Learning something new is vital for any aspiring photographer, not to mention how interesting it can often be. But then there is a question – whom to learn from? There are a lot of photography forums and blogs around, both with good and not-so-good content, and it can take quite some time for one to differentiate them accordingly. Luckily, just when I was starting my wedding photography business about two years ago, I came across Ryan Brenizer’s blog, and from him I learned one of the best techniques I’ve seen around – the Brenizer method panorama.
Panoramas have been around since film days, and there were actually cameras specifically designed to take such images by using a longer portion of film than conventional 35mm or medium format cameras. Today, most point-and-shoot cameras, as well as some mirrorless and DSLR cameras, are capable of taking panorama images automatically, and, frankly, the result can often be spectacular. So what is so special about this so-called Brenizer method panorama? Well, take a look at the following image.
I took this photograph using my Nikon D700 camera and a 20mm lens set at f/0.5, and gave the full 80 megapixel image to my clients in case they wanted to print large, for those of you curious enough to ask. It was a very fine day and an amazing wedding. No one truly cared about the oncoming rain, least of all the gorgeous bride with her makeup and hairdo. As I was…
Hold on. A 20mm f/0.5 lens? This can’t be right… Can it?
1) Meet the Author
For those of you who still don’t know, Ryan is a professional wedding photographer based in New York City, and he’s done well over 200 weddings by now. I’d go on about saying how he was an independent (and very successful) photo journalist before he found his passion for weddings, but I fear I would never be able to put those words better than he has (a quote from his website):
Photography has filled me with purpose and joy, and taken me places I never thought I’d go. I have covered three U.S. presidents, been blessed by the Pope, and been stared down by Muhammad Ali. I’ve shared a laugh with Smokey Robinson, and had a picture I took of him used when he received a lifetime achievement award. I’ve photographed a 110-year-old woman as she told me what it was like to climb onto the torch of the Statue of Liberty. I was chosen as the only independent photographer allowed near Obama and McCain in their last meeting before the 2008 election. I’m the only photographer in the world to have been officially represented by the three largest photographic retailers in the Western hemisphere. Heck, I’ve even had a photographic technique named after me (which is crazy).
But I have never felt so blessed by photography as when I am photographing a wedding. At weddings, we are most visibly ourselves — the walls we walk around with come tumbling down under the forces of joy, anxiety (and sometimes a bit of alcohol). To document that experience, the relationship of friends, families, and a couple launching a new stage in their life, is an incredible feeling. When a client says “This is the first picture I’ve seen of my parents that actually looks like them!” I feel like I’ve done something with lasting value. After years of shooting and more than 225 weddings under my belt, I still find each one to be more exciting than the last, and try to make each one the best one that I’ve ever photographed.
While, in all honesty, I can’t say if there was anyone before Ryan who tried the mentioned panorama technique, he did have it named after him with good reason. Thanks to Ryan and his continued use of Brenizer method, many professional photographers have learned it and, by doing so, found a way to experiment and try something completely new with an immense amount of different possibilities. For all I know, he is the sole founder of this technique, and for that many photographers, myself included, are deeply grateful. How’s that for sharing tricks?
2) What’s a Brenizer Method Panorama?
I keep talking about it, but what really is a Brenizer panorama and how is it different from those great conventional panoramas we are all familiar with? Well, it’s first of all – surprise surprise – a panorama, and so, just like with any other panorama, you photograph and then merge several images to achieve a wider angle of view and/or higher resolution image. But this is where the similarities end.
With conventional panoramas, photographers tend to shoot mostly landscapes and cityscapes, or interiors, and, as you turn you camera shot after shot, most of the time you photograph horizontally (or vertically, or a little bit of both). Brenizer method panoramas, however, are most popular with (though not exclusive to) portraits, where you shoot around your subject as much as itself. But, most importantly, Brenizer method puts an emphasis on the amount of background blur (bokeh) and depth of field at a given field of view. Best way to achieve that is to stand relatively (or very) close to your subject and photograph it with as fast a lens as possible wide-open (or close to wide-open). In my practice, 50mm f/1.4 (for wider angle of view) and 85mm f/1.4 (even more emphasis on background blur) class lenses work very well for this, but you can, of course, use other fast lenses (the 35mm f/1.4, 50mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8, 135mm f/2 and so on) with great results.
The first panorama example I used at the very beginning of this article was taken with the lovely AF-S 50mm f/1.4G Nikkor lens at f/1.4 – I had to merge around 30 images to achieve the end result, but it was well worth it. Here is one of the images used:
Notice how close I was standing, and yet the resulting image is a wide-angle shot with tiny depth of field, something unachievable with existing lenses! Had I stood even closer or used a longer lens, like the great 85mm f/1.4D Nikkor I own, the image would’ve been even more surrealistic, but I found my lovely 50mm lens was best at that particular moment. Do you own an entry-level DSLR and want that shallow-depth-of-field of larger sensor cameras? Try this method, it will also make those images less grainy when shot at high ISO values if you choose to downsize.
