Panoramas use an extreme aspect ratio and high resolution for fun, interesting, and dramatic perspectives.
The Nikon D3400‘s predecessor, the Nikon D3300, had an Easy Panorama mode that made things, well, easy. It’s the kind of in-camera all-in-one solution you might have used on your smartphone or another modern camera. But that has been removed for the D3400.
So how do you shoot a panorama with a Nikon D3400? Since the camera can’t do the stitching for you, the only option is to go back to the fundamentals and do it the old-fashioned way.
It’s a two-step process: shoot the image tiles and then stitch them together. I’ll walk through the most basic version here. It works on pretty much any camera and isn’t tied to the Nikon D3400 specifically. And there are ways to expand on it to get different kinds of results. On the negative side, that means more steps and a slower workflow that involves using third-party software. On the plus side, though, it gives you a lot more control, potentially much better quality, and sets you up nicely to be able to use the same technique with other cameras.
Step 1: Shoot the Individual Photo Tiles
The way this method works is to take a series of overlapping individual images, or tiles, that are then stitched together to provide a seamless single panoramic image. In very basic terms, what you want to do is shoot a sequence of photos while slowly rotating the camera. In practice, there’s a number of things that will help give better results.
Tripods vs. Hand-Held
There are a number of different ways to mount and hold the camera when shooting panoramas. At the top of the range are robots like the Gigapan or eMotimo TB3. These offer a computerized approach where the shooting of the tiles is automated, precise, and repeatable. They’re also bulky and expensive and require a sturdy tripod or another solid mounting point.
A smaller, simpler version is something like the Syrp Genie Mini. It doesn’t offer control over the nodal point, but it’s much more portable and significantly less expensive.
The step down from those is a mechanical approach with a specialized panorama tripod head that slides the camera back so that you can adjust the nodal point. They range from heavy-duty (and heavy!) models like the Manfrotto MH057A5 to small, lightweight designs.
If you’re looking to dive into panoramas more seriously, the Nodal Ninja offers a number of good cost-effective and portable panorama heads that are strong enough to work well with a Nikon D3400 with a standard lens.
The next best is a tripod head that has a rotating base. You can get specialized ones like this, but any standard tripod head with a rotating base will do the trick. While you can’t control the nodal point with those, they still work very well in most circumstances.
And finally, you can shoot handheld. The obvious advantage is convenience. The downside is that it’s less precise, and the physical movement of the camera between shots changes the perspective slightly and makes it harder for the stitching software to line things up. In practice, that’s mostly an issue with things that are close to the camera, such as railings, tiled floors, etc. It’s much less of an issue for panoramas of subjects in the distance. And shooting handheld isn’t a good option when shooting in low light or with long exposures, of course.
Consistency is Key
Keeping the exposure settings, focus, and focal length consistent between shots is going to result in a smoother panorama. If you have settings change between shots, you might have a slightly darker image to be merged with a lighter one, and that can create some ugly seams. And if you’re zooming between shots, the stitching software is going to have a much harder time trying to merge them.
On the Nikon D3400, there are a few things that can help with this and a couple of different ways to do it. I’m assuming that you’re using some combination of the automatic settings. If you’re already using fully manual settings, you can skip this section—just remember to keep the same settings for each shot in the panorama.
Something else that helps just that little bit more with consistency between the frames is shooting in RAW. The methods I’m outlining here will work just as well with JPG or RAW, but with RAW, you get more exposure latitude when trying to even out highlights and shadows across a panorama, as well as more room to move in correcting things later on like lens vignetting. I nearly always shoot RAW, and it has strong advantages in situations like this, although it does require more processing before the image is usable.
Exposure Lock Method
This is the easiest way to do it on the Nikon D3400. It works in any of the automatic exposure modes: P, A, or S. It’s an excellent option for handheld shooting or with a tripod in conditions where you can use a relatively fast shutter speed. If you’re shooting with long exposures, you won’t want your hand on the camera while the shutter’s open, so you’ll be better off using the full manual version instead (see below).
The Nikon D3400 has an exposure lock button on the back that’s labeled AE-L AF-L. It’s above the top right corner of the back screen, and you can hold it with your thumb while still using the shutter.
The label stands for Auto Exposure Lock and AutoFocus Lock. And, helpfully, there’s also a small key icon next to it. What that button does is keeps the exposure settings locked so long as you’ve got the button pressed. Don’t release it between shots, or it will reset.
- Point the camera at either the part you want to draw the most attention to or, if your panorama is going to include areas of different lighting, a part that has a safe middle ground.
- Half-press the shutter button to focus.
- Then press the AE-L / AE-F button with your right thumb and hold it down.
- Now, point the camera at the left or right edge of the area you want to include in your panorama. Add a little buffer to add some flexibility when cropping later. You can start at the left and move right, or vice versa—there is a slight convenience advantage in going left to right because some stitching software has a hard time automatically detecting sequences shot right to left. And while we’re most used to horizontal panoramas, there’s no reason you can’t also make a vertical panorama.
- When shooting each shot, make sure that there’s some overlap. For the matching and perspective algorithms to do their thing, you’ll need some overlap between each shot. The idea is somewhere around 20 percent, but you don’t need to get too hung up on precise degrees–in many cases, the software can work comfortably with a bit more or less. So just eyeball it unless you’re using a specialized panoramic tripod head that lets you define specific increments of rotation.
