Stitcher 3.5
Panoramic Image Creation At Its Best

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Stitcher 3.5

While there are film camera systems that are designed specifically to shoot panoramic images, digital photographers are currently without an equitable product. Making the task even more difficult is the fact that many of the professional-level digital SLR cameras still have a focal length multiplier, which in many cases makes a 20mm lens behave more like a 30mm lens. Using a wider lens (around 14mm) often isn't the answer, as generally speaking most lenses in this category exhibit too much distortion of the image.

One way to achieve the effect of a wide angle lens or to create a panoramic image is to take multiple shots of the same subject and digitally stitch them together on the computer. Stitcher 3.5 is a professional stitching program that does just this task. Stitcher 3.5 lets the user build high quality panoramic images for use in print, film, web, or for use in coordination with 3D software. Even if you are not into creating full 360Þ panoramic images, Stitcher's powerful rendering engine allows you to stitch a few high-resolution files together and render them as a single flat high-resolution image.

This 10x36" print on the Epson Stylus Pro 7600 contains amazing detail even under the scrutiny of a loupe due to the stitching of eight 6-megapixel files to create this single high-resolution file.
Photos © 2002, Cris Daniels, All Rights Reserved

How The Process Works
There are a few important factors in creating quality panoramic images on a computer. Realviz recommends that for best results, that the photographer uses a tripod and a panoramic pan head. Through my own testing, I found that this was the only way to walk away from a scene knowing I had images that were captured correctly for stitching. While hand holding the camera is possible, there is also a much larger possibility that there will be a few frames that won't stitch together perfectly. There also may be some frames less sharp than others due to camera shake. So while it isn't mandatory to use a tripod and panorama head, if you are serious about getting the best images (with any panorama software) it is a worthy investment. For this test I used a Bogen 3036 tripod and a custom-built panorama head.

It is also quite important that the camera system that you are using has manual controls for both focus and metering. I used three cameras during this review, the Nikon Coolpix 950, a Fuji S1 Pro, and a Nikon N90. Shooting panoramas with each camera is a little different, but all of the cameras had the controls needed to turn off autoexposure and autofocus systems so that images would show a seamless blend when stitched.

System Requirements
Stitcher 3.5 runs on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. The Windows version of Stitcher requires Windows 98SE, Me, 2000SP2, NT4, or XP. The Macintosh version runs on either OS 9.1 or OS X v10.1 and up. The recommended hardware requirements call for at least a 350MHz Pentium II processor, or a G3 300MHz processor and 128MB RAM. Because Stitcher 3.5 is so calculation intensive, creating panoramic images is a much easier and faster process when using a fast computer. The total time it takes to assemble each panorama is completely dependent on the speed of the host computer, so in this case it isn't possible to have too much computer speed. Because Stitcher 3.5 runs in OS X for Macintosh, I reviewed the program on a Dual 1GHz G4 Mac running OS X Jaguar.

Panorama from Nikon Coolpix 950 with wide angle adapter, f/7.41 at 1/189 sec, ISO 100.

The User Interface And Options
The Stitcher 3.5 interface is simple and clean. Essentially there are three main windows, the tool bar, a layout window where the panorama is assembled, and lastly the "Image Strip" window that displays thumbnail images of the files that you are going to use in the current project. Beginning a project is as simple as importing images into the "Image Strip" area. Modifications such as rotation can be performed at this stage so that users do not need to open each image in a separate editor prior to working with them in the Stitcher application.

Assembling the panoramic image is a straightforward process. Images are dragged into the assembly window, oriented properly, and the user presses the enter key on the keyboard telling Stitcher to attach these two images. The whole process repeats itself until the panorama is complete. There are options in Stitcher to adjust the stitching camera properties, and to correct image distortion caused by camera lenses. The corrections that Stitcher uses to correct for a particular lens can be saved as a camera profile for use on future panorama projects. This is convenient for photographers because for each subsequent project that is shot with the same lens the distortion figures for that particular lens have already been calculated and need not be computed again.

Panorama from Fuji S1 Pro with 28mm lens, f/11 at 1/750 sec, ISO 320. Converted to black and white in Photoshop.

Performance
The first panorama I built was using the Fuji S1 Pro. I mounted this camera on a panorama head and had used a Nikon 28-105mm lens on the camera. Although I used the lens at its 28mm setting, the focal length multiplier of the S1 made the effective focal length roughly 44mm. Prior to shooting the images, I metered the scene and chose an exposure that would work for the entire panorama. Once I determined the correct exposure, I white balanced the camera, manually focused, and shot the series of images. The reason it is important to lock the exposure settings and white balance is that the images will have problems stitching if each image is exposed separately.

I built a variety of panoramic images to test Stitcher. Some were 360Þ panoramas, and some like the above scene were 180Þ panoramas rendered specifically for print output (this print is 10x36" at 240dpi). The resultant print contains extremely fine detail, certainly more than is possible from a single image from the S1. Using a film camera was much like using the Fuji, but scanning the images is a bit more complicated because, like other panorama software that I've used in the past, the images need to have the same pixel dimensions. To achieve this, the user will need to have scanning software that allows you to save the crop and exposure settings. This isn't hard, but requires a bit more planning. Certainly, digital camera files are easier to work with for these reasons.

 

Stitcher 3.5 Rendering dialog box.

Other Features
Stitcher 3.5 is as flexible as it is powerful. The user can render their images in many different formats and projection types. Panoramas can be rendered with many different projection types including planar (flat), cubical, cylindrical, and spherical output. Also supported are QTVR (Quicktime), VRML, and Shockwave; all formats are based upon viewing the panoramas in a separate program that allows users to navigate the panorama. Because Stitcher also allows the user to specify "hot spots" in the panorama, it is easy to create panoramas for a variety of uses such as interactive tours. This is the same type of technology currently used to create virtual tours of houses, which is a very popular use for this type of software.

When rendering a panorama the user can specify a variety of parameters. For my large panoramas that I intended to print, I rendered them at their maximum image quality, and largest image size (in pixels). When rendering a Quicktime movie, there are adjustable parameters for quality, size, and other attributes that pertain to that particular file type.

A nice time saving feature of Stitcher 3.5 is the template feature, which can speed up productivity tremendously. These templates allow the photographer to reuse identical setup and shot parameters from one project to the next. This is where a panoramic pan head is most valuable. It will help ensure that the correct number of shots are taken for the template, and that the overlap of the images is enough to provide a quality stitch.

Summary
Stitcher 3.5 is the most powerful stitching program I've used to date. With its advanced capabilities such as dealing with lens distortion, Stitcher 3.5 can create some very high quality panoramic images. The manual is well written, and also provides some good strategies for picture taking. The ability to save the camera calibration parameters and templates can help automate the process if the user has a consistent workflow.

Stitcher 3.5 is a professional piece of software, and at $495 it carries a professional price tag. This will put it out of the range for many hobbyists, but based on the performance and results I would say that the program delivers a good value even at the relatively high price. I have not seen a competitive program that offers the comprehensive feature-set Stitcher provides.

It would be proper to warn that rendering a large file takes the majority of the computer's resources. If you have one computer, it is safe to say that the computer will not be usable while a panorama is rendering. Stitcher 3.5 should be of great interest to anyone serious about panoramic photography. A no cost downloadable demo of Stitcher is available at the Realviz web site at www.realviz.com.

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