Creating Panoramas with Photoshop CS, CS2, or CS3

By Barry Haynes Back to

I’ve been making panoramas with Photoshop for a long time. I’ve made them using 35mm film images and digital camera images– many of them without the very helpful Photomerge filter in Photoshop CS3. This article assumes you’re shooting with a digital SLR camera or some digital camera that allows you to shoot in Camera Raw mode. If you are not using a digital camera, or if your camera doesn’t shoot in Raw mode, then the steps would be similar after the section about the Raw filter.

Although you can create panoramas with earlier versions of Photoshop, I’d recommend using Photoshop CS or later because they allow you to have 16-bit layers. Such layers allow you to do more radical color and contrast corrections and still maintain quality detail and smooth tonal changes.

When shooting panoramas, it is best to have your camera on a tripod with a head on which the camera can be rotated from side to side, without it moving up or down or skewing. (Ball heads don’t work well for panoramas.) The tripod and camera should be level when you start. Quickly shoot the pictures from left to right, or right to left, with each picture overlapping about 1⁄3 of the frame. I suggest quickly so that clouds, people, cars, etc. don’t move too much from frame to frame. Wide-angle images are more difficult because the corners of each image are distorted differently from those of the next. Using a 60mm-equivalent lens (with traditional 35mm film- camera format) minimizes distortion.

Now that I’ve mentioned all these traditional panorama rules, I have to admit that I didn’t follow any of them when shooting the most popular panorama shots in my Spirit of Place photography gallery. I’m often out for a morning walk, or in my kayak, or stopping at the side of the road because the light is sublime—and I don’t have my tripod with me. I like to shoot with a wide-angle lens, too. The images in Figure 1 were shot with my Canon 10–22mm lens (at 22mm) using my Canon Digital Rebel XTI. Because the sensor in this camera is smaller than 35mm film, the 22mm lens setting is equivalent to a standard 35mm lens.

All the images you are going to combine with your panorama should be initially color-corrected to have similar brightness, highlight and shadow values. I don’t agree with the traditional panorama advice that you should shoot all the images with the same camera settings. Sometimes your scene is much brighter for one shot than for another one. You don’t want to lose the highlights in your bright scene or lose the shadows in your dark one. I therefore recommend using the same aperture setting on all images so the focus and depth-of-field match when they are combined. To do this, set your camera to aperture priority before shooting the images. If you are hand- holding, make sure your hand is steady enough for your shutter speeds. I often use the focusing dots in my viewfinder to help put the horizon in the same place on each shot.

Panoramas without Photomerge

If you are not using the Photomerge filter, you’ll need to use Bridge or Photoshop’s File > Open to open all the images into Photoshop at the same time. Type D, for default colors, to make your background color white. Now, use Image > Canvas Size to make the width of one of the center images wide enough to hold all the images and also increase the height by 20% or so. Use File > Save As to save this file as MyPana.psd (for example).

Use the Window menu to switch to each of the other images and choose Select > All followed by Edit > Copy. Using the Window menu again, switch back to MyPana and do Edit > Paste. Now type a 5 to set the opacity of that newly pasted layer to 50%, then type V to switch to the Move tool. Drag this new layer to the left or right and maybe up or down a bit, until the details on it overlay, as closely as possible, those same details in your previous MyPana image. The overlay area will be just that 1⁄3 or so of the two images that is the same. If you shot these with wide angle, you’ll notice that the corners don’t match very well, but you should be able to find an area near the vertical middle of the image (and also near that 1⁄3 overlap area horizontally) where some parts of the two images match. If there is a good horizon in the panorama, lining that up vertically is usually a good idea. This is where you want to place this part of the panorama. You can type a zero to set the opacity back to 100% for now.

Continue this process until all the parts of your panorama have been copied and placed into the MyPana file. At this point all the other files can be closed. Type C to get to the Crop tool and you can use it to crop out unneeded white space.

Transforming and lining up a layer

In the Layers palette, turn the eye icons off for all but the bottom two layers. Click on the layer right above the bottom (background) layer to activate it. Press the Tab key to get all your palettes out of the way. Set that layer’s opacity to 50% by typing a 5, then choose Edit > Free Transform so you can adjust the corners of that layer to better match those of the underlying layer. If you Command-click and drag on a corner (Control-click on PCs), then you can distort that corner in any direction so the parts of the images under that corner match and line up better with the parts on the underlying layer(s). Do this for the two corners that are above your original central image. While in Free Transform, you can also choose Edit > Transform > Warp, which allows you to bend the image horizon- tally or vertically and in particular places along the warp lines.

