Tag Archives: Microsoft ICE

Lickety Stitcher in Lightroom + Panoramas IN Lightroom

Pointyland Redux

A conventional panorama stitched with Microsoft Image Composite Editor from 3 images.

Maybe we should start by explaining Lickety Split. Lickety Split is US English slang for fast so “Lickety Stitcher” is our contrived slang for a fast image stitcher. Image stitching is what you do to create a large image out of several smaller, overlapping images.

We’ve reported how much we like the FREE Microsoft Image Composite Editor (aka ICE) for stitching images because it is faster and more accurate than Photoshop’s Photomerge or Lightroom’s new, but sometimes anemic Photomerge. Here is a simple “quick panorama” method of creating a panorama from about 3 clicks. How? Configure Lightroom to run ICE as an export step. After creating the export step (described below) you do the following:

  1. Select photos,
  2. right click “Export -> ICE Quick Stitch”
  3. Click through the ICE Menus to Stitch, crop and Save.

Sadly, there is no Image Composite Editor for Mac computers. If someone knows of an equally easy to use, fast version for the Mac, let us know in the comments!

How To Set Up Lickety Stitcher

To use Microsoft ICE (or PT GUI, or other external tool), you create an Export setting for it. Click a photo (any photo), then “Export” and Add new settings as shown below. The only tricky part is finding the program you want Lightroom to run. In Windows it has to be the actual path, not a shortcut.

Microsoft ICE Panoramas from Lightroom

You don’t have to settle for only a “quick stitch” (which is best done with JPGs), you can also export full sized TIFF files and stitch those.  ICE can save documents in Photoshop .psd format and others. And if you have another image stitcher you really like, e.g. PT GUI, you can probably use this same trick to make that software work on demand.

What About Lightroom for Stitching?

We were happy to discover that Lightroom and Photoshop image stitching (panorama) creation has improved quite a lot since our first disasters trying to do vertoramas and panoramas. Indeed, I think we would be happy to use the new tools and skip using ICE in many circumstances. Here is how you use the Panorama creation feature of Lightroom.

First, pick your images. They should overlap by at least 1/3 from frame to frame. And you can pre-process them with noise removal and such. Highly recommend you do at least two things to images before you try to stitch them:

  • Use vignette correction appropriate for your lens.
  • Consider using Distortion correction before creating your panorama – not always necessary.

Then right click and find “Photo Merge -> Panorama”.

Lightroom did a quite respectable job. We were able to to create the image below entirely in Lightroom. We did see some problems, however:

  1. We got a message about “unable to save metadata”
  2. Lightroom insists on creating the image as a .dng file and uses the name of one of the files you picked (we’d like it to be a mash of first-through-last.
  3. Lightroom didn’t seem to be as smart as ICE in how it stitched the images. ICE joined the images without the airplane and satellite trails, or maybe it was just better at blending them out. We had to do that work by hand on the image Lightroom created. It was not difficult, though. It is not the first time we have seen ICE handle an image better than Photoshop PhotoMerge

In ICE we manually  bent the slightly arching shot back into vertical form and did manual cropping. In Lightroom we used the Boundary Warp option at the end to make the images fill the frame nicely. Here is what we got from those 11 images:

10 Image Panorama using Only Lightroom Photomerge

You can compare the above to the same images used via Microsoft ICE and finished in Photoshop.

Overarching Majesty

Stitched in ICE, Finished in Photoshop

Multi-Row Panorama

Here is a more ambitious 22 photo, multi-row panorama stitched with Microsoft ICE. There was a stitching problem due to cloud movement… maybe you’ve spotted it.

Asylum at the Sea

 

Stitching Software Alternatives to Photoshop, Lightroom and ICE

  • Hugin (FREE: mac, PC, Linux). Don’t much like this one even though it is free.
  • PTGUI (mac, PC). A little clunky, but does much more than stitching including HDR and can be automated. This is the one tool you need when you need to convince an image to stitch that just won’t do it. It can’t do miracles, but with work, it can get the job done.
  • Others… that we don’t have familiarity with, though we have heard good things about Kolor Autopano

Improving Your Panoramas

Hi, I am Eric Harness, one of the instructors of Star Circle Academy. I want to first thank Steven for the great intro, also for his inspiration and his mentorship.

Steven asked me to add some important details to his Panorama Pursuit article.  So here I will expand on the information that Steven described by adding important panorama setup considerations, shooting tips and my work flow.

