Sometimes, a single frame doesn’t do justice to the big, beautiful landscape before your eyes. In other cases, the lens you’ve got isn’t wide enough to take in the whole scene. Still, in other cases, you need a larger file than what your camera can deliver. Whatever the cause of this conundrum, there’s a simple solution: stitching multiple frames together to make a panorama.
And yes, since Photoshop introduced layers in version 3.0, photographers have been compositing images together to create stitched panoramas by virtual hand. But there’s actually a one-click tool built into Photoshop that allows even the most novice photo editor to create big, beautiful composites. It’s called Photomerge, and it’s a great way to make stitching images easy.
First, a word about shooting the images for use in a panorama. It works best when the images were created deliberately for this purpose. Use a manual exposure setting to ensure consistency from frame to frame, as one big flaw in a composite is one image that’s different than all the others. Such variation really stands out. So, instead, use a single focal length (a prime lens ensures this) and a consistent exposure, then sweep the camera slowly from one end of the scene to the other, holding it level and overlapping each frame significantly to ensure no gaps in the composite.
I find choosing a line such as the horizon and resting the center of the viewfinder right on that line works best so I know I’m staying relatively level. The most accurate approach, however, is to use a tripod and very deliberate camera movements. Part of the beauty of Photomerge is its ability to make something great out of even a handheld series of photos that have been shot from the hip—just like the example of the lake at sunset shown here.
I like to send my images into Photomerge straight from Lightroom by choosing “Merge to Panorama in Photoshop.” To do this, simply select the images to be included (by clicking on the first image in the range and then shift-clicking on the last or by control-clicking on several images that aren’t all in a sequence) and then look under the Photo menu for the Edit heading, where “Merge to Panorama in Photoshop” is found. Of course, you could also go straight to Photoshop and look for Photomerge under the Automate heading of the Edit menu. In either case, Adobe next prompts with a pop-up window for Photomerge.
From Lightroom, the selected image files will already be present in the Photomerge window. But from Photoshop, you’ll have to choose a folder or group of files manually via the Browse button. With the images selected, you can skip straight to Okay in order to put the application right to work or you can make a few adjustments in the Photomerge window.
The first choice to be made is the Layout, which determines how Photoshop will map the composite. By default, the application will analyze the images and automatically arrange them however it sees fit, choosing from Perspective, Cylindrical or Spherical depending on what it deems appropriate. If you’ve thoughtfully shot a group of overlapping images with compositing in mind, this option should work great. If it struggles, though, you may want to consider manually choosing the option that will work best based on the scene and how it was photographed. Perspective uses the center image as the foundation and distorts and adjusts images on either side to fit. Cylindrical flattens out some of the distortion that typically appears at each end of a Perspective mapped image, especially useful when the panorama is particularly wide. Spherical is good for 360-degree panoramas, and while Collage and Reposition are similar, Collage will rotate and resize images to fit whereas Reposition won’t.
For a set of images with visible vignetting, check the vignette removal checkbox. Blend Images Together should be checked in order to take advantage of Photoshop’s processing power to analyze the images and align them as best it can. Unchecked, the edges between frames will be rectangular. If the source images were shot with a wide-angle lens, distortion may be evident in a way that makes it difficult to blend multiple frames into a panorama. Checking Geometric Distortion Correction will help to eliminate this. Lastly, the Content Aware Fill Transparent Areas checkbox helps to fill in any gaps that may be created where the images don’t overlap. Click OK and Photoshop will get to work blending the composite.
After a few moments—depending on the quantity of images, their size and the complexity of the blend—a panorama composite will appear in Photoshop. And typically, as long as those input images were thoughtfully executed, it’s going to look pretty great.
A deeper examination may find some challenges where the frames are blended together. Typical areas of issues occur when an object is moving in the frame. This might be an animal or a tree or, as in the example shown here, waves rolling across the lake. It’s these movements from frame to frame that are practically impossible to align perfectly.
Sometimes, misaligned areas can be corrected by slightly moving one of the frames in the composite. Turn off a layer’s view to see which part of the image may be causing the issue—as in the example here with the missing portion in the middle. This shows not only how Photoshop automatically created a pretty detailed mask edge, but also how it’s essential to unlink the layer from the mask. That’s done by clicking the chain icon between the layer icon and the mask icon in the layers palette. This way, when the image information on the layer moves, the mask remains in place. If the mask moves too, gaps and errors will appear, evidenced in another detail shown below.
Sometimes, too much movement of the underlying image elements may cause issues elsewhere in the frame, so be sure you’re not creating new problems by fixing old ones. In these cases, it may be best to simply create a new merged layer atop the stack of layers in order to use tools such as the clone stamp and the spot healing brush to selectively repair any anomalies in the blends. In the end, the scale of a large composite often camouflages all but the most egregious issues. Photomerge tends to do a great job of blending images well with little intervention from the photographer.