(A side note: I mentioned that I used a 20mm f/0.5 lens for the first panorama, and it wasn’t a simple guess. I used Brett’s calculator (a special Brenizer method calc created by Michigan wedding photographer Brett Maxwell, a fan of the Brenizer method) to find out exactly what lens I had on my D700 when I took that photograph. So nice to know what gear I have in my camera bag… Thanks, Brett!)
3) How To Do It?
While it’s a relatively simple process for anyone who’s tried panoraming before, there are several rules of thumb to keep in mind while you’re at it. Here are the steps I usually take:
- Pre-visualize – it is of utmost importance for you to imagine your final image and composition so that you know what to cover and when to stop. Do know that some of the image will get cropped out eventually, and thus you should photograph a little more than you think you will need. If you plan for the image to be vertical, you may find that taking vertical fragments is easier, or if you want a horizontal panorama, horizontal fragments will be easier to keep track of. Whatever you choose to do, make sure you don’t leave any gaps, or they will turn into blank spaces once you stitch that panorama, forcing you to crop severely or trash it completely.
- Lock your settings – once you’ve focused, set your shutter speed, aperture and (if you prefer JPG) white balance, make sure to lock all those setting. Switching to manual focus and M exposure mode works best for me. Some might prefer using AE-L/AF-L button on the back of their camera, or focusing with AF button instead of shutter release button while in M mode to keep exposure and focus from changing as you move across your frame.
- Overlay – to make it easier for your software to stitch panorama correctly, you need to make sure you overlay the images by about 30-50%, but no more than that. Having too many images will result in more stitches, which can result in more faults you will need to find a way to fix eventually. If you find that stitching hasn’t worked, try removing unnecessary images.
- Start with your subject – when photographing people, make sure you cover them first, and then move around them systematically while, at the same time, keeping in mind which areas you’ve already covered. Making sure you’ve captured your subjects first will make the process easier for them, as it’s hard not to move for a longer period of time.
- Remove vignetting – photographing with lenses wide-open can result in some serious vignetting, which can ruin your final panorama. I usually process my images separately in Lightroom 4 and remove the vignetting using Lens Correction Tab before stitching the final panorama. I’ve found that Photoshop does a poor job of removing vignetting with its Photomerge function, cutting off my highlights and making them look lifeless and gray.
- Keep it simple – don’t start with 50+ image panoramas! Stitching them can take a lot of time depending on how powerful your computer is. Panoramas made out of 10, 6 or even 4 images can look astonishing, and are best when you just want to learn this new technique and all its quirks. Also, straight lines are often hard to handle due to parallax, so keep that in mind while you practice. Removing lens distortion in Lens Correction Tab can help keep those lines straight. If you plan to take group portraits using this technique, note that your resulting image will likely have a significant field-of-focus curvature, so it’s best if you keep your distance and use a longer lens, which will result in less camera movement.
- Experiment – while Brenizer method does wonders with portraits, it can be used in numerous other situations whenever you feel like you need wide angle of view and shallow depth of field. As always – try to experiment and find new ways of making it work for you. You are different from every other photographer out there, it only makes sense if you use the technique differently, too!
In the end, it sounds much harder than it really is and all these steps will become natural once you’ve gotten used to them.
4) What About the Software?
Photoshop CS5 does the job pretty well, although it also takes quite a bit of time. Occasional mistakes happen, but most of them are due to my lack of skill – after all, this technique does need to be properly mastered, and that is why I never use it for any critical shots without backing them up with regular captures. Usually, I use Auto setting in Photomerge within CS5, but sometimes it gets it all wrong, then I need to spend some more time experimenting with other choices. Also, for all you D800 owners, downsize before stitching! In most cases, you are very unlikely to ever need a 200 megapixel image even if your computer does eventually manage to finalize that panorama.
There are a lot of panorama-stitch specific software, but I haven’t tried any yet. I expect them to work faster, and maybe even better, than Photomerge in Photoshop CS5. I certainly hope to test some, and once I do, I will make sure to share my findings.
5) More Examples
The following photograph was taken with a Nikkor AF-S 36mm f/0.6G lens. It’s a very sharp and fast lens, and somehow makes that 12 megapixel sensor of my D700 suddenly gain another 70 or 80 megapixels, which I don’t mind. It’s a miracle, that lens, and I don’t believe anyone else has one of these in their bags :)
According to Brett’s calculator, this next photograph was taken using a 30mm f/0.5 lens. Quite something, isn’t it?
Visit Ryan’s blog if you want more – apart from being the creator of this technique, he is also a hugely talented wedding photographer. Or is it the other way around?
If you have any great Brenizer method panoramas, you are very much welcome to share them in the comments section below. Try it, with enough practice it can be very fun and inspiring!
Does that at least partly answer your question, Marcin? :)