Panorama’s give the viewer context and detail that is not possible with standard photo sizes.  So use this to your advantage to show the viewer interesting elements to heighten the scene.   A scene worthy of shooting is worth the effort to set up the shot properly.  Seek wide open spaces where the relationship between elements gives an emotional connection to the place or thing.  A lot of landscape photographers like to exclude human elements in landscapes. However, including people, cars, and other human sized things helps to pull your viewer into the scene.   Park your car on the rock, leave the door open, have your friends pose looking into the scene.  Just make sure you connect the people in the scene to the rest of the scene. Highlight their interest or the viewer will not be interested at all.

People stop to look at what others are looking at all the time.  Let me give you a great example.  I often visit a large national park and I will often stop to photograph the animals on the side of the road.  I stop and ask my passenger to point out the window. Or for even more effect I have my passenger a poke big lens out the window even when there is nothing there!  People behind us stop and look while I slowly creep away.  This happens all the time – not just in the park but also at the mall, or art gallery, or along the road.  I use this natural human curiosity to look at what others are looking at to my advantage and put these on-lookers in my panorama!

Setting Up the Shot – The Tripod

It may seem like an after thought but once you bump your tripod in the middle of a panorama shoot you will be reminded about the importance of your base.  All of the elements depend on having a solid base so spend careful time to set it up.

  1. Extend the legs in a manner that allows the head to be as level as possible.
  2. Spread the legs so that the weight of the head and camera is over the center of gravity of tripod.

Even if you are not using a pano head the extra effort will help preserve the edges of your image (trust me it looks like your camera is on a roller coaster when it is not done correctly).

This multi-row panorama was not leveled before the intial shooting. The fix at this stage is to crop or fill but in this instance would make the image un-usable.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Any wiggle in the base will cause tiny misalignments in your images which can cause blurry stitches or fuzzy images (especially for HDR panoramas).

Managing Subject Distance and Parallax

Parallax errors occur when close and far objects shift in the frame relative to one another. This problem occurs when the camera is not rotated around the optical center of the lens.  The shift between close and far objects in more noticeable than the shift between two objects that are far away. If you keep all elements – especially important subjects – far enough away you will be less likely to encounter parallax error. Like Steven, I am not about to jump into the fray over the terminology wars over “nodal point” or “No Parallax Point” discussion.  However for an example of parallax error have a look at Figure 1 and Figure 2 below. Figure 1 shows proper alignment on the “no parallax point”, while Figure 2 shows how parallax results in an inconsistency.

Figure 1: These two images resulted after rotation around the "No Parallax point". Note how the foreground bars align with the same background objects.

If the lens rotation is NOT made around the “no parallax point”, then foreground and background objects shift as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Two adjacent images with parallax - Note where the middle bars appear in relation to the steps behind them.

Alain Hamblenne has written an excellent article about how to align a panorama head in the horizontal and vertical directions. Note that Mr. Hamblenne refers to the no parallax point as “the entrance pupil“.  Even if you do not have a panorama head, the procedure Mr. Hamblenne describes will help to determine where the best center of rotation is. If you are lucky – as Steven was – you may find that your lens ring mount is almost the perfect place. Rotation around the tripod mount point in the camera is almost certainly not the best point.

Focusing for a Panorama

Focusing is not that hard in my opinion; just know your hyperfocal distance!  Yes, learn it for your lenses at different F-stops. Get out the tape measure and start pixel peeping.  Look up the resources on the web (DOFMaster) and learn to tell the distance by eye and turn off auto focus, then manually focus the lens.  Ok, focus done!  Furthermore, if you are doing this at night no worries you know if by heart if you don’t then turn on the million candle power flashlight (your cheater to activate your autofocus in the dark, then turn  autofocus off).

Getting the Proper Exposure Range

Let me first cover why I do HDR (High Dynamic Range) Panoramas. There are generally two reasons 1) the Sun, 2) your camera sensor.  Most panoramas span a large tonal range because of the directional light from the sun thus one edge might have a different exposure value then the opposite edge.  To make it even more difficult your camera’s sensor is not capable of capturing that level of tonal range in one photo.  Thus we take multiple exposures (bracketing) to capture a wider tonal range to represent what was really there.  Now that we have explained why bracketing for an HDR is important it is critical to determine the proper exposure range. Since the scene may span the tonal range from a dark canyon to a bright sunny area getting the proper exposure range is important.  There is no camera capable of capturing such a wide range of tones in a single photo.  But how do you decide the exposure range of the bracket and where the middle exposure is?  This is the method I recommend: Set the camera to Aperture priority mode and set the metering mode to a single meter point.  Then swivel the camera to some of the brightest and darkest areas in the range of your panorama. Then average the highest and lowest limits to select the middle of the range and then select bracketing that will encompass the approximately the whole range.    Remember to switch back to Manual mode and set the exposure to the middle of the range and select your bracket.  Typically as Steven suggests a two exposure bracket on either side of your middle will give you enough exposure range for most HDR panoramas.  I will typically set my bracket at a full stop and take a range of five exposures for my HDR.

