TOOLS YOU CAN USE - SOFTWARE AUTOPANO PRO - JUST ANOTHER STITCHER ? HARDLY!
AutopanoPro: a review
by Pat St. Clair
Two issues ago this column focused on the then raging debate over two stitching tools, PT Gui Pro and Stitcher 5.6 Unlimited DS. And although that column focused on two particular stitchers, there are dozens of them on the market at every price point and feature set. There's certain to be one that suits your tastes and work style. Following is one of several listings you can find on the internet, this one from the Panoramas DK site:
As I researched and wrote the Stitcher vs PT Gui article in issue #28, I couldn't help thinking back to that first stitcher released by Apple in the early 1990's. It was the one and only stitcher on the market, it was expensive, and it was based on MPW Pro, an Apple developer software of the day that operated via command line interface. My first ever pan took me a week to shoot and produce!
After fifteen years of evolution, today's stitchers are robust and full featured, and when combined with the newer lensing options, full screen hi-res panos can be created with three shots (some would argue two).
So . . . what's left? Anything?
That was my mindset when Marco Trezzini asked if I would take a look at Kolor's Autopano Pro for this issue of VR Mag.
Kolor's Autopano Pro is written by Alexandre Jenny who was featured in the last issue of VR Mag. Rather than devote space here to repetition, I recommend you take a moment to read the interview from issue #29 if you haven't already.
That interview and this column are companion pieces, if you will. Each adds value to the other.
So, is Autopano Pro just another stitcher? HARDLY!
Alexandre Jenny has some unique features in Autopano Pro that have me excited! To illustrate, let me take you through some shooting I did over the last few days. While bicycling, I stopped to photograph a scenic view of Rochester, NY taken from a hilltop. I carry a small consumer camera with me when cycling, so I shot the Rochester skyline with my Kodak DX7590. I used a somewhat telephoto view and shot randomly until I was certain I had covered the entire skyline. (it took me 3 minutes to shoot 41 randomly overlapping shots). Here are just a few of those shots so you can see what I mean by "randomly overlapping":
I cycled back to the car and grabbed my Kodak ProSLR and visited a local floral conservatory, always good fodder for test shots. It would be interesting to see how Autopano Pro stitched the random skyline shots, but at infinity, it's more forgiving of errors. In the conservatory I'd be close to my subject matter. I used a 28mm lens on my FF sensor camera and once again shot randomly and handheld.
After seventeen shots at all different angles, I felt I had adequately "painted" the scene.
NOTE: When shooting with the professional camera, I write full res 14 MP RAW files to a compact flash card, while simultaneously writing 3.4 MP JPEGs to an SD card. I walked into the city and stood at a street corner and once again "painted" a scene with handheld shots with the pro camera and a 24mm lens ... no tripod, no VR rig, no nodal point considerations. I must confess to feeling a little silly thinking I was going to get usable partial panoramas from this random technique. Here are about half of the 17 shots that made up this scene:
I shot a similar scene at one more street corner, then a skyline by the river ... a well known spot for Rochester photographers. I used the pro camera for both shots, with a 24mm lens for the second architectural shot and 100mm for the skyline by the river. Again, here are some of the 15 shots that made up the building shot, and 16 shots that made up the river pan:
Now it's home to see what I've got.
Because I shot both RAWs and JPEGs for the pro camera, (jpegs only for the consumer camera), I intend to use the JPEGs to test my scenes, then to the RAWs for select scenes.
As I go through the workflow, you may want to pause from time to time to refer to the documentation on the Autopano Pro main page. This will enable you to follow along and clarify as needed in the event I'm not explaining fully enough (or you may want to go into greater detail than I am here).
http://www.autopano.net/wiki/action/view/Main_Page Image Detection
Here's the first really cool feature that helps tremendously in speeding up my usual panoramic workflow. I put all my JPEGs into one folder and drag 'n drop that one folder into the Autopano Pro main window. In less than two minutes, Autopano Pro sifted through my 109 JPEGs, detected five groupings of overlapping images, separated those groupings and displayed a preview of each stitched image!
Instantly I knew what I got, what worked and ... what didn't. (there are two I'm not showing to you) Panorama Editor
You can adjust images one at a time in the panorama editor. Just click on the top icon to the left of the preview image.
The menu bar of the panorama editor displays a full range of tools. You'll find excellent demos and documentation on the Autopano Pro main page to help you learn the function and proper use of each tool. The more time and effort you invest in this learning process, the more you will get from Autopano Pro.
Suffice it to say, you can use the panorama editor adjust about anything you'd normally want to adjust. You can correct stitching errors (if you find any), invoke HDR processing or produce bracketed pans to be HDR processed in a third party software of your choice, straighten and tweak the image, convert to different projections, crop, color correct, etc, etc.
