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Adobe Photoshop CS3's Photomerge tool

How to use the Photomerge tool in Photoshop CS3 (and the new beta version of Adobe Lightroom 2) By Robert Jensen

What I want to discuss in my first tutorial is how you can do amazing things with your photography as long as you have the right tools. It doesn't matter if you spent $150 on your camera gear, $1,500 or more, you can always expand on your equipment's capabilities with a little ingenuity and some forethought.

For example, the other day I was going to the store when I saw this gorgeous Indian motorcycle. I had with me my little Canon A720 .  I quickly backed up as far as I could and took the typical snapshot of the bike. Then I had an idea, I zoomed in so that only a small section of the bike was visible in the viewfinder and starting shooting detail shots. I wasn't too careful about what order I shot them in as I moved around the bike. I shot everything in a matter of a few seconds. Quick and dirty shooting as I call it.

The reason behind my idea is that I'd just upgraded from Adobe Photoshop CS2 to CS3 Extended and I'd heard that they had made some improvements to their Photomerge tool. You see, up until the newest version of Photoshop you had to take great care when shooting all your images if you were planning to merge them. Here was my workflow using the previous version of Photomerge

  • It mattered a lot which lens you used (generally a normal focal length lens with little to no edge curvature or light falloff).
  • You usually had to set the camera to Manual Exposure mode so there wouldn't be any variance in the brightness of the individual images.
  • You would set your camera to manual color balance.
  • Hopefully you had a camera where the tripod socket was placed on the film plane and center line with the lens, otherwise you could have some problems lining up the images.
  • You had to use a good (usually that translates as 'expensive') tripod.
  • With all that in mind before you even took the first shot, THEN you had to shoot the sequence of images as fast as you could, making sure you overlapped the edges of each frame by roughly 20%-30%.

All that work and planning just to increase the chances that the images would blend together as seamlessly as possible. Even then you still weren't assured of success.

Then Adobe Photoshop CS3 and CS3 Extended came along with its myriad of improvements, one of which was a Photomerge that was a quantum leap over previous versions.

Now let's go back to putting these photos together into one piece. Again I have to emphasize that the way I took these photos is just about the sloppiest way to shoot a panorama/multi-shot composition photo that there is. Yet when I got home and fired up Adobe Photoshop CS3 Extended, imported the images using Bridge, selected the close-up shots of the motorcycle and sent them to Photomerge, well even I was surprised at just how good a job Photoshop CS3 did of blending them together. The only signs that this is a blended image is the blank areas around the edges of the photo, you can see where the camera didn't focus correctly on the headlight/windscreen area of the bike in one shot so the bottom of the head light is in focus while the top is out of focus. I purposely left that out-of-focus image in the mix to highlight something to watch out for. (He said, hoping you'd believe him) The only other problem area is the front wheel of the SUV in the background where you can see a double exposure-like effect of unsuccessful blending of some images. Again, this was all the fault of the loose nut behind the camera. Still, the rest of the bike looks fantastic and the image size comes in as the equivalent of an image shot with a 49 megapixel camera!

How to use the Photomerge tool in Photoshop CS3 (and the new beta version of Adobe Lightroom 2)

In CS3 Bridge you select your images, go to Tools/Photoshop/Photomerge and if its not already running Photoshop will open and the Photomerge dialog window will pop open showing your list of selected images and along the left side of the panel several choices, Auto/Perspective/Cylindrical/Reposition Only, and Interactive Layout. I found that using Auto is usually the best bet. Make sure you've ticked off the box at the bottom that says Blend Images Together. Then click OK...Photoshop will do its magic for a bit and before long you have your finished image. Folks, its just that easy to get some fantastic results no matter how cheap. . . 'er. . .  inexpensive your camera setup is.

If you have downloaded the free beta of Adobe's Lightroom 2 you can get to Photomerge in Photoshop CS3 by selecting your images, right clicking on one, selecting Edit in Photoshop CS3/Merge to panorama in Photoshop.

One of the improvements Adobe made with Photomerge in CS3 was in using masks to improve on blending images together. I've included a scaled down version of my motorcycle image for the article, complete with layers. Just open the file in Photoshop, then open the Layers palette and turn on and off the various layers so you can see for yourself a little of the inner workings of Photomerge.

Even though Photoshop did such a great job with this picture there was still that problem with the fuzzy head-lamp, windshield and right handlebar so I went back in to see if I could clean it up a bit. In this instance I found the appropriate layer to work on by clicking on and off individual layers. (click on the eye symbol to show/hide a layer). Once I found the layer I needed I selected the Brush Tool, set my brush color to white, clicked on the mask for the layer and then painted back in sections from a sharper image layer. (Its almost like doing real magic when you do this) In this case I used white as my paint color which would add to the mask. To subtract from the mask I'd select black.

So going back into the upper section of the head-lamp with white let me replace the out of focus areas with ones from a sharper image. I used the same method to go over the closer parts of the handlebar, cables, mirrors, etc. till everything looked good. If I painted too far with the white I just switched to black and painted back in areas I wanted to keep. In this way you can zoom in to use the brushes at the single pixel level if you want the cleanest edges.

All this just goes to show you that with a little forethought and some playing around in Photoshop you can combine images from any camera to produce huge images that look almost as good as if they'd come from a professional camera and lens costing much, much more. In the case with the motorcycle shot the final merged photo came in at just under 50 megapixels. All with a camera that cost me less than $200!

Here's one last example for you, unfortunately its another instance of me messing up but I've (painfully) learned a lot from my mistakes and I hope you will too so you won't do the same thing.

In August of 2001 I went to Rome with my new top-of-the line Canon compact camera, the G-1. I don't know exactly what happened, I either accidentally switched modes on the camera or when I got back home I carelessly deleted the full sized originals - somehow hundreds of my images of Rome ended up being only 640x480 pixels in size instead of the full 2048 x 1536 resolution. Every time I look through these images and see those tiny size files I get a such a pain in my stomach... Okay, enough crying over past mistakes, lets do something positive in the search for Photoshop Enlightenment. I took some of the tiny 640x480 shots of a cramped intersection in Rome and pieced them together in CS3's Photomerge and now I've got an amazing wide-angle shot that's 2496 x 953 pixels. That's almost as if I had shot it at the camera's full resolution using some super-wide angle lens! Imagine if I hadn't messed up and I had used the original full resolution images " the results would have been amazing! (Just to check I took the images and re-sized them back to the camera's full resolution and discovered I would have ended up with a 13 x 33.5 panorama print! (8041 x 3125 @ 240 ppi or a 72 megapixel TIFF image from the RAW files I should have shot if my brain had been functioning.

So with my little camera I went from this:

To this!!!

Click for full view

This all goes to prove the point behind my article, that you don't need to buy, or carry around, a lot of heavy and expensive camera gear to produce some super high quality images. Even if you own a lot of good gear you're still going to have times where you can't 'get the shot' with what you have in your bag. In these cases, with a little planning and ingenuity (and Adobe Photoshop CS3) you can get fantastic results using Photomerge! I hope you liked my first foray into writing a tutorial. Feel free to leave a comment to let me know what you thought. 

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Robert Jensen has spent most of his 55 years in photography, from the age of 11 when he got his first camera (a Kodak Instamatic) to the present, shooting professionally. From 1971 to 1997 he worked in retail selling photographic equipment to people of all skill levels. For most of that period he was also a manager.
Related Keywords:digital imaging, digital photogtraphy, Photomerge


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