How to Create a Panorama in Lightroom

A while ago, I wrote an article explaining how to use Lightroom with external editors. Since then, I’ve been asked specifically about merging panorama images. In this article, I will show you all the steps you need to take to successfully merge a panorama and have it back in your Library with minimal fuss. I will be using Lightroom 5.2 and Photoshop CS5, but the process is virtually identical with (reasonably) older versions of both software tools. This tutorial will focus on the process of stitching a panorama image while using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom as the heart of your post-processing and image management workflow.

How to Create a Panorama in Lightroom

If you are new to panorama photography, the best place to start is by reading our “Panoramic Photography Tutorial”. Manual panorama stitching technique will be discussed in a separate article.

1) There is a Catch

We start, unusually, with a problem. As a RAW file converter and photo manager, Lightroom has limited functionality when it comes to graphical editing. In fact, all its great flexibility is concentrated within the two mentioned main functions of the software. In many other respects, Lightroom is not the best choice. For example, I can edit 98% of my wedding photographs with Lightroom alone, no problem. However, the two remaining percent happen to be Brenizer method panoramas. This is where things, at first glance, get a bit more complicated. As I am sure a lot of you already know, you can’t stitch panorama images with Lightroom alone. If you didn’t yet know this and stumbled upon this article hoping to find a different answer, I am sorry to disappoint you. It lacks such functionality at its core. There is, of course, a workaround. What Lightroom can’t do on its own, it can do with the help of external editors and plug-ins. Panorama stitching happens to be one of those holes you can fill in quite easily if you own a Lightroom-compatible panorama stitching software which, in my case, is Photoshop. So, in order to create a panorama in Lightroom (sort of), you need to export those files to an external editor. Photoshop has a very powerful Photomerge tool for just such occasions, but the problem remains. You need to own another piece of software to perform such a task. I find that perplexing.

As different Lightroom and Photoshop are, they have their similarities. My point is, Photomerge could be one of them. Why not make it a stand-alone plug-in or an integrated tool that is part of Lightroom? Granted, without user-controllable layers, Photomerge is not nearly as powerful, but I am sure Adobe could come up with a way to work it out.

I may be overemphasizing this, and if so, forgive me. While I may be right on one hand, on another – Lightroom should not be mistaken for something it is not. It was never designed to be as powerful as Photoshop for anything but image management and RAW file post-processing. With that, it has tools for slideshow and printing. So perhaps instead of seeing lack of integrated panorama stitching tool as a shortcoming, I should see its ability to seamlessly use external editors for such tasks as a strength. A half-full glass is a better choice, then. Let’s move on.

2) About the Photograph

For this tutorial, I chose a very simple panorama image. The goal was to merge it with the least manual tweaking and errors possible. Thus, the panorama is made of just 10 vertical photographs and has no discernible main object of interest. Most of the image is out of focus except for a very narrow patch on the ground and one of the tree trunks. All of this makes the process of blending different images together very easy and quick. It can hardly be qualified as a Brenizer-type panorama despite having been taken with an 85mm lens at f/1.4, because of how simple it is. At the end of the article I will provide you with a few more (complex) panorama samples I merged in Photoshop through Lightroom just as successfully, but with some additional manual tweaking of layers and masks.

Panorama Image Sample #1

3) First and Foremost – Import and Process RAW Files

When I come back from a wedding or any other type of shoot, I import my photographs into Lightroom from CF cards directly, which means RAW image files that will be used for panorama stitching are imported with the rest of the images. I will also process these fragments just as I would any other image before merging them into a single panorama. However, there is one important step that I will always take with RAW files that are parts of a panorama, and not always with the rest of the photographs: remember to always fix lens vignetting and distortion through Lens Corrections panel in Develop Module. It is especially important with Brenizer method panoramas, which are taken at wide aperture settings that result in high vignetting.

Lightroom Lens Corrections Profile

Photoshop’s Photomerge tool has built-in vignetting and distortion correction when used in Auto mode. However, I do not always use Auto and prefer not to use Photomerge vignetting correction under any circumstances (it messes up my highlights). Also, Lightroom is much more precise when removing vignetting and distortion as it knows precisely which lens you are using and its characteristics (if your lens is supported with an appropriate profile).

