Picture: Sunset light on clouds with full moon rising over Mono Lake from above Conway Summit, Mono County, Eastern Sierra, California

Image: Sunset light on clouds with full moon rising over Mono Lake from above Conway Summit, Mono County, Eastern Sierra, California

Question: Is there a definite point when something can or should be called a “Panorama” vs. a time when it shouldn’t? Is this image a Panorama? If it’s not a Panorama, what would you call it?

The shot shown here is a 7-frame stitched image taken with my Nikon D800, using a 28-70mm f/2.8 lens set at 30mm in the vertical orientation, shooting individual frames while moving from left to right with an approximately 30% overlap between frames. Even though this is a nearly square format image, I still call it a Panorama. Do you think this is a correct name / label / designation? Is there a better designation I should be using?

When I teach my Panoramic Photography workshops, I teach that there are two modes of thought when referring to a “Panorama” image. First is the traditional wide view format image we all think of when we hear the words panorama or panoramic. But I go on to say that the process of shooting images intended to be stitched together can also be said to be “Shooting a Panorama,” regardless of the format of the finished image. Some people might well argue that because of the finished format, this isn’t a true ‘Panorama’ as much as as stitched image.

In my opinion, the moniker of ‘stitched image’ is a cold and sterile designation. It refers to an output that can only occur after a post production action has taken place, i.e. the act of stitching together multiple frames. It doesn’t account for any deliberate choice or action when actively shooting while on location. If you look up the definition of panorama, you’ll find something akin to “a wide, or wider than normal field of view.” (Hooray for specifics!)

This image was made specifically by shooting a series of images to render a finished image that was wider than what the normal 30mm vertical field of view was capable of seeing. So in that case, I’d argue it is a Panorama. But if I took the same shot with a single, wide-angle horizontal frame, and then cropped the image to this same proportion, surely no one would call the resulting square-framed image a panorama, right? Conversely, what about those 360 Virtual Reality Images? Clearly they are all created by the act of stitching together photos, but nobody calls them either a Panorama or a Stitched Virtual Reality Image. They’re just known as a VR image. Again, the stitching aspect is just a given due to the production aspects, but not needed as a given designation to describe the finished image.

So, did I shoot a panorama, or didn’t I? Is it the resulting display format what counts when you call something a panorama, or is it the process of shooting multiple frames to be constructed later into a view beyond what a single frame field of view could produce that makes it a panorama? Personally I fall on the side that says Panorama is a Process which w

I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’d care to leave a comment.

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Gary Crabbe is an award-winning commercial and editorial outdoor travel photographer and author based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, California. He has seven published books on California to his credit, including “Photographing California; v1-North”, which won the prestigious 2013 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Gold Medal award as Best Regional title. His client and publication credits include the National Geographic Society, the New York Times, Forbes Magazine, TIME, The North Face, Subaru, L.L. Bean, Victoria’s Secret, Sunset Magazine, The Nature Conservancy, and many more. Gary is also a photography instructor and consultant, offering both public and private photo workshops. He also works occasionally a professional freelance Photo Editor.

Join the discussion 12 Comments

  • Richard Wong says:

    I’m not sure of the true answer but I’ve always thought of panoramic as the long and narrow type of format. If you merely stitch frames for greater field of view but it’s a square or are more traditional format how can anyone differentiate between that and a regular photo? If you had to market it as a panoramic with an explanation to go along with it saying why it is then that probably doesn’t cut it.

  • For myself(in keywording) I call it a panorama as well, although that’s not correct in a literal sense.
    A better way would be to call it a (extra high resolution) stitched image.
    It all depends on the knowledge of the viewer of these terms.
    As the main aim is to get a higher resolution image than possible with one shot,
    another way of describing could be a multi-shot (high resolution) image.

  • Sohaila says:

    Great image – I always regard Panorama as a long landscape format. Seeing your question the curiosity got the better of me and checked the description of panorama in the dictionary (Dictionary says: An unbroken view of an entire surrounding area). So I guess you can call this image ‘panorama’. Well… I learnt something today, thanks for bouncing this idea at us.

  • Mike Shipman says:

    A panoramic photo, either by definition or inference/assumption, implies the use of multiple images to create one image that is generally a wide-angle view. This wide-angle view is usually also minus the distortion resulting from using an ultra-wide focal length lens in a single exposure. How many photos must there be to become a panorama? 2, 3, 5? Or is it the image ratio? Anything other than 2:3 where the longest dimension is how much longer than the shortest? What about multiple image compositions that aren’t linear, but are square? Are those types of arrangements more closely related to the so-called gigapan image?

    Someone a while back put together several images that resulted in a long, high ratio format and it stuck in the dogma that resides in aspects of photography.

    I think if you have two photos stitched together it’s a panorama, or 5 or 9 or 100.

    I suppose it could also be called a composite, but that term implies other types of manipulation, intent, degrees of image inclusion, etc. and, generally, a made-up environment. So applying that term instead would give the wrong impression. So, panoramic seems to be the most appropriate description.

