Find out why this inexpensive 3-D digital imaging software is considered the
"Porsche of Stitchers."
When shopping for a car, sometimes reality steps in and forces you to buy a budget model over a performance vehicle. But in the case of panorama stitching software, go ahead and splurge on the Porsche. With clean lines in its workflow, a supercharged, 3D engine for panoramic rendering, and enough output options to satisfy even the most demanding professionals -- all at an affordable starting price -- your computer's hard drive will beckon for you to take Stitcher 5.6 out for a spin.
Stitcher 5.6 is one of a handful of titles from RealViz, a European company specializing in powerful 3-D digital imaging software geared toward professional photographers, graphic artists, Web designers, and film producers. While their software is designed for high-end users, fortunate for enthusiasts is the fact that RealViz offers several versions of the relatively easy-to-use Stitcher 5.6, the least expensive of which is $79.
The central concept behind RealViz's approach to Stitcher 5.6 (as well as their other software packages) is visualization. In Stitcher, it is WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Visual artists can comfortably operate in an environment that is driven not by numerical parameters but by what is on-screen at any given moment.
At the core of Stitcher 5.6 is a simple, five-phase workflow, represented by icons superimposed over the upper, left portion of the imaging workspace:
1. Starting a panorama project
2. Stitching panorama images
3. Aligning the panorama, stencils, and hotspots
4. Equalizing tonalities within the panorama
5. Rendering the panorama into final output form.
These phases offer a number of sophisticated options, including different types of stitching methods, variable levels of image blending, and a large array of parameters for output formats, just to name a few.
Here is the five-phase workflow in detail:
PHASE 1: STARTING A PANAROMA PROJECT
You may stitch together any number of images. In some cases I stitch just a few images for super-wide snapshots; other times, however, I utilize a dozen or more images to create complete 360° panoramas. The manual outlines typical shooting scenarios using different lenses. If you capture images with a recent "chipped" lens, Stitcher recognizes the focal length via EXIF data; for film scans, you need to input lens info. This information is used in Stitcher's advanced algorithms for eliminating distortion. Once the source images of your panorama are loaded, all of the images appear as thumbnails at the bottom of the screen. Beyond starting brand new panoramas, you may also open previously-saved Stitcher projects.
PHASE 2: STITCHING PANORAMA IMAGES
By far the easiest way to put your panoramics together is with the auto stitch option. All you do is click the icon, and Stitcher begins positioning the images together, automatically determining where each image fits in the final panorama. Stitcher even recognizes and correctly places images in 3D panoramas that consist of multiple rows. Previous versions required that you drag and drop each image into its approximate location. Not so with 5.6. Now you just click and watch it work its magic.
Stitching is where the visual fun begins. It is as if you are sitting in an OMNIMAX theater, watching your images fill the screen before you. You see, Stitcher is a true 3D rendering program, so, as your panorama is pieced together, it is projected onto a virtual sphere right before your eyes. Pressing Alt + click changes the pointer to the pan icon, allowing you to move the stitched image left and right and up and down inside the virtual globe. Ctrl + Alt + click (Windows) or Command + Click (Mac) changes the pointer to a zoom icon, allowing you to zoom in on parts of your image. Once you get the hang of panning and zooming, you may begin moving back and forth, in and out, as if you are really on-location again. The graphical interface is quite similar to playing a 3D video game... except you're moving around in a space created from your own photographs!
If you have particularly difficult images to stitch -- such as images containing almost nothing but sky -- you may need to use one of the manual stitch options. You may position the whole panorama by dragging and dropping all of the images into their approximate places and then clicking the semi-automatic "Stitch" option. Or you may enter the "manual stitch" mode, where you place one image in the work area, Ctrl + click the next image in the film strip, and click the "Manual Stitch" icon. Stitcher enters a side-by-side viewer, where you use a magnifier to place two or three control points at similar locations in the two photos. Then you click "Stitch," and the two images are instantaneously put together. You repeat this for as many frames as you need to manually stitch. I have to say that this is the coolest and easiest-to-use control point interface I've experienced in any stitching program.
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