A tutorial in photo composites

Yesterday I wrote about a photography technique I played with during my last trip to Europe. Called “composite photography,” it basically consists of shooting several frames and then stitching them together to create a single image.

It’s very handy when you’re in a tiny enclosed space — or when the subject is too big to fit in a single frame. The results can look something like this:

… or this:

“How do you DO that?” you may be wondering. I’m glad you asked. The technique I’m about to describe uses Photoshop, but I’ll suggest some alternatives at the end of the post.

Step 1: Shoot something!

Shoot several frames until you’ve captured your entire subject. Make sure to overlap some of the content amongst successive frames, and shoot plenty of content around the periphery so you can crop the image later. Including a distinctive object in your composition (like, say, a lady in red pants) helps Photoshop work a little faster and more accurately.

Step 2: Open the files

In Photoshop, open the files you want to merge. Then go to File > Automate > Photomerge.

Step 3: Choose your merge files

A dialog box will ask you which files you want to merge. Choose “Add Open Files.”

Step 4: Grab a cup of coffee

Depending on your computer and the number/size of your files, Photoshop may take a minute or two to work its magic. Go grab a cup of coffee and congratulate yourself for being so clever.

Step 5: Flatten the image

As you sip your tasty coffee, you’ll soon see a composite of your photos. If something is misaligned simply choose the portion of the image in question and jostle it around until it looks right. Otherwise, flatten the image into a single layer.

Step 6: Fix the perspective

Your image may look a little distorted, especially if you shot the individual frames from different vantage points. Select the entire image and use either the “distort” or “warp” tools to correct any perspective problems.

Step 7: Crop and save

Once you’re satisfied with the perspective of your image, crop it and save it to your desktop (or other favorite workspace).

You can now give your image the finishing touches such as color-correction and sharpening, and then save a final version. Here’s mine:

This is just a suggested workflow, of course. There are a million other ways to create composites, including several kinds of dedicated software. You may wish to check out acropano, easypano, panavue, PTGui, and Autostitch (though I can’t personally vouch for any of ’em). Many camera manufacturers also include some sort of stitch function in their proprietary software, and smart phones are increasingly offering that feature built-in, too.

In any case … if you create your own composites, please send me a link. I’d love to see your photos!


    • So glad you found this helpful, Julie! But please don’t feel *too* sheepish about not having known how to do this … after all, I only recently learned it myself! 🙂

  1. Wow, although I use Photoshop and know that it can do surprisingly things, I expected this tutorial to involve a lot more tedious manual aligning of each photo by hand…can’t believe so much of it can be done automatically by the software itself!

    I imagine this would be useful not only for getting everything to fit in the frame, but also for those of us with (ahem) slightly less advanced cameras which have trouble keeping the periphery of a scene in proper focus. This seems like a good solution for getting nice crisp separate shots of each area and combining all the good bits.

    Thanks munro!

    • Isn’t it crazy how easy it is? It’s actually made me curious to try other processes (like HDR photography) that I always eschewed as too putzy. And although I think your photos are already superb — and getting better all the time — I look forward to some corner-to-corner sharpness action. Grin.

  2. I use a tool called Autostitch for this. Google it if you’re interested. It’s not a polished product like Photoshop, but it does work and work pretty well. And it’s free.

    My Canon S95 has some limited capability to stitch together shots right in the camera, and my iPhone takes panoramas by just sweeping the camera across a scene. Not bad!

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