Vista at Dead Horse State Park, Utah. Fourteen images stitched in Microsoft ICE.

You’ve no doubt seen panoramic images and perhaps even know how to make them. Whether using the tools built into programs like Lightroom and Photoshop, or perhaps another dedicated panoramic creation program, or even the sweep-panoramic capability of many cellphone cameras, you’ve used this technique to make images larger than you could make them in a single shot.

In the past, the choice was not as great, and the main stitching programs not as diversified in their capabilities. The programs that did exist to create panoramas were complex, sometimes expensive, and didn’t always work well.

When the first version of Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor), a program from the Microsoft Research Division of the software giant came out, it had all the things I sought in software utilities. It was simple, it worked well, and it was free – bingo! Although other options have come along for photo stitching, I still find ICE, (now at version 2.0.3.0), a favorite.

Panorama images are not new nor a product of the digital age. This image was made from Rincon Point in San Francisco in 1851 using multiple photo plates seamed together.

Image stitching – What is it?

When working with panoramic programs you will read the term “image stitching.” It is an apt phrase for the process by which a series of photos are composited together to make a larger image, much like scraps of fabric stitched together to make a quilt. The mark of a good photo-stitching program is how well it can piece the separate images together without showing the “seams.” Check another box for Microsoft ICE – it does that job extremely well.

The Mars Rover uses robotic cameras and panoramic stitching techniques to make high-resolution images.  NASA Photo

Considerations when photographing a panorama

The quality of a finished product is usually dependent on the raw materials that go into it. The same is true of creating a panorama photo. The better your technique in making the individual images, the better your finished panorama will be.  I will not be doing a deep-dive into panorama photography techniques, as that is a whole subject itself, but instead, I’ll list some of those things you’ll want to consider when making your shots.

One real benefit of ICE is that even with less than perfectly created images, it will still do a respectable job in creating a panorama. Of course, with better images, the result will be better too.

Here are some techniques to help you when shooting your images for a panorama:

Camera settings

As you sweep across your scene, making multiple shots, there will be variations in the light. If you leave your camera in an automatic mode, each frame will be slightly different too. ICE has what is called Exposure Blending and uses an advanced algorithm to compensate for this. Thus, it smooths the seams between individual images. However, if you give it better images to work with the result will be better too.

The best practice is to put your camera in full manual mode, find and set an exposure that is a good average for the scene, and lock that in.  Try to pick an aperture for maximum depth of field as well.

The same goes for focus. Find a point where as much of the image will be in focus, (the “hyperfocal distance,” typically a third of the way into the scene), focus there and turn off autofocus.

Lens selection

There is no “just right” lens focal length to use when making panoramic images. The field of view that represented in your stitched image will be dictated by how many photos you make and the sweep of your pan, not the lens focal length.

One might think a wide-angle lens would be a good choice, as fewer shots would be required. But that’s not necessarily true. The best choice is a lens with the least distortion as any lens distortion will be magnified as you stitch images together. Thus, a good, basic 50mm prime lens could be a great choice.

Sometimes, depending on the scene you want to capture, a longer telephoto might work well. Lens quality and minimal distortion trump wide focal lengths here.

A panoramic tripod head allows you to mount the camera so that the lens nodal point is centered over the pivot point of the pan. Thus, minimizing parallax errors.

Nodal point and parallax issues

Wazzat!!?? Yes, you can get complex very quickly and encounter cryptic terms if you want to when making panoramic photos.  Attention to detail results in higher quality panoramas. And, if you decide to pursue this technique, you will want to learn about these things in time.

Very briefly, the nodal point is the spot within a lens where the light rays converge.  Setting up your camera such that the pivot point of your pan is at that spot will produce an image with the least distortion.  This is most important in images where objects in the shot are both close and far in your scene.

Parallax is the difference in the apparent position of an object when viewed along two different lines of sight.

To see a quick example, hold your hand out at arm’s length with your thumb up.  Close one eye and put your thumb over a distant object.  Now close that eye and open the other. You will see your thumb “jump” off the object to a different position.  This is parallax.

When setting up your camera, pivoting around the nodal point will reduce or even eliminate this. And serious panorama photographers will purchase special panorama tripod heads to get this exact spot for any given lens they might use.

Highly serious gigapixel panorama photographers making images with hundreds of composite images might even use motorized computer-controlled heads like the Gigapan to make their shots.

Check out some of the Gigapan images like this made from some 12,000 individual shots. Alternatively, look at this taken from a similar setup on the Mars Rover.

Bringing it back down to Earth, you need not get nearly that sophisticated if you don’t want to.  There are less expensive heads for panoramic photography if you choose to try that and many Youtube videos and instructional articles on setting nodal points.

