight images into a single picture.

Taking into account image overlap, a sequence of eight images from a 30-megapixel camera can produce a final panorama with more than 100 megapixels of data in the combined image

Advice on cameras, lenses, shutter speed and exposure

As for cameras, all are usable, from phones to point-and-shoot to digital mirrorless or single lens reflex. Better quality images come from cameras with larger sensors, such as full frame or crop-frame DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, or high-end point and shoot cameras.

Aldie near Dulles, Virginia. June 2018

Aldie near Dulles, Virginia. June 2018

My typical lens is a 24-70mm zoom, which allows framing flexibility. Sometimes I’ll use a fixed length lens like a 35mm or 135mm, or a 70-200mm zoom, but it is unwieldy.

Lenses with built-in image stabilization reduce camera shake and improve image clarity. With zoom lenses it is important to keep the lens at the same focal length for all images in a sequence or you will not be able to assemble them into one image later.

As for shutter speed, try to stay above 1/1000 of a second. You can raise the ISO or light sensitivity of the camera to keep near the 1/1000 second speed to reduce image blur.

For exposure, cameras are set on aperture priority automatic. I will shoot wide open depending on light levels, but try to keep it at f/5.6 to increase resolution of detail.

I always shoot RAW files, which produces bigger files than JPEG format but gives images exposure latitude of up to 14 f-stops, which renders changes in exposure between shots irrelevant. Software autocorrects any exposure variations during image merging.

Shooting, selecting, merging images

Shooting images needed for a panorama requires anywhere from two to a half dozen single images shot rapidly as the camera is rotated on a horizontal or vertical axis.

I’ll start with the camera pointing as far down as possible towards the ground then rotate upwards to above the horizon.

Sometimes I may also turn the camera vertically and rotate it from left to right, or right to left, depending on subject and my view.

Taking the pictures is an essential but small part of the overall process. Many hours are spent in post-production selecting, assembling, toning, cropping and identifying image locations.
— Dennis Dimick

This is all done hand-held. I use a camera that shoots seven frames per second to acquire all images in a scene in less than a second total shooting time. Higher shutter speeds allow continuous shooting in a single rotating motion without image blur.

My main tool for merging of images is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which allows selection of thumbnail views of imported images in one action and then merging them into nearly finished panoramas. For years previously, this required a multi-step use of Adobe Bridge and Photoshop.

Toning images is an acquired skill, more art than science. As with text editing to simplify and clarify writing, editing and toning images is also an acquired skill that takes time and practice to master.

Lund and Preston, Nevada.

Lund and Preston, Nevada.

Besides the plastic in airplane windows that degrades image quality, the main challenge with aerials is air pollution. Fortunately, Lightroom now offers a “dehaze” filter that improves contrast and minimizes the dirty air look in pictures.

It’s important to point out that most pictures end up “on the cutting room floor.”

On a six-hour cross-country flight I usually shoot more than 2000 images to get frames for assembling 300 or so panoramas. From those 300 panoramas I might like a dozen finished images, and only one or two that are really interesting.

Taking the pictures is an essential but small part of the overall process. Many hours are spent in post-production selecting, assembling, toning, cropping and identifying image locations.

I have no real idea what to call what I do. All I know is that this process produces pictures with a look I can get no other way. For me, the half dozen or so stellar new images I’m able to get in a year are worth the effort.

For more of Dimick’s images in full size, visit his Flickr page here.

Return to Panorama Planet for the full story of Dimick’s aerials.

Dennis Dimick

Dennis Dimick served as executive environment editor at National Geographic magazine and was a picture editor at the National Geographic Society for more than 35 years until his retirement in December 2015. He guided a variety of major magazine projects including a special issue on global freshwater in April 2010, a 2011 series on global population, and the 2014 Future of Food series on global food security. Dimick co-organized the Aspen Environment Forum from 2008-2012, and continues to regularly present slide show lectures on global environmental issues. For 19 years he has been a faculty member of the Missouri Photo Workshop, and in 2013 received the Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association for outstanding service to photojournalism. He currently serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists. He grew up on an Oregon farm, and Dimick holds degrees in agriculture and agricultural journalism from Oregon State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.