The View Up Here

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Panoramic Photography

Posted by Tom Benedict on 22/04/2010

The quest for the commercially viable photograph continues.  In the previous article I looked at the photography hardware, namely the lens, camera, KAP rig, and kites I would need to make photographs that I could use for stock purposes.  Given the hardware I have on-hand, the only available method is to do panoramic photography.  This is fine by me since I already do aerial panoramas, and thoroughly enjoy the freedom the aerial vantage point offers the panoramic photographer.  But it involves an additional step that traditional single-shot photography does not: stitching software.

For the past several years I’ve happily used Microsoft Image Composite Editor for all of my stitching needs.  It’s a capable package, though a little sparse on geometric controls.  It’s also right in my price range since it’s free software.  Up until now that’s all I’ve  needed to know.  But in looking at moving from hobbyist to semi-professional, I’ve had to re-examine every aspect of what I’m doing to make sure I’m on the up-and-up.  Camera?  Check.  Kites?  Check.  KAP rig?  Check.  FAA?  Since I’m doing this from a kite and follow all the pertinent FAA regs, that’s a check too.  But what about software?

I do the bulk of my day-to-day image processing in Photoshop 7.  It’s not the latest and greatest, but it’s got two things going for it:  It’s still a rock-solid piece of software, and I have a commercial license for it.  So I can get everything done that I need to do, and there are no restrictions on what I can do with the resulting images.  But the same isn’t true of ICE.  The license agreement you sign off on when installing Microsoft ICE quite clearly stipulates that it is for non-commercial research purposes only.  Period.  So every single panorama I’ve ever made with it is not available for commercial use.

This set me on yet another quest: the quest to find commercially licensed panorama stitching software that would do everything I want.  Sounds simple, right?


The hunt started with a web search.  There are a lot of packages out there for stitching panoramas.  A lot.  And for every package, there are at least a handful of people who strongly like or strongly dislike it.  Some articles dismissed entire families of packages with a single sweep of their textual arm.  One condemned any package that ran on a Windows computer because no graphic arts professional would be caught dead using anything but a Mac.  I found that particularly funny, and ignored the rest of the article.  There were a handful that kept coming up, though.  So I tried most, if not all of them.

This is where things started to fall apart.  One I tried worked great, and was designed for making prints rather than immersive VR representations for web use.  But it could only handle a single stripe of images.  I do multi-stripe panoramas, so I had to drop it even though it was a promising package.  Another that came highly recommended from a number of sources simply wouldn’t run on my computer.  I use an AMD 64-bit computer running Vista64.  Seems simple enough, but that caused a good number of packages no end of problems.  This was a source of frustration since my computer and the OS running on it are now several years old.  You’d think the issues would be known by now.  Go figure.

In the end I went back to one I tried some years ago: Autopano Pro.  When I installed the demo, it would assemble panoramas, but wouldn’t let me edit them.  I almost gave up in disgust until a fellow photographer whose opinions I trust completely told me to really give it a try.  So I hit the support forums, found a similar issue, and tried the fix.  It worked.  Once the problem was fixed I was able to create, modify, tweak, bonk, dwing, and save my panoramas.  The quality was as good as, if not better than ICE.  So I bought a license.

Since then I’ve had more of an opportunity to put Autopano Pro through its paces.  It is considerably more flexible and more capable than ICE.  I also signed a commercial license agreement, so there are no restrictions on what I do with the resulting images.  I’m back in business, so to speak.

Rather than take the stance of so many of the articles I read when I started this search, I won’t demean any of the other software out there.  I won’t even mention them by name.  And I won’t make any statements about what the “best” software is.  I honestly don’t know.  But I did find one that will run on the hardware I have, will stitch multi-stripe panoramas, handles ghosting remarkably well, and offers a commercial license for someone like me who is trying to move toward being a semi-professional.  If you find yourself in the same boat, give it a try.


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