Panoramic photography requires taking several photos. HDR Photography is based on photo bracketing. Mixing the two techniques must end up in a complete mess, right? Wrong!

With the right workflow and the right tools, HDR panoramas are easy and fun to create.

Many unanswered questions
As the CEO of Oloneo and main developer of PhotoEngine, I know quite a bit about HDR Photography but I am not an expert in Panoramic Photography. Like many other photographers, I had several unanswered questions regarding HDR Panoramic Photography.

Should I do everything in a panorama tool?
Should I first create HDR images and Tone Map in PhotoEngine then stitch in a panorama tool?
Should I first stitch and build a 32-bit image in a panorama tool and then edit in PhotoEngine?
Should I create sets of 32-bit Radiance or OpenEXR images then stitch in a panorama tool? And then, back to PhotoEngine for tone mapping?

The right approach to the problem
To find out what is the best workflow, I have tested all of the above and many other variations. None is truly working. The good question was in fact: what is the right tool for the job?
PhotoEngine is very good at HDR but cannot stich images
Panorama tools are very good at creating panoramas but cannot do HDR images (or are very bad at it)

Based on these unique and profound thoughts, I have created the two rules of successful HDR Panoramic Photography!
Rule 1: stitch first, build HDR later
Rule 2: never use a panorama tool to create and edit an HDR image

The right workflow
Create a panorama for each bracketed exposure (one for all the photos at -2EV, one for 0EV, one for +2EV)
Assemble the three or more panoramas in PhotoEngine to build the final HDR panorama
Tone Map and edit in PhotoEngine

In order to achieve that I needed a panorama tool that was able to manipulate bracketed photo sets, stack them automatically, stitch each exposure set separately and save the panorama as multiple exposure layers instead of a single image.
This tool exists: it is Kolor Autopano Giga.

For the HDR and Tone Mapping phase, I will use PhotoEngine in this tutorial. As I am the creator of PhotoEngine, you may not believe me if I tell you it is the fastest, most accurate and most natural HDR tool available! It is anyway easy to verify these claims: download the trials of PhotoEngine and Autopano Giga and read this tutorial.

Step 1 – Supplies and tools

In order to create an HDR Panorama, you need:
Kolor Autopano Giga
Oloneo PhotoEngine
Bracketed photos

Don't have these tools? Get the trials:

Don't have a camera? Don't have photos? It is raining today? No problem!
Download sample photos and project files

Now that you are equipped with the best tools and my crappy photos, we can start the tutorial.

Step 2 – Stitching the photos

The provided zip archive contains six photos: two sets of three bracketed photos. The exposures are -1, 0 and +1EV for each set.

I took these images handheld without any tripod or support. The panorama was created without alignment help using my old Canon 40D a few years ago (I am not even sure that I planned to create a panorama at the time I took these photos).
This is the worst case scenario for building an HDR Panorama: none of the images are aligned. Let's see if we can create a nice panorama with this poor material.

The first step is to stitch the photos together with the same exposures. Fortunately, Autopano can do that automatically for us without having to select the photos one by one.

Launching Autopano Giga:
Run Autopano.
Select 'about' in the 'Help' menu
Verify that the version is 3.0.5 or higher
If not, select 'Check for updates…' and install the latest update
This step is required to complete the tutorial

Selecting the photos:
Click the 'Select images' button or use the 'Edit' menu
Select the six provided photos: Photo A -1.jpg, Photo A 0.jpg, Photo A +1.jpg, Photo B -1.jpg, Photo B 0.jpg, Photo B +1.jpg

Autopano discovers that the photos are two bracket sets and automatically groups the photos in two sets of three photos.

There are many stitching and group options in Autopano. With our workflow, we can use the deafult settings.
We are done with preparing the images. Autopano is ready to stitch the photos and build the panorama.

Building the panorama:
Select 'Detect' in the 'Edit' menu (or click the 'Play' button)

Autopano creates the panorama. When done, the panorama appears at the right of the screen.

Step 3 – Editing the panorama

With these photos, there is little editing needed. Autopano is able to stitch the images without issues; the default projection and orientation are correct. We just need to straighten the horizon and crop the panorama.