Other than that, I try to do most of the post-processing work before merging these images into a single panorama. Once you are done stitching that panorama, chances are it is going to be of very high resolution. I frequently get portrait panoramas that are around 80 megapixels, and that is with a 12 megapixel Nikon D700 camera. Use a D800 or even D5200 in its place and merge 40-50 images and you may end up with twice that, at least. It is not easy for Lightroom to quickly handle such large images in its Catalog, especially in TIFF format which holds more data than JPEG, and especially if you tend to do panoramic photography on a regular basis. You may even consider downsizing it in Photoshop right after stitching process is complete. In any case it is best to keep non-destructive editing to a minimum on such large files. The usual settings – sharpening, noise reduction, grain, split toning and so on – are done to the RAW files prior to stitching.

That is not to say I avoid post-merge adjustments completely – no. For example, if I am unsure if I want that particular panorama in B&W or color, with grain or not, I will do minimal adjustment before the merging process and decide once I have a full-size stitched panorama in my Library. Why waste time and effort repeating the lengthy process several times if it can be avoided? Generally, though, I’m pretty sure about what sort of processing I want from the beginning. In such cases and if needed, I will add Post-Crop Vignetting with the help of Effects panel after the panorama has been imported into the Library. Even if I change my mind later, the original RAW files remain intact.

A side note: Lightroom 5 introduced an annoying import bug where, when importing images from an external storage device, thumbnail load times were excruciatingly slow in the Import dialogue. While there is a workaround, I am happy to report that Lightroom 5.2 has fixed the issue, hopefully for good.

4) Export to Photoshop

Now that your RAW files are all ready and looking good, it is time to start merging them into a single image. Lightroom has a way of exporting its images to an external editor, such as Photoshop, as either separate files or separate layers of one document. But for panorama stitching, there is a separate option called “Merge to Panorama in Photoshop…”. Before you do anything, first select all the images in your filmstrip or main window (in Library or Develop Modules). Then, right-click on any of the images and choose “Edit In” – “Merge to Panorama in Photoshop…” option, as shown in the following screenshot:

Merge to Panorama in Photoshop

Before the images are opened in Photoshop, you may get a pop-up dialogue saying that the version of Lightroom you are using may require a newer version of Adobe Camera RAW plug-in for full compatibility. This will only happen if the version of Lightroom and Camera RAW plug-in are of different generations (current versions are Lightroom 5.2 and Camera RAW 8.2).

Camera RAW Version Compatibility Dialogue

If that is the case, go ahead and click “Open Anyway”, as, unless you have a very old version of Camera RAW or one that does not support RAW files from your camera, it is unlikely to cause problems.

You should now see all the RAW files you selected listed in the Photomerge window. The final big step is choosing which merging layout to use on the left side of Photomerge tool. This is actually an extremely important setting and can mean all the difference between a poorly rendered panorama and a great one. All these modes will be covered in a separate article much more thoroughly. Even if you understand these modes, however, you may find that there is no one that works best all the time. I would say Auto is more often that not a safe bet, but it is also the one that will distort the image most. For our simple panorama that consists of vertical shots taken while turning the camera horizontally from left to right, Reposition will most like render the best result by far. Make sure to select the “Blend Images Together” checkbox whichever layout you choose.

Photomerge Reposition Layout

Depending on your hardware, the number of images being stitched, their resolution, chosen layout and complexity of the panorama in question, the process of merging photographs into a single piece may take anywhere from a few seconds to half an hour or more. In this particular case, because I’ve chosen such a simple panorama, it was a very quick process that rendered very good results from the first try with no manual input necessary. Except, of course, for cropping, which I prefer to do in Photoshop rather than Lightroom.

A side note: before you crop, you may consider merging all the layers into one by hitting Ctrl+Shift+E (Windows). Otherwise, with all the complex layers and masks, it may take quite a bit more time for Photoshop to finish the cropping process.

As soon as your are satisfied with the result, it is time to move it back to Lightroom. Because you chose to use Photoshop as an external editor for stitching the panorama, there is no need to save and re-import the final image manually. All you have to do is close the document and, when prompted whether you want to save the changes you made in a pop-up dialogue, click “Yes”:

Import Back to Lightroom

5) Done!

As soon as you click “Yes” in that last dialogue, you can safely close Photoshop. Your panorama image will almost immediately appear in Lightroom right next to the fragment RAW files. You can then continue with any sort of further adjustments you like. Everything you do is, as usual, non-destructive. You will notice that the image will be saved as TIFF in the source folder where your RAW files are located, so you won’t lose it.

