Realviz Stitcher 4.0
This program is available for both
Mac and PC.
This review is of the Mac version. The PC version is reported
to have a number of unresolved bugs.
Stitching of digital images to create panoramics has been explored on this site several times over the past few years. Most recently I published a tutorial on PanoTools by Joe Beda. This is a powerful but somewhat difficult to use public domain stitching system.
For the past four years I have been using Powerstitch on the PC. It was the most powerful and full-featured program of its type (and till now the most expensive) that I had ever tested, but regrettable its publisher discontinued it not long after my review first appeared. Nothing as good had appeared since. Certainly there are any number of stitching programs on the market, ranging from Photoshop's layers capability, to its built in (but primitive) stitching capability, to several $99 programs that perform with varying degrees of success.
I've been working with both Windows PCs as well as Macs for years. Each has its pros and cons, but this year with the introduction of OS X Panther, the Mac has become a super-stable system, far more stable that Windows XP. So when in the summer of 2004 it became time to buy a new primary computer I went with a Mac rather than another Windows machine. I still use both platforms, but the Mac is now my main machine. I own virtually every important application that I need for both platforms so the transition wasn't an issue. But Powerstitch is discontinued, and was never available for the Mac in any event. A search of the available Mac stitching programs only turned up two that would meet my needs; PanoTools and Realviz Stitcher 4.0.
I tried to learn to love PanoTools because the price is certainly right, but it never worked all that well for me. I like smooth and competent programs that are powerful and that work without hassle, and PanoTools just didn't fit that bill. It seemed to me to be more of a hobbyist's toy than a professional production tool. So I examined Stitcher 4.0, and discovered, much to my surprise, that it is as powerful and easy to use as was Powerstitch. I thought Powerstitch was expensive four years ago at $399. As the saying goes, there's good news and there's bad news. The good news is that while Stitcher 4.0 is available for both Mac and PC, and it really delivers the goods (at least on the Mac version), at $580 the price is the bad news . I'll have more to say about the subject of price before the end of this review.
The Stitcher 4.0 workspace, including Toolbar, Stitching Window and The Image Strip
Stitching vs. Stitching
Different photographers have different needs when it comes to stitching. For some a couple of layers in Photoshop does the trick. Others find that simple under-$100 programs do the job for them. Then there are those who need to stitch together a dozen or more 30MB files in 16 bit mode and end up with absolutely perfect alignment, even though the shots were taken hand-held or without a pano head. And, they don't want to spend an entire weekend doing it. I fall into this category, and that's why I was pleased to discover Stitcher 4.0.
Demo and Online Purchase
Stitcher 4.0 is available for purchase online. You can download a restricted feature version of the program, but it's hardly worth the effort. Unlike some evaluation downloads which are full featured but with a time limit, or which are full featured but which print text all over the image when you save or try and print from it, Realviz has so castrated the features that it's hard to tell much from the demo version.
When you make the purchase the product will be shipped from France. Mine was delivered by UPS in about 6 days, over a long weekend. The program is in a retail package, on a CD with versions for both Mac and Windows, and is accompanied by a well organized and comprehensive 94 page printed user manual. There is full online help as well as tutorials in PDF format on disk. The tutorials appeared to be corrupt on my disk and would not load, though they can be downloaded from the Realviz web site
When you install the program you'll find that you need to go online and obtain an installation code. Many programs do this as a form of copy protection, but usually the code arrives immediately. In my case it took close to 10 hours before the code was received. This is a frustrating delay when one wants to sit down and start learning a new program.
The User Interface
The interface consists of a main screen as well as a secondary window called the Image Strip, as seen in Figure #1 above. The Image Strip is where files are loaded prior to being incorporated into the final stitched panorama. You can load them into the Strip from within the program or drag-and-drop them from the desktop or other window. The program provides the ability to rotate images within the strip if needs be, such as vertical JPGs straight from the camera.
The Image Strip
In Figure #2 above you see 15 frames used to create the composite photograph seen below in Figure #5. The frames can be moved so that they appear in a different order than that in which they were shot or loaded into the window. The green lines show how the images interrelate to each other, and the coloured square in the upper right hand corner or each frame indicates whether or not they are part of the current stitch, still unstitched, or have been "force stitched".
You can stitch together images that have at least a 15% overlap as well as matching texture areas. What this means is that clear areas such as sky can not be automatically stitched, though they can be forced stitched. To start creating a composite image (panoramic or otherwise) simply requires that a frame from the Image Strip is dragged into the main stitching window.
In Figure #3 above you see three of the frames that have been stitched together. Here is a major area in which Stitcher 4.0 differs from any other stitching program that I have used before. With other similar programs one drags each image onto the layout screen and places them appropriately. This means being very careful with accuracy of overlap and in some cases it requires zooming in to high magnification and identify matching points in two separate frames. Or it can require careful pixel overlapping. This can be very tedious and time consuming.