OF PARTICULAR NOTE is the Autopano Pro color processing. Make sure to devote enough time to the page on color correction set-up:
These tools and concepts offer rich opportunity for increased efficiency in your work flow, but it will take some investment of time on your part to learn the tools and functions properly. Following default settings and your normal instincts will work fine at first, but understanding the color tools in Autopano Pro will enable you to really tap into the power of this program.
Let's go back to the panorama editor and try to straighten out this first architectural image:
In the panorama editor, I'm going to zoom in and use the verticals tool to delineate lines I need to be perfectly vertical in the final image. This would enable me to transform this pan into a corrected image suitable for professional architectural photography . . . as if it were shot with a 4x5 camera with swings and tilts, or a camera with a tilt/shift lens. In this zoomed view, you'll see two markers already set in place, telling the software that these lines need to be perfectly vertical in the final rendered stitched image:
I ended up using eleven markers in my first attempt to make this image suitable for professional architectural use:
Once the vertical markers are set, pressing the return key will execute the command:
It's not uncommon to need more than one iteration with the verticals tool to end up with a completely corrected image.
NOTE: For truly professional quality architectural stills, plan your final stitched image to be less than 120° degrees wide and use the planar projection.
Much wider and you'll have to use spherical or cylindrical and it won't look quite right (when compared to typical architecural stills). The following shot illustrates that fact. The following image was stitched from eight handheld shots with a Canon 1Ds Mark-III. The first rendering was to a spherical projection, the second to a planar projection. For this image (less than 120° wide) the planar projection is far superior.
Image courtesy of Denis Biela, Lightspeed Media
I'm going to let you work out the color tools on your own time, but I'll do a final crop on this image. After seeing the stitch, I've decided to crop out the left most building. Here is my final crop:
We're finished now with this image in the panorama editor. When we return to the main window, note that the preview for this image displays with all the changes we made while in the panorama editor:
Here's the second architectural shot in the panorama editor. I'm currently in layers mode where I can see the center point of each of the 15 images making up this pan. IF I wanted to adjust positioning of any of the images, this is where I'd do it:
Here's a similar view showing positioning of all the 41 shots that make up the hill top cityscape:
Here's that second architectural shot with vertical markers in place:
After a few minutes in the panorama editor for each image, the main page displays corrected images, ready for rendering:
MISSING insert < Main4.jpg > Rendering
You can activate rendering from the main screen or from the panorama editor. The render icon is a blue gear. Before rendering begins, you'll beprompted to set up your rendering prefs:
Some study of the documentation will help you make choices that stay true to your intent for each image. I've made adjustments in the panorama editor for all five images. I can start a batch process by clicking on the render icon at the top left of the main page.
... it has the word "all" printed over it:
The batch process will begin, and final stitched files will be saved in the location(s) I selected in the preferences. Previews vs Finals
The whole panorama editing process only takes a few minutes per image.
These five images took me 1/2 hour and I'm relatively new to the software.
As I stated earlier, I have RAWs on reserve for any images shot with my professional cameras. I find that I can put together an impressive display of preview images from the JPEGs with very little time invested. I used to process and correct the RAWs, then scale them down to smaller JPEGs before doing any stitching. Autopano Pro has changed that for me and helped boost my overall efficiency in doing so. I have 19" long preview prints (HP PhotoSmart 8750 printer) that I can show a client the day after the shoot (or same day as a premium service). The client can mark them up with notes and retouching recommendations for the final hi-res rendering and/or printing. Once selections are made, I can go back to the RAWs to render the largest and best stitched image possible.
Oh ... that brings up another cool feature ... Autopano Pro can process directly from the RAWs!
So my workflow starts with quick previews from the JPEGs ... then optimized finals for select images from the RAWs. For what it's worth, my "preview" stitched files from this shoot are in the 50mb to 120mb range ... not bad! If the JPEG exposures are on the money, the preview image might be the final image. Partial Pans vs 360° Pans
All the images I've showed you thus far are partial pans . . . intended for print. However, the first thing I did after installing the software was to process several existing 360° pans. I found it to be easy and painless. There's the usual learning curve we suffer through with any new software, but once you've been through that, it's a fast path to finished work!
My workflow until now has been to process each still image to completion before stitching a pan. That means rendering from the RAWs followed by color, contras and density, corrections, HDR work and miscellaneous retouching. But I see the potential with Autopano Pro to skip the "rendering from RAW" step, and to do all the color work and HDR work in Autopano Pro as well . . . getting pretty close to one-stop-shopping. That has me excited!
Moving on to full 360° pans, I revisited my source materials for the Stitcher vs PTGui Pro article in VR Mag Issue #28. I used Autopano Pro's bracketed panorama feature to output three separate stitched files . . . one for the underexposed image set, one for the normally exposed image set, and one for the overexposed images. Here is what Autopano Pro delivered up:
A quick stop in a third party HDR software and I then rendered a blended final.
I can see a clear case for saving HDR until the end of the process instead of HDR processing each still image prior to stitching. I guess my main point
here is that these early successful experiences with Autopano Pro have me watching for new opportunities to increase workflow efficiency with Autopano Pro.
