Homemade Mac: Not Just Any Vacation Photo

The problem with writing a series is that inevitably, someone tunes in halfway through the series, looks around in confusion and promptly sends off an e-mail demanding to know what the @#!* I'm talking about while generally chastising me for bothering to get out of bed in the morning. Such is the glamorous life of a writer.

So let's recap. In this three-part series, I'll show you how to transform your snore-inducing vacation photos into an envy-inspiring visual experience by creating stunning panoramas and 360-degree QuickTime VR movies.

By now, you should have traveled to some beautiful corner of the globe (your backyard will do), carefully preserved every inch of the landscape on film and, finally, managed to stuff those images into your computer. (For tips on taking panorama-worthy pictures, see part one of this series.) In this installment of Homemade Mac, I'll show you how to turn your separate images into a seamless panoramic image. Then in the last article of this series, you'll learn how to make a QuickTime VR movie.

Although pretty, none of these individual images captures fully the beauty of this valley scene. By piecing them together in a panorama, you can show the entire view at once.

Now, I know you're busy. If you had a lot of spare time on your hands, you'd probably go to the beach instead of sitting in front of your computer. So, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't say from the start that there are several programs that will automatically stitch together multiple pictures into a panorama. Drag, click, poof! You're done. (I'll discuss these in part three, when it's time to turn our panoramas into QuickTime VR movies.)

Although these programs offer a quick solution, what you can gain in speed, you may lose in quality. As a general rule, the less complicated your needs, the more successful the program will be in meeting them. This means that if you took excellent care when taking your photos so they all line up beautifully and you only plan to put them on the Web, such programs will probably get the job done; however, if your picture-taking strategy tends toward the...uh...haphazard, or you need a flawless image -- to print out and frame, for example -- you'll be better off rolling up your sleeves and doing the job yourself.

Although this process is fairly easy, it does require a sophisticated image-editing program. Adobe Photoshop LE is perfect for the job. Beginners may be a little intimidated by the sheer number of tools and options in Photoshop. But the fact is, if you want to work with your images, you won't find anything for under $100 that comes close to the power and flexibility of Photoshop. And because Photoshop LE now comes bundled with many scanners, you may already have it.

Once you've scanned or imported your photos from a digital camera, open a new Photoshop document and specify a height and width for your panorama. If in doubt, overestimate the width; you can crop it later. If you are planning to make a 360-degree panorama (to later turn into a QuickTime movie, for example), don't try to stitch together the entire image at once. Instead, break it up into two or three documents. This will keep your file sizes relatively small and help keep your machine from crashing.

Now, with your panorama document still open, open all the individual images one by one. Each will open in a new window. Go to your panorama document. If the Layers palette isn't open, choose Show Layers from the Windows menu. Click on and drag the shots from their window into your empty Panorama document.

As you insert pictures into the document, you'll see that Photoshop places each image on its own layer. This allows you to move and adjust each image independently. This also means you'll have to be careful to specify which layer you want to work with before making any changes. For this reason, it's a good idea to make sure the layers are labeled in a way that makes sense to you -- either numerically or by visible landmarks in the photo.

Photoshop places each photograph on a separate layer that can be adjusted without affecting the others. The Layers palette is shown here.

Once all the photos are in your document, you need to piece them together to form a single image. Just like working on any puzzle, the best strategy is to find distinctive landmarks or patterns to use as guides. Don't worry if you see dramatic color differences between one photo and the next. We'll fix that later.

The Layers palette offers several features that will help you line up images quickly and precisely. To line up landmarks between two overlapping areas, adjust the top layer's opacity by selecting the layer and moving the transparency slider to the left. You'll then be able to see both images at once. You can also adjust the order of the layers, controlling which photo is on top, by simply dragging the name of the layer into a different position within the Layers palette. To concentrate on just a couple of photographs at a time, you can hide extraneous layers from view by clicking on the eye icon to the far left of each layer in the palette.

When you're done, you should have one continuous image. Before moving on, save a copy of the file under a different name so you won't have to start from scratch if you make a mistake in the next step.

Although the color is still off, my layers are now carefully lined up to create a seamless picture of the valley.

An automatic camera "thinks" for itself and adjusts its settings for each image. So, if you used an automatic camera to shoot your photos, your combined panorama could end up a patchwork of strange color variations (see the example at the end of Step 2, above).

Matching colors between one image and the next is an imprecise art. It takes equal parts experimentation and patience. Before you start, choose a picture that has the most "accurate" coloring. You'll use this one as your base image and adjust the rest of the images to match it. Look at each image and try to determine how it differs from your base image. Is it lighter? Darker? Bluer?

You can correct any of these problems using a combination of two basic image-editing tools (all located under Adjust in the Image Menu):

Levels The Levels window lets you adjust your image's shadows and highlights. By moving the arrow markers along the histogram, you can lighten or darken your photo.

This image (left) was too dark. By moving the center arrow in the Levels window (the Photoshop window), I was able to lighten the midtones of the image (notice the difference).

Color Balance If your picture seems to have a blue or yellow tone, you may need to adjust the color balance. The Color Balance window lets you determine how much of each color is added to the image.

Starting from the base image, move outward, one image at a time. Match the colors and tone to the image next to it. If an adjustment doesn't look right, it's better to undo the entire correction and start over than to continue reopening the palette to make small adjustments. Focus on matching the landscape details (in this case the color of the trees and hills). Often, large areas of continuous color, such as the sky, will still look uneven.

Now, after correcting the individual layers, I have a continuous tone for my scenery. But, the color of the sky is still uneven.

Even after you've matched the colors in your scenery, you may still notice seams between wide expanses of color -- especially in areas with subtle variations, such as the sky. Luckily, this is one of the easiest problems to fix. What you'll need is the Rubber Stamp tool.

Before you use the Rubber Stamp tool, save a copy of your document under a new name so you can revert to it at any time. Then, flatten all your layers into a single image by choosing Flatten from the Layer palette's Options menu.

The Rubber Stamp tool lets you select one part of an image and paint a duplicate of it somewhere else. To eliminate the seams in your sky or any other part of your image, select the Rubber Stamp tool and option-click on an area close to the seam. Now simply paint over the seam with the sky you just selected. As you paint, you'll see a crosshatch showing what part of the image you are duplicating. You can adjust the transparency slider in the Layers palette as you paint to blend one color into another. When you're finished, you should have a seamless panoramic image.

You can now print out your photo on high-quality, glossy photo paper, frame it, and hang it on the wall to taunt your less worldly cohorts. Of course, I know some of you won't be satisfied until you've had the chance to snub your nose at the thousands of people who spent their summer trapped under florescent lighting. If so, stay tuned for the next and final installment of this series, when I'll show you how to turn your panoramic photos into interactive QuickTime VR movies.

Associate Editor Kelly Lunsford covers graphics, publishing, and the Web for Macworld. She also teaches desktop publishing at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. You can post any questions, comments, or suggestions to the Homemade Mac forum.

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