Microsoft Image Composite Editor: a powerful, user friendly panoramic image stitcher

Microsoft Image Composite Editor is an advanced, free program that can combine overlapping images from a single scene or location into a larger, high-resolution panorama that incorporates all constituent images.

Output images can be exported into a wide variety of formats including tiled formats like HD View and Silverlight Deep Zoom.

I will have to admit that the people at Microsoft are coming up with cool free software at ever increasing frequency. Microsoft Image Composite Editor (ICE for short) is a powerful program that is both elegant and easy to use.

What is noteworthy about this one is that the actual stitching is fully automated without any user input. However, there are quite a number of user interventions that can take place after Microsoft ICE has put the panorama together, ranging from manipulating camera motion (which in fact will prompt a re-processing of the images), zooming or rotating the image, changing the perspective and/or point of view (at least in the so-called rotating motion mode), and finally cropping it.

For the purposes of this review let me note that I was not able to find much documentation/information on the Microsoft ICE page, and therefore all of the information below is based mostly on my experience. Here are more notes:

  • The user interface: drag and drop images into the interface or select a number of images and right click “stitch images” in the explorer context menu to process them. The program interface itself is sleek, simple, and highly functional.
  • Output formats: “common formats” such as JPEG, TIFF, PNG, BMP, and PSD (flat or layered) as well as multi-resolution tiled formats like HD View and Silverlight Deep Zoom
  • Ease of use: you will be generating panoramas quickly and easily, and will be able to intuitively figure out most controls with a minimum time investment. Very impressive for a program of this kind.
  • Camera motion: this defines the way in which your images will be stitched together. There are 3 “planar motion” modes, an “automatic” mode and a “rotating motion” mode. The last one is the most interesting and brings with it the option to change the viewer’s perspective/point of view (which the other modes don’t) but is probably best suited for scenes that rotate around the viewer in a semicircle (or full circle). My advice with respect to these different modes is… experiment with them and see what works best.
  • Automatic cropping: is a feature that’s worth mentioning; the program will automatically fit the cropping frame such as to encompass the most contiguous real estate in your image. Very useful.
  • Performance: is excellent, at least on my machine (and from a very subjective perspective). I used this software to stitch 46 images together comprising 56 megs in total, and it processed them in approx 80 seconds. Different machines will vary of course, but my impression is that performance is very robust. 32 and 64 bit versions are available.

The verdict: Microsoft Research did a great job with this one. I previously reviewed Hugin, another powerful and fairly user-friendly auto-image-stitching program, and would recommend that you look at both of these if you are serious about stitching up images.

However, if pressed to recommend a single program of this type I would probably say that Microsoft ICE might be the better choice for the majority of users; it offers (a) a tremendous user experience, (b) advanced image-stitching algorithms, (c) ease of use and a shallow learning curve, and (d) support for a wide range of formats, including the newer multi-resolution tiled formats. Highly recommended.

Version Tested: 1.0 release 1

Compatibility: Windows XP, Vista, 32 bit and 64 bit versions available.

Go to the program page to download the latest version (approx 3 megs).


 
 
 
Samer Kurdi

Samer Kurdi

Has been reviewing software since 2006 when he started Freewaregenius.com
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  • ruceb

    “…if you are serious about stitching up images. (…) I would probably say that Microsoft ICE might be the better choice for advanced or “casual” users alike [instead of Hugin]”

    People that are serious with stitching panoramas (like me — I live from it) won’t ever use something like ICE due to it’s low level of user manipulation possibilities. Hugin is an impressive program that keeps getting better (and whose user base and coders developed most of the functionality first that other’s later copied). It’s by far the better program, compared with ICE, regarding the possibilities it offers. But if you want something really reliable, you’d want to go for PTGui. It’s not free, but like a photographer would rather use Photoshop than MS Paint, a serious panoramist will have no joy using ICE.

  • Samer

    @Ruceb,
    Good to know. Thanks for sharing. Your comment compelled me to change the text of my review a little bit to hold back on the strength of my recommendation of this program for expert users. But I still think most people would prefer the kind of user experience that this program offers.

    As for paid software.. it is outside the scope of what I write about or recommend in this site.

