Wide-Angle versus Panorama


Today’s Question: Why is a stitched panorama said to be preferable to a good wide-angle lens?

Tim’s Quick Answer: The two key advantages to a composite panorama compared to a wide-angle capture of the same general scene is higher resolution and less lens distortion.

More Detail: The overall perspective, or relationship between the various objects in a scene, is in large part defined by your distance from the scene. Therefore, if you photograph a scene from a given position, for the most part you will capture the same perspective regardless of the lens used.

In other words, you could either use a telephoto lens to extract a detail from a scene, or you could crop a wide-angle photo to extract the same detail, and the overall perspective will be the same for both images.

Of course, if you’re cropping a wide-angle photo rather than capturing the same scene with a telephoto lens, you’ll end up with fewer pixels in the cropped image. This addresses the first benefit of a composite panorama compared to a wide-angle photo. To over-simplify a bit, if a composite panorama consists of five frames, the resulting image will have somewhere around four times more pixels across compared to a wide-angle capture of the same scene, taking into account some overlap between frames for the composite panorama.

So, I would say that the primary reason to capture a composite panorama rather than a single wide-angle photo would be to produce an image of higher resolution. This enables the final image to be printed at a considerably larger size than the single wide-angle capture would allow.

In addition, wide-angle lenses generally have more distortion than lenses with a longer focal length. That means you can generally get an image that is more accurate with less distortion using a composite panorama technique as opposed to capturing a single frame with a wide-angle lens.

In some cases, a photographer may want to have the unique “distorted” view that can be created by a wide-angle lens. But when you want to avoid distortion and produce a final image that can be printed as large as possible, creating a composite panorama will help you achieve these goals.