When I first began learning how to make virtual tours, I could not find a comprehensive guide that covered all of the bases. There was a sort of patchwork of tutorials and posts on forums, but I had to learn the hard way. Well it’s almost 2014, and virtual tours are gaining popularity, and it’s about damn time that changed!
My goal with this series of posts is to share all of the knowledge that I gained while learning how to turn my RAW images into a virtual tour. We will start off from the moment we get to our computer, and go through each step of the entire process, until we finish with a beautiful, fully functional virtual tour. A disclaimer: this is MY process. There are other ways to do it, but after experimenting with the various software options out there, these are the tools that I believe work best for the job. If you’re interested in the alternatives, check out this post.
So without further ado, let’s get started with Part 1. Here we’ll learn how to import our photos, fix chromatic aberrations, and use HDR software to get our photos looking pretty for the panorama that we’ll create in Part 2.
We’ve finished our shoot, we’re back at home with a memory card full of images, and now it’s time to import those files onto our computer. There are thousands of ways to do this, but here’s my method: I have three external hard drives, which I use strictly for my photographs and virtual tour files. On that hard drive, I have a folder titled “JOBS” – and for each job, I create a folder titled with the following format: “YYYYMMDD_CLIENTNAME_TYPEOFJOB” – so if I shot a virtual tour on November 25, 2013 for The Roosevelt Hotel, I would create a folder titled “20131125_ROOSEVELT_VIRTUALTOUR”. I dump all the images from the shoot into that folder, and grab a cup of coffee as the transfer takes place.
When I come back, the images are on my hard drive. I open up Adobe Lightroom and import the files into my catalog. Notice how I use the ‘Add new photos’ to import them. The files are already there so I don’t need to copy or move them. I use this import process because dumping the images and adding them to the catalog is much quicker than using the import and copy function in Lightroom.
The first thing I do after importing my files is backup my hard drive and move a backup off site. I have three external hard drives, and I use Carbon Copy Cloner to clone them so they are all exact matches. I keep one off-site, and two on-site. Every day that I work on my photos, I do a clone to the extra drive that I keep on-site. Then once a week, I move one of those off-site and bring in the third drive and clone that. That way, if my house burns down, or my upstairs neighbor clogs his toilet and floods my apartment, the most I will lose is a week’s worth of work. But I still have all the files! There is a lot to learn about backup theory, and if you really want to get in-depth with it, I would recommend checking out Chase Jarvis’ blog post on the matter.
Lightroom Edits and Export
Lightroom is a great tool for making quick edits to a large number of photos. However, our many images will be combined into one panorama, so at this stage we are not going to mess with color and tone. We will use Lightroom to fix a common problem that we encounter with fisheye lenses: chromatic aberration.
In the develop module, just zoom in on a corner of one of your images and you will see those red and blue lines on the edges of any hard shapes. In Lightroom 5, one click on the “Remove Chromatic Aberration” button should take care of it. If not, you can fiddle with the sliders and use the eyedropper tool to select the offending color.
After you’ve fixed one image, go back to the grid view with the corrected image highlighted, and select the rest of your images. Then click “Sync Settings” and make sure “Chromatic Aberration” is selected.
Now we are ready to export our files. If the shoot involves multiple locations, I create a separate folder called “ROOMS” and create a new folder for each location. I then export the images as 16 bit AdobeRGB TIFFs with a long edge of 2500 pixels. I use these settings because AdobeRGB has a very broad color spectrum, and working in the 16 bit TIFF format I don’t lose any information – which is very useful when we’re pushing pixels later. I reduced the size of the images to 2500 pixels because in this example, I’m not creating a huge gigapixel image. We just need something big enough to display on the web at a normal resolution, and I don’t want to bog down my computer with files that are way bigger than necessary. You can tailor the resolution to fit your needs…but remember, like I tell my girlfriend: BIGGER IS NOT ALWAYS BETTER!
Please note that I highly recommend using the HDR technique while shooting virtual tours because of the huge differences we see in light values. We are not just creating a normal photograph – we have to account for the full range of brightness and darkness that we see in all around us! Therefore you should grab some HDR software and process all of your images with it before you stitch them together. I have been using Photomatix for years, and after suffering through the other options, I can easily say it’s the best HDR software out there.
While using Photomatix, the first step here is to load one set of bracketed TIFFs in order to determine the best way to process the entire batch. Each room or location will need slightly different processing, so we figure out what works best for each scene and save those settings as a preset.
One thing to keep in mind is to be careful not to overdo it! I see a lot of straight up fugly HDR photos – DO NOT DO THIS! Please. And if you do, make sure not to tell anybody that you learned how to make virtual tours here 😛 Seriously, just try to keep your HDR toning subtle. The purpose of using HDR when making virtual tours is to create a look that is similar to what you would see with your eyes, so you want to recover the blown-out highlights and dark shadows.
Next we load all of our images into a batch, using Photomatix’s “Batch Bracketed Photos” option. Using the preset we created in the previous step, I save the images as 16 bit TIFFs into a folder called “PROCESSED.” If everything looks good with those images, then we are ready to stitch our Panorama together!
Stay tuned for Part 2, where I show you how we create our 360 degree image using panorama software!
If you found this useful, make sure to share and subscribe to the email list!