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What are Panoramic Photos?

One of the first panoramic cameras was designed in Austria.
Panoramic photos are wide scenic shots that cover an entire vista rather than a limited snapshot of a standard portion of the view.
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  • Written By: R. Kayne
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 30 August 2014
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Panoramic photos are wide scenic shots that cover an entire vista rather than a limited snapshot of a standard portion of the view. Panoramic photos give the impression of looking at a 150-degree sweep, or the natural span of the human eye. The physical footprint of these shots can also bear a striking difference to a standard photo, in that many times panoramic photos have a longer aspect ratio. A rough comparison is the standard or traditional 4:3 television screen, versus the newer 16:9 wide screens. In actuality, there is no set ratio for panoramic photos, but many might be 4:1 or 2:1.

The first two panoramic cameras were designed around 1843-1844 in Austria and France. Joseph Puchberger’s Austrian camera relied on a hand-crank to take in the panoramic view, which caused uneven movement and focal problems. Friedrich von Martens, a German citizen working in Paris, designed the Megaskop panoramic camera, incorporating gears for steadier movement. Despite this improvement photographic plates were expensive and proper plate exposure made taking panoramic photos difficult.

Soon, photographers were relying on taking several standard prints in succession and piecing them together to create a panoramic view. One Union Army photographer by the name of George Barnard was quite adept at creating panoramic views that reportedly aided generals in casing potential battlegrounds and enemy fortifications.

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In 1888 flexible film replaced photographic plates making photography far easier, less expensive, and more accessible. Dozens of cameras hit the market geared towards the average person, many of which took panoramic photos. A few of these were the Wonder Panoramic, the Panomax and the Globoscope.

Early panoramic cameras were called “swing lens” or “short rotation” cameras. In order to take panoramic photos the lens would swing or pivot around the camera. This movement took only a split second and resulted in a panoramic view with a slightly distorted center field. The effect is similar to a fisheye lens but less dramatic.

“Full rotation” cameras or “scanning cameras” take panoramic photos of 360-degrees by the entire camera turning rather than the lens alone. These motorized cameras pull the film through at the same speed the camera rotates, exposing film evenly and precisely through a vertical slit. Full rotation cameras take excellent quality shots without distortion. Digital full rotation cameras are also available, sometimes referred to as digital rotating line cameras. These cameras are often used for taking panoramic photos of historical sites.

“Fixed lens” cameras have wide-angle lenses that do not rely on movement for panoramic photos. The quality of these camera lenses varies, as do results. This is the most common type of panoramic camera, and limitations of the fixed lens reduces these panoramic photos to about a 90-degree sweep. This limitation can be overcome by employing advanced wide-angle lenses with center filters, stretching the vista to about 120-degrees.

Today with digital photography conventional photographs can be assembled inside software to erase demarcation lines thereby creating panoramic photos. This is sometimes referred to as “segmented panoramas” or “stitched panoramas.” Successful shots depend on the skill of the photographer and the quality of the software.

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