Homemade Mac: Not Just Any Vacation Photo, Part One

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So, you've just returned from the annual pilgrimage known as vacation -- a week's respite in a land where the weather was tropical, the drinks were fruity, and the scenery was, well, breathtaking. And you, like the good tourist you are, have the photos to prove it. Walking into work that first day back, you feel more than a little smug as you show off your tan (only recently downgraded from a first-degree burn) and hand over the hard evidence of your time in paradise.

You wait for the envious gasps of wonder.

"Neat," agrees the receptionist, in an altogether underwhelmed voice. The woman in the cube behind yours offers a slightly more enthusiastic, "Pretty."

This is the moment I like to call vacation deflation . Taking back the photos, you find yourself muttering phrases such as, "You can't see it in this picture, but..." and "You really had to be there...."

But I'm here to tell you it doesn't have to be that way. Imagine being able to present the whole view in all its wonder at once with one long photograph. Or better yet, conceptualize giving people a 360-degree view of the scenery as though they were standing in your shoes, drink in hand. The difference would be remarkable.

Single-frame photo

Long panorama photo

This single snapshot of boats anchored off the coast of Negril, Jamaica, is transformed into a dramatic ocean view when added to a panoramic image. By turning a 360-degree panorama into a QuickTime VR movie, viewers can explore the entire scene.

Full-view panoramas exported as QuickTime movies are handy for more than just eliciting vacation envy. Perhaps you want to offer your distant family a glimpse of your new home, or you're trying to rent your apartment but don't have time to give everyone a tour. QuickTime VR provides a great way to let people peruse a site when they can't actually be there. In fact, several large museums, including The Louvre in Paris, use this technology to give virtual tours of their collections.

Sound complicated? It really isn't. Once you know a few basics and have the right tools, creating stunning panoramas or QuickTime VR movies is largely a matter of patience and attention to detail.

In this three-part series, I'll give you tips for capturing your images and walk you through the process of first assembling your photographs into a seamless panorama, and then creating an interactive QuickTime movie. All you'll need for this project is a camera (both digital and film cameras will work), a good image-editing program such as Photoshop LE, and QuickTime VR software (I'll discuss several options for this in the third installment). In this installment, I'll tell you how to set up your shot to ensure you get perfect images the first time around.

As with most things in life, preparation is the key to creating a successful panorama. The more forethought you put into your picture before clicking the shutter, the fewer four-letter words you'll need to use when it actually comes time to piece together your photographs.

The first step is setting up your camera. You will want images that are as consistent as possible, in tone as well as landscape. Therefore, once you get started, you shouldn't adjust the settings on your camera -- and this includes the zoom. If it's possible to set your camera's exposure manually, set it for the most important part of the scene and leave it there.

Cameras that automatically adjust the exposure will compensate for changes in brightness as you move toward and away from the sun, creating inconsistent color (don't worry, this can be fixed later). Another option is to consider purchasing a cheap disposable camera. Most of these don't provide an option for exposure correction and may produce more consistent results.

When you're ready to begin shooting, keep in mind these five basic rules for taking good panorama photographs:

  • Keep the camera level. The camera should stay at the same height for all your shots. The easiest way to control the movement of the camera is to use a tripod and a spirit level. This will keep the camera level throughout the entire sweep.
  • Keep the camera straight. Use the horizon to prevent the camera from tilting.
  • Rotate the camera in as small a circle as possible, preferably on its center axis. This will help prevent distortion and ensure that objects will match up in the end.
  • Overlap the photographs. Be sure to leave enough overlap that you won't end up with an empty gap because the individual photographs will have to be pieced together later. Identify landmarks in the left or right corner of your photographs and use these to line up the next shot. (Photos should overlap by at least 10 percent.)
  • Keep the camera level! (Yeah, I know I already said this, but it bears repeating.)
  • Of course, for some of us, planning comes about as naturally as bicycling underwater. The fact is, you never know when a stunning view is going to walk up and slap you on the back of the head. Just last weekend, I was driving aimlessly (in other words, hopelessly lost) through the mountains outside Santa Cruz, California, when I happened upon a beautiful vista of the valley below (which I'll use throughout this series to demonstrate the steps).

    panorama of mountains

    Scenes with panoramic potential like this one can pop up when you least expect them.

    Unless you keep a tripod stored in the back of your car at all times, occasionally you'll just have to improvise. For these moments, you can capture the best shots by using what I call the "cement shoes" method.

    To use this method, plant your feet firmly on the ground and swivel your upper body from the waist to face the beginning of your shot. Lock your elbows close to your body to prevent the camera from slowly drooping as you take your shots. Now slowly, without moving your feet, untwist your body as you capture the scene with your camera. If you can see the horizon, use it to keep your camera level. If you're careful, you should end up with images that easily match up when placed side by side.

    Once you have your images, use your usual method to transfer the images to your computer. If you use a scanner, be sure to keep your ultimate goal in mind when setting the controls. If you plan to put the images on the Web or make a QuickTime movie, keep the resolution at 72 dpi. If you are printing the image, set the resolution according to the requirements of your printer. Remember that high resolutions can result in unwieldy file sizes that can, in turn, slow down your program to a crawl, if not crash it completely.

    Stay Tuned for Next Time

    You're now ready to get started on the real work -- turning your individual snapshots into a single, flawless panoramic photograph. In the next installment, I'll show you how to stitch together your images and successfully smooth out inconsistent color and other blemishes.

    Associate Editor Kelly Lunsford, who is still recovering from her own case of vacation deflation, covers Web and graphics tools for Macworld and teaches desktop publishing at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. If you have questions or comments, you may post them at the end of this article or at the Homemade Mac forums .

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