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Wide-angle shots and panoramas both have their place in the photographer’s toolkit, since technology has made both techniques extremely accessible to the user. Many cameras now come with panorama assist and stitching software, while some wide angle capability is almost a given for non-SLR digital models. Knowledge of the trade-offs associated with each is essential to their effective use. Here’s a short list of factors to take into consideration, as well as pros and cons associated with each:
• Purpose: While both wide-angle and panoramic photos evoke a mental picture of scale, wide-angle shots tend to be better for situations where you wish to highlight a particular subject, however large that subject may be. Panoramas, generally speaking, don’t lend themselves to such a task. Of course, partial panoramas (ones that cover less than a full 360 degrees) can accomplish the same task if an object fills a significant portion of the frame. Panoramas are also useful in cases where you want to increase the effective resolution of your camera- by taking photos at a higher magnification and stitching them together, you can get greater detail in a photo. With a wide-angle lens, you sacrifice resolution for field-of-view.
• Timing: Because shooting a panorama involves taking multiple pictures, changing light conditions, moving subjects, or differences in exposure will affect the finished product. While the stitching software you choose can compensate for some of these issues, they still can cause serious problems and need to be taken into consideration. In this aspect, wide-angle shots have a definite advantage.
• Positioning & settings: Normal pictures can be taken from whatever angle is most convenient or makes for the best composition, but panoramas work better if there is significant overlap (30% is a good rule of thumb) between photos. Also, stitching is easier if the photos are taken with the same degree of vertical and horizontal tilt. Furthermore, focal distance figures into the stitching process, so shots that involve focusing on a subject that stretches away from you may introduce blurring and/or distortion into the picture. A good way to prevent this is to lock the focus and use the same aperture and shutter speed throughout the panorama.
• Equipment: As I mentioned earlier, some wide-angle capability is typical in a point and shoot digital camera these days; if you have a camera that can use threaded adapters or are using a DSLR, you have access to even better wide-angle performance... for a price. Panoramas can be shot without additional hardware, but a good tripod and some means of determining whether your camera is level is extremely helpful, to say the very least. You will need stitching software to assemble your panoramas, and here, you don’t always get what you pay for. Whatever software you decide on, be sure to try it out first under the conditions you plan to use it in!
• Printing: While panoramas are certainly impressive to look at, the problem comes when it’s time to print. Unless you’re lucky enough to own a printer that can accept rolls of paper rather than sheets, you’re likely to be very restricted in your printing options. Of course, there are countless on- and off-line options for printing your panoramas (including assembling your pictures from multiple pages), but things are definitely more straightforward for the wide-angle user in this category.
If you want to get involved in panoramic photography, give it a whirl- it's much easier in the era of digital photography than at any earlier point. Just make sure you do your homework and find out what you need to know to make your experience an enjoyable one!