Combining Images for Large Subjects using Photoshop Photomerge

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Have you ever been so close to a subject that you just couldn’t get it all into the frame? You could use a fisheye lens but they creates so much distortion that it doesn’t always work the way you want it to. You can actually get the photo that you want with the lens that you already have! You can accomplish this by taking multiple images over several columns and several rows, and combining them into one very large, extremely detailed image. With a little practice and some information any photo is possible with the gear that you have in your camera bag.

Combining Images for Large Subjects using Photoshop Photomerge

Fig 2

WIDE LENS VERSUS IMAGE COMBINING

Let’s take a look at how to create one of these images. This photo of space shuttle Atlantis was taken just before sunrise as this incredible (and incredibly large) engineering marvel was being prepared for launch. Here are two photos
for comparison (Image #1 below) and (Image #2 above)

Fig 1

The image directly above was taken with a fisheye lens. More specifically a full-frame fisheye lens; one that covers a 180 degree angle of view, but the image still covers the entire frame with no black borders. As compared to a circular fisheye lens which covers a 180 degree angle of view, but the final image is a circle with a black border filling the rest of the frame. This image may be OK for some, but the cartoon like distortion may not be work for others.

Fig 2

You could buy a superwide lens that is corrected to eliminate distortion but those lenses could cost two or three times as much as a fisheye lens. Or maybe you have one but just don’t happen to have it with you on that particular day.

Image #2 (top and right) was created using a 17-40mm wide angle lens. This was accomplished by taking a series of images in a sequence from top to bottom in one column, followed by a second sequence from top to bottom in a second column. You want to make sure that you overlap your images approximately 20-25 percent so that they can be spliced together later using your editing software. The resulting image in this case was a combination of 12 images merged into one very large, very detailed image!

One major benefit of using this method is that you can focus each image separately as you take them allowing you to capture a greater depth of field. And when the images are combined you will have one large digital file that has many more pixels than the single images that you normally take. In this example the individual files were 3168 x 4752 pixels each. The total file size of the combined images is 9179 x 12,009 pixels. This composite image was then cropped to show just the desired image, cropping out this outer portion is something that we will take a look at in a minute. Using this method you can make some really large prints if you wanted to.

USING PHOTO MERGE TO COMBINE THE IMAGES

So now you know that it’s easy enough to take the images as long as you have sufficient overlap, so let’s learn how to combine them. I use Adobe Photoshop and I have successfully created these on every version that has the ‘Photomerge’ capability. You may have other photo stitching software that you want to try and that’s part of the fun of photography. Experiment with different software and experiment with how you take photos. It’s all part of adding knowledge to your photography tool belt. I’ll show you how we can combine these images using Photoshop CC since that’s what I’m currently using (the results are the same with all versions).

STEP ONE – SELECT IMAGES

Fig 3

Step 1. Using Adobe Bridge select the images that you want to combine

STEP TWO – PHOTOMERGE

Fig 4

Step 2. In Adobe Bridge go to Tools > Photoshop > Photomerge

STEP THREE – COMBINING SETTINGS

A new window will appear that shows you which files have been chosen to be combined, this allows you to verify that you have all of the correct files. You will see that you also have some options on how you want to combine the images. I have found that letting Photoshop automatically combine them works perfectly well for most things, so select Layout “Auto”, the top option. Check the ‘Blend Images Together’ option box, and leave the others unchecked. The ‘Blend Images Together’ option will automatically create layer masks in each of the layers of your image and it will greatly aid in seamlessly combining all of these images into one. See screen shot below.

Fig 5

Click OK

Note: At this point you may want to go make a sandwich. This part of the process can be time consuming and there are a lot of variables that will determine just how quickly or slowly your computer can crunch all of these pixels into one remarkable image.

  • Q. How many photos are you trying to combine? A. I recommend trying just 3 or 4 the first time.
  • Q. Are you combining RAW files or jpegs? A. For maximum punch you definitely want to use your RAW files, but for trying this out I would recommend using jpegs initially.
  • Q. How much RAM does your computer have? A. More is always better and will significantly decrease the time that your computer takes to process images like these. Combining these 12 images with 4GB RAM on my 2.4GHz Macbook Pro took almost 60 minutes.

How fast your processor is, what type of processor you have, which operating system, etc., are all factors that will determine how quickly this process works. Always use your computer’s hard drive (aka local drive) as opposed to an external hard drive that doesn’t respond as quickly as your local drive.

If you don’t have that super computer that you really would like to have yet, then you could stick to combining jpeg versions of your files instead of RAW files, but if you do that just make sure that your original files are untouched. And by untouched I mean do all of your color correcting AFTER your images are combined into one. That is true for those of you wanting to combine RAW files on your higher end computers also.

