Fitting it all in

One of the problems of taking pictures of scenery and buildings is that the subjects are often too big to capture in a single exposure.

The problem got even worse with the coming of digital photography because small camera sensors mean that wide angle lenses are effectively not as wide as they would be if you were shooting film.

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Luckily, software makes it possible to take a number of overlapping pictures of a scene and join them together on a computer, to make a single panoramic picture.

Any digital camera, including camera phones, can be used to take the pictures for a panorama, providing reasonable care is taken to keep the camera level and to make sure that each picture overlaps the last by about 30%. The overlap is needed so that the software can compare the pictures and decide where they should join.

I’ve been fiddling with various panorama creation programs for quite a while including Photoshop, Hugin, PTGui Pro and ArcSoft Panorama Maker. They are all pretty capable with Hugin being free and difficult to use, PTGui Pro costing E149 and being easier to use, and Panorama Maker, at $79, being the easiest.

I hadn’t quite made up my mind which of them I was going to buy when, quite by chance, I came across a Microsoft program called Image Composite Editor (ICE) which is free, easy-to-use, and very good indeed.

ICE is a product of Microsoft Research, which conducts cutting-edge research into software and computer science in a number of locations around the world, and is involved in all sorts of interesting things, including high-definition imagery.

Using ICE in auto mode is simplicity itself and the process consists of loading a series of pictures, waiting for the program to figure out how to join them together, cropping the result if necessary, and exporting the completed panorama file.

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I was very impressed with how good the auto mode is. It managed to join a series of 34 underexposed pictures of Durban’s golden mile that I had almost given up on, and did a very decent job of it.

If auto stitching doesn’t work, you have the option of using Structured mode, where you tell the program which bits of the picture should be next to each other. Both modes offer you the chance to correct the perspective of your panorama.

There is a lot of processing involved in joining big pictures together and it can take a while. My 34-picture effort probably took about 20 minutes to complete, for example.

If you really get into making large panoramas, ICE is designed to take advantage of multi-core processors and, if that isn’t enough, there is a 64-bit version which will speed the process up enormously.

I was very impressed with Microsoft ICE and the only slight drawback I found with it is that it cannot create a high dynamic range (HDR) panorama directly. If such things matter to you, there is a decent work-around, which is documented in a tutorial here.

It seems that Microsoft is really serious about building tools for creating and viewing large panoramas. One of the viewers is HD View, there is the ICE software, of course, and they even have a website called Photosynth, which provides free hosting for large pictures; you just need to sign up and upload your pictures.

If you haven’t tried them already, I recommend you give making panoramas a try but be warned, they are seriously addictive.

HD Resources

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