iPhone Panorama Mode – How to unlock (without jailbreak!)

Example panorama shot with the hidden panorama mode in iOS 5 / iPhone 4s
Example panorama shot with the hidden panorama mode in iOS 5 / iPhone 4s. Click image to open the full size.

We’ve made a video to show you how to modify your iPhone’s backup file to enable the “panorama mode” that’s currently hidden inside the camera. Read below for more thoughts on this feature.

Here are the basic instructions: 1. Save backup of your iPhone in iTunes;  2. Install and run the application “iBackupBot”; 3. Find the file “com.apple.mobileslideshow.plist” and open it; 4. under the line that says <key>DiskSpaceWasLow</key> <false/> , put
<key>EnableFirebreak</key> <true/> 5. SAVE! 6. Quick iBackupBot, return to iTunes; 7. Restore your iphone to this backup; 8. Unplug your iPhone from your computer; 9. In your phone, open the camera. tap “options” and activate panorama mode; 10. Start shooting!

Now, I’ve go to say how exciting it is to see this panorama mode finally. We all knew it was coming, didn’t we 🙂 It was with some disappointment that this feature, rumored to exist already for months, didn’t appear in the iPhone 4s release event.

How does it actually work? Well it seems to be essentially a “slit scan” panorama: imagine if you used your flatbed scanner to take a photograph, by moving it slowly from left to right. It seems that this iphone panorama mode has all the shortcomings of such an approach: it only works moving in a specific direction, and moving objects (ones that are moving either with or against the direction of shooting) become very weird in the final image.

Since you don’t actually have to move your phone at a predefined speed (this would make it basically impossible to use), the panorama mode is clearly utilizing the phone sensors to determine how often to take a vertical strip from the camera buffer and add it to the panorama. The final image has far fewer “stitching errors” (seams where two individual images are blended together) because there isn’t much being really stitched, rather the image is sort of “painted” across. This does however give some very strange geometry to the image, where straight lines are not straight, but neither are they curved in a predictable (as in a “true panorama) way – I’d personally rather see more stitching errors than crooked lines, but I think this is up to individual preference.

Exposure is also locked, and probably white balance also (though I didn’t check). This has strengths and weaknesses – while it’s nearly always good to lock the white balance when shooting a panorama, it can actually be beneficial NOT to completely lock the exposure, especially on “partial panoramas” (images smaller than 360º in width and 180º in height) – it’s a fact that when you’re shooting such a large area, there will always be large variations in the lighting of the scene. Unless your sensor has very high dynamic range (and again, this iphone panorama mode seems not to be using any HDR, tonemapping, or exposure fusion techniques) then locking the exposure usually results in a rather flat image with large portions being completely under- or over-exposed. In fact, almost every “super-wide” or 360-degree image needs a considerable amount of exposure blending and unsharp mask in order to improve both local and global contrast in a way that is seldom necessary in “normal” photographs.

The saved panorama size is somewhere around 6122×2852 pixels which is about 17.45 megapixels.

Here are some examples of panoramas that we shot.

example 1 of a panorama shot using the iphone 4s hidden panorama mode
Example 1 of a panorama shot using the iphone 4s hidden panorama mode. Click image to enlarge.


Example 2 of a panorama shot using the iphone 4s hidden panorama mode
Example 2 of a panorama shot using the iphone 4s hidden panorama mode. Click image to enlarge.

Here is what happens if someone walks past you while you’re shooting. This shows probably the biggest drawback to this “slit scan” technique of capturing a panoramic image. If you were shooting multiple photos which were then stitched together, you might hope to get multiple people in the same image (kind of of funny at least) instead of this slightly freaky humanesque form squished across the image 🙂

Example 4 of a panorama shot using the iphone 4s hidden panorama mode. Click image to enlarge.
Example 4 of a panorama shot using the iphone 4s hidden panorama mode. Click image to enlarge.

So, my conclusion? I’m glad it’s not public yet – this is cool but it’s not ready. Panoramas are hard to shoot, but I think mobile phones are ready to help the user create beautiful and nearly perfect 360º panoramas with the aid of the excellent image sensor and all of the other sensors (gyroscope, accelerometer, compass). A 120º panorama such as the ones above are ok, but why not any more? Well, 120º is probably the most comfortable distance you can pan a camera without physically turning your body, which will usually result in some serious errors unless you’ve practiced a little bit. However, is 120º so much better than a single picture? Maybe. But given the other panoramic imaging apps out there (photosynth, dermandar, occipital), I think I would pick any of those over this “native” panorama mode. But again, Apple probably knows all of this, which is why it’s not released yet.

In closing, let’s look at an example that demonstrates the real power of 360-degree photography in visualizing a place in a way that’s simply not possible with normal “flat” photography. This panorama, of a Bread Souq in Sana’a, Yeman, was shot by Stefan Geens (using a high-end SLR camera and fisheye lens). It will eventually be possible to make images like this with your smartphone but it might still take a few more years before it is really feasible…
Bread suq, Sana’a, Yemen in Yemen

17 thoughts on “iPhone Panorama Mode – How to unlock (without jailbreak!)

  1. I tried it and – like you wrote – you need quite some practice, good lightnig and a ‘gentle’ subject. Other apps do a better job (without much practice). I used Pano for fun. What I like about this native mode is moving the camera while taking just one shot.


  2. It just occurred to me that since yesterday, the Yemen panorama is a historical document. If you look up at the buildings, you’ll notice that one has a large poster of Saleh as leader of Yemen. Yesterday, Saleh signed away his leadership. Good riddance, of course. But it makes this panorama more interesting in that it now shows a place at a time that can never be regained.


  3. There’s actually a product that lets you take wide-angle pictures (amongst other things) with the iPhone 4 and 4S. They look pretty professional. It’s called the Olloclip. It’s worth checking out if these are the sort of photos you’re after…


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