  • anonymous

    @Ruceb

    “a serious panoramist will have no joy using ICE”

    Have you actually tried the program? I’m not sure that your characterization is correct. I could make an argument that Hugin is closer to MS Paint. Just like you can paint every pixel in Paint, Hugin lets you spend hours setting control points. Is that “joy”. Not for me. I’d love to see you post a few examples of projects where ICE was inadequate and Hugin shined.

  • Richard Peatross

    No link?

  • Richard Peatross

    On the site it says “download ICE x86″ or “download ICE x64″

    can u explain?

  • Anonymous

    @Richard Peatross
    It’s about platform. 32 bit (x86) or 64 bit (x64)

  • ruceb

    @Samer

    Thanks for your reply and sorry for being a little inacurate: I know your site is about freeware only and that’s exactly what I love it for! I just thought you cannot leave PTGui out of panorama software like you could not leave Photoshop out when talking about pixel based graphic programs. Thanks for your efforts to run this site!

    @ anonymous:
    Like I said, I do not use Hugin any longer as I do my stuff with PTGui. But I’ve used Hugin some years, and if you go a little deeper into the facts you’ll easily find out that of course it’s absolutely not necessary to pick your control points by hand (using Autopano, Autopano SIFT, Autopano-SIFT-C, Pablos Pearl-Script or one of the many other possibilities).

    I did several tests with ICE, feeding it with fisheye sources, and despite the fact that it takes about ten (!) times longer to look for control points, compared to PTGui or about half the time longer than Hugin when I used it the last time, the results were just wavy, wrongly stitched and all in all horrible. Maybe it has problems with fisheye images, but if that’s the case you’ll probably understand why I think it’s either not ready for primetime or nothing for people that make their living with panoramas.

  • anonymous

    @ruceb

    I don’t think that ICE works with fisheye. So if that is the only way you and all people who make their living on panoramas shoot then I guess that you are correct – this program will not meet your needs.

    If you aren’t using the control point editor in PTGui, then what “high-level manipulation” are you using?

  • ruceb

    @anonymous

    Come on, of course I use PTGui’s control point editor — if it’s inevitable. But if you know how to shoot panoramas with a good and reliable setup (good camera system, accurate NPP-adapter and so on), you will need manual control point interaction in say maybe 5 percent of your projects (and still mostly only for horizon straitening).

    About the fisheye issue: Only Gigapixel-people will use lenses other then either ultra-wide or, mostly, fisheyes to produce panoramas. So at least IMHO any software that fails fisheye support is more a toy than a tool.

  • bob

    The download link is on this page at the very bottom of the article, above these comments.
    It’s in a tiny font, i don’t know why.

  • Steve

    I think ICE is quite good, though I’ve managed to catch it out at least twice with what I thought were fairly simple panoramas (panorami?). Also, rather slow.
    I think AutoPano Pro is the best I’ve seen. Automatic, fairly fast, rarely caught out.

  • @ALoss

    Tried to d/l from the MS site on 27 Sept. 2008 at 8:45 AM EDST. Link goes to a empty directory listing on MS server. Can’t d/l.

    Any one else have this problem? Is there a new link or is MS just pulling the product?

  • Mike

    to @ALoss:

    I had the same problem when I attempted to download with Firefox. I then viewed the page using IE addon for FireFox and was able to download with on problem.
    The page I used is:
    http: // research.microsoft.com / ivm/ ice.html

  • Aloss

    Thanks Mike. It worked fine! Used IE.

  • salkis

    will check this out. I used the panoram stitch in
    xara xtreme v4. got the best results. not a freeware though. use in trial period

  • Anonymous

    @ruceb
    About the fisheye issue: Only Gigapixel-people will use lenses other then either ultra-wide or, mostly, fisheyes to produce panoramas. So at least IMHO any software that fails fisheye support is more a toy than a tool.

    I see your point if that’s what you want to use, but I’ve been doing panos for years using 40 and 50mm lenses on normal dSLRs. Personally, I can’t stand the ultra-distorted effect from pano’d fishies and prefer a more relaxed perspective.

  • http://www.renoxbell.net Eric Zhu

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  • Dan Gerson