Turn Photographic Panoramas Into Tiny Planets

If you have ever played a game like The Sims or Farmville, you know the simple joys of creating your own little world. In fact, there's a game on my Apple iPad called GodFinger, which takes this to the logical extreme, giving me dominion over all the beings on a small world that fits entirely on the screen.

The cartoonish planet on GodFinger reminds me of a simple photo editing technique that has been making the rounds on the Internet lately. Imagine taking a panoramic photo you've created with Windows Live Photo Gallery, Autostitch, or some other program and wrapping it into a circle. You'll end up with your own little planet, made entirely of whatever was in your panorama. It's easy to do and the results can be a lot of fun.

This kind of photo is called a stereograph--and if you took a lot of math in college, you might know it as a stereographic projection. You can see many examples of sterographs on the Web, such as in the Stereographic Projections or the Miniplanetas Flickr groups.

These photos can look kind of trippy, but in essence, they're all just panoramic photos that have been mapped to a circle using the Polar Coordinates filter in a photo editing program. Let's see how it's done.

Step 1: Pick Your Panorama

You can use most any photo editing program, like Adobe Photoshop, Photoshop Elements, Corel Paint Shop Pro, or GIMP. Begin by opening a suitable photo. What's suitable? As I've suggested, a panoramic photo works best. I've also found that photos with a lot of artificial structures, like a city skyline, work especially well. Panoramas of mountains and other more organic landscapes often don't create eye-popping scenes, but by all means, experiment.

For this example, I'll use a photo of a lighthouse I captured on a Caribbean diving trip.

Step 2: Resize and Reorient

Next, resize the photo in a way you've probably never done before: by turning off the lock that keeps the aspect ratio correct. In Photoshop Elements, for example, choose Image, Resize, Image Size and then clear the check box that says Constrain Proportions. Set the height to whatever the width is, and click OK. The image should now be completely square, and, frankly, look terrible. That's okay.

Now flip the photo so it is upside down. Why? Because when we map it into a circle, the orientation of the photo determines which side of the photo is the center of the planet. In Photoshop Elements, choose Image, Rotate, 180 degrees. In other photo editors, you might need to rotate the photo 90 degrees to the right twice to get it in the correct orientation.

Step 3: Create Your Planet

Finally, choose Filter, Distort, Polar Coordinates. Make sure the filter is set to Rectangular to Polar (rather than Polar to Rectangular) and click OK. And that's it. You should now be staring at your own tiny planet, populated with whatever was in your panoramic photo.

You might see a problem with this photo, though--there's an obvious and somewhat ugly seam where the two halves of the photo come together. Fear not--we can fix that. Come back next week, when I'll pick up where we left off and explain how to make truly seamless stereographs.

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: "Rose" by Philip Shantz, Bellingham, Washington

Philip says: "I planted this rose outside my living room window years ago. Recently, I noticed this perfect blossom during a gentle morning rain so I leaned out the window and snapped this shot with my old Sony DSC V-1."

This week's Hot Pic: "Butterfly" by George Fritzsche, Los Angeles, California

George took this photo with a Canon Digital Rebel Xsi.

To see last month's winners, visit the August Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

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