Creating Drone Panoramas in Lightroom and Photoshop

The Photographer’s Guide to Drones
By Colin Smith
Rocky Nook, 252 pages, $49.95

One of the most breathtaking photos you can create with your drone is an aerial panorama. A panorama is when you capture multiple images while panning around a scene, then stitch them all together in software.

I have received more positive feedback on these types of images than any other. While they may appear difficult to make, it’s actually quite easy to make an aerial panorama if you follow the upcoming steps carefully. Don’t be discouraged if your first few panoramas don’t look great. With practice, you will learn what works and what doesn’t.

I’m going to show you how to create a panorama in both Lightroom and Photoshop. I prefer the Lightroom method because it’s quicker. The Photoshop method works well for images that have a lot of distortion. The ultimate is to combine Lightroom and Photoshop in the workflow.

Panoramas in Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom 6/CC is a great choice for creating panoramas. New panorama-specific features have recently been added to Lightroom. I predict it’s only going to get easier in the future. Here is the Lightroom panorama workflow.

I discussed how to shoot panoramas in chapter 4. Let’s begin with five images that we have captured for a panorama. Select all the images to be used in the panorama by Ctrl-/Command-clicking the thumbnails, as shown below.

We need to prepare these images for stitching. We can perform some preliminary corrections by applying a lens profile. This step will dramatically increase the reliability of your merges.

Choose the Develop module and scroll down to the Lens Correction panel. Apply a profile:

  1. Click Profile.
  2. Select Enable Profile Corrections.
  3. Choose the make (the manufacturer) of your camera.
  4. Choose the model of your camera.

If you don’t see your camera, choose something similar and experiment with the Distortion slider to remove the majority of the lens barreling.

Now that the majority of the lens distortion is removed from your photo, you want to pass these settings on to the rest of the images in the panorama:

  1. Make sure the images are all selected in the filmstrip.
  2. Either click the Sync button on the lower left of the right panel in the Develop module, or choose Settings > Sync Settings from the top menus.

  1. You will see the Synchronize Settings dialog. Click the Check None button to turn off all settings.

  1. Select the Lens Corrections checkbox to only sync the lens profiles and nothing else. If you adjusted anything else in the single image, then make sure to sync those settings, too, or just click the Check All button in that case.
  2. Click Synchronize, and all the selected photos will now have the same settings applied to them to match the profile.

Right-click and choose Photo Merge > Panorama. You will see three projection options. For most panoramas, Spherical will work best.

A fantastic feature is Boundary Warp. You will notice a lot of white edges around a panorama. Once it’s cropped, you can lose some important information. Slide the Boundary Warp slider to the right and notice how Lightroom warps the image to recover the white space and unwrap the photo. You can push it all the way to the right and recover every pixel. However, at full strength, it could result in unnatural-looking warping in the image or a wavy horizon line. Find that balance of a straight horizon and recovered information.

Note that if the camera was not level during shooting, you will see a wavy horizon or stair stepping no matter what you do. Either reshoot the panorama or use the Photoshop method in the next section.

If you still have white portions around the photograph, you can choose to hide them by automatically cropping the panorama. Turn on the Auto Crop option. This isn’t a non-reversible decision because you can also turn off cropping in the Crop tool in Lightroom after merging and undo this. However, Boundary Warp is a different story; this is the only time you will see this option. Click Merge and Lightroom will merge the photos together and create a merged panorama. The resulting image is a DNG file that still contains the full dynamic range of the image.

Note that if you shot your panorama as a grid and encompassed more than a single row, you don’t do anything different. Simply select all the images that you want to use in the panorama and merge it just as we did here.

If you are curious, here are the settings I used in the two images above. I also applied the Gradient filter to the sky and slightly turned down the exposure and the color balance.

Panoramas in Photoshop

There are a number of other applications that can merge panoramas, including PTGui. I don’t have space to cover them all here, so I’m sticking to Lightroom and Photoshop, which is what I use anyway. Photoshop is great if the image is too distorted in Lightroom, if you don’t have Lightroom, or if you just prefer doing it in Photoshop. Here are instructions for making Panoramas in Adobe Photoshop.

Open the Images in Lightroom or Adobe Bridge (it comes free with Photoshop). If you are doing it in Bridge, here are a couple of steps to follow.

Select all the photos that you want to include in the panorama. Right-click a thumbnail and choose Open in Camera Raw. In Camera Raw, we are going to apply the lens profile to reduce distortion.