Here is an example of calculating the proper exposure. Assume the darkest area of your panorama meters at 1/30 of a second at f/9. And the brightest area meters at 1/300 of a second.  30+300 = 330 and half of that is 165, so the middle of the exposure is about 1/160th – or whatever is closest. That’s not too wide a range. From 1/160th  plus and minus two stops covers both 1/30 and 1/300th.

Shooting and Overlap

Now your camera is set up for taking the photos but where should you start?  Some people use the degree scales on the tripod head to determine the overlap but I don’t recommend this.  Why?…well by not seeing what is in the photo you can’t determine if there is enough detail for the software you will later use to detect the overlapping elements in the photo.  Areas with large expanses of water or sky have little detail and will be hard to stitch.  The overlap I recommend is 30% to 50% but I have been forced to use 10% in areas of sky between trees.

I have to first decide where to start and end, what direction do I go.  I look at what I want on the edges of my panorama the I pick something further out then that to start and stop at.  If I want to include the top of a peak then  I will make sure to include some buffer in case I need to do some cropping.  Therefore, I will pick a solid landmark like a distinctive tree I call these left and right anchor.  This element usually will run vertical through the frame so I will run into it if I do a multi-row panorama.   I will center this object then I will I always start from the first frame at the left and go right just for consistency.  If I am doing a multi-row panorama I usually place the horizon on the lower third of the image to maximize the amount of sky I can get  but I always start from the bottom left then march to the right till the anchor is well within my frame the I tilt the camera up to capture the next row proceeding right to left till I reach my anchor then move the camera up again and proceed left to right again.

The first photo usually take in a set is a simple shot of my hand to indicate that this is the beginning of a new pano.  I cannot tell you how many times this has come in handy in determining quickly where the shots from one pano end and the next begin.  Also it help me to quickly group the photos so I do go through my photos say “that’s a crappy photo—delete” then only to realize it was the middle of a panorama (I have done that).

How do I take the photos so I don’t miss a photo in the bracket and keep my photos aligned?  I use continuous release mode and remote release to lock the shutter to shoot all the images in the bracket before I look in the view finder to align the next set in the panorama.  This allows me to pay attention to the things around me like people moving into the shot or time the shots to avoid the wind instead of counting shots.

Automated HDR and Stitching – PTgui

As Steven suggested use your favorite HDR program and stitching engine to combine the images.  I recommend using PTgui because of the enormous amount of control and power.  But there are other stitching engines out there: Autopano, Microsoft ICEPhotoshop, HUGin and the list goes on.  I use PTgui because I can HDR and stitch all at once. PTgui can run in batch modes to automatically identify which images belong in a single pano and start the stitching.  In the newest version of PTgui you can zoom in on the preview panorama, mask out the “unwanted tourist” and preview your stitch lines.  The software also allows you to output the images in the set as a photoshop “.pdb” file in layers or the entire blend and stitched panorama.  Thus you can fix certain elements of the photo like shaking branches or moving people. All of the dedicated stitching engines PTgui, Autopano, and Hugin allow you to take full control and stitch low contrast photos by adding control points to the elements that match in your overlapping areas telling the software these areas are the same.  Control points help the software to match corresponding points despite any distortion caused by the lens.  Manual alignment is not possible in Photoshop CS5 or Microsoft ICE.  PTgui control points are a huge advantage in aligning stubborn images with little detail.  Find some details that overlap and are easily recognizable in the two photos zoom in and click on the pixels that represent the same object in each photo. I like to use distinctive branches, tips of trees or jagged mountain tops; something that has a sharp edge and will be easy to match the pixels in the other photo.  Once a few manual control points are added the software takes over and starts aligning the matching points automatically.  With a sufficient number of control points the software can use the information to warp and stitch the images into the final panorama.

 

Manual Processing HDR then Stitching

If you don’t have an engine that can handle both HDR mapping and stitching at the same time no worries you just have a few more steps.

First do HDR blending using the images of your main subject, meaning the people or the thing you are using to draw your viewer into the photo. Save the HDR settings for the main subject and process the rest of the bracketed images using the saved settings.  Doing HDR blending first and then stitching is much less error prone than stitching first and then blending.

Once the blending is to your liking drag the blended images into the stitching engine and let the software do the rest of the work.

