Over the last century, panoramic images have gone from being a photographic labor of love to something anybody can produce. There’s a reason why people have always loved this format. Personal and public photographic archives would be less rich if they didn’t contain some of those wide angle shots that take our breath away. Sweeping views of a rocky canyon, glittering cityscapes, a rolling meadow – regular formats just cannot do justice to such expansive scenes.
Technically, the definition of what constitutes panoramic photography can vary a bit. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with wide-angle photography but there is a difference, as Wikipedia explains:
While there is no formal division between “wide-angle” and “panoramic” photography, “wide-angle” normally refers to a type of lens, but using this lens type does not necessarily make an image a panorama. An image made with an ultra wide-angle fisheye lens covering the normal film frame of 1:1.33 is not automatically considered to be a panorama. An image showing a field of view approximating, or greater than, that of the human eye – about 160° by 75° – may be termed panoramic. This generally means it has an aspect ratio of 2:1 or larger, the image being at least twice as wide as it is high. The resulting images take the form of a wide strip. Some panoramic images have aspect ratios of 4:1 and sometimes 10:1, covering fields of view of up to 360 degrees. Both the aspect ratio and coverage of field are important factors in defining a true panoramic image.
Clearly, the image below of the Sydney Harbor Bridge – with an aspect ratio of about 4:1 and a broad field of vision – counts as a stunning panorama.
Panoramic scenes first showed up in ancient paintings and murals – as early as 20AD – but they really took off with the help of technology in the 1800s.
According to a Library of Congress website (in a section detailing the history of this format):
Shortly after the invention of photography in 1839, the desire to show overviews of cities and landscapes prompted photographers to create panoramas. Early panoramas were made by placing two or more daguerreotype plates side-by-side. Daguerreotypes, the first commercially available photographic process, used silver- coated copper plates to produce highly detailed images.
This 1851 view of San Francisco was made with five daguerreotype plates, according to the site.
Among the early vintage panoramas in the Library’s collection is this one taken by George Barnard from the top of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee (1864). Barnard did a lot of work for the Union Army during the Civil War, capturing panoramic shots of various “terrain and fortifications”.
Cameras made specifically to take panoramas came into the market in the 19th century. The Library of Congress website lists some of the early models as well as more advanced ones that followed in the 20th century.
In the film era, panoramic photography involved specialized equipment and lenses or many hours of stitching images together in the darkroom. Thanks to digital cameras and software, this process is a breeze these days.
Here’s a look at what digital technology can pull off quickly and ‘seamlessly’ (no pun intended):
Of course, the iphone and other phone models fitted with quality cameras have now placed ‘’panos” within the reach of most people. So, the next time we encounter an expansive setting, we don’t need photography skills or professional cameras to capture it. All we need to do is point, press and pan.
Panos are now likely to become more commonplace. And it is possible that they may lose a little bit of their ‘’wow” factor in the process. But there will still always be something special about these images that pull in so much of a given place or setting into a single frame, without sacrificing detail.
Above is a digitized photo from the ScanCafe archives. This panoramic shot was captured in Minnesota, c.1952.