Technique: Digital Photo Collages

Sometimes even the widest angle lens isn't wide enough to capture the scene in front of you. Or even if it is, maybe the final exposure doesn't match your experience of scanning a wonderful view and focussing in on small details, as they make up the larger picture.

That's where photo collages come in. A collage (sometimes also called a 'joiner') is a large photographic image made up of a number of separate exposures of the same scene, joined together. How you shoot these individual pictures, and how you join them defines the type of collage you're going to make. You can go naturalistic - where you'd aim to minimise or hide the joins between the separate images, or you can play around and produce a more impressionistic effect. British artist David Hockney is one of the most famous exponents of the technique and you can see some of his work here.

I hiked up to this mountain lake with a superzoom camera, but its widest focal length of 24mm (equivalent) just wasn't wide enough. This image, taken at 24mm, is boring and gives no sense of the scale of the landscape. 

Personally, if I want to create a panoramic image with no joins, I tend to reach for one of the countless compact cameras that offer some variation on the now-common 'sweep panorama' function. But if I want to explore the feeling of being somewhere and looking at a certain view, I'll make a collage. Here's a quick guide to my approach - if you like the results, why not experiment with your own? All you'll need is a software package that allows you to create image files with multiple layers. I'm using Adobe Photoshop CS5 for this example.

Step 1: Exposures

Like all good first steps (well, most anyway) the first step in this technique is the easiest. You've found the scene you want to capture, you've got a camera in your hand, so take a deep breath and prepare to take some pictures. But before you do, set your camera to the JPEG format and select a low resolution. 1MP is enough for the individual shots, given that you're going to create a much larger final image.

Once this is done, get shooting. You want to capture every little detail of this view so don't be afraid to zoom in on small scene elements as well as getting wider-angle shots that include more of the view. Shoot plenty of exposures in both horizontal and vertical formats, and for a more natural look in the final joiner, make sure you take all of the pictures at the same exposure in either manual mode or using exposure lock. Don't be afraid to shoot lots of pictures - you don't have to use them all. 

Step 2: Resizing and importing

Now that you've got back to a computer it's time to load your images into Photoshop and get started. Assuming you shot them in a low resolution mode, you can just drag your files straight into the program and skip the rest of this step, but if you made the mistake of shooting at full resolution, you will need to resize your shots first. If you don't, you might end up with two problems - your computer might crash as Photoshop attempts to open multiple large files at the same time, and even if it doesn't, your final canvas will be absolutely enormous. 

Here, I've selected the source images for my joiner in Adobe Bridge. I shot 16 files in total, and I don't know if I'll need them all, but I want to open them all in Photoshop to see. But first they need to be resized... Despite its name, Camera Raw can open JPEG images. Select the files you want to open, and hit Control+R (or Apple key + R if you're on a Mac). Now select them all again from within this dialog and click on the blue command line at the bottom of the preview window. Here you can set a range of different output resolutions. I want the lowest - 1.4MP. Now I press 'open' and all of my files open up in Photoshop, magically resized. 

There are lots of ways to resize images in a batch, and we published a guide to batch operations in Photoshop here. I was lazy when I shot my exposures and forgot to set a small output resolution, so I needed to sort that out. I've used Adobe's Camera Raw plugin to resize my images though. 

Step 3: The Big Picture (Part 1)

At this point you've got a load of files open in Photoshop but nowhere to put them. The next step then is to make a new document which will serve as the 'pinboard' onto which you'll arrange your pictures as we move towards producing the final image.

In Photoshop, go to File>New and create a new document. How big you want to make this is up to you, but I usually create a really big one so that I've got plenty of space to push and pull images around. I'm going to make my document 20,000 pixels wide and tall. Make sure that the document you create is in RGB color mode and under 'background contents' I've selected 'background color' (this color can be changed later).

Once this is done, simply drag your resized photographs onto the document using the move tool (shortcut key: V) until you're looking at one document, with many different layers. 

Step 4: The Big Picture (Part 2)

Now it's time to start arranging your individual images. With the move tool (shortcut key: V) selected, make sure that in the top toolbar of your Photoshop window you have 'auto select' checked and 'layers' selected. This will allow you to manipulate each layer of your document directly by just clicking and dragging. With this done, let's start clicking and dragging!

Whether you work from the centre of your scene out, or from an outside edge in, is up to you. Don't worry about precise alignment at this stage, just get your images in roughly the right position to create a semblance of the scene you were trying to capture.
 

Step 4: Fine tuning

Now you should have a document that looks something like the scene you wanted to capture, but it's probably pretty chaotic and not that attractive to look at. So now you need to get creative and fine-tune things. This stage can take hours, but as with anything creative, there's no right or wrong way to do it. 

Try experimenting with increasing and decreasing the size of individual images, shuffling them via the 'layers' palette to get the back-to-front alignment how you like it, and even cropping individual pictures and rotating them.

You'll probably find that to get a semi-natural alignment between the different shots you'll need to rotate the peripheral layers anyway, and this is easy using the 'free transform' tool (Edit>Free Transform). You can resize individual layers using this tool too. Just hold down shift as you push and pull the edges of the layer and everything will stay in proportion.

As well as size and rotation can also adjust the exposure of individual layers if you like. If some of your pictures are near-duplicates of others, or just don't fit into the final image, feel free just to push them out to the edges of the document or delete them as layers from within the layers palette. 

