Holiday Panoramas: In-Camera, Google Photos, and Hugin

I've just spent a week on the island of Sao Miguel, in the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic. Unusually for me I didn't take a film camera, largely because the gear we took for whale watching and wildlife (including binoculars) was already quite bulky and heavy. Sadly, a heavy film camera and a bag of film was going to be too much.

Anyway, for general walking around I took the Fujifilm X100T, which is small, light, and unassuming, and therefore just about perfect for travel. This is especially true when the weather is warm, making heavy, bulky gear uncomfortable to carry. On one of our non-whale watching days we took a walk along the ridge of the giant volcanic crater above the village of Sete Cidades. It's worth noting that this crater is just the very top few hundred metres of a large group of volcanoes that rise from several kilometres below the sea. If it was all visible above sea level it would be on the scale of Mount St Helens, or Mount Fuji. This is a place of big skies and wide views, and even the fairly wide lens on the front of the X100T didn't really cut it: the answer was panoramas.

Panorama made in-camera with the Fujifilm X100T.

The X100T's in-camera panorama mode is an excellent, quick, and generally reliable way of making these wide photographs hand-held. The camera puts a line through the middle of the frame on the viewing screen and asks you to sweep the camera across the view, keeping a little arrow more or less on the line while the shutter chatters away. Lots of cameras can do this kind of thing, including (perhaps especially) phones, and the result can be seen above: it's a perfectly acceptable snapshot of the view, delivered as a jpeg with the dimensions 6400x1440 (the exposure mode is, obviously, automatic).

Of course, if you want to make a proper high-resolution panorama, you need to shoot a series of overlapping portrait oriented images on a carefully set up tripod. You also need understanding companions who don't mind waiting while you mess around with camera gear; it's not really compatible with a happy family holiday. But as a backup I did what we sometimes did back in the olden days, and took four overlapping images side by side, thinking I might want to do something with them later.

Back then we would get the prints back from the lab, and lay them out on a table to see the panoramic image, ignoring the different exposures between frames, and the jagged edges top and bottom from not holding the camera perfectly level. It was an amusing thing to do, but I doubt anyone did it more than once, which meant three or four prints from that batch were just badly-composed snaps of more or less the same view. Once they were mixed up, they made no sense at all.

Anyway, I backed up that day's photos to my phone, and thought nothing of it. Then after a while I received an alert of the kind that makes technology seem like magic: would I like to make a panorama? Google Photos had noticed those four images were a series, and had worked out what I intended to do. The resulting image, stitched together automatically from the four, is below. As you can see, it includes more of the scene than the camera did, possibly because the camera was being more conservative about cropping away from the edges.

Panorama made automatically from four images uploaded to Google Photos.

The Google Photos panorama is better in several ways than the one created in camera, notably in dynamic range (less of the sky is blown out), and composition (I was able to choose with more accuracy where to begin and end), and in the overall proportions of the image. The fact that it was done automatically was a very pleasant surprise, but it also has some issues, which I'll come to in a moment.

Since I had those four files, I thought I would make a panorama for myself, and see how it compared. My preferred software for doing this is an open source, cross-platform (Linux, Mac, Windows) application called Hugin. This is free to download, and offers a huge range of manual options, but I've always found the three-step automated process offers a good balance of quality and speed. I have the RAW files of course, which should give a step up in quality if I put some time into it, but to be fair to the other two images, I used the jpegs straight from the camera. And looking at the result below, I'd say Hugin has done quite a good job.

Panorama made from the same four images with the free stitching software Hugin.

Although Hugin also had to match the colours and exposures across the four images, it has done a better job than Google Photos of maintaining the Fuji colours across the panoramic frame (Fuji's Classic Chrome film simulation to be precise). The automatic Google Photos version is slightly desaturated, and has a strange vignette in the top right hand corner. Google's automatic panorama has cropped very slightly wider, resulting in some distortion and reduced quality at the extremes, while Hugin has provided a more natural-looking (to my eyes anyway) image, which is nevertheless very wide (7343x2080). Although it wasn't spookily automatic, it still only took a minute or two to create.

So what would I conclude from this? Well, I wouldn't print any of these on a large scale, but for larger display purposes, and possibly a printed family album, I'd say the in-camera panorama and the Hugin version are probably acceptable. The final, Hugin version is clearly the best of the three. The next time I find myself in this kind of situation, I'll definitely make sure to take four or five separate overlapping images, rather than rely on automatic panorama modes, however magical they may seem.

Download Hugin from here.