How to stitch photos into a panorama using Adobe Camera Raw

Take several overlapping shots and then merge them into a panorama using Adobe Photoshop’s Camera Raw plug-in.

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One of the caveats of being a photographer is that you may not be equipped with a lens that’s wide enough to capture the scene you want. When such misfortune strikes, all is not lost; you can take several overlapping shots and then merge them into a panorama using Adobe Photoshop’s Camera Raw plug-in, which comes with Photoshop. (For the curious, the steps are nearly identical for creating a pano in Lightroom.)

Why you should use Camera Raw

Camera Raw has made some serious technological advances in recent versions. In version 9.0, it began stitching raw files into a panorama that’s also in raw format (DNG) in lieu of rendering the pano into pixels. This lets you keep all glorious data included in the individual raw files, which you need for adjusting tone and color.

In version 9.4, Adobe included another mission critical feature for your pano pleasure: Boundary Warp. This slider drastically reduces the need to crop empty areas from the pano due to the distortion voodoo involved in aligning the images. Heck, in the dark old ages of 2015, you had to use Photoshop’s Content-Aware Fill command to avoid cropping. And of course, Camera Raw has all those wonderful slider-based controls for adjusting exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc. (If you’ve got Lightroom, stitch your panos there; Lightroom CC 6.4 and later includes a Boundary Warp slider, too!)

Although you could use Photoshop’s Photomerge command to create a pano, the end result is pixel-based. Photoshop doesn’t have a Boundary Warp slider either, though its Photomerge dialog does have a Content-Aware Fill option that can fix empty spots. Photoshop also lacks the easy-to-use adjustments sliders in Camera Raw; to get at them, you have to open the pano in the Camera Raw filter so you may as well use Camera Raw to begin with.

Stitching a pano in Camera Raw

Gather the images you want to stitch together, but don’t bother adjusting them yet. Because some localized edits won’t make it into the pano, you may as well wait and adjust the pano itself. If the images are already open in Camera Raw, great. If not, fire up Adobe Bridge and select the soon-to-be-stitched together photos. Right-click one of them and choose Open in Camera Raw.

acr pano 1

Bridge makes it easy to open files in Camera Raw, including JPEGs and TIFFs.

In the Camera Raw window that opens, press Command-A to select all the images in the Filmstrip at left. Click the panel’s microscopic fly-out menu (circled here) and choose Merge to Panorama. Camera Raw automatically tries to figure out what lens you took the picture with so it can correct distortion problems. If the lens is in its database, the Panorama Merge Preview window opens. If it isn’t, you get a dialog that lets you cancel or continue without profile corrections. Since you may get a better result with those corrections, click Cancel. Pop into Camera Raw’s Lens Corrections panel, turn on Enable Profile Corrections and then use the menus that appear to pick lens manufacturer and the closest lens to the one you used.

acr pano 2

In the Panorama Merge Preview window, turn off Auto Crop and then pick the layout method you want Camera Raw to use for stitching. It’s worth taking each method for a spin, though if your pano is really wide (and the example is), Adobe suggests using Cylindrical. If it’s a 360-degree or multi-row pano (say, if you took two rows of photos), try Spherical. If it’s got a lot of lines in it (say, it’s an architectural shot), try Perspective.

acr pano 3

Next, drag the Boundary Warp slider rightward and watch as Camera Raw corrects the distortion around the edges of the pano. Feel free to drag it all the way left, though watch your pano carefully. On this Moloka’i palm grove pano, a Boundary Warp of 78 works well; anything more begins to warp the horizon. If you do end up with empty (white) areas, turn on Auto Crop or you leave it off and use Camera Raw’s Crop tool to get rid of them manually.

acr pano 4

When you’re finished, click Merge and then tell Camera Raw where and with what name to save your new file. The end result is a brand new DNG that you can adjust to your heart’s content. Click Done to close the Camera Raw window.

acr pano 5

This pano was tone mapped using Camera Raw’s Basic panel and an edge vignette was added using the Effects panel.

As you can see, Camera Raw made quick work of combining these photos into a beautiful panorama that needed very little cropping. If you feel compelled to hop up and down for joy, you should because this technology is incredible. Until next time, may the creative force be with you all!

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