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

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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).