Digital Hub

Back in the days of film photography, I'd capture wide vistas by shooting several overlapping photos. Then I'd line up my prints on the dining-room table and paste them together to create a crude panorama.

The digital world is a much better place. Now you can transfer your shots to your Mac and use special software to digitally stitch them together into a single, seamless image. When you're done, you can print your panorama on a photo printer or bring it into iPhoto and order prints.

These days, you can get great outdoor panoramas with nothing more than a handheld digital camera and the stitching features in Adobe Photoshop Elements ($99; http://www.adobe.com) or similar photo-editing software. However, to get the best results from these programs, you need to know how to set up your shots.

Shoot, Turn, Repeat

In a good digital panorama, the seams between overlapping photos should be invisible. Although Photoshop Element's Photomerge feature does a fine job of blending multiple images, it can do only so much. It can't compensate for gaps in your image or vastly different angles or exposures. (For a primer on creating panoramas in Photoshop Elements, see "A Stitch in Time.") To get truly seamless panoramas, you need to shoot your photos with stitching in mind.

Watch the Overlap When you shoot a panorama, keep roughly 20 to 40 percent overlap between each consecutive image. Many digital cameras offer a panorama mode, which displays a small version of your last shot on the left side of the camera's LCD screen. This makes it easy to position the camera for the next shot.

If your camera lacks a panorama mode, you'll need to gauge your overlap manually. As you're taking each shot, locate a landmark or other reference point somewhere in the right half of the frame. Then carefully rotate the camera to make sure that same reference point also appears in the next image. Do your best to rotate the same distance between each shot.

Consistency Counts You also want to avoid significant variations in brightness from one image to the next. You don't need to worry about this if you're using your camera's panorama mode -- the camera will lock the exposure and white-balance settings after the first shot to ensure consistent lighting for the remaining shots. However, if your camera lacks a panorama mode, you can maintain consistency by using one of its manual white-balance settings instead of automatic white balance, and by activating its exposure-lock feature. Refer to your camera's manual if you're not sure how to do this.

On the Level Of course, the most important step in getting a good panorama is simply to stay put. Any changes in camera location, height, or level may make it difficult to match up photos in the stitching process -- creating unwanted distortion and noticeable seams.

Ideally, you should try to rotate the camera over the optical center of its lens. If you're shooting outdoor panoramas of distant scenes, a tripod can help keep things level. But don't worry if you don't have one (I held my Canon S-50 in my hand when taking the example panorama). When holding your camera, firmly plant your feet, lock your elbows as close to your body as possible for extra support, and then slowly rotate your body from the waist to keep a tight arc. And whatever you do, don't adjust your zoom between shots. Remember, consistency is key.

Camera positioning is even more critical for indoor panoramas and for outdoor scenes containing nearby objects. In these cases, even a tripod may not give you the correct rotation. Because a camera's tripod-mounting hole is typically offset, the camera doesn't rotate over the center of the lens. As a result, your panorama will probably have visible flaws -- for example, the edges of a doorway might appear twice.

You can often fix these problems with a little work in Photoshop. Another solution -- albeit an expensive one -- is to buy a panorama tripod head, such as the $180 KiWi-L, from Kaidan (http://www.kaidan.com). Its adjustable brackets enable you to position the camera so that it rotates correctly.

Printing Panoramas

Once you've stitched together your individual shots in Photoshop Elements or another stitching program, you should end up with a single panoramic image -- a very wide panoramic image. At full size, my panorama measures roughly 11 inches tall by 36 inches wide -- and it's composed of only four images.

Although you can print a panorama on any standard photo printer, a letter-size sheet of paper simply doesn't do your image justice. It reduces your beautiful mountain range or desert vista to a narrow strip only a few inches high. But there are plenty of better ways to commit a panorama to paper.

Roll 'Em Many photo printers can accept roll-fed paper, which can produce dramatic, banner-size panoramas. If your printer is among them, choose the Landscape option in the Page Setup dialog box. Under Paper Size, choose the option that corresponds to roll-fed or panorama paper.

If you're printing from Photoshop Elements, go to Print Preview and click on the Scale To Fit Media option. If you're printing from iPhoto, click on the Print icon and choose Full Page from the Style menu.

Keep in mind that printing panoramas isn't cheap. A 30-foot roll of Epson's photo paper costs about $40 -- and nothing drains pricey ink cartridges faster than photos two feet wide. Installing and working with roll-fed photo paper is cumbersome, too; I tend to waste a foot or two of paper for each panorama I print.

Ordering Prints For results superior to anything you'll get from an ordinary photo printer, order photographic prints through iPhoto. A 20-by-30-inch print costs $20. However, you can take advantage of the panorama's narrow orientation by placing two panoramas on one print.

In Photoshop Elements, create a new file slightly more than twice as tall as your panorama, and then drag two panoramas into the new file. Save the file in JPEG format with a compression setting of 12. (This minimizes JPEG compression.) Next, drag the combined JPEG into iPhoto and order your print. When it arrives, carefully cut the two panoramas apart.

For more tips on creating panoramas, or for information about putting panoramas online as interactive QuickTime VR movies, go to http://www.macilife.com/digitalhub.

A Stitch in Time

Photoshop Elements isn't the only software than can stitch together panoramic images, but it's one of the easiest to use. Its Photomerge feature (now also included in Photoshop CS) makes short work of seamlessly blending multiple photos.

Step 1: Open Your Shots

In Photoshop Elements, choose Create Photomerge from the File menu. (In Photoshop CS you'll find this feature under File: Automate: Photomerge). From the Photomerge dialog box, open all of the images in your panorama.

Step 2: Refine Your Stitch

Photomerge will attempt to position the overlapped shots and then blend them A. You can fine-tune overlaps by hand if necessary. If you find the blends a little choppy, try turning on the Advanced Blending option under Composition Settings B.

Step 3: Crop and Polish

If you held your camera while shooting, your panorama will probably have ragged edges. To fix this, select the Crop tool, click on the Front Image button in the control bar, and then drag your mouse to define the area to crop. Press return to confirm the crop.

Now On The iDVD Menu

Tired of iDVD's canned menu themes? To spice up your menus with professional flair, check out the assortment of themes available online. For example, iDVD ThemePak (http://www.idvdthemepak.com) currently offers six CDs of themes at prices ranging from $29 to $49. Each set contains eight designs -- some with animated backgrounds and drop zones. The company also offers several free themes.

Another option is iDVDThemes, which offers standard themes and a collection of whimsical holiday themes, including a snowman with animated snow ($13; http://www.idvdthemes.com). If you don't want an entire collection, check out iDVD Themetastic, which sells individual themes ranging from soccer to a casino, each for less than $10 (http://www.idvd-themetastic.com).

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