How to Make Panoramas with Moving Subjects
This article explains how you can create a panorama that actually captures mild action. The thing that keeps photographers from making successful motion-freezing panoramas probably isn’t what you think it is.
Panorama with ‘frozen’ water ripples
When I first attempted to shoot panoramas that could freeze moving subjects, I knew that it would take a camera that could produce a fairly high frame rate, such as at least 10 frames per second. You need to sweep your camera across the whole scene in less than a second, or else moving objects won’t align from one frame to the next. You also need about a third of each frame to overlap with its neighboring shot, or else your panorama-stitching software will probably fail to combine the photos.
I quickly found out that you’re probably going to need something like a 20 fps frame rate to get a decent shot overlap, unless you are using a wide angle lens. I prefer to shoot panoramas in portrait orientation, which requires even higher frame rates than landscape orientation. When you pan the camera at a slower pace to accommodate slower frames per second, image motion between frames will cause moving subjects, such as water ripples, to no longer line up in the stitched panorama.
With a bit of practice, you can learn to quickly sweep the camera across the field of view and get the necessary shot overlaps. If you stick with panoramas of about a dozen shots in portrait orientation, this means that you can go up to roughly a 120mm focal length at 20 fps.
I tried using shutter speeds around 1/2000 and 1/3000 to “freeze” the action. Looking up close at my shots, I found out something that was very disappointing. The photos had terrible motion blur. What’s going on?? I hadn’t stopped to think that the subject motion while quickly panning the camera is on a whole other level. It turns out that you need shutter speeds typically beyond a 1/10,000 of a second to rid this motion blur. My Nikon Z9 and Z8 cameras can go up to 1/32,000 second, so no problem. I now standardize on using at least 1/13,000 shutter speed to reliably rid any blur, but it of course depends upon just how fast you pan the camera.
Seamless motion capture
In the shot above, I was using a 120mm focal length in portrait orientation. I swept my Nikon Z8 in an arc that took 0.6 seconds to complete, using a 20 fps frame rate. I shot in aperture-priority mode, and each of the 12 frames was taken at between 1/13,000 to 1/16,000 second shutter speed. I got decent frame overlaps at this pace, even in portrait orientation, and motion blur was eliminated.
This shot is a demonstration of how the water ripples are seamlessly stitched together (using the Capture One editor). Even at pixel-level magnification, there is no motion blur.
The Z9 and Z8 cameras can go up to 120 frames per second, but only when shooting jpegs. I’d rather have the quality of raw photos and sacrifice a little speed. For capturing really fast action in a panorama, you would be forced to go this jpeg route, however.
If you want to pursue doing this kind of photography, it means that you’re going to need a camera capable of producing both a very fast shutter speed and a high frame rate. I’d recommend plenty of practice shooting, to get the hang of achieving the correct shot overlap while whipping the camera around in a fraction of a second.
You can of course use shorter focal lengths (and landscape orientation) to be able to shoot at a lower frame rate, but the shutter speed still needs to be quite fast to avoid motion blur.
Photographs of this type simply weren’t possible to create before the introduction of very high performance cameras (or else synchronized multiple camera setups).