Once you get things lined up as best as possible, you may need to release the mouse button then click down over the central part of the image (not on the rotate dot in the very center) and drag to move this entire layer and re-align your horizon or some other parts of the two images. You can go back and forth distorting the corners, warping and moving the image until this overlapping edge has the best match with the layer below. Press

Return when you are finished with this image-distortion process. Press the Tab key again to bring your palettes back.

Using a mask to blend the layers

After transforming and lining up a layer, you want to add a layer mask to that layer using Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. You paint on that layer mask with a black soft Brush tool in the areas you want to come from the underlying image layers. In this case all that is underlying is the background layer. If you did a good job with the transform and warp, then you’ll be able to blend the two images seamlessly.

When you do this using the Photomerge filter, all this warping and blending is done for you. You’ll find that even the Photomerge filter makes mistakes, and then you may have to under- stand and use these techniques to fix those mistakes. I’ve found the Photoshop CS2 Photomerge filter to be pretty much useless, so I always did panoramas manually with Photoshop CS or CS2. Photoshop CS3’s Photomerge filter is quite good most of the time and can save a lot of time and effort.

Painting black in the mask deletes that area from the current layer. Type X, to exchange colors, and you are painting with white to add that area back in. Turn the current layer’s eye icon off and then on again to see the composite without and with that layer. This can help you see what parts come from which layer. Option(Alt)-click on the right- most mask thumbnail for a layer in the layer’s palette to see just the mask, and Option(Alt)-click again to see the layers again. This also can help you see what is coming from where in the composite.

Now all you have to do is repeat this transformation and masking step for the other layers. As I mentioned above, you may find that you can omit a layer or two and simplify the process.

As you get to those outer layers, turn their eye icons back on and go through the transforming and aligning process with them. You may find that you don’t need a particular layer because the next layer overlaps the previous layers you’ve worked on. If this is true, turn the eye icon off for that layer and see if you can make the panorama without it. If not, you can always put it back in later.

Final crop and color correction

Once you get a panorama that is nicely blended and looks seamless, you now have an image in Photoshop that is similar to what the Photomerge filter will give you. It could even be of higher quality than Photomerge’s if you are very good at this manual process.

But whichever method you use, at this point in the process you’ll need to crop again to remove any white or empty areas from the edges. Now you can add your normal color-correction adjustment layers above all these compositing layers to create your final master image. (See my previous articles in PT September/October 2007 and September/October 2005, or my Photoshop Artistry: for Photographers using Photoshop CS2 and Beyond book, for more information on the color-correction process.)

Using the Photomerge filter

The easiest way to bring your panorama images into Photoshop to use the Photomerge Filter is to select the images you want to merge within Bridge. To select multiple images, click on the first image, then Shift-click on the last images, and all those in between will be selected. Choose Command (Control)-R to do the Camera Raw filter edits on those images, then click on Done from within the Raw filter. Now, with those same images selected, choose Tools > Photo- shop > Photomerge from Bridge and you’ll see the filter dialog.

To open your files directly from Photoshop, select them all at the same time in the File > Open dialog. Do the Raw adjustments to those files, as dis- cussed earlier, then click on the Select All button at the top left of the Raw filter, and then click on the Open Images button at the bottom right of the Raw filter. Once in Photoshop, choose File > Automate > Photomerge to bring up this dialog and choose all these open files.

Figure 9 is what this filter produced when I chose the Auto setting along with having Blend Images Together checked. (This looks the same as when I chose Cylindrical, so that must be what the Auto setting chose.) At this point you still need to do the Final Crop and Color Correction steps I described above. When Photomerge works properly, it can save a lot of time.

The filter can get confused

Photomerge doesn’t always work properly, however. A couple of times, I found that it was taking a very long time producing a result; in the end, it obviously got confused and made something I really didn’t like (see Figures 9 and 10).

There are third-party programs that do a good job making panoramas. I just try to do everything with Photoshop when I can because I generally like the quality of Photoshop’s image-processing algorithms. Also, I don’t like to have to spend a lot of time and money purchasing and learning lots of third-party programs. I’ve found, over the years, that I can usu- ally find a good way to do something with Photoshop, and that reduces the time and money I spend on all the other options out there. I’d rather spend that time making more images for my gallery.

About the Author

Barry Haynes
Barry Haynes is a photographer and author living in Gibsons, BC, Canada, just north of Vancouver, where he has his studio and photography gallery. See for info about his Outdoor Photography, Photoshop/Printmaking workshops,Photoshop books, images and gallery. His Photoshop Artistry: for Photographers using Photoshop CS2 and Beyond, from New Riders publishing, is the 8th edition of this series. See also