Excellent and free panorama software: MS ICE

Panoramic pictures are a great way to convey the scale and beauty of a scene, but building a panorama requires a good set of tools. Fortunately Microsoft Research is giving one away for free.

For the longest time I kept Microsoft Digital Image Suite on my computer only for the purpose of stitching panoramas. My photo editing tool of choice is Photoshop, but Photoshop CS’s panorama stitching was so cumbersome and ineffective that I didn’t even try CS4 until I was writing this. Digital Image Suite does a good job… but only if images are really well lined up. Thankfully, however, Microsoft Research released Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE).

I’ve compared the results of Microsoft Digital Image Suite, Photoshop CS, Photoshop CS4 and Microsoft ICE.

Photoshop CS did only a passable job at creating a panorama. Items weren’t lined up and there is obvious banding where the exposure differs between pictures.

DI did a beter job of lining up the pictures and blending the exposures, but still not great.

Photoshop CS4’s Photomerge feature does a nice job both of lining up the images as well as adjusting the exposure across the frame.

Microsoft ICE generated very similar results to Photoshop CS4 on my set of test images. Both CS4 and ICE had trouble lining up the railing in the center of the picture (probably a result of me shooting the sequence without a tripod). CS4 has a more even feel to the exposure and the perspective feels less warped.

Bottom line: ICE is by far the easiest tool to use of the set and generates results comparable to the $700 CS4. While I still live in Photoshop for image editing I use ICE for stitching panoramas. It’s a smaller application and has nice features like "autocrop" which automatically removes the inevitable curved seams on a stitch.

Quick image straightening with Photoshop

Microsoft Digital Image Suite, for all its limitations, does a few things really well:

  • Fix red-eye
  • Stitch together panoramas
  • Make straightening images brain-dead easy

I love Photoshop.  It’s definitely my image editor of choice but I always used to launch Digital Image to straighten pictures, then I’d go back to Photoshop for the rest of my tweaks.  It wasn’t until I bought The Photoshop Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby (also in flavors for CS2 and CS3) that I learned the Photoshop method.

Straightening images is actually a pretty simple process, but nowhere in the Photoshop UI does it say “straighten”.  I suppose I could have read the manual, but where’s the fun in that?

The basic steps are:

  1. Use the measure tool to figure out the angle to rotate
  2. Perform an “arbitrary” rotation
  3. Crop your picture

Let’s say you’re in a hurry (or drunk) and snap a quick photo at a wonky angle.

The first step (after opening the picture with Photoshop, of course) is to select the measure tool from your tools palate.  The measure tool is the ruler buried under the eyedropper tool and can be accessed by clicking and holding or by hitting shift-i repeatedly until the measure tool is selected (I’m a big fan of keyboard shortcuts in Photoshop, they save me a bunch of time and make me feel like a power user).

Once you have your measure tool selected you need to pick a line in the picture you think should be horizontal or vertical.  If you’re straightening a landscape the horizon is a good bet.  If you are shooting buildings using a wide angle lens you’ll want to pick a line near the center of the picture and probably a vertical one.

Use the measure tool to draw along the line you think should be vertical.

Rotating the picture is now a fairly automatic process.  From the Image menu select Rotate Canvas -> Arbitrary.  When the dialog pops up you’ll note Photoshop has already filled in a number.  The software has looked at the line you drew using the measure tool and input the number of degrees to rotate automatically.  All you have to do is press OK.

Your image is now straight but you have some extra gunk you need to trim off.  Grab the crop tool from your palate (or hit “c” on your keyboard) and pick out the part of the picture you want to keep.  Hitting enter on your keyboard will crop the picture and after you save you’re done.

 

I want facial recognition software, why can’t I have it?

I have thousands of pictures… most of them aren’t tagged. Even my new batches of pictures only get tagged about 20% of the time. I really want a set of tools that will help me get this done. Companies are out there working on it but I want it now!

I realize there is some stuff out there, but it is all server-based. You could go into all sorts of privacy discussions (and people have) about doing it this way… but really, I just want to make sure I have a tagged copy for myself. Picassa’s web album tagging is fairly painless and would do what I need… if only it would sync the tags back down to my PC (it doesn’t).

Look, I know there are companies out there that have the code to do this. What are you waiting for? A revenue stream. At this point I’m ready to hire someone in China or India to go through my pictures by hand.