Editing the panorama:
Click the 'Edit' button located at the right of the screen

There are several ways to straighten the horizon in Autopano. Here is one method:

Straightening the horizon:
Click the 'Vertical Tool' button
Select 'Horizontal line' in the left panel
Draw a line on the horizon
Apply the change

Cropping the panorama:
Click the 'Crop' button
Adjust by dragging the handles of the yellow frame
Apply the change

We are now ready to render the panorama.

Step 4 – Rendering the panorama

Autopano Giga is an excellent stitching and panorama tool. PhotoEngine is the reference in professional HDR imaging. Let's make sure we use the right tool for the right job:
Autopano to stitch and build the panorama (and only that)
PhotoEngine to build and edit the HDR image

How can we make sure that PhotoEngine handles the entire HDR process? The right way is to render the panorama in multiple layers in Autopano: one layer for each exposure. Here is how to do that:

Setting the rendering options:
Click the 'Render' button (cogwheel icon)
In the 'Exported data' panel, uncheck the 'Panorama' checkbox
Check the 'Layers' checkbox
In the 'Output' panel, set the output folder and file names
Leave the 'Render' window open

With these options, Autopano is ready to render three panoramas, one for each of the original exposures (-1, 0 and +1EV).

Rendering the panorama layers:
Click the 'Render' button located at the bottom

Autopano open the Batch Window and starts rendering. Check the progress. When done, we are ready to move to PhotoEngine.

Step 5 – Building the HDR panorama

All the next steps are done in Oloneo PhotoEngine. If you have not installed the product yet, you can get the trial.

The first step is to create a HDR image made from the three layers rendered by Autopano.

Locating the photos:
Start PhotoEngine
Click on the “...” button located in the top Browsing toolbar
Using the File Dialog, navigate to the folder containing the rendered panoramas
Click on the Open button

PhotoEngine displays the photos contained in the selected folder. Let's create a new HDR ToneMap Project with the Panorama Layers.

Selecting the photos:
Scroll the thumbnail list until you see the three panorama images
Control-Click on each photo
In the 'Project Image Selection' panel, click on the 'Add' button

Creating the HDR ToneMap Project:
Click the Create HDR ToneMap Project
Leave all other options at their default settings

PhotoEngine automatically assembles the three panorama exposures to build an HDR image.

For detailed info about creating an HDR ToneMap project in PhotoEngine, read the manual.

Step 6 – Editing the HDR panorama

Once the HDR image is created, you can edit the panorama in real-time with a precision of 96-bit per pixels and ultra wide color gamut. This allows you to quickly try various image renderings.
If you are not familiar with Oloneo PhotoEngine, the quickest way to discover the product is to use the presets.

Previewing a preset:
Move the mouse pointer without clicking over any preset located in the Preset panel
PhotoEngine immediately updates the image with the preset settings
Move the pointer away to restore the current settings

Applying a preset:
Click on a preset located in the Preset panel

PhotoEngine works in real time so it is fun and easy to explore the possibilities: subtle effects, grunge HDR, black & white, sepia, etc. Do not hesitate to mess with the settings! Everything is recorded in the 'Timeline' panel located at the top left. You can always go back to a previous step by clicking a previous level in the 'Timeline'.

Step 7 – Saving the HDR panorama

When done, you can save your final panorama image or send it automatically to Adobe Photoshop (or other tool) for further editing.

Exporting to TIFF or JPEG:
Press Ctrl-Shift-S or select Save As… in the File menu
In the File Dialog, select: TIFF (*.tif) or JPEG (*.jpg)
Enter the file name
Click the Save button
Select the TIFF or JPEG settings
Click the OK button

Exporting directly to an external editor:
Press Ctrl-E or select Export To My Tool... in the File menu
Enter the file name
Click the Save button
Select the save settings
Click the OK button

Final comments

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial. I believe that the presented workflow is efficient in terms of speed, flexibility and quality for medium to large panoramas.

A different workflow is probably needed for very large panoramas (hundreds of Megapixel to Gigapixel ones). I am yet to try that so I do not have a definitive answer to that question.

Original image