Here are a few random 360°'s processed with Autopano Pro:
1- Shot with Kodak ProSLR, Nikon 10.5mm circular fisheye, 3 shots around. I bracketed those three shots, 2 stops over and under.
Stitched in Autopano Pro then output "bracketed panoramas". Took the bracketed panoramas in Bracketeer to blend the exposure, then output the interactive 360º from Cubic Converter.
The short version of all that is, shot a 3-step pan with a ProSLR and Nikon 10.5mm fisheye, bracketing exposures as I went.
click here to view fullscreen
2- Shot six shot pano using the Kodak ProSLR and the Sigma 15mm full-frame fisheye, no brackets. Stitched in Autopano Pro and output final pan from Cubic Converter.
click here to view fullscreen
If you read the interview with Alexandre Jenny in Issue #29, you'll see he puts great store in his detection process and in his SIFT control point extractor.
He maintains that control points are intelligently selected, thus leading to more error free stitching. He says these are two things that set Autopano Pro apart from the rest of the pack. (Please DO read that interview if you haven't yet).
As for me ... I've thoroughly enjoyed getting to know Autopano Pro. I've said before that I don't use only one stitcher ... that I have seven that I keep around for different uses. Now I have eight!
Here are things I really like about Autopano Pro (in no particular order):drag and drop a folder of loose images and the files are automatically sorted and previewed . . . that's killer! In the prefs for this process, you can even enable auto crop and auto save. So ... you can actually drag and drop a folder of loose images and come back later to finished pans!ability to work directly from RAW files. Alexandre tells me there is limited processing to the RAWs, but he puts a high priority on drawing out the full tonal range from them.bracketed panoramas. If you bracket clearly (let's say by varying shutter speed uniformly in your brackets), Autopano Pro will detect it and you can select bracketed output. It works well.being able to correct multiple vertical lines in an image is a boon for architectural photographers.SmartBlend is wonderful!being able to shoot hand held with confidence. I've always believed the more precisely you shoot, the better your stitches will be. I still believe that, but I'm amazed at the stitching I'm getting from undisciplined shooting (standing on a street corner shooting wildly, no rig or tripod, etc). There have been times in the past when I wished I had a a tilt/shift set up . . . this emulates that . . . I love it! What don't I like about Autopano Pro:?the best I can come up with is it's not an authoring tool for interactive pans. After you're done stitching, you have to author the pans in another tool. I personally use Cubic Converter.the HDR feature is like everybody's HDR right now, not quite ready for the masses.
What's next in Autopano Pro?
I asked Alexandre that question. He says there will be a v1.4.1 release soon, possibly end of April. It will have many small fixes with some small new features.
The next big version will be v2.0 and will come out in the September / October timeframe. There will be a new HDR system in the v2.0 release with the same spirit of power and ease that Alexandre works hard to put into every aspect of Autopano Pro. He is also working toward tools that will help stitch pans shot with a Gigapan device or any motorized pan head.
Alexandre has two guiding philosophies in his work with Autopano Pro:it needs to be always powerful yet easy to use,a panoramist needs to spend his/her time shooting, not stitching!
You can follow up with questions or address your comments to the author: pat at stclairphoto-imaging.com, and see more of his work at: www.stclairphoto-imaging.com
Pat St. Clair has a bachelor's degree in marketing from Miami University (O), 1971, and a bachelor's degree in professional photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology, 1979; he has been photographing commercially since 1978. St. Clair serves a corporate clientele that includes agencies of all sizes as well as direct corporate clients such as Eastman Kodak Company, Palm, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard, The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, 3Com, DaimlerChrysler, ExxonMobil, Microwave Data Systems and more. He was an early adopter of digital photography as well as interactive photography. He worked as a consulting photographer with Eastman Kodak Company on digital capture projects and digital image quality issues for fifteen years as they brought their professional digital photography technology to market. He has worked with QuickTime VR since 1994, is a charter member of the IQTVRA (now the IVRPA), and was a speaker at the first four International VR Summits in Boulder, CO, Washington, DC, Sedona, AZ and Savannah, GA.
Previous Articles by Pat St. Clair:
TOOLS YOU CAN USE: SOFTWARE HYDRA
ADVANCED PANORAMIC STITCHING - A REASONED APPROACH
VR TOOLS YOU CAN USE - GREENSCREEN
VR TOOLS YOU CAN USE - PARTIAL PANS MADE EASY
MIRROR IMAGE - REFLECTIONS ON SINGLE SHOT VR BY PAT ST. CLAIR
VIEWPOINT, THE NEW KODAK PROFESSIONAL PRO 14n DIGITAL CAMERA
VR TOOLS YOU CAN USE: QUICKTIME VR OBJECT MOVIES
2005 SUMMIT IN SAVANNAH
TOP THREE PHOTOGRAPHY QUESTIONS ANSWERED
VR PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS AND TRICKS