This may be a first, but I’m currently dancing a little jig over a Microsoft product. (Although “product” may be the wrong term, as Image Composite Editor (ICE) is a free download.) After all, I do have ICE to thank for providing my first new Twitter profile pic in nearly 2½ years.
But let’s start at the beginning.
Back in 2001, when we were vying for photography jobs against long-established shooters, one of the barriers to scoring the gig was being an all-digital studio. And it wasn’t unfounded prejudice against a new technique that made potential clients wary; the resolution of all but the most elite dSLR solutions were somewhat lacking (especially because the majority of advertising was still print-based).
To address this shortcoming, we adapted the method we used for 360-degree virtual tours (remember when those were cool?), and began creating mosaic photos. Using a specialized panorama tripod head, and a combination of very expensive (RealViz Stitcher) and rather obscure open-source (PT GUI) software, Mark would shoot a grid of rows and columns and turn the multiple frames into a single, high-resolution shot. The process took a lot of effort, both while shooting and during processing, but customers were happy.
These days, photo-stitching is mainstream. Disposable cameras have built-in “panorama modes” that automatically combine a horizontal series of captures into one long view. GigaPan.org boasts 35,000 registered users, all of whom regularly post browseably huge mosaic imagery, shot using the device we rely on now, a programmable, motorized version of the tilting, rotating head we used in the past.
In 2008, Microsoft forayed into the navigable photo scene with photosynth.net, which they have continued to develop, integrating it with Bing maps and search. Users upload a series of photos of a location and photosynth uses algorithms to align the shots into a maze of interconnected views, with varying degrees of “synthiness.” With nearly 50,000 of these in existence, shot from a multitude of angles and with differing amounts of care, the company has had great opportunity to refine their alignment algorithm.
Which is great news! Because they’ve poured that refined image coordination knowledge into Image Composite Editor. In its most recent iteration, ICE is pretty amazing. Whereas most stitching programs require careful calibration before shooting a series from a tripod, ICE can take a series of handheld shots and turn them into a seamless photo. If you choose, it will even output a layered Photoshop document, which you can fine-tune using Adobe’s layer merge tools.
Where I was blown away, though, was in its ability to turn 3D into 2D. Feed a video clip into ICE and it will render a photo, freezing the swath of view panned over by the lens into a static capture of the scene. Not only is this cool, it’s handy. Need to show a streetscape or intersection for urban planning purposes? No need to present a series of shots, just wave your camera over the location and feed the video into ICE. Think about the implications for forensic photography, and immediate capture of an entire crime scene.
Of course it’s not perfect, especially when moving subjects are close to the lens. But in those cases, at least it does sometimes result in hilariously humorous art.