STEP FOUR – CROP AND FINAL TWEAKS

When photomerge has completed combining and blending your images you will see something like this below.

Fig 6

Photomerge has created a PSD file, complete with layer masks for showing just the parts of the image that you need to see from each layer. The blending may not look perfect at this point- you can usually see light edges where the masking is and that’s okay. You can see how Photoshop has automatically corrected for distortion and there will be some parts of the image that need to be cropped away. Let’s save the file ‘as is’ so that you will always have this ‘original’ to go back to.

The next step is to crop the image and save another copy that you can go ahead and flatten. It’s at this point (when the image is flattened) that you will see how well the blending did. Or rather you won’t be able to see it because the blending is seamless. You now have one really large composite image file with lots of detail.

Fig 7

You can save this flattened image as a TIF or JPG and make color corrections in Adobe’s Camera RAW, or any photo editing program. You can size it however you would like at this point.

SUMMARY AND CHALLENGE

So the next time you’re face to face with a larger than life subject, you can go ahead and take that fisheye capture. But while you’re there take a series of images with one of your other lenses as well. Capture them in columns or rows, leaving about 20-25% overlap, and see what you can create by combining those images. It might be a once in a lifetime opportunity so why not maximize your chances to get that great photo that you were hoping for!

Here are a few more photo stitching articles for further reading:

Read more from our Post Production category

Jim Wise is currently a Senior Multimedia Developer at Gulfstream Aerospace. He has photographed motor sports professionally at Daytona Int Speedway from 1987-2006. At the end of 1997 he began working at Kennedy Space Center as a photographer, documenting the build-up and post-flight disassembly of the solid rocket boosters. This work also took him to other NASA locations, on through the end of the space shuttle program in 2011. He's taken photos for numerous publications.

  • Mark

    What do you think about using Photoshop vs free stitching software like Hugin?

    I used to use Photoshop (I’m lucky enough to get access to it at my work), but I found it to be too limited. It’s really easy to make panoramas using Photoshop: select the pictures and let it do the job. It’s all automatic. But you don’t get any control over how the final result is projected.

    My biggest frustration was this: All these stitching software must do two things. First reconstruct what you’d see by looking in any direction in 3D space, i.e. map your photos onto a sphere. Then project that sphere down to a rectangle in some way (similarly to how maps of the globe are drawn on a flat sheet of paper). I always wanted to be able to rotate this sphere before it gets projected down, and Photoshop doesn’t allow this. This can be frustrating. E.g.hen trying to make a wide panorama in cylindrical projection, Photoshop has the tendency to give an upward (or downward) curving result, where the horizon is not a horizontal line but a curve. Had it rotated the sphere into the bette orientation, the horizon could look like a horizontal line instead.

    I was very happy to discover that Hugin let’s me do exactly this kind of transformation: rotate the sphere to my taste. It also offers many more projection options. As a big bonus: it’s free. I see no reason to go back to photoshop any more.

  • Jim Wise

    I am not familiar with the software that you mention but I will look into it. Yes there are some limitations with Photoshop as you mention. As long as you don’t try to cover mover than 180 degrees with your images you will get a great final result. Thank you for your suggestion Mark!

  • Jacob S

    Jim,

    When you take your series of photos, do you adjust the exposure settings on your camera for each shot individually, or do you use the same combination of aperture/shutter speed/ISO for all the shots? What have you found works well?

    Jacob

  • chauncey

    I do an enormous number of 300mm lens, photo-merges simply because it is a way to generate bigger than normal images. The “one method fits all” that you suggest is simplistic in nature…oftentimes, using different blending options will produce better results. Photo-merging is a learned technique.

  • Jim Wise

    Great question! Use a manual exposure setting to keep all of the images consistent and get the best results. Definitely keep the ISO the same. For the best results you also want to use a manual white balance to keep things consistent although in some cases the Auto white balance will work OK.

  • Jim Wise

    Thanks Chauncey! It’s all about trying something different and seeing what works best for you

  • Jim Wise

    Thanks Chauncey! It’s all about trying something different and seeing what works best for you.

  • Mark

    I have used Hugin a few times and found it easy to use and have been happy with the results. I have not pushed it to its limits as most of my panos have been super simple but I have seen tutorials on some AMAZING stiching, like EXCLUDING people/objects and perspective correcting the same picture. Really cool. If this link does not work works: http://tinyurl.com/cfk8dsm search on the Hugin site for the tutorial called: “Stiching Murals using the Mosic mode”. Really cool.
    Not that I am against Photoshop, it is just that I don’t own it!
    And thank you Jim for taking the time to write the atricle. It is valuable in showing alternatives to fish eye perspectives for large than the frame pictures.

  • chauncey

    Another problem I recently encountered is…being lethargic in my squeezing the shutter and having the light shift…required numerous adjustments in LR.