6) Final Words

As you may have gathered by now, this article was supposed to explain how to create panorama images with Lightroom. The fact of the matter is, you can’t do it with Lightroom alone. Yes, I processed the source images in Lightroom and also have the final result in the Library without actually exporting and importing back again any of the images. So, technically, I guess you could (with some effort) say the panorama was made using Lightroom. At this point, I am sure some of you are thinking – “no, it wasn’t.” And… well, that is true. It wasn’t Lightroom that did the heavy lifting. Because the middle step, the most important one that actually created the panorama, is performed with Photoshop (or any other panorama stitching software you may own). In other words, this is cheating. Having said that, if your general post-processing workflow is built around Lightroom and you enjoy occasional panoramic photography, there is hardly an easier way to integrate the process of stitching panoramas as seamlessly as this.

If previously you found Lightroom and panoramic photography incompatible, I hope this article has helped you find a way to enjoy both.

7) Additional Samples

The panorama that I worked on in this article was very simple and, actually, the easiest I’ve ever done. Here are some more image samples that I created the exact same way. You will notice they are a lot more complex, however, and took both more time and more tries to get right. More importantly, though, stitching these panorama images also required some manual merging so as to avoid errors. If you frequently get errors while merging panorama images with Photoshop (either through Lightroom or not), our “How to Fix Panorama Merging Errors” might just be what you need.

How to Create a Panorama in Lightroom

Panorama Image Sample #3

Panorama Image Sample #2

Comments

  1. 1
    ) Jules
    September 29, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    How about doing the same with photoshop elements 12?

    • September 29, 2013 at 2:18 pm

      Jules,

      does PSE actually have Photomerge? I didn’t find it on my 11, not sure about 12.

      • 3
        ) Jules
        September 29, 2013 at 2:21 pm

        Yes, it does + content aware. I believe pse 11 has photomerge but not necessarily directly from LR.

        • September 29, 2013 at 2:27 pm

          Then it should be possible, but I can not say for sure. More cumbersome, yes. You would need to open each file separately, as there is no “Merge to Panorama in PSE…” option. Then, include all open files in Photomerge tool and proceed with the stitching. And this is where I can not say if it will work or not, because you will essentially create a completely new document for the panorama leaving all the images that you opened from Lightroom intact as separate documents. Which means, when you close the panorama document and choose to save it, Lightroom might not import it into its library simply because Lightroom wasn’t the one who created that particular document in the first place.

          It is worth a try. I am unsure, this is just guessing. If, however, I am right, the best way would be to just save the finished panorama as TIFF to source location (where the RAW files for that panorama are stored) after you merge it from the files you opened from Lightroom for external editing. And then import it manually back into Lightroom. Not nearly as fuss-free, I guess.

          • 10
            ) jules
            September 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm

            Thank you, Romanas.

    • 11
      ) Winston Cooper
      September 29, 2013 at 3:50 pm

      Jules..this off subject but would you comment on Elements 12. I use 11 now and as far as I can see the only “real” improvement is the “content aware” features plus ACR 8x. From what I am reading all the things done in 12 can be done in 11 but with more effort and clicks and ACR 8x only adds new equipment profiles and maybe a few bug fixes.

      Thanks..

  2. 5
    ) André
    September 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm

    Thank you very much its very helpfull and interesting, I am new to panoramas and Id like to know if there is a way to stitch ”piece” of pictures together. Lets say I have a bird posted on a branch and I took a clean picture of it but made a mistake and Ive cut is tail slightly. But I have another one from the same angle wich is soft but with all of its tail. Is it possible to take only the missing piece of that soft picture and stitch it with the clean one to have all of its tail ?. Like I’ve said im new to this stitching thing but Ive tried to find information on this and couldnt it would be nice to be able to not throw away some great pictures because of slight mistakes ! thank for your great work

    • September 29, 2013 at 2:46 pm

      Andre, yes, it is possible and not that difficult if the angle and distance are the same (for example, when the two images are taken a very short period of time apart, like less than a second). Do you know how to use layer masks in Photoshop?

