I review so much software every year that it takes something truly special to make me sit up and say ‘Wow!”
But that was exactly my reaction to the latest version 1.3.3 of Microsoft’s free “ICE” panorama stitcher.
The ICE program or Image Composite Editor to give it its full name, is a product from the imaging group at Microsoft Research. This group has been doing some remarkable work including the mind-blowing Photosynth project that creates 3D views by combining multiple two dimensional photos. (see http://photosynth.net)
In fact, the latest version of the ICE panorama stitcher appears to borrow some of the Photosynth technology. Not only can you patch together photos taken in a one dimensional pan you can also create composites of photos taken in two dimensions. Furthermore these two dimensional composites don’t have to be taken on a tripod using a rigid grid pattern – they just need to be overlapping. ICE doesn’t even need to be told the order in which the photos were taken; it works that out for itself.
To test it out I went to a local park and took 15 overlapping shots on a compact camera in a very rough 3 by 5 grid. The camera was hand held and I took the shots simply by pivoting my body on one spot while trying to maintain my camera horizontal. I made no attempt at exposure correction – all shots were taken with the camera set to auto. I then uploaded the 15 shots from my camera to a folder on my laptop.
To evaluate ICE’s ability to work out what is relevant I moved three totally unrelated photos to the same folder. I then selected all 18 photos and dragged these into ICE.
Within 45 seconds ICE had correctly patched together the 15 ten megapixel panorama images and ignored the three irrelevant photos.
The results were spectacular. The joining was near perfect and gave no hint of the crude manner in which the panorama was taken. Exposure matching was excellent.
As is normally the case with normal one dimensional photo stitchers the edges of my two dimensional panorama were irregular. However with the click of a mouse ICE automatically cropped the shot to provide straight edges. The result was a huge super wide angle 18MB photo that would normally have required an expensive large format camera with an equally expensive lens. Here’s a thumbnail of the final panorama. The slight curvature to the right is not distortion but a rising landscape as I took the photo while standing on a small hill.
This 20 Megapixel composite was assembled by ICE from 15 shots taken hand held in a 5x3 matrix
Once you’ve created your panorama you can save it in standard JPEG, TIFF, BMP or PNG formats. You can also save it in HD Photo or Silverlight Deep Zoom formats for viewing in Microsoft’s specialist HD Photo Panorama viewer. You can also upload your images to PhotoSynth website to create full 3D effects that can be viewed by all.
Am I impressed? You bet. With its ability to stitch seamlessly in two dimensions ICE is by a clear margin the best panorama stitcher I’ve ever used whether commercial or free. It is an essential freebie for anyone who takes digital photos. Not only does it provide the ultimate in panorama stitching it opens up to the average camera owner a whole range of creative wide angle opportunities that were formerly the exclusive province of those who owned expensive photographic equipment.
New features in version 1.3.3
- Accelerated stitching on multiple CPU cores
- Ability to publish, view, and share panoramas on the Photosynth web site
- Support for "structured panoramas" — panoramas consisting of hundreds of photos taken in a rectangular grid of rows and columns (usually by a robotic device like the GigaPan tripod heads)
- No image size limitation — stitch gigapixel panoramas
- Support for input images with 8 or 16 bits per component
- State-of-the-art stitching engine
- Automatic exposure blending
- Choice of planar, cylindrical, or spherical projection
- Orientation tool for adjusting panorama rotation
- Automatic cropping to maximum image area
- Native support for 64-bit operating systems
- Wide range of output formats, including JPEG, TIFF, BMP, PNG, HD Photo, and Silverlight Deep Zoom
Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows 7, 32 or 64 bit.