Make the Most of the iPhone’s Panorama Mode

You’re hanging out at the beach at the end of a relaxing day on your tropical vacation and the light glancing off the water is perfect. You whip out your iPhone and snap a few shots, but they don’t capture the grandeur of the moment.

You need a panorama.

Luckily, the iPhone’s Camera app has been able to do that since iOS 6. At a basic level, it’s easy to use, but with a few tips, you can get even better results.

First, let’s make sure you know how to take a standard panorama. Hold your iPhone in portrait orientation (so it’s taller than wide). Open the Camera app, and swipe left twice on the viewfinder to switch to Pano mode (you can also swipe the labels or tap Pano in that row). Start with the left side of the image in the viewfinder, tap the round shutter button, and move the iPhone smoothly and continuously to the right to capture more of the scene. The white arrow moves across the screen as you move the iPhone. Be careful to keep the arrow on the yellow line—if you wobble too much, your panorama will have jagged edges. If you regularly have trouble moving the iPhone smoothly, look for a tripod with an adapter that can hold your iPhone.

Here’s your first tip: Although the iPhone will stop taking the panorama automatically when the arrow reaches the end of the line, you can stop the panorama at any point by tapping the round shutter button at the bottom. This is useful if you want to cut it off before hitting some less-than-scenic bits at the right edge


Speaking of edges, it can sometimes be easier or better to move from right to left, rather than left to right. To switch the direction of the panorama, tap the arrow. You might want to make such a switch if it will be easier to keep ugly scenery out at the start, rather than at the end. Also, the Camera app can’t change exposures in the middle of a panorama, so if one side of your panorama is much lighter than the other, starting at the right might provide a better result. Tap the arrow again to switch back.

Although we generally think of panoramas as wide vistas, you can also use the iPhone’s Pano mode to capture vertical panoramas, like towering trees, soaring skyscrapers, and rushing waterfalls. Even an unexceptional scene topped off with interesting clouds can turn an everyday snapshot into a striking photo.

To take a vertical panorama, hold your iPhone in landscape orientation (wider than it’s tall), start at the bottom, and move it so the arrow climbs the yellow line. It’s likely that you’ll want to tap the shutter button manually to stop when you’ve captured the desired amount of sky.

Pano mode works by combining a lot of separate photos into a single image. You can take advantage of that fact to create some interesting effects:

  • You can have someone appear in both the left and right sides of a panorama. After you’ve panned past the person on the left side, have them run around behind you to get into the right side of the scene.
  • If you’re in the passenger seat of a car, try capturing a panorama of an interesting street scene using the motion of the car. Do not do this while driving!
  • If an object, like a pet, is moving while you take a panorama, it can result in some silly photos.

Finally, although a panorama is a very wide (or tall) image, remember that it’s still a regular graphic, which means that you can crop out jagged edges or an undesired edge in a graphics app like Preview.

What Different Graphics Formats Are Good For

When it comes to graphics on the Internet, it’s easy to feel as though you’re swimming for your life in a giant bowl of alphabet soup, surrounded by shouting acronyms: GIF! JPEG! PNG! TIFF! What do those names mean? Why does your camera spit out JPEGs? What’s the best format for a Web graphic? Grab onto a capital O and let’s get some answers.

First off, don’t worry about the acronyms, because expanding them doesn’t explain much. For example, JPEG stands for Joint Photographic Experts Group, which is the standards body that invented the JPEG format. Helpful? Not really. So think of them just as names, like Sally or Fred. That said, it can be helpful to know how they’re pronounced:

  • GIF: Either “jif,” as in jiffy, or “gif” as in “gift” — it’s an interesting story.
  • JPEG: “jay-peg”
  • PNG: “ping”
  • TIFF: “tiff”

Here’s the lowdown on each:

GIF: The oldest of these formats, GIF was long the standard for computer-generated images. It worked well for graphics and logos with large areas of solid color, but less so for photos. Due in part to a patent licensing kerfuffle, GIF has been superseded by PNG in all ways but one.

GIF’s remaining use lies in flipbook-style animations, where each frame is a separate GIF image. Animated GIFs that run in short loops have become wildly popular on the Internet because they’re small and easy to embed in a Facebook or Twitter post, email message, or Web page. Numerous utilities exist for turning a short movie clip into an animated GIF; check out GIF Brewery on the Mac or Giphy Cam for an iPad or iPhone.


JPEG: The most common graphics format on the Internet, JPEG owes its popularity to being the default format for photos created by all digital cameras, including those in iPhones and iPads. JPEG works well for photos because it can compress file sizes significantly while barely affecting the image quality.

For instance, a 20 MB photo saved in JPEG format might end up as only 4 MB, with reductions in image quality that most people would never even notice. Most graphics software lets you adjust a slider to specify different quality levels, and while the results vary by the photo, saving at a 75% quality level is usually a good compromise between quality and file size.

The downside of JPEG is that it achieves these minuscule file sizes by throwing away data in the file, which limits how they can be edited in the future. That’s why professional photographers generally shoot in what are called “raw” formats (which contain all the image data the camera sensor recorded when the shutter was opened). Raw files are huge but can be edited in ways that aren’t possible with a JPEG file. Once edits have been made, photographers save a copy as a JPEG for sharing or posting online.


PNG: Conceived as an improved, patent-free alternative to GIF, PNG is now the go-to format for online graphics such as buttons, logos, and screenshots that have large areas of solid color. That’s because PNG can compress such images well without introducing any fuzziness, as can happen with JPEG. Similarly, you can edit PNG images repeatedly without hurting image quality.

In another contrast with JPEG, PNG supports transparency, which means you can define one color in an image as “transparent” rather than an actual color. When the image is displayed on a Web page, the transparent pixels are rendered in whatever the background color is. That’s tremendously handy for creating images that appear to float over the background.

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Don’t use PNG for photos, since a photographic image saved in PNG format will be much larger than the corresponding JPEG.

TIFF: Like PNG, TIFF files can be compressed without losing any data. Because of this, TIFF is used extensively for archiving original photos instead of JPEG; TIFF files may be much larger, but that’s acceptable when it comes to preserving originals from which you could later make edited copies.

TIFF also boasts some additional color-related features that PNG lacks, making TIFF useful in the print world—if you were to write a book that was going to be printed professionally, the publisher might ask for any photos or other illustrations in TIFF format. Useful as TIFF can be, for most people, most of the time, JPEG and PNG are all you need.

Nearly any graphics program can open images in these formats and convert to the other formats, but look no further than the bundled Preview app from Apple on your Mac for basic image conversion features (for more info about using Preview, check out Take Control of Preview, by Adam Engst and Josh Centers).

In closing, now that you know the basics of the Mac’s most important graphics formats, you are ready to put your best foot forward whenever you need to pick a file format for your images.