  1. In the Filmstrip, select all the images by pressing Ctrl/ Command+A, or right-click a thumbnail and choose Select All. Whatever adjustments you make to an individual image are now going to affect them all.
  2. Click the Lens Corrections tab.
  3. Apply the lens profile.
  4. Right-click a thumbnail and choose Sync Settings.
  5. Click Done to apply the settings and return to Bridge.

Time to pass the images off to Photoshop. From Bridge, choose Tools > Photoshop > Photomerge.

A great way to work is to start in Lightroom and hand off the photos to Photoshop to do the merging. Apply the lens corrections first in Lightroom, like we did in the previous tutorial. Then right-click and choose Edit In > Merge to Panorama in Photoshop.

It doesn’t matter if you start from either Lightroom or Bridge, the result is the same and they both open in the same tool in Photoshop.

You will now see the Photomerge dialog in Photoshop.

  1. Source files show the images that will be included. Notice support for RAW files.
  2. Choose a projection method (layout). Cylindrical works best for the majority of stitches, or try Auto. You will see a few options. Blend Images Together is turned on; otherwise, the images will only be aligned and not masked together.
  3. You will see a few options. Blend Images Together is turned on; otherwise, the images will only be aligned and not masked together.
  4. To save time, Vignette Removal and Geometric Distortion Correction are turned off, because they were already done when we applied the Camera Lens profile. It won’t harm the image to turn these options on; it will just take longer to complete the stitch.
  5. Content Aware Fill Transparent Areas is a nice option to save you time. We will be doing this step. However, we are going to be doing some manual corrections, so we will leave it off because it’s pointless applying it at this stage of our workflow. Click OK to finish.

After a bit of a wait, Photoshop will complete the merging of all the different photos and you will see something that looks like a caveman rug with your panorama on it.

Fixing Distortion in Photoshop

We are going to stretch our image around a bit and clean up the edges. With all the layers selected, press Ctrl/Command+E to merge all the layers into a single layer.

Choose Filter > Adaptive Wide Angle to enter a tool that we can use to repair distortion and bending. It will automatically choose the Panorama option in the top right. (If you are bringing in a finished panorama from Lightroom for correction, try changing to the Fisheye option.)

To use this tool, drag the Constraint tool across bent areas to straighten them. It’s a bit of a balancing act, like multiple people jumping on a trampoline at once. Sometimes an adjustment will look good, and other times it will ruin the rest of the image; be prepared to frequently press Ctrl/Command+Z to undo. Here is how I like to approach the Adaptive Wide Angle tool to straighten images.

The first thing we need to do is create a level horizon (often, this is the only correction I do to a panorama). On the left side, drag the Constraint tool across what should be the horizon line. Hold down the Shift key and the line will turn yellow. This means that it will force the pixels underneath to a perfectly horizontal line and the rest of the image will be rotated and warped to fit.

Repeat for the right side of the image. This will level the entire image. You can’t do it all in a single line; you have to approach it from the left and the right separately.

Now we can straighten key elements in the photograph. Be careful that you don’t overdo it, but take your time and have fun. Notice that the building at the bottom is bent. Drag the line out and you will see that it curves with the distortion.

I decided not to hold down Shift on this because I didn’t want to rotate the slope of the hill, just remove the bending.

  1. Notice that the horizontal lines display in yellow while the angled ones display in blue.
  2. Vertical lines can be set to a perfect 90 degrees by holding down Shift. Notice I straightened some of the buildings on this.
  3. I also straightened the top of the building on the right with another adjustment.

When you are satisfied with the result, click OK to apply. Try to get all your work done at once; going back into the Adaptive Wide Angle more than once doesn’t produce the best results.

To finish up the panorama we need to crop the final image. Choose the Crop tool and decide on the size of the final image. It’s OK to leave a few gaps on the sides and maybe the corners because we can fill these back up later. When you are happy with the crop, press the Enter key.

We need to fill up the gaps. Ctrl-/Command-click the thumbnail in the Layers panel to select all the transparent parts of the image.

Press Ctrl+Alt+I (Command+Option+I on Mac) to invert the selection. We also need to expand the selection so that there is some overlap. Choose Select > Modify > Expand. Choose about 10 pixels.

Now, fill with the Content-Aware Fill. Choose Edit > Fill, and choose Content-Aware from the option.

All the edges should now be filled with a similar pattern and texture. If not, select those areas and re-apply Content-Aware.

I finished off the image with a few Camera Raw adjustments; you can see the settings I used here.