What equipment do I need?

You can create a panorama by using any camera, even a disposable one. You don't need any other equipment, but you will probably find quite quickly that you cannot achieve really good quality pictures if you shoot hand-held. The items listed below will help you produce better pictures more easily.

Tripod

By using a tripod you can ensure that the camera rotates around a fixed spot and that it stays level. It also makes it much easier to take longer exposures, which may be useful if you want to get a nice sharp picture with everything in focus. You can use a monopod, but you will have to hold it (which means more chance of camera shake and of the position changing between shots. A monopod is useful if there is no space for a tripod, and you can get long poles for shooting panoramas high up (these are in effect monopods) - for examples see AGNOS

Check that you can lock the head of the tripod firmly and that it doesn't wobble when locked. If it does it will be difficult for you to make sure the camera stays level while you are shooting, especially if you have a large camera or if you use a panoramic head (see below), because the weight may make the tripod's head even more unstable.

If you do not use a tripod and/or fail to keep the camera level, you may have problems stitching your pictures (depends on the software used) and you may end up having to crop your panoramas down, thereby reducing the vertical field of view (see simulated images below). This is not true if you shoot a spherical panorama as you can re-align the panorama afterwards in software.

Panoramic image of a woodland scene shot without keeping the camera level
Woodland scene shot without maintaining good level (simulated)
Panoramic image of a woodland scene shot without keeping the camera level, with additional lines showing how much of the image will be lost after cropping
Same picture, showing how it can be cropped
Panoramic image of a woodland scene shot without keeping the camera level, cropped to a rectangle and showing a large black area that is the amount of image lost
Same picture after cropping (black area shows how much has been lost)

Spirit level

spirit level
Spirit level

A spirit level is a pretty essential extra and you can buy very cheap little spirit levels designed to fit into the hot shoe of an SLR camera (see left). Use the spirit level to make sure the tripod's head is level and that when you attach the panoramic head (see below) and/or camera, that these are level also.

If you shoot spherical panoramas you do not need to set up the panoramic head to be perfectly level since you can realign the stitched image with the horizon afterwards in software. However a spirit level like this is, in my opinion, nevertheless an essential piece of equipment.


Remote shutter release

If you find that you are doing long exposures quite often, then a remote release cable or an infra red remote release (if there is one for your camera) can be useful. By using this you also reduce the likelihood of accidentally knocking the tripod or camera while you are doing the shoot. If you are using a digital SLR camera and it has mirror-lockup, using that feature with a remote shutter release allows you to minimise vibrations when you shoot the panorama. (If your panoramic head is large and/or a budget model, the chances of vibration when the shutter fires are increased.)

Panoramic head ("pano-head")

Kaidan Kiwi 900/950 panoramic head [object movie courtesy of Kaidan Inc.]

A panoramic head is an additional attachment you put on the top of the tripod before you attach the camera. It allows you to position the camera so that as you pan to take each picture you are rotating around the no-parallax-point of the camera lens. This in turn eliminates parallax which could otherwise prevent you achieving a sharp high-quality panorama. If you look closely at the object movie of the Kaidan Kiwi 900/950 panoramic head (left) you will notice that the centre of the lens is above the point of rotation and that the camera is rotating about a point in the lens, not the camera body. For more information see the description of parallax and the article about using a panoramic head.

Panoramic heads also make it easier to rotate the camera smoothly and many have click-stops of some kind and a spirit level. These features are also available in the Q-top, which is a very neat small tripod mount that provides a quick release shoe for the camera. The shoe is held very tightly in position when placed back onto the mount, and the shoe has 30 degree increments to make it easy to shoot a series of pictures for a panorama. But the Q-top is no substitute for a panoramic head.


Wide angle lens

By shooting several pictures and stitching them together, you can create a 360 degree panoramic picture, no matter what lens you have on your camera. A wide angle lens has the advantages that (i) you don't need to take as many pictures and (ii) you can capture more vertically so the picture doesn't look like a narrow 'slit'.

Panoramic image of a garden scene made up of 12 images shot with an 18mm lens
garden scene after stitching, 18mm lens
field of view: 360 x 90 degrees
number of pictures required: up to 12
Simulated panoramic image of a garden scene made up of 20 images shot with a 38mm lens
garden scene after stitching, equivalent to a 38mm lens
field of view: 360 x 56 degrees
number of pictures required: up to 20

If you are considering buying a wide angle lens for your panoramic photography, beware that some stitching software supports only rectilinear ('normal') lenses, some support fisheye lenses and some support both. Be particularly careful to check stitching software if you are intending to use a fisheye lens.

If you are new to panoramic photography I suggest you postpone any ideas of buying a special lens until you have shot a few panoramic pictures... you will then have a good idea of whether you want or need a wide angle lens and how wide a lens you need to achieve the sort of pictures you want.

An 8mm lens is generally the widest lens available for any camera, and on a full-frame camera will create a circular image that represents approximately 180 degrees in all directions. Unsurprisingly using an 8mm lens or equivalent is the easiest/fastest way to create spherical panoramas in which you can look straight up at the ceiling and straight down at the floor, and not just side to side. If you intend to buy an circular fisheye lens, remember that although there are many products that can stitch these images, not all can. Check the article about creating spherical panoramas for more details.