- Once you’ve done the row, you’re done. It is, of course, possible to shoot multi-row panoramas, but I’m focusing here on the simplest approach of a single row. I’ll sometimes repeat the exercise as a precaution.
- You’re done with the shooting. Now it’s time to feed the tiles into editing and stitching software (see below).
Full Manual Method
Using the AE-L button is the most convenient in many cases, especially if shooting handheld, but it’s not the only way to do it. You can also put the camera into full manual mode. It gives you more control, and it’s much better in situations where any vibration from your hands on the camera is critical, such as shooting long exposure.
As you’d expect, using the manual mode turns off the automatic exposure settings. It gives you maximum control, but if you’re not used to using manual exposure, it can be more complicated to get the exposure right. It’s also pretty much foolproof and also works on any camera that gives you a manual control option—not just the Nikon D3400.
The first step is to set your focus and exposure settings. So you’ll need to set your ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.
There is one potential gotcha that can catch you out if you’re not careful. If you have the D3400’s Auto ISO Sensitivity Control set to On, you’ll want to turn it off. You can find that setting on the camera’s menu under the camera icon > ISO sensitivity settings > Auto ISO sensitivity control. Otherwise, it’s going to negate the point of putting the camera into Manual mode because it’s still going to adjust the exposure itself between images. It’s an easy thing to overlook.
The rest of the process is the same as using the AE-L button method. You want to do the same kind of tiles with overlap.
General Tips for Shooting Panoramas
Stop To Take Each Photo
If you’re used to shooting panoramas with something like an iPhone or other camera, they often involve a smooth panning motion in a single slow sweep. But when shooting individual images, you’ll get better results if you stop and keep the camera as still as possible while the shutter is open. That greatly reduces the risk of motion blur. The ideal is to use a tripod, of course, but handheld also works well in any conditions where handheld shooting would normally work.
Polarizing Filters with Panoramas
In most cases, especially with skies, don’t use a polarizing filter. Because of the way that they react to light, you’ll end up with uneven patches. I have more on that in a post on using circular polarizers on wide-angle lenses.
Vertical vs Horizontal Framing
You can hold the camera vertically or horizontally, but for maximum flexibility and resolution, hold the camera vertically and line the photos up in portrait style. Like this:
Step 2: Stitch the Images Together to Create a Panorama
The second step is to stitch the image tiles together. Software algorithms do the heavy lifting here.
Panorama Stitching Software
There are quite a few apps that can stitch images together; I’ve listed some of them below, and you can find more panorama stitching apps here.
Each has its pros and cons. There’s nothing specific about the files generated by the Nikon D3400 that lend themselves to one app over another with one exception–if you want to feed RAW (.nef) files in directly without processing them to JPG or TIFF first, you’ll need to make sure the app can read RAW files. If you’re after something simple, free, and cross-platform, take a look at Hugin or AutoStitch. For more advanced capabilities, PTGUI and AutoPano Pro are good. Both are paid apps. If you’re using GIMP, there are plugins that can add panorama stitching, like this one.
Photoshop and Lightroom also have panorama stitching features built-in. So if you’re already using either of those, it’s a good place to start. For this quick demo, I’m going to use Lightroom Classic’s built-in panorama stitcher. The workflow is similar in the other apps–import the sequence of images, have the software automatically align the images, make any tweaks, and then export the stitched panorama–but each app has its own options and features.
Stitching in Lightroom Classic
I’m just going to do a simple single-row horizontal panorama here. I’m starting with Nikon NEF files.
- Choose one of the images in the sequence and open it in the Develop module. Make any basic edits such as brightness or contrast, etc. While it’s not essential, checking the “Enable Profile Corrections” box under the Lens Corrections tab can help address any lens vignetting or lens distortion that might make it harder on the stitching algorithm.
- Apply the edits across every image in the sequence so that they’re consistent. In Lightroom, you do this with the Sync function (or AutoSync, if you have that turned on).
- Select all of the images in the sequence, either in the Library’s Grid Mode or in the filmstrip at the bottom. Right-click one of the images (or use the top menu’s Photo > Photo Merge item) and choose “Photo Merge.” Choose the Panorama item.
- You’ll get a popup window with some basic options and a preview of the image.
- Select a projection mode. If in doubt, start with Cylindrical. You’ll get a preview of the effect, so by all means, try the others in case they fit the look you’re going for. The Auto Crop option crops down to only the functional part of the images, removing any white edges. In this example, the panning wasn’t perfectly flat, so the stitched version appears to slope down a bit. The Boundary Warp slider can also help with this.
- Once you’re happy with the preview, click the Merge Button at the bottom right. It’ll then process the stitching more carefully and add the new stitched panorama. Now that you have a shiny new stitched panorama, you can go ahead and make more edits. An advantage of doing all this in Lightroom is that the stitched version is still a RAW file (it creates it as a DNG file), so you retain all the benefits of working natively in a RAW format.
After some tweaking, this one comes out like this:
Here’s another one with a much busier foreground. But the stitching algorithms do a remarkable job even with ones like this (which was shot handheld).
And this one, also shot handheld, stitches together 14 individual images. If you look very closely at full resolution, there are some stitching errors in the ripples of the water simply because they’re moving. That’s where the fancier stitching software can offer some improvements over the Lightroom stitching.