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Photographing black holes is just like making panos

Photographing the shadow of a black hole 53,000,000,000 light years away is an amazing achievement. I’m no expert, but as I understand it, astronomers used many telescopes around the world to make this picture (read more). Forgive me for simplifying, but using a bunch of cameras to composite a single image is basically the same as making a panorama.

And you can make panoramas with the tools you have right now.

Why not just use a wide lens?

You might be thinking that using a wide lens to get the whole scene in the picture is the same as making a panorama — but you’d be wrong! When you make a panorama, you can use a longer lens which makes the stuff far away appear larger, whereas a wide lens diminishes the size of things far away. If you have foreground and background elements they will appear more normal in a pano.

Use a telephoto lens

I love to use my 42.5mm lens (85mm full-frame field of view) because I’m so used to using it for portraits that I know how much of what my eyes see will be visible in a single picture, so I already know about how many pictures I’m going to need to take to get a single image of the whole scene. Use a telephoto lens to make panos and you’ll see that your picture has a lot of impact.

How many frames do you need?

You can use as many frames as you like. I often make a huge pano from several rows of pictures with several images in each row. This will give you an enormous picture with the field of view of a giant view camera.

Typically, the most important thing is to get the pictures overlapping enough. You need at least 20% overlap for software to do a great job. Use the grid inside your viewfinder as a guide (find out how to turn it on in your manual). It will show you two vertical lines and two horizontal lines, which are each 1/3 of the way from the edge. If you overlap that much, it’ll be 33%, which is more than enough for the apps I’ve seen. Just make your first picture, then notice what object is under the vertical grid on the right side of your viewfinder and on the left. Pan the camera right until the left grid line is on the object where the right grid line was.

Keep it straight

Oh, and keep your camera level while panning. It’s normal to have your horizon creep up or down as you pan. But, you’ll see that you’ll have to crop quite a bit out of the sky to get the horizon back to horizontal.

Using a tripod is the best idea, but it can be a little slower and certainly less convenient. A good technique is to turn your body and your feet so you’re facing the last frame, then twist your body back to start shooting. For some reason, this works better than twisting your body to make the last frame.

Use the camera vertically

You’ll have the best results if you turn the camera vertically. This way, you’ll have excess space at the top and bottom that can be cropped off without sacrificing your subject.

Photograph your hand and focus manually

Take a blank picture at the beginning and end of each series so you can quickly identify the pictures on your computer. Simply sticking your hand in front of the lens is a good way to do it.

Also, focus on the subject of your picture then switch your camera to manual focus. This way, it won’t shift focus to a closer or farther subject as you pan.

Stitch the pano

I use Lightroom to do my stitching, but I know there are many other tools, and many of them are better. Look around and you’ll find some free trials. You can also let Photoshop do it automatically.

In Lightroom, select all the pictures in your pano and right click on them in the thumbnail strip and choose Photo Merge > Panorama. Now Lightroom will do its work.

If you’re doing your first panos, I suggest starting with just two or three frames. It can take some time depending on your computer, and using more frames takes more time. Lightroom offers some different project methods — just try them and choose the one that looks best to your eye. this picture used six frames.

Finish the pano

You can finish the picture however you like. If you used Lightroom, then you’ve got a DNG file to work with and that has lots of color and tone options available. Personally, I like to use Aurora HDR to finish the picture because it makes the most of tones and has terrific effects. A picture like this has a lot of dynamic range, and even though it’s only one exposure, Aurora can help maximize the tonal range and yield terrific contrast.

And I love to use Luminar for black and white.

Do it again

I should have mentioned at the beginning that you’re going to get hooked on making panos. It’s liberating to be able to capture the whole scene as you see it without the limitations of not having a wide enough lens and with diminishing the subjects by using a wide lens. Plus, since astronomers used multiple pictures to make a single image of a black hole, you’re basically doing rocket science with your camera, too.

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