Panoramas can make for a fun and interesting option for capturing photos. Personally, I'm a fan, and I've been shooting them for many years. By capturing a very wide--or, for that matter, tall--field of view, they can be dramatic. And they can be revealing, by adding context.
Some newer cameras and smartphones have an automatic panorama setting built in where you can sweep the camera around the view and it'll all be stitched together in the camera. But as convenient as that is, you often don't get much control over the finished product, and you can often get much better results, and infinitely more flexibility, by taking a series of individual, overlapping images that you then later stitch together using software.
Here's a rundown of some of the better options for panorama stitching apps, ranging from simple, free apps to much more powerful, paid ones.
The ones I'm focusing on here are still image, flat panoramas. There's quite a lot of overlap in software and technique between flat panoramas and 360° virtual tours, but there are some specific requirements when shooting and displaying the latter. Regular flat panoramas--still images that have a very wide or tall aspect ratio--are what I'm focusing on here.
Dedicated Panorama Stitching Software | Free
The best panorama apps tend to be paid ones, and not inexpensive at that. But there are some free options. Overall, their features tend to be pretty limited and their user interface not especially well polished, but if you're dabbling, they're a useful place to start.
If you're after something simple, free, and cross-platform, take a look at Hugin. Hugin is free and cross-platform.
While it lacks some of the finer points and doesn't have the more refined user interface, it works quite well and gives you quite a lot of control over things like projection and control points. Free. There are versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
AutoStitch is focused mostly on the underlying algorithm that is then licensed to other software manufacturers to use in their apps. But they have also put together a rudimentary front end for it. It's very basic, and you don't get any control over things like editing control points or choosing the projection, but it's simple to use and it's free. There are versions for Windows and Mac.
If you’re shooting with a Gigapan panoramic robot, they have their own panorama stitcher. Despite some impressive capabilities, overall it's fairly basic and quite outdated now.
And one thing it does especially well is multi-row (or multi-column) panoramas, and if you're not shooting with a GigaPan or uploading the stitched images to the GigaPan site, there's not much reason to use their app—there are better options. But if you are shooting with a Gigapan (in which case you've already made a significant investment in panorama shooting) don’t feel as though you have to use their software—other options like PTGUI and AutoPano Pro work even better and give you more flexibility.
You can download GigaPan Stitch here. There are versions for Mac and Windows.
ICE, which stands for Image Composite Editor, is a product of one of Microsoft imaging research labs and is a good complement to the PhotoSynth technology. It has some unusual and really interesting features, like being able to create a still image panorama from a video pan and compositing images in ways that most stitching apps can't. It's Windows only, free, and available as a standalone program or as a plugin for Photoshop.
Dedicated Panorama Stitching Software | Paid
PTGUI is my go-to panorama stitcher, and it’s one of been using for over a decade. It started as a graphical user interface for some underlying command line tools known as PT Tools—hence the name PTGUI. But over the years it has grown enormously and offers a wealth of powerful options in everything from masking out unwanted elements, manually editing control points, straightening horizons, and working with very large and multi-row panoramas.
Available from the Mac App Store. There’s a free version that’s limited to 5 images; if you want to stitch together more images than that, you’ll need to upgrade to the Pro version.
Overall, it' not in the same league as PTGUI or AutoPano Pro, but it is also a lot cheaper. Mac only.
Available from the Mac App Store. There’s a free Lite version that has basic functionality. If you want features like being able to work with RAW files, you’ll need to upgrade to the paid version.
Overall, it's pretty basis. Two things are notable, though: it makes it very easy to work with multi-row stitching, and if you're looking to share the panoramas quickly on social media there are built-in tools to help with that.
Apps that Includes Panorama Stitching / Free
GIMP. GIMP doesn’t natively support panorama stitching, but you can get plugins that add the functionality, like this one.
Software that Includes Panorama Stitching | Paid
If you're already using Lightroom, recent versions have a very capable panorama stitching function baked in. You don't get much control over the process, but in many cases, the stitching engine works very effectively. And there's a lot of convenience in having it so readily accessible in the place where you're managing and editing your images.
Lightroom is a paid app for Windows and Mac and has a trial version available.
Photoshop is endless powerful, and one of its numerous features is that it can stitch panoramas. It doesn't make much sense to buy Photoshop just for the panorama stitching option (called Photo Merge), but many of us already have it installed. And it's quite a powerful and effective option for this task.
Photoshop’s panorama stitcher works very similarly to the one in Lightroom—they share underlying engines and algorithms. If you’re already using Lightroom, it can be more convenient to use the one there. If you’re not using Lightroom, Photoshop’s version will give very similar results, although it does give you more options. One I particularly like is the option to use the Content Aware Fill feature as part of the photo merge process to fill in transparent areas—it can work really well in some situations.
Photoshop is available for Windows and Mac and is a paid app with a free trial.
Some of these apps support RAW files, but many don’t. If you want to work directly with RAW files—and there are some advantages to doing so—you’ll need to make sure the app supports the format. Lightroom is an example of one that supports working with RAW files directly, and it even outputs the stitched panorama as a RAW file (DNG format).
Panorama - Perspective Image Stitcher. This Mac app looks on the surface to be good, but it doesn’t work well for stitching more than three images at once. If you want to do a panorama with more tiles than that, you can technically stitch them in small batches and then stitch the resulting mini-panos, but that’s a really poor way to do it. Users have also reported that its merging algorithm also leads to substandard results.
Canon PhotoStitch. While it's put out in support of Canon cameras, it's not limited only to working with images shot with a Canon. But there's not a lot else going for it when there are much better options available. Windows only.
No Longer Available
Kolor / Autopano Pro, AutoPano Giga. For a long time, the various Autopano products put out by color were among the best in the business, with powerful stitching apps that gave a lot of control over the whole process. But Kolor closed down in 2018, and their Autopano products are no longer available.