ost people have some vague idea of what a panoramic photograph is, but they may not really understand what it is all about. Probably the most common notion of panoramic photos is that they are "those long, skinny pictures I get when I push the 'panorama button' on my point-and-shoot camera." As you will discover below, this particular method actually produces something far less than a true panoramic.
True panoramic photography has as its goal, producing an extremely wide-angle view of a scene. While there is no specific angle required in order to "officially declare" that something is a true panoramic, I would say that anything less than around 120° in width is not really in the realm of panoramics— and many panoramics have as their goal a full 360° coverage of the subject. Most of the panoramas I produce have horizontal fields of view between 180° and 270° (occasionally reaching the full 360°). This very wide angle coverage is what causes most panoramics to have that long, narrow rectangular look that so obviously distinguishes them from their standard photography counterparts.
by Bill Brockmeier
Comparing various camera fields-of-view — © 2002, Bill Brockmeier
The image above will serve to demonstrate the differences between true panoramic photos, mere pretenders, and more standard shots. The main photo itself, is a panoramic that spans a horizontal angle of around 240°— something more than half of a full rotation. This means that the large tree on the left side of the image is close to opposite in direction from the large tree seen on the right hand side. This somewhat approximates all of what could be seen (including the extreme left and right peripheral vision) while looking straight ahead (and even slightly more). If you were to curve the photo into a slightly more than semicircular arc, and place your face at the center of curvature, you would see the image in its original perspective in your field of view.
The different colored boxes superimposed on the image indicate how much of the scene would be recorded by other photographic methods. The RED rectangle is the view covered by a normal lens on a normal camera, while the YELLOW rectangle shows how much more can be seen with a moderate wide angle lens.
Some point-and-shoot cameras offer a little button or slide that is marked "panoramic," and which, when used, produces a long, narrow picture that one might take to be a panoramic photo. However, this is nowhere near a true panoramic. All the little button does is to place a mask over the film, blacking out two horizontal strips— one at the top and one at the bottom of the film. Sure enough, when the developed prints come back from the photofinisher, the photos are long and narrow— not because more of the scene was added to the left and to the right, but rather because the top and bottom of the image were cut off! What you end up with by using the little "panoramic" button can be seen inside the BLUE rectangle— not too impressive...
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This document was updated on 5/27/03.