For starters, you needn’t even worry about all of that to give panoramic photography a try. The beauty of ICE is that even with something as simple as handheld images shot with a cellphone camera, it does a very nice job of assembling a panorama image.

Step-by-Step

Here are some things to do when making your images for use in a panorama:

  • Consider your composition – Good composition is just as important in making a panorama image as any other photo.  If your cellphone supports the sweep panorama feature, you can sometimes make a shot with it to help pre-visualize what you want to do with your DSLR.
  • Level the tripod – You will know your tripod wasn’t level if you get an “arched” looking composite panorama.
  • Mount your camera in a vertical (portrait) orientation – You will get a taller aspect ratio in your final shot and an image less “ribbon-like” when you assemble your panorama.
  • Hand-marker – Shoot a photo of your hand in front of the camera as the first and last in your panorama sequence. This will make it much easier to determine which images belong to a panorama “group.”
  • Camera Settings – Use full manual exposure and focus for the reasons outlined above.
  • Overlap – As you pan making each shot, overlap each image about a third so ICE will more easily find the match points when making the composite.

This is the screen you will see when first opening Microsoft ICE.

Bringing it into ICE

Bringing your images into ICE and letting it assemble your panorama is the easiest part and a big reason to like this program. ICE accepts most Raw photos, .jpg of course, and even layered Photoshop files.  You will need to know this is a Windows-only program and won’t work on your Mac. However, there are plenty of iOS alternatives. One which is also free and well-regarded is Hugin.  I can’t say I have any personal experience with it, however, being a PC guy.

Here’s where you will find the download for ICE. Be sure you get the proper version, 32 or 64-bit for your particular PC. The program will work in Windows 10, 8, 7 or even Vista SP2. There is a lot of good information as well as an interesting overview video on the page.  The installation usually goes quite smoothly.

After you have the program installed, there are various ways to bring your images in for compositing into a panorama:

  • Running ICE as a stand-alone – ICE can be run just fine as a stand-alone program and you can bring your images in from wherever you have them stored. You can do this either by opening ICE and clicking New Panorama from Images or by opening another window in File Explorer and dragging and dropping the images into ICE.
  • Launching ICE from a Folder – Typically, once you install ICE, if you select all the images you want in your pano from a folder and then right-click, you will see an option to Stitch using Image Composite Editor.  Select that, then ICE will launch with your selected images brought in.
  • Using ICE as an External Editor from Lightroom – You can set-up Adobe Lightroom to use ICE as an External Editor.  This is my preferred way as I often do some basic pre-editing to my shots in LR before bringing them into ICE.  Once you have set-up ICE as an External Editor, select all the images in the pano group you will be using. Then, in the Lightroom menu, click Photo -> Edit In -> Microsoft ICE.  You will have the option to Edit a Copy with Lightroom Adjustments.  Pick that, click Edit, and ICE launches with the images ready for compositing.

There are four basic steps in ICE; Import, (the images have been imported here), Stitch, Crop, and Export.

Four basic steps in ICE

1. Import

If you’ve used one of the three methods above, you’re likely already seeing your images in ICE ready for Stitching. If you are running ICE in stand-alone mode and have not already imported your images, you will see three Options across the top of the screen:  New Panorama from Images, New Panorama from Video, and Open Existing Panorama. Choose the first option, navigate in Windows Explorer to where your images are located, select those that make up the panorama group, and click Open.  Remember, ICE opens Raw files, Tif, Jpg, PSD, and perhaps some other image file types.

You will find that in most cases, the default setting for ICE works well. If you are confused about some of the terms and menu options, you can click Next (at the top right of the screen), and ICE proceeds to the next step using the defaults.

If you choose to try some other things, here are a few options:

Rather than use Auto-detect in Camera Motion, you may wish to use Rotating Motion. It will give you more options for adjustment later. I have not found the Planar Motion options to be useful, (and to be honest, don’t really understand them. Such will be the case with ICE for most people – there are options and terms that will take more knowledge of the process. And, while they might have applications, most times will not be necessary.  Keep things simple, and you’ll most often be pleased with the result.)

This is the Stitch step. Ice has composited individual images.  Don’t be overwhelmed by the Projection options. ICE will almost always choose the correct one by default. If you wish to try the others, go ahead and see what you like best.

2. Stitch

Click Next or select option 2 – Stitch from the menu. The screen will show Aligning and then Compositing Images with progress bars as the work is done.  Depending on the size, number, and complexity of your images, this could go quick or could take several minutes.  Once done, your stitched image will appear.

Depending on the camera motion type chosen, you may have another set of options under Projection with terms like Cylindrical, Mercator, and a collection of other types you may not understand. I suggest trying the different options and seeing which makes your panorama look best and the least distorted. You can also zoom into your image with the slider or by using your mouse scroll wheel. Clicking and dragging above or below the panorama will allow you to adjust the shape further. Try various things – whatever helps to make your panorama look best.

