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It’s not a secret…but this is how its done

A few years ago I dabbled in making panorama images using Photoshops’ Automated photo merge tool. As the tool is integrated in to Adobe’s CS5 package; unless you have mega memory it tends to be very unreliable and in my experience has a habit of closing itself down halfway through its operation. I found this so frustrating I decided to look elsewhere for some stitching and panorama software. This was when I stumbled across an early version of a program that was going to change the way I saw things. From 2:3 ratio to Panorama !

Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE) is a free, yes FREE piece of software for Windows that will stitch overlapping images. And because its dedicated to stitching it works very quickly and is very accurate too. It can be used stand alone so you don’t need to own a copy of Photoshop to turn out panoramic images of excellent quality. Obviously to adjust and edit your finished piece a copy of Photoshop or any other editing and manipulation software is essential. I am going to show you the process of a simple panorama image, from the RAW images to the finished piece. Hope you enjoy, and remember to try it yourself, you can do it with a mobile phone app these days, but trust me when I say…this way is so much better.

To download Microsoft Image Composite Editor click here

The first task is to capture a series of images that overlap. The overlap is the important bit here, in matter of fact it’s quite essential as ICE (Image Composite Editor) relies on data being matched in order to stitch the images together. One thing to note is that the images don’t have to be in a landscape format, they can be in a square or even in a random shape. Which ever way you decide to compose your images the same rule applies…they must all overlap for the ICE to work.  I have selected three sunrise images (Fig.1) all taken within 10 seconds of each other. You can probably see the obvious overlap on the photographs before we even begin to stitch them together. This is very important.

Fig.1 – These are the images I am using for this demonstration

Open your images from your camera either in to Photoshop or straight to your hard drive if you have no photo editing software (Fig.2). If you have no editing software then skip to the next step and open ICE. One thing to bear in mind when shooting the images is to get the exposure as accurate as possible and be consistent over the series you shoot. This will help you considerably when editing and finally stitching the images.  If you find that one of the images is over or under exposed it will clearly stand out amongst a stitch of several images. Its much easier to get it correct first time than go back and make adjustments and have to do the stitch all over again.

Three sequential images opened in Photoshop CS5 for editing

Fig.2 – Three sequential images opened in Photoshop CS5 for editing

The images should all be sized to exactly the same size. Most of my images are edited for the web and Flickr so they are resized at 1600×1200 pixels at 72 pixels per inch. With the images edited to look similar in exposure, contrast, brightness and depth its a simple case of saving them to a location on your hard drive. The next step is to install and run Microsoft Image Composite Editor. You will then be presented with an interface as shown in Fig.3

Fig.3 - MS ICE Interface

Fig.3 – MS ICE Interface

You now have a choice; you can either drag your images from the saved location as a selection (i.e. all 3 at once) or you can click FILE, NEW PANORAMA and select the images this way. In all fairness the latter is probably better as you can ensure from previews that you actually select the correct images. see (Fig.4)

Select your images for import in to ICE

Fig.4 – Select your images for import in to ICE

Once the images are imported in to Microsoft Image Composite Editor the program will start working straight away. Depending on how many images you have selected for your stitch and how complex they are will affect the amount of time the software takes to produce the output. A simple 3 or 4 image composite should only take a few seconds to complete. During the process you will see a screen like Fig.5

Fig.5 - ICE is generating your stitch

Fig.5 – ICE is generating your stitch

When the program has finished you should be presented with a composite image of all your selected photographs (Fig.6)  I did mention earlier that the system is not 100% accurate and occasionally errors do occur. I cannot suggest a solution to errors as I don’t yet have one. I did try selecting a smaller number of images for the stitch, then doing a second stitch with the remainder. Then finally stitching the two stitches, if that makes sense. This does overcome the problem slightly but once again is not guaranteed. Ok, so you now have your stitch, and it should look something like Fig.6. As you can see its look is very unfinished and scrappy. I do call this a “Tatty Stitch” and occasionally I will pop this final image in to Photoshop as it is and make an image from it. An example of this can be seen in Fig.7 below

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Fig.7 – An example of a “Tatty Stitch”

6. Clicking Automatic  crop will frame the image

Fig.6 – Clicking Automatic crop will frame the image

The crop boundaries can be adjusted according to your requirements, once you are happy it just a case of saving your image to your location of choice. This is done by clicking “export to disk”. So there you have it. A very easy and effective way of creating either a landscape panorama or a general photostitch. There are many possibilities with stitches, not just landscapes but in general photography. It can be great fun to capture a group of people, particularly a few who are moving around, occasionally you can find the same person in the stitch in more than one location. Below is the final image (Fig.8) I created from three single frames using the steps above. Hope you like it, any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me or leave a message in the comment box on here.

Fig.8 - Final Image

Fig.8 – Final Image

If you like the idea of photo stitching and would like to see some more of my attempts, please take a look at this specific set I create on Flickr just for composites : Click HERE

Thank you for reading this post. If you have as much success as I have doing this, please contact me and show me your stitches, I would love to see them.

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