  • Gary,

    The definition you provided, “a wide or wider than normal field of view,” is not bad, but there are a number of other definitions in Webster, including “a comprehensive survey of a subject.” Focal’s Encyclopedia of Photography devotes an entire page to describing what panoramic photography is, but primarily implies that it’s the creation of photographs “with a large horizontal field of view.”

    Unfortunately, these do not necessarily adequately describe what panoramic photography involves today. For example, there are a number of photographers who shoot what are called “vertical panoramas,” or panoramic images with an ultra wide view in the vertical (rather than horizontal) direction. Think of a narrow but tall image shot inside a cathedral, where the panning direction goes from the floor up to the ceiling (and even beyond, back toward the floor on the opposite side), but not terribly far side-to-side.

    When we shoot panoramic VR imagery (generally yielding images that include a complete spherical view — i.e. 360° x 180°), the resulting stitched equirectangular image has a 2:1 aspect ratio. That’s not too much different than the traditional 3:2 aspect ratio of full frame or 35mm still cameras. If you’re shooting with a true fisheye lens (wherein the entire projected image circle of the lens is contained within the frame), I’d say you’re still capturing a panoramic view — usually about 180° x 180° — even though you wind up with a square (or circular) 1:1 aspect ratio.

    Bottom line is to not get too caught up in formal definitions. Describe your work in a way that makes sense to your audience.

    When I look at your image above, I don’t immediately think of it as a “panorama” because it does not have an unusually long (or tall) aspect ratio. But knowing it’s a high resolution stitched image, I’d consider it to be… well, a “high resolution stitched image.” I’d even consider it as a “beautiful scenic vista.”

    In reality, most clients don’t really care about what you call it. They’re likely to have their own definitions and interpretations of what these terms mean anyway. And really, all they’re interested in is whether the image looks good, captures the essence of something important to them, and will suit their desired purposes (even if that’s just looking nice on the wall). It’s photographers who tend to get hung up on the technical descriptions of things.

    Scott Highton
    Author, Virtual Reality Photography
    Web: http://www.vrphotography.com

  • Stephen Spartana

    Gary, I guess I wouldn’t consider this a panorama considering your field of view is less than a 24mm for example. The photo is beautiful and I think that’s more important then a label that you might put on it. Also I guess you can call it what ever you like since it’s your image, but the act of stitching photos in and of itself wouldn’t make it a panorama in my book.

  • Arye Rubenstein says:

    Unfortunately panorama/panoramic has become integrated into our language to mean horizontal like vertical became portrait. I hate that as it dilutes the actual meanings for all, especially for key-wording. The way you want to apply it, it can also be a vertical panoramic or vertical landscape. lets create another oxymoron.

    A true panoramic can be multiple frames, stitched or not, even (if on film) showing frame/edge markings. What is more important is the final width/height ratio, I would say at least 2:1 or something close just try looking for ‘panoramic cameras’ and you will see where typical formats start but that doesn’t mean you cant use it in vertical/portrait mode. Consider if one didn’t know Dr. Land was the inventor of the instant/Polaroid picture process why couldn’t you use a (Polaroid) Land Camera on water or in a boat like I thought until I was 16?

    Why make things queerer and more confusing, just say what things truly are. Panorama/panoramic or portrait or horizontal or vertical all have different meanings in the true sense of each word.

    If you cant remember the difference between horizontal or vertical think which way the Horizon is for horizontal and all else will fall into place.

    One more thing: hemispherical panoramic or portrait?

  • Eric Rhea says:

    @Mike Shipman — I think your second supposition is correct. It should be called a composite. While implying some type of image manipulation, ‘composite’ doesn’t mean anything specific to the average viewer (other than perhaps the use of multiple images in some way; HDR, stitch, depth of field, etc.).

    Panorama on the other hand does. The term ‘Panorama’ very specifically suggests an image that is significantly longer (or taller) in one direction.

    I think it’s incorrect to say that ‘panorama’ implies the use of multiple images. That’s certainly the (currently) popular technique, but there are plenty of cameras out there (like the Fuji 617) that shoot panoramas natively. There’s even a few digital’s that have single shot panoramic modes.

  • Susan Neiswinger says:

    Not a photographer, but the image does encompass a wider than normal field of view. The image may be stitched, but it is also panoramic.

  • @Eric:
    Yes, “composite” sounds fine! I will use that in my keywording!

  • Brad says:

    I consider a ‘panorama’ to be a crop format, significantly wider in ratio to height. It need not be a wide angle capture. Presenting the subject in a manner which leads the eye across the horizontal image. I would not consider your image panoramic. I consider it wide angle.
    On a different subject, are you using a WP plug-in for your website print ordering/cart system, or is it a custom code?

  • Tim Rayburn says:

    The simpler you make it for the viewer/buyer, the better, because we’re all overloaded with too much data… How hard you worked on an image or how many separate images were combined, blah, blah, blah is really only useful to those having the patience and wanting to know the minutia of the nuts and bolts of your process – not the general public. Save the mind-numbing hair-splitting for the lawyers.

    So is the final image a square, circle, oval, rectangle or extended rectangle that has one dimension more than twice the other dimension – otherwise referred to as a panorama (whether vertical or horizontal).

    Now your viewer/buyer/student knows the common format and what kind of framing solution to look for.

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