      • 7
        ) André
        September 29, 2013 at 3:00 pm

        yes its actually a burst . Sorry but I dont know yet how to use layer mask in photoshop but ill learn it I am a very fast learner when it comes to this I only been shooting for a year and a half and Ive studied the ins and out of CNX2 lightroom (with the great help of this website ) nik sharpener and define . Photoshop is the next step . If you explain it to me real fast ill understand when ill put it into the program. Or is it that easy that it doesnt really need explanation?

        • September 29, 2013 at 3:08 pm

          It is not difficult, but may be a bit too much to put into a comment. Hold on to those shots. I will come around to writing an article that will help you. I’ve already started working on it and will hopefully have a chance to finish it up soon.

          • 9
            ) André
            September 29, 2013 at 3:15 pm

            Great to know that I can keep those shots .I understand thank you very much for taking your time to respond.

            • September 30, 2013 at 3:04 pm

              Andre,

              in fact, if you like, you can try and send me those files. It will help me get a better idea of the problem so that I can recreate it myself. Perhaps, with your permission, I would even be able to use those actual images for the article.

  3. 12
    ) Sataris
    September 29, 2013 at 7:40 pm

    Great Article (and timely too)

    I was about to head down and start experimenting with panoramas,

    Small question do you know if Photoshop has any issues with 360 degree panoramas?

    I have this feeling it may get confused with the images at each “end”

  4. 13
    ) Mike
    September 30, 2013 at 1:23 am

    Very interesting article, only one thing I noticed is that in the example the files are all NEF format and not DNG, does that mean the files were not converted but kept in NEF when importing into Lightroom.

    • September 30, 2013 at 3:15 am

      Mike,

      I prefer not to convert my RAW files to DNG upon import and keep them as Nikon NEF’s.

      • 26
        ) Mike
        September 30, 2013 at 8:38 am

        Romanas thanks for your reply.

        Interesting, I read an article by a top pro who uses Nikon View NX to cull his photo’s and then opens them in NX2, checks them before importing to Photoshop keeping them as NEF, his theory is that that NEF files look better than opening directly in Photoshop.

        My old workflow was similar before I got into Lightroom, I used purely NX2 for my enhancing therby staying with NEF files, for my next batch I will stay NEF and try a comparison. Nikon do claim that their images are better kept as NEF

  5. 14
    ) Jason
    September 30, 2013 at 2:36 am

    Ryan Brenizer has been doing this for ages already…. :-)

    • September 30, 2013 at 3:16 am

      Of course he has, Jason. I’ve been doing Brenizer panoramas for about two years myself, too. :)

      • 20
        ) Jason
        September 30, 2013 at 4:13 am

        Hi Romanas,

        It’s a really great technique but the only downside is the size it eats on our hard drives especially using RAW Files for stitching. :-) I have a couple of 2TB’s and both are almost full! :-) And then again doing the brenizer is so so so so much fun and awesome! :-)

  6. 15
    ) David
    September 30, 2013 at 2:42 am

    If anyone uses Lightroom only – no photoshop – just as I do you could also use Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE, see https://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/redmond/groups/ivm/ice/) to create Panoramas. If you install Raw Codecs (like DNG, PEF, NEF, …) on your macine ICE also eats the RAW files.
    The workflow is similar – do basic RAW adjustments in LR (White balance, etc.) export to DNG, drag and drop to ICE, stitch it, export the final image (and project file if you whish to) to TIFF (no RAW this time…) and drag that to LR again to finalize the image.

    The Catch is, it’s only available for Windows – no OSX. Also you could use the open source tool Hugin in the same way.

    • September 30, 2013 at 3:19 am

      The bigger catch is, David, it is a very cumbersome process (in comparison). You need to manually export, open in ICE, stitch, export to a new location as TIFF and import into Lightroom. With Photoshop, most of these steps are taken care of by Lightroom itself.

      Perhaps it is possible to use ICE as a supported external editor as well by clicking “Edit in Other Application…” in “Edit In” menu?

      • 21
        ) David
        September 30, 2013 at 4:19 am

        Totaly true. On the other hand I do not have PS ;)

        I was thinking about the external editor as well as I read your post. I’m going to look after that when I’m back home.

      • 23
        ) craig
        September 30, 2013 at 7:12 am

        The only thing that bothers me is that people talk about Photoshop like it’s easily accessible. Assuming its not pirated, its $600 or $700? Far out of reach for an amature like myself. If I have to take a few more steps to save $600+, that’s the way to go! LR was already a stretch, price wise, but its has been worth it.

