Make 3D Photos With Photosynth

Various kinds of 3D and panoramic photo programs have been around for years. Long before panoramic stitching came built into all the major photo editing programs, you could buy specialty apps that (with some effort) could arrange a set of photos into a scene that was much wider or taller than anything you could photograph in a single shot. They lend a sense of grandeur and immediacy to your photos that are impossible to achieve with a single shot. (Go to "Shooting Photos for Panoramas, Part 1" and "Shooting Photos for Panoramas, Part 2" for details on making your own.)

In Video: Navigating Photos in 3D with Photosynth

Recently, though, Microsoft has released a new take on the concept. Photosynth, a free program you can download from Microsoft Live Labs, doesn't require you to plan ahead by painstakingly capturing a series of images specifically for panoramic duty. Instead, Photosynth can (in theory, at least) convert a set of loosely related photos into a 3D environment. You can even combine photos taken by several different photographers.

What It Does

Photosynth takes a collection of photos--say, a set of images you shot around your house, or a bunch of snapshots of the Sphinx--and looks for evidence of commonality or overlap in them. Just like a traditional panoramic program, Photosynth then assembles them into a coherent scene. But unlike a panoramic program, Photosynth lets you "walk around" in the scene and see it from many different angles. As you hover the mouse around a "synth" (Microsoft's name for the 3D image), outlines appear showing where you can click to see a different view of the scene based on another image in the set. When there's enough information available, Photosynth will even overlay a 3D "donut," which you can click and drag to rotate around the view to see it from the top, bottom, or sides.

For a look at what the program can do, check out "Must See! Microsoft's Photosynth Makes Photos a 3D Experience" for a detailed walkthrough. Still intrigued? Watch "Navigating Photos in 3D with Photosynth" for an interview with the program's chief architect.

Making a Synth

To begin, visit the Photosynth site and click Get Started. You'll need a Windows Live ID (which the getting started process can help you acquire), and you will need to install two programs: the Photosynth creator, and a browser plug-in that lets you view completed synths.

After those initial steps, you need to feed Photosynth some photos. You can grab a camera and take a bunch of pictures specifically to test the program, or you can root around on your hard drive to see if you already have some photos that might work.

The best synths are made from a bunch of photos that have multiple points of overlap (where each photo has parts that appear in three other photos). If you went to the world's largest ball of twine while on vacation last year, for example, and took two dozen images of it from a slew of different angles, you might be in business.

Start the Photosynth program and select the photos. Don't worry some images might not synth well; Photosynth is smart enough to disregard pictures that can't be combined into the 3D scene. Give the synth a name, and then click Synth.

Please Hold

It's here that you'll need the patience of Job, or at least have a good book handy.

The nuts and bolts of the Photosynth process happen on the Photosynth server, not your PC. So you'll need to wait while all the images are uploaded to the Web and processed. The more photos you chose, the longer it will take. And unfortunately, if your photo collection isn�t very "synth-able," you won't find that out until the end of a long upload and processing period. Indeed, Photosynth requires a fast Internet connection to move all those photos around, and you'll have the best experience if you have a speedy PC. My quad-core Windows Vista system offered me no trouble, but I've heard that other folks, with older computers, have encountered trouble.

After a while, though, you'll get a message that the synth is ready--click View and you can see your creation. The program also tells you how many photos could be incorporated into your scene via a statistic that tells you your synth was, say, "50 percent synthy."

Privacy Warning

There's no way to control the privacy of your synths (at least not yet). Anything you make is posted to the Photosynth Web site, where it can be browsed by anyone else using the service. That's cool, because it lets you check out all sorts of neat 3D environments--but it also means the whole world can see anything you create.

You have a 20GB limit on the Photosynth server. That's pretty generous, though, especially if you're just experimenting with this new photographic medium. I've uploaded a handful of synths in the past few days, and so far only used about 20 percent of my allocated space. I suppose that when I run out of space, I can always set up a new account.

So jump over to the Photosynth site and give it a shot. It's free; it's fun; and it could well be the start of a whole new way to share photos of your next vacation. If anyone makes synth out of that giant ball of twine, please drop me a line.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Berry Red," by Cynthia Farr-Weinfeld, Portland, Maine

Cynthia writes: "I liked your recent column on freezing water. I waited until early afternoon, and then set up my shot on a picnic table with a red paper background clothes-pinned to a chair behind it. I set the camera on a tripod, framed the shot at 80 mm, f/13 and 1/1000 of a second and set the focus manually... I used my infrared wireless remote to practice dropping the strawberry into the water to get the most spectacular splashes."

This Week's Runner-Up: "Sky's End," by Jeff Clough, Brighton, Colorado

Jeff writes: "This is a composite image that combines a daytime picture of the mountain and a time exposure of the nighttime sky. The night shot was exposed for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. I merged the two shots and erased the night time mountain image. I was even fortunate to get a streaking meteor in the photo."

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

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