3. Crop

Click Next, or Crop to move on. Here you can crop the image to choose what to include in the finished panorama. Usually, you will have some rough edges, depending on how you shot the images and composited them. If you click Auto-Crop, the program will crop to the largest points where it can make a rectangular image. You can also manually drag the sides of the crop.

Auto-Complete works like the content-aware fill in Photoshop and will try to fill in missing pieces in the image. Sometimes, especially with things like the sky, it works amazingly well. Other times with more complex patterns, not so much.

Give it a try and see if you like the result. You can always turn it off if you don’t like it.

The Crop Step. You can crop manually, Auto crop, and use the Auto Complete feature if you like.

Note how the Auto Complete feature has filled in missing parts of the image at top and bottom.

4. Export

Once complete, you will want to save your resulting panorama.

Because you have stitched together what are often high-resolution images to start with, your panorama file can be huge. That’s great if you need to print a wall-sized poster. If you don’t need something that big, consider turning down the Scale by inputting a smaller number. If you know what size (in pixels) you want the finished image to be, you can also enter that number in the Width or Height boxes, and the other will adjust to maintain the aspect ratio.

For example, to print a 12 x 48-inch poster at 300 dpi, you would need an image 3600 x 14,400 pixels.

If your panorama at 100% is over 20,000 pixels wide, that’s overkill and may result in a much larger file than you need.

Or, if you’ll be displaying your panorama on the web where you may only need a file 2400 pixels wide, why make a monster file?

You can also input numbers into the width or height, and the image will adjust the other setting to maintain the aspect ratio. Your use for the panorama will dictate how large you need to output it.

The Export Step. If you were to export this image at 100% scale as a .tif image it would be 19772 x 5833 pixels and be 149MB. For use on the web, you could drop to something like 2400 x 708 (scale just 12.14%) as a .jpg at 75% quality and it would be just 372k. Export your images according to how you will use them.

You also have the option to choose the file format. ICE can output as .jpg, .psd, .tif, .png, or .bmp. Again consider how you plan to use the image. A .tif file will be much larger than a jpg. If you choose jpg, you can also choose the compression level with the Quality settings.

When you’ve made your selections, click Export to Disk and ICE will give you the option of where to save the file. If you came from Lightroom, you will still need to specify the output location. ICE does not automatically put the resulting panorama back into the Lightroom folder where you started.

One option not immediately evident is the ability to save a panorama project. Before exiting the program, look in the top left corner of the screen for the icons there. The last two, which look like disks if hovered, will say Save Panorama and Save Panorama As. These allow you to save your project as an .spj file. This is an ICE file type which can be loaded back in using Open Existing Panorama from the main menu. This could be useful if you intend to make various output sizes or file types from your original images.

32 images shot in two rows to get more of the sky.

ICE does a great job stitching even more complex images.

The final result of the previous multi-row stitch.

Set your camera in continuous mode and shoot, panning with your subject. Bring the images into ICE and stitch as usual. You can get a sequence like this very easily.

Same technique with continuous mode.

The final result.

Nifty tricks – Video, Tiny Planets, VR, and more

There are a few other things ICE will do beyond simply making panoramas.  It is beyond the scope of this article to outline the specific steps to do these things, but I simply wanted to make you aware of them so you can explore further if you like.

This is a 360-degree pano shot as video and imported into ICE. The video will not be as high resolution. 360-degree panos, however, open VR possibilities.

Video Input

First, your input file can, instead of being a group of still photos, be a video file. Video is lower resolution than images taken with most still cameras, but there may be other reasons you want to use it as an input format.  One of those is multi-image action. (See the sample photos). You can do this with multiple images shot as stills or using a video. Capture the action, input the video into ICE, choose the portion of the video you like and then select the action points you want in the finished pano.

Give this a try, and doing it will make the steps clearer.

ICE can also be used to create “tiny planets.”

Virtual Reality

Use ICE to make a 360-degree pano from still images or a video.  Then create an image that can be viewed as an interactive pano and be rotated by the viewer.  Post it to Facebook or view it on a VR device.  There are numerous online tutorials teaching how to do this.  Drone footage can make for an especially interesting VR image.

Conclusion

Microsoft ICE is powerful, can produce high-quality panorama images, and is very easy to use. It also does a good job when accepting the default choices. ICE can use simple images made handheld from a cellphone or hundreds of images on a Gigapan robotic system with a DSLR. There are also fun things like multi-image motion images, tiny planet creation, and virtual reality possibilities.

Oh yeah…and it’s free!  What’s not to like?

Go download it, give it a try, have fun, and share your images with us in the comments below.

 

panoramic images with Microsoft ICE






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