What About Stitching Night Images?

If night images are what you want to stitch, please stay tuned as the next article will cover panoramas in your night photography.

Resources

Finally let me point you to fantastic resource for more on panoramic imaging.  Panoguide – a forum for panoramic imaging.  Panoguide is a in-depth discussion of the hows and whys of panoramic photography. They have an expansive “How to section”.

Thanks for reading, as always comments and questions are encouraged.  If you have found this interesting please forward to your friends and follow us on Facebook. If you are interested in this topic (panoramas), night photography, shot planning, or super cool post processing techniques come and join us for a workshop.

Panorama Pursuit

Original Publish Date: 25-May-2011
Last Revision: 06-November-2017

First and foremost I’d like to thank my friend, Eric (Mr. Panorama) Harness for teaching me the basics of this panorama stuff. He’s even helped me salvage a few of my early bad attempts.  Eric knows what he’s doing. I’m a dabbler.

The Scene

15 minutes before sunset clouds and fog over the San Francisco Bay amps up the goldenness of the golden hour. All 24 shots (see below) were taken over a 1 minute and 20 second time span. This view spans NW to North.

What fascinates me about this technique is how well the sun can be included in a normal daylight shot, and how using panoramic techniques is a great way to avoid or eliminate flare. I’m not new to flare. I’ve developed a few techniques to control it. But this method was a pleasant surprise.

The Tricks

There are two important things to get right to pull this off – at least to do so well.

  1. Get the right bracketing of the exposure.
  2. Level that tripod and camera.

Some additional tips that will help a lot include:

  • Use a tripod!
  • Keep the foreground “far away”
  • Use manual exposure settings
  • DO NOT use a polarizing filter
  • Turn off autofocus
  • Rotate around the “nodal point” of the lens
  • Overlap your shots generously
  • Set autoexposure bracketing (I recommend 0,-2,+2 on Canon, or 5 stops on Nikon).

Let me try to explain a little. A sturdy tripod is a must for a stress free panorama and doubly so if you try to use HDR. I don’t have a panorama head, but I discovered that using the tripod collar on my 70-200mm f/4 L lens is a great advantage.

Since things near the camera are more likely to cause stitching errors avoiding elements closer than the hyperfocal distance is a good strategem. Hyperfocal distance is a big word and a slightly murky concept, but I’ve covered it before.

There are holy wars about what the proper name is for the correct pivot point to take images for a panorama (horizontal images) or vertorama (vertical images). I really don’t care what the point is called, but knowing that it is definitely somewhere IN the barrel of the lens is important since the tripod mounting location on the camera itself is definitely NOT in the correct place.  The best camera orientation for taking a panorama is portrait (vertical) mode. Short of investing in a nodal rail and a bunch of other panorama specific hardware it becomes obvious that a ring collar around the barrel of the lens is the simplest “good enough” solution – even if it is not the perfect place.  To find the proper rotation point is pretty straight forward. Have something in the foreground and something far away. Place your camera and the left edge of your frame such that the foreground and background item nearly overlap. Then swing the camera around the attachment point to confirm if at the right edge of the frame the objects have the same spatial relationship.  A more detailed explanation can be found here.

For zoom lenses the proper pivot point may be different at different focal lengths. I merely pass along this observation: using the ring collar at 75 mm on my 70-200mm f/4 L lens I get no stitching errors.  That is good enough for me.

The Setup

I mentioned leveling the tripod. That is important or the panorama will be skewed and detail is lost when I have to crop off a lot of the image – and realism will suffer, too because the horizon will also go weird.  I recommend setting the horizon in the middle of the frame and rotating the camera well past your beginning and ending points and making sure the horizon is level in all the shots. I mess with the tripod and the ball head until it looks good to my eyeball.  I do not use a level or bubble level for this, though I am sure one might help.

While looking at the various frames that will comprise my panorama, I note what the camera metering says. When close to, but not including bright light sources the metering will define the fastest exposure needed. The slowest exposure is defined by the darkest areas.  If 5 stops is not enough, the image may not work. At minimum I want my fastest exposures to be right for the brightest areas (usually the sky) and my slowest exposures to be right for the darkest areas. I choose the exposure that is midway between the extremes as the starting point.

MountAllison_All 1920x1200

In this case, I saw that at ISO 200, f/8 the bright frames metered at 1/1250th while the dark frames metered at 1/80 so I set the exposure to 1/320. Two stops slower is 1/320 × 4 = 1/80. Two stops faster is 1/320 ÷ 4 = 1/1250th.   I took test shots to confirm that at least one of each of the shots in each set was not seriously blowing out pixels.