Step 5: Final Touches

Hopefully you should now be looking at an image which captures your vision of the scene in front of you when you shot all those photographs in step 1. To finish up, how about experimenting with different colors for your background layer? Black or white are the obvious ones but there's no need to stop there.

I'm not sure that black is the best background for this image so I'm going to go for white. To change the background color in Photoshop find the tools palette (View>Tools) and double click on the bottommost square at the very base of the toolbar. Then just select the background color you want from the dialog. I'm going to add a black border to my image, and the simplest way is just to add a slim black extension to the canvas. I've gone to Image>Canvas Size and entered a figure, in %, for how much larger I want the canvas should be. 105% should do it.

Once you're happy, I'd recommend saving your document as a .PSD file. This will preserve all of the layers so you can come back to it in the future and tweak things more if you want to. Once this is done, and you have a .PSD safely on file somewhere, flatten the image (Layer>Flatten) and crop to the border that you like, using the crop tool. Then save and close, print, publish or just sit back and admire your handiwork. 

Other Images

Photo collages are pretty versatile. Here are some other examples which might give you some ideas about when and where you might want to employ the technique. 

It isn't just landscapes that can benefit from the wider field of view of a photo joiner. It's a fun way of capturing interiors, too. 
The view from my office window, one snowy morning. I used exposure lock on the foreground exposures to make sure the snow didn't result in underexposure.  Another interior scene, in a London bar.  This image was put together from photographs captured by a cameraphone - you don't need expensive equipment if your individual pictures are only going to be used at <2MP...

Barnaby Britton is Reviews Editor of dpreview.com. You can see a selection of his after-hours work at www.photoinsensitive.com

Comments

Total comments: 107
12
ysengrain
By ysengrain (Jun 15, 2012)

Very interesting and at last for me a good recipes.
By the way, the link towards www.photoinsensitive.com is dead.

0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Jun 15, 2012)

Thanks for spotting that, I'll fix.

0 upvotes
tkbslc
By tkbslc (Jun 15, 2012)

At first I was thinking, "This is a lame way to do panoramas". But then after looking more closely at the samples, I like how imperfect the overlaps and magnifications are. It definitely creates a different kind of impact.

This is an interesting technique, thanks for the article.

Comment edited 27 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
sesopenko
By sesopenko (Jun 15, 2012)

David Hockney anyone?

1 upvote
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Jun 15, 2012)

"British artist David Hockney is one of the most famous exponents of the technique and you can see some of his work ."

Second paragraph.

4 upvotes
KieranGee
By KieranGee (Jun 15, 2012)

I refer you to the second paragraph of the article where Mr Britton reference's David Hockney's work as well as including a link to his work.

Well damn, it would appear that Barney has beat me to it. Ah well, check out that second paragraph anyway, it's a goodun, right up there with the rest of the article which is also rather informative.

Comment edited 1 minute after posting
0 upvotes
Barney Britton
By Barney Britton (Jun 15, 2012)

Jinx!

1 upvote
KieranGee
By KieranGee (Jun 15, 2012)

What can I say? I got skills

0 upvotes
Cheezr
By Cheezr (Jun 15, 2012)

Barney
the link to your afterhours website does not work..

0 upvotes
jkrumm
By jkrumm (Jun 15, 2012)

Reminds me of the work I like of Ted Orland, a former printer for Ansel Adams, except I think he used a combination of scanned Holga images and Photoshop blending... http://www.tedorland.com/panoramas/panorama.html

0 upvotes
wstricklin
By wstricklin (Jun 17, 2012)

I really like them. They give a scense of the photographers vision of a scene and not just a homogenized computer stitched version of what everyone else will shot.

0 upvotes
Seehorse
By Seehorse (Jun 17, 2012)

Obviously I'm not the intended audience for this as I look at it and the only thing that comes to mind is someone screwed up the merge.

Also, why the heck would anyone want to shoot low resolution? Unless you're using a 10 year old computer there's no reason to do so. Any machine suitable for photo work newer than maybe 2003 won't have any problem at all working with 20+ 18MP images all at once and your result will be much more useful.

Heck, my first try at a panorama was in 2006 with Photoshop CS1 and it consisted of 30 images from my 10D and was assembled on a laptop with 1GB of RAM. Once I figured out how to set up the panorama it turned out excellent results.

Dunno, I look at the finished image above and the only thing that comes to mind is "that's a really sloppy merge"

0 upvotes
john27rg
By john27rg (Jun 18, 2012)

And it's all possible in Lightroom too apparently:
https://rodenasphoto.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/making-a-collage-in-lightroom-3/

Thanks for the original post. Always nice to push boundaries.

0 upvotes
booggerg
By booggerg (Jun 18, 2012)

Wait.. author wrote up a horrible technique. Instead of the end result at the top of the article (which is sub par by the way). Why didn't the author just use Photoshop's PhotoMerge feature? When done right(which is pretty easy), you end up with a huge image that is merged seamlessly together. The trick is to shoot the individual images with overlap in mind so Photoshop can seamlessly stitch them together. You are also not limited to panoramics in a single direction.

0 upvotes
thomash2
By thomash2 (Jun 22, 2012)

deleted

Comment edited 38 seconds after posting
0 upvotes
Total comments: 107
12