Shooting a panorama is simple enough in principle, but there are a lot of tools that make the job easier. There are an absolutely staggering number of software programs, camera adapters, and specialized devices that can help you out. Since money is usually an object, I’ll mention the ones I’ve found that offer good capability at a reasonable cost.
Panorama stitching: If your camera comes with software that will stitch your photos together into a panorama, try that first, but be warned- you may still need to resort to a program dedicated to working with panoramas. I cut my teeth on panoramas while doing landscape photography in Arizona; after experimenting with a number of software programs (Jasc/Corel Paint Shop Photo Album and a whole host of others that may or may not still be available), I settled on PTAssembler and haven’t regretted it yet- I’ve been using it consistently for the past four years. It’s done an excellent job of compensating for differences in exposure in some of the sunset shots I’ve taken. It took a little while to process on my old Athlon XP PC, but the results were definitely worth it! One of the freeware plugins for PTAssembler, AutoPano, was expanded upon and became its own standalone stitching software; AutoPano Pro, as it’s called, contains a number of high-level blending techniques and stitching algorithms while still being capable of operating in an automated fashion. If you’re already using a recent version of Adobe Photoshop, you may want to look into Photomerge, a built-in stitching function. I didn’t care for the results I got with Panorama Factory years ago, but the recent versions (v 4+) have gotten very positive reviews. One of the key questions when choosing software is how much control you want to have over the creation process. Photomerge will take care of the process for you, but you won’t have the ability to tweak settings and adjust the process that you get in PTAssembler, Panorama Factory, or AutoPano Pro. Of course, you will pay for the additional control and capability- each of these costs more than the previous one. If you plan on shooting panoramas only occasionally, they’re probably not worth the investment, but if you’re dedicated to panoramic photography or working on virtual tours and the like, you will likely recoup your investment rather quickly. Whichever way you decide to go, you will very definitely want to download a trial version before buying!
Tripod: There are those that believe in tripods and those that don’t, but you might as well get used to the idea of using one if you’re going to be shooting panoramas. There is no point in losing detail unnecessarily, and one of the side effects of high-resolution digital cameras is that the increased resolution can (and often does) increase the error when stitching photographs, since there are more pixels to match. Camera shake can definitely be an issue, and image stabilization may not be able to sufficiently correct for it. Besides, tripods aren’t that expensive. And as the old saying goes, “better to have and not need…”
Panoramic tripod head: Have you ever held your finger in front of your face and closed one eye, then another? The result is parallax, a phenomenon that causes a stationary object to appear to be in a different location when viewed from different positions. The phenomenon is inversely proportional to distance, so a nearby object will appear to move further than a far away one. A panoramic tripod head (also known as a pano head) eliminates this error by allowing you to place the rotation point at the “no-parallax point” (also commonly called the nodal point) of the lens. There are very expensive pano heads and homemade ones, with a few relatively inexpensive options sprinkled in between. The Panosaurus, KingPano, and Nodal Ninja fit in the midrange, and they’re all spherical pano heads, which means that they can shoot full spherical panoramas. If you’re really serious about getting a pano head, do your homework beforehand; portability, usability, cost, quality, and purpose will all factor into that decision to some degree or another.
I’ve just scratched the surface of all there is to know and consider when acquiring the gear you need to create quality panoramas- I’ve also started with the most essential and progressed to the optional but very useful, since not everyone starts at the same place. Choose the options that work for you and the pieces you can afford, and go from there. Photography is definitely one area where practice does indeed make perfect!