Shooting starts by setting auto exposure bracketing on, aiming the camera to the left of my intended first target and firing off the bracketed sequence. I then rotate the camera to overlap the last shot by about 1/2 to 1/3 and keep shooting until I have gotten at least one full frame past my intended ending point.

For speed, I also have been producing RAW and small JPG files. Usually I process the small JPGs first. If I later want a larger image, I can start over with the RAW files.

Processing

I use Photomatix Pro in batch mode to process each image set into an HDR image. I found “all defaults” worked pretty well in most cases, but it is possible to tweak things a little if I desire.  Photoshop’s merge to HDR can be used but it seems to be much slower, and I do not know how to automate the batches.  I also find the Photoshop interface to be a bit clunkier.

Once each of the HDR images has been created the HDR images can be loaded into Photoshop and stitched using the “photomerge” operation. When I used the Photoshop photomerge operation it left some serious flare in the image which I had to manually fix up by adjusting the layer masks. By contrast Microsoft ICE – a free tool – removed the flare automatically by using the non-flared overlapping portion of another image.

I finished the image in Picasa by adjusting the white balance (cooler), adding tags, downsizing and adding watermarks.

The same evening I made the featured image, I also created this image.
Wide Open Spaces [C_031244-61]

I much like it, too.

Thanks for reading. Comments are welcome. Sharing with your friends is encouraged.  And if you are further interested, please join me at one of our Workshops where you can learn this topic and many others.

Oh, and keep an eye out for Improving your Panoramas written by Eric Harness, yes, THE Eric Harness who taught me the technique in the first place.

Stitching Stars

Every once in a while, I have to try something a little “left field”.

What if, I thought, instead of stitching a panorama or vertorama of a landscape, I tried stitching a 180 degree vertorama of stars.  I have stitched a landscape shot with a star shot before as shown in the image “Above and Below”. For “Above and Below” I combined a stack of star trails with a shot from just before dark of the landscape. Unfortunately after stacking the star trail for the top, I found none of my image tools could be convinced to stitch the portions of the image together satisfactorily and the two halves of the whole lay dormant in the bit bucket bin.

Above and Below

The star shot – that is the top half – is very similar to this shot on Flickr. I opted to use a stack with fewer frames to keep the sky dark and let the smear of the Milky Way stand out. I then very crudely combined the two shots using the “Collage” tool in Picasa3. I followed the crude paste up job with the “touch up” tool to blend the seam lines. The touch up tool is a crude approximation of the Photoshop Healing Tool and Clone tool combined into one. Sometimes it is very effective, sometimes not so much.

But one evening I found myself staring at the dark skies at 9,000 feet above the town of Bishop, California. The Milky Way stretched from horizon to horizon and was nearly directly overhead. So I thought I’d try something that I expected to be difficult… but proved surprisingly easy. I thought I would try to stitch together the stars in the night sky in much the same way that one can stitch a panorama together.

But Would Stitching Stars Work?

To answer the question, I took the following 8 shots at high ISO, 30 seconds each.

I then dropped them into Photoshop CS5’s PhotoMerge tool and got this peculiar and clearly poor result:

Photoshop’s confusion was partially understandable.  When I took the eight shots for the image I shot 4 shots from the horizon up to the zenith. I then turned the camera 180 degrees and shot the remaining 4 shots descending from the zenith to the horizon.  The top of the first shot must be stitched with the bottom of the second shot, the top of the second with the bottom of the third, the top of the third with the bottom of the fourth … and then the great discontinuity: the top of fourth shot needed to be stitched with the TOP of the fifth shot.  Realizing that the problem might be the topsy turvy issue, I rotated shots 5 through 8 to preserve the “top to bottom” alignment. Unfortunately using the default mode Photoshop could not figure out what to do with the topsy turvy or the consistently aligned images.  So I tried another approach. I changed the Photomerge projection mode to “cylindrical” and obtained the following:

There is a peculiar and inexplicable bulge in the result, but it certainly looks quite a  bit more realistic than the first try.  It took about 5 minutes to do the stitching.

To compare, I fired up the Microsoft ICE tool (an Image Composite Editor – free from Microsoft for PC users) and dragged the 8 original un-rotated exposures and got this:

in about 3 minutes. The ICE result is a lot closer to what I was expecting and the tool did not seem to object to having either the topsy-turvy or properly aligned images thrown at it.

After cropping the ICE result and a little image clean up I arrived at the following visual conundrum. Which way is up? Well, the middle of the picture is up! The top and bottom are the East and West horizons.

Path of the Milky Way West-to-East [C_009575-82stitch]