        Thanks for the heads up on an alternative, David!

        • September 30, 2013 at 8:19 am

          Craig, I fully agree with you there. Actually, if you catch me or any of our team talking as if Photoshop is easily accessible and everyone should or does own one, forgive us, we do not mean it that way even if it sounds like it. That is also part of the reason why I had mixed feelings about panoramas and Lightroom in the article.

          • 29
            ) craig
            September 30, 2013 at 2:41 pm

            I would agree about the mixed feelings. At a minimum, I think the title should be changed to indicate that LR didn’t actually create a panorama in any way, shape or form. Similar to your “external editor” article, maybe the title should read “How to export images to PS for panorama stitching” or something like that.

            I subscribe to the email blast for new articles, so when I saw that you could create panos in LR, I figured it would be something that I could do (via a plugin or something) and then when I read the whole thing to find out it was basically just PS, it was a little disappointing.

            Still enjoy the site and the articles though :-)

            • September 30, 2013 at 3:08 pm

              Craig, that was a judgment call. I decided to go with this (slightly misleading at first) title for the article for a very simple reason – it is targeted at Lightroom beginners. The same people that are likely to wonder (and google) how to merge panorama images in Lightroom. Hopefully, such an inquiry will lead them to this article and provide them with both an answer (in the first section) and a way you can integrate merging panoramas with different software into Lightroom workflow seamlessly.

              I know the title is a bit off at first glance, but there was a real reason for it, so forgive me.

      • 28
        ) David
        September 30, 2013 at 12:52 pm

        Romanas, Craig, you can use the Export menu to send your photos directly to ICE (just tried).
        Though you will need to export them to TIFF, or would DNG be good as well? Im unsure here…

        • 30
          ) craig
          September 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm

          Thanks for the info, David, I’ll try it out!

  7. 33
    ) Rafael
    October 9, 2013 at 7:05 am

    Very nice article!
    Also, the Brenizer panorama is much the kind of image I’d like to do, get a blurred background while maintaining the wide angle aspect of the image.

    I have two questions:

    – when using the Lens Correction tool for fixing the distortion, does it actually decrease the resolution of the image? Sometimes I’m over the fence with this… sometimes I use, sometimes not, depending on the final look (pleasant or not) achieved with the distortions corrected, but I’ve always wondered this and with panorama this is almost mandatory.

    – for best results, should we use longer focal lenghts (ie. 50mm or more on DX-crop)? This means we should take more pictures than with a 35mm to cover the same image area, and is there any tip to make sure that every area is covered without too much distortion when doing this? For example, when doing shots for the lower part of the image, one should get on his knees or just ‘aim down’ the camera?

    Thanks.

  8. 34
    ) Rastaman
    October 16, 2013 at 11:37 am

    Hi Romanas,

    I wanted to thank you for your terrific articles. You and Nasim are putting a lot of effort on this blog and the results is just great. Being a beginner, I enjoy the profesionalism you put on each article and take advantage of all the tips you kindly provide throughout the blog.

    I would like to ask you what are the pros of creating a panorama like the one you showed on point 7 (picture of the couple), in comparison to a normal picture that could have been taken with a wide angle lens, zooming out a little to show more of the background and cropping if necessary.

    Again, thank you for your articles and for your response to this question.

    • October 16, 2013 at 11:43 am

      Hello, Rastaman!

      I think the best way for me to answer you question would be to direct you to this article. Read it, I think you’ll like it. :)

      Thanks a lot for your kind words, too. We do our best not to take rough criticism at heart that sometimes pops up here and there in the comments every now and then. Appreciation like yours helps us to keep going!

      • 36
        ) Rastaman
        October 22, 2013 at 7:37 pm

        Thanks for your quick response Romanas.
        Brenizer panorama article read and understood.
        Best wishes!

  9. November 18, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Hi Romanas,

    I’ve just tried doing what you recommended in this article. I edited my shots (14 in total using the same settings for each photo) in Lightroom 5.2, enabled profile corrections in LR, then selected them all and imported them into Photoshop CS4 using the “Merge to Panorama in Photoshop”, clicked the and after waiting about 10 minutes, Photoshop stitched it together …however it didn’t use the develop settings that I changed in Lightroom. How do I get Photoshop to import those changes as well?

    Thanks,
    Lisa

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