Not so with Stitcher 4.0. Unless they are grossly mismatched, such as might happen if a very wide-angle lens is used hand-held, all that's required is to place the images roughly aligned. Now press the Stitch icon on the toolbar. What? After just adding two images? Yes, that's part of the difference. In Stitcher 4.0 you stitch each image as it's added to the main layout window. Once this is done adding each new image to the composite image only takes 5-15 seconds, depending of course on the speed of your computer and the size of the files.
All high-end stitching programs require that you inform them of the focal length or angle of view of the lens used. Stitcher 4.0 can read this information from the file' s EXIF data, and if it isn't present can even estimate it by analyzing the images themselves. Of course you can enter this data yourself, but I found that the program was very good at doing this automatically.
One other area where Stitcher 4.0 is unique is that you can have it automatically equalize the brightness level between images. It's a good idea to do this every few frames as they are added.
As each new images is added the program automatically centers the combined image so that the next image to be added is central. Of course one can alter the view of the composite image by zooming, rotating and panning the image. This is done either through menu selections or via hot keys.
Once the images are stitched the composite needs to be rendered. In other words the rough approximation that the program has done so far to determine that each individual image is capable of being seamlessly blended now actually needs to be done This requires setting a few parameters, including the type of blending algorithm used. As you might image, coarse is fast and high quality is slower. Fifteen 15 Megabyte images take about 15 minutes to render on a 1.5 Ghz Mac Powerbook with 2GB of RAM. (Talk about coincidences). And, on the Mac at least, one can safely switch to doing something else that isn't processor intensive, such as browsing the Net or working on e-mail. The rendering takes place seamlessly in the background.
The 15 frame stitched but unrendered image
Stitcher 4.0 will read many common file formats, including JPGs and TIFF files. If you shoot raw you'll need to first convert the files to TIFFs for Stitcher 4.0 to be able to read them. If this is the case it's important that you apply the same raw conversion settings to each of the files. Of course you should also take each of the frames with autofocus turned off and exposure set to manual. A polarizer should also not be used.
The program can output in a number of file formats, including Photoshop PSD. But, I found that there was a bug (Mac Version 4.0.1) that prevented the program from outputting .PSD files properly. One assumes that this will eventually be fixed. Since lossless TIFFs can be exported this isn't a big deal.
What Has Not Been Reviewed
What needs to be noted is that this review only covers use of Stitcher 4.0 to produce planar images. In other words, composites and panoramas that photographers might produce for print applications. But the program is capable of far more than this. It can also produce Cubical, Cylindrical and Spherical projections, including Quicktime Virtual Reality, VRML and Macromedia Shockwave projections. I have not explored any of these, because I simply don't need them.
The Marketing Mistake
This brings us to what I see as Realviz's fatal marketing flaw. They have priced a highly sophisticated panoramic stitching program appropriately for people that need to produce high-end commercial virtual reality panoramas. But for photographers who are simply looking for a highly competent stitching programs for planar output to prints, all the VR trappings are wasted.
If Realviz would remove all of the non-planar output capability and release the program for between $100 and $150, they would clean up. This program is so far ahead of anything else on the market, especially for the Mac platform, that they'd sell a huge number of copies to photographers interested only in print output, and they wouldn't cannibalize their existing VR market.
Summary and Conclusion
I am impressed with Realviz Stitcher 4.0. It is as good as my previous benchmark stitching program Powerstitch, and has the advantage of being available for both Windows and Mac. Its Achilles heel, and what will prevent it from having anything more than a narrow following, is its very high price. Realviz needs to wake up and realize that there is a huge market consisting of photographers who would buy the product at $100, but who can't and won't pay almost $600, because they don't need all of the VR capabilities of Version 4.0.
Recommended for those that don't have the patience for Panotools and who have Platinum credit cards.
Since this review was first published I've been asked by people who bought it what the best way to get sizing correct. Here's what I do...
Zoom out your stitched image so that it comfortably fits on screen. Go to Render and then click on Render Area. Click on the displayed image and draw the yellow rectangle around the image area that you want to render. Click on Close, go back to Render, and now Render as you wish. I use Planar, Method 1, Lanczos5, for best quality.
I also have learned that there appears to be a bug in the PC version that prevents performing large renders. This bug has not been acknowledged by RealViz. It does not exist in the Mac version. As I noted at the beginning of this review, this may well be the most powerful stitching program available for Macs, but there are likely better and less problematic programs for the Windows platform.
Realviz appears to have been listening, and has released a product called Realviz Stitcher Express, for $119. I have not tried it myself.