  • Mark

    Jim, in fact I do prefer Photoshop’s easier to use interface to Hugin, and I like how it creates layered masks which will allow me to easily remove objects or avoid the removal of objects (e.g. a bird in a seascape).

    It’s the curved panorama / curved horizon issue that made me avoid Photoshop recently. It happens very often when I select a cylindrical projection, even if I do not cover 180 degrees.

    Do you know how to deal with this problem? Has it ever been a problem for you? An article on how to deal wit situations like this would be very useful!

  • Mark

    Jim, in fact I do prefer Photoshop’s easier to use interface to Hugin, and I like how it creates layered masks which will allow me to easily remove objects or avoid the removal of objects (e.g. a bird in a seascape).

    It’s the curved panorama / curved horizon issue that made me avoid Photoshop recently. It happens very often when I select a cylindrical projection, even if I do not cover 180 degrees.

    Do you know how to deal with this problem? Has it ever been a problem for you? An article on how to deal wit situations like this would be very useful!

  • JC Kirk

    Don’t forget when you take all of the shots that you lock and use the same settings for every photo. Also set the ISO and White Balance the same for every shot. Have fun capturing your images and turning them into great photos!

  • Mark

    It seems Photoshop has an Adaptive Wide Angle correction filter that I wasn’t aware of. It can be used to fix the problems I mentioned.

  • Esteven

    Is this the best way to create poster sized prints? No matter the size of the subject?

  • Jim Wise

    It’s one possible option- you should give it a try and see what kind of results you get compared to a single image. Since it is more time consuming you wouldn’t want to use this technique for every photo, but it’s definitely worth trying.

  • great tutorial I like it very much Thank you for sharing this..

  • Allen Conway

    You end up with a monstrously big file do you not? What do you do to whittle it down to a reasonable size? Convert it to jpeg? Keep it as a psd and buy a new HD?

  • Jim Wise

    You’ve got a great point there. The file will be extremely large so I will keep the combined layered image as a psd. I will then save a flattened version that I downsize to maybe an 8×12 at 300ppi. In the case of this article the photos were downsized to 437 pixels x 600 pixels at 72ppi. You could downsize them to anything that you would like. By keeping that original layered file you always have a high quality version to refer back to. I also have a couple of external hard drives where I keep my images backed up. I only keep them on my local computer hard drive for a short time. I hope that this info helps.

  • Great tutorial. I too used a similar technique while combining a set of 32 images while visiting a fort sometime last year.
    The far end of the wall in the enclosed picture is just 15odd feet away and the scene represents an almost 150 degrees view (estimating here) .
    The only things I did differently was that I shot in manual mode and did PP in LR before merging the images in PS.

  • Jim Wise

    Thank you. 32 images? That’s a great image. I really like the checkerboard and the fact that it’s almost a 180. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Igor

    Impossible – it’s just a big word for little people who are hiding. It is easier to live in the normal world, you find the strength to change something. Impossible – it is not a fact. This is just an opinion. Impossible – it is not a sentence. It is a challenge. Impossible – it is a chance to prove himself. Impossible – it’s not forever http://wintersportnet.com/

  • Larry b

    I enjoyed this tutorial, this is the only one I have seen that talks about panning in both directions in the same photo. My question is; does the order that the files are loaded into photomerge make a difference?

  • Jim Wise

    I have not found that to be the case. I have used several versions of Photoshop to create these and it always seems to do a good job of merging them as long as you have overlap. So from my experience I would say no. Thanks for the question!

  • Fanco

    buy Fish-eye lens :}

  • Joaquin Vila

    I need help. Lately my PC gets blocked when doing Photomerge in Photoshop 2014 and Lightroom 5. I`ve been trying other sotwares but I miss Photomerge. If it happened to you please let me know what to do. I can’t to get in touch with Adobe for assistance.

    jovipa@hotmail.com

  • Jim Wise

    I’m trying to understand your issue a little better. Are you using Photoshop CC? How much RAM does your computer have? I have not run into this before but I would like to see if I can help. How many images and what size are those images? I’ll try to see if I can duplicate this.

  • Joaquin Vila

    For almost a year I’ve been using Photomerge in Photoshop CC succesfuly. My PC has 8 gb ram but suddenly begun getting blocked. I’ve tried with only 2 photos, reducing size, changing raw to jpg, reinstal Photoshop, etc, and always gets blocked.

  • Gerry de Caires

    I’ve tried this method many times with varying amounts of success. There’s a church that I photograph often, trying to fit the entire interior into a single shot but I find that the lines get distorted. I have read a bit about nodal points and the need for using a sliding bracket for this type of photography. Is that the case or are there some shooting tips that I can follow?

  • Jim Wise
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