Something that has been a huge part of my workflow in the previous couple of years in both weddings and portraiture is stitched images. Whether they be panoramics, vertos or Brenizers, they have been an integral part of my method for shooting everything from natural light portraits to table decorations. I have been asked and wanted to discuss the how's, when's and most importantly the why's of stitching images!
What is a stitched image?
I am assuming most people will be aware of what I am referring to, but for those that don't, it is fairly simple. The premise of stitching images is simply to cover a greater area by taking multiple photos around or across a subject or scene, then joining them in either photoshop or lightroom. This can be shot from left>right or vice versa to create a panoramic, from top>bottom or vice versa to create a vertorama or (the way I shoot them) spiralling out from centre to create a Brenizer (named after Ryan Brenizer, brilliant photographer and interpreted inventor of the technique).
Why stitch portraits?
The vast majority of the people using any of these techniques are landscape shooters who want to either create a letterbox shaped crop to their image and/or to cover a greater area than can be pleasantly rendered by most focal length/sensor combinations. But there is more to it.
I shall speak only for myself, but I honestly believe there is a look to shooting brenizers in a very particular way that creates an image that cannot be replicated. The way I view brenizers is as a substitute for medium format! Keeping in mind that with a consistent sensor size, the three factors that will affect depth of field will be distance to subject, focal length and aperture, I am able to create images that work in ways that couldn't be done with a single shot on full frame or smaller sensors.
So let's say I am shooting with the intention of creating a nice 3/4 length portrait with a 135mm lens. Obviously this would mean I have to be a fair distance away from my subject, which will increase my depth of field. But by moving to say a tight headshots distance from my subject and shooting a series of images starting with this headshot but spiralling down and round to create the same 3/4 frame, I will have created a significantly narrower depth of field by keeping the focal length and aperture the same, just reducing my distance to the subject. In addition to the narrower depth of field, there is the added benefit of a much higher resolution final file due to the multiplication of the megapixel count.
This technique is now allowing us to take much wider shots but with the far narrower depth of field than would be possible with a single shot. This means we are able to mimic the DOF of medium format and similar. Half body, 3/4 and full body images suddenly have the same cinematic depth of field as a headshot. You can now incorporate more scenery into the image without it becoming bland or distracting! To put it simply, I just LOVE the aesthetic it creates. Even shooting a half body in two images can create a really strong effect, as shown at the bottom of this blog!
How do you shoot stitched portraits?
Its a lot simpler than you might think. I don't use a tripod or monopod or any silly gadgets, its just down to understanding the approach and practise. Now I know for a fact that because it isn't something you can just buy your way in to, many people will never give this technique a serious try!
Sad but true.
But let's leave them behind and create some really cool images!
So to start, I strongly recommend using a prime lens somewhere between 85mm and 135mm. Can you use a zoom like a 70-200mm? Yes but there is a far larger margin for error and you miss out on the more interesting apertures to play with. Fixed focal length will definitely simplify the process! You want to plan the shot! Plan what you want the final crop to be. If you want a half body or a full body etc. Plan what is included in the frame from the surroundings. Explain the technique in base detail to your subject, informing them that they need to stay pretty still for the 3-4 second this takes. Then we get to the shooting...
You're going to want to be in Manual Mode. You technically can shoot in an automated mode by using the camera to freeze the exposure, but this is daft, hit and miss and can negatively affect the flow of the shoot. So you're in Manual Mode, fixed focal length and you have set your exposure. You will be shooting landscape orientation. With autofocus on, frame up and shoot your first shot. This should be the subjects face with their nearest eye in crisp focus. You can shoot a couple of these shots so you can guarantee a tack sharp shot, though as you progress with this, you'll become more confident!
Having taken your first shot, holding the camera steady, turn off your auto focus being sure not to knock the focus ring or move dramatically. Now your focus is locked you can begin the sequence by tilting your camera down and taking a shot that cuts off the top of the frame about halfway down the face. This will mean you have something from the previous frame for your software to connect each frame to. Continue this sequence of tilting and shooting to include as much of the subject as you want to make the final frame with a tiny amount of overlap. Now that you have worked vertically down it is time to work up the (camera left) side of the person, again making sure to include some of the subject in the right of your frame for context for the software. Once that side is finished, work down the opposite side. You have now shot your first brenizer! Sounds very elaborate and complicated but it really isn't. Once you've done it two or three times it becomes second nature. A good little extra tip is to get in the habit of immediately turning your autofocus back on once you shoot the last frame as it can be easy to forget!
How do you edit stitched portraits?
Thanks to Adobe, it's an absolute breeze to put these together. I do mine in Lightroom by simply selecting all of the images I want to be included and ctrl+clicking (right clicking) on them, scrolling up to "Photo Merge" and clicking "Panorama". This can also be done in Photoshop by clicking file>automate>photomerge. The reason I prefer Lightroom is that it doesn't disrupt my regular workflow and the end file is still a Raw file.
With Lightroom you will be given three options for merging; "Perspective", "Cylindrical" & "Spherical". I have found that 99/100 times it will be "Perspective", but if not it will be "Cylindrical".
Below is a finished 2 image stitched portrait taken with a 135mm lens at F2. Please give this technique a go, and feel free to let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
I know this can be fairly daunting idea at first but it is so worth breaking through that wall and playing around with this technique. Have Fun.