Image Composite Editor. Creating panoramas for free
Panoramas are super easy to create in Photoshop and Lightroom (see the “How To” article here), but what if you don’t own either one?
The good news is there are a tonne of free programs out there now that are dedicated to stitching your images together for you.
Image Composite Editor by Microsoft’s Research division is just one of many more advanced programs for Windows operating systems that is incredibly simple and fairly intuitive to use. It is dedicated panorama software, so you won’t be overwhelmed or distracted by thousands of other features the way you can be in Photoshop.
Once installed and launched, you’re presented with three options straight up.
Pretty self explanatory. You can either create a new panorama from a series of images, or even from a video. And at any point during the process, you can save your panorama project so you can come back to it later.
I have yet to play with creating a panorama from video, so for now we’ll just focus on the first one.
When you select New Panorama From Images, you’ll immediately be asked to select the images you want to stitch together. The nice thing is, Image Composite Editor supports a wide range of image formats, so you can even select your RAW files for this step!
This will load them all up and give you a preview of the images you’ve selected.
Camera motion allows you to specify how you moved your camera about when you took each shot, as the stitching process used will be different depending on this selection. For the majority of cases, you can leave this on Auto-detect. If you want to know more about the other options, you can read about them on the FAQ here.
Under the Structured panorama tab, there are a bunch of more advanced options that allow you to create panoramas from a grid of images rather than just a single line of images like we have here. This is, however, specifically intended for use with images shot using special panoramic equipment, something most of us don’t have so this tab can be safely ignored.
Hit the Next button, or select Stitch, and Image Composite Editor will work its magic, aligning and compositing your panorama together. One option that it currently doesn’t have, however, is an anti-ghosting algorithm, which means you may get some odd merging results if there’s any motion in your scene, such as trees blowing in the wind or, in my case, moving water.
You’ll get a preview when it’s done, along with various Projection options you can select that will change the look of your panorama dramatically. These are just some of the various ways your 3D view can be projected onto a flat surface, and can be used to accommodate for the angle of view your panorama covers and for the kind of lens used.
Feel free to see what each one does, but for the majority of cases the Cylindrical projection is all you’ll need.
One nice thing about Image Composite Editor is that it tells you at the bottom of this window how many of your images it ended up using to create the panorama, as well as the angle of view your panorama covers. The only time it won’t use all the images you selected is if it can’t figure out where the image should go. This can occur if you haven’t overlapped your individual shots enough.
Clicking Next, or Crop, then gives you the option of auto completing and cropping your panorama.
We all know what cropping does, and Image Composite Editor also provides a handy Auto crop button that will automatically crop your panorama to just within the jagged edges.
But what about Auto complete?
Auto complete will attempt to fill in those jagged edges based on the data in your image.
As you can see, the Auto complete function is pretty excellent, but it doesn’t work well for everything. There’s an odd blend of rock and water at the bottom of my panorama that just won’t do, but I can still crop that out easily enough. So if you decide to use the Auto complete option, make sure to take a close look around the edges of your panorama to make sure it all worked out.
Once you’re happy, clicking Next, or Export, will give you a good range of options for saving your final panorama image. You can choose to resize it, and also see how large your final panorama will end up being. As well as the usual JPEG, TIFF, and PNG file format options, you can also export straight to a Photoshop file.
If you do choose to export to Photoshop, just keep in mind that selecting the All layers option will create a Photoshop file with the final panorama as the base layer, and then all your individual images laid out in separate layers on top. So don’t be confused when your panorama in Photoshop doesn’t initially look blended and smooth. If you just want to export the final panorama to Photoshop so you can do some editing on it, select Composite only. And if you have an older version of Photoshop, you’ll want to tick on Maximize compatibility.
You might wonder what the two other tabs here are.
Deep Zoom will create your panorama in a format that allows you to interactively pan and zoom in to your high resolution image in a similar sort of way you can in Google Maps. It’s a nice way of appreciating all the detail in your typically large panorama, which you don’t normally get to see on screen otherwise. However, to view it, you also need to download and install the HD View plug in for your browser.
The Photosynth tab allows you to quickly share your panorama, in Deep Zoom format, publicly to the Photosynth community, provided that you have a Photosynth account of your own (which seems to require a Microsoft account to create). If you’re interested in panoramas, this community is well worth signing up to and checking out.
Image Composite Editor is certainly not as advanced as Photoshop. On closer inspection of my image, it actually didn’t blend all parts of my panorama together as well as Photoshop did (particularly the moving water), but for free software it did a darn good job and was so easy, intuitive, and quick to use that — if you don’t own Lightroom or Photoshop — it is certainly well worth having.
The ability to turn your panoramas into an interactive experience via Deep View and Photosynth is also a really nice touch. Just be aware that there is no official support or documentation for the software, though a brief FAQ can be found on the ICE forums and questions can always be asked of the community there.
If you know of other decent, free software for creating panoramas, leave them in the comments and I will check out those too.