Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Kolor Autopano Pro: Trial Versions Impressions

Short Summary: The Notes of Cliff
To make it clear, I wrote this after testing out the trial version of Kolor Autopano Pro, haven't purchased it yet, but there's a reasonably good chance I will. Anyway, went shopping for panorama stitching software and after an hour or more of googling, I narrowed it down to two options: Kolor Autopano Pro and another one I won't name. Both programs had trial versions available and I gave them a shot on my laptop. Autopano worked out really well and the other didn't.

How I used to Stitch Images Together
Stitching panoramas together isn't something I'm unfamiliar with. A few jobs ago, I spent hours stitching maps and other images together manually with stuff like Microsoft PowerPoint and Paint. It took a lot of time, but it worked and more importantly, I got paid for it -- thank you, tool that makes a color transparent when working with overlapping images. Having done that before, the idea of doing it manually again in large quantities as part of a regular workflow just didn't seem appealing. And I had heard about Adobe Photoshop having a built-in panorama feature, so it seemed like a good idea to look into it. A couple minutes into looking at Photoshop, it made no sense to pay for all the advanced features that I would never use. That made Photoshop a relatively quick "no."

An unnamed panorama program: January 2018-ish version
Removing Photshop as an option narrowed it down to two choices for me: Kolor Autopano Pro and something else. The other program was cheaper, so I tried it out first. What followed was a not so great experience that was even worse in retrospect. Downloading the trial, installing, and opening up this other program was simple enough. It was intuitive enough that I figured out what to do without a manual and produced my first panorama -- I didn't want to waste time learning something in depth that I had a good chance of never using again.

This first panorama consisted of eight images with a lot of areas that were just one color, so this may have been a reason why my experience wasn't great. The GUI looked clean and simple to me, and I managed to import my images without issue. Trying to stitch them together was where I first ran into trouble. The crop factor or sensor size of my camera was, apparently, an important input and I had no clue what it was -- not a standard DSLR-type camera like APS-C or full frame. It probably took me over an hour to look up the camera's manual, google for it, and finally give up by learning to calculate it. Today I learned that there's a relationship between the Field of View (FOV) and sensor size using a relatively simple equation involving ATAN in radians. But before I did this calculation, I tried to guestimate the sensor size -- spoiler alert, the panorama didn't turn out.

After guestimating the sensor size, the program tried to stitch everything together with no success: it couldn't find enough control points. To be more specific, it only found control points between two images, none for the rest. That meant having to draw in a couple control points per image with my touchpad since I was on my laptop with no mouse. The control point adding system was very intuitive and even fun -- probably wouldn't be after the first few projects. That took less than half an hour and I got to the point that I could try creating a panorama again. The first attempt produced gibberish and made a "star" -- how a young child draws a star starting with two crossed lines.

I slept on that and tried again with what should have been the correct crop factor or sensor size. It couldn't detect enough control points again, I drew them all in again, and the program produced a very nice panorama. Exactly what I wanted, just took a lot longer. My second attempt with a different set of images resulted in the same problem of not finding enough control points. I didn't bother going any further this time because I had tried Kolor Autopano by then.

Kolor Autopano Pro: January 2018-ish version
This was after my experience with the other panorama program so maybe my experience was affected by that. Anyway, I launched Kolor Autopano Pro, took a minute to look through the menus and find the image selection button. The images I wanted to stitch together, the exact same first batch I did with the other program, were imported, then I clicked a button that looked like it would "panorama" it for me. A couple seconds later and I had an exceptional preview image of the panorama. It auto-detected everything -- no need to enter a sensor size or crop factor, no drawing my own control points. I then tried a second batch of photos, the same second batch in the other program that failed, and again, success with virtually no input from me. This was exactly how I thought these programs would work. It found all the control points it needed on its own, and I didn't have to manually enter a sensor size or crop factor. If I end up buying Autopano, it'll take some time to learn the menu system inside-out though.

Wrapping it up
In total, I probably spent an hour or two trying to use the other program and less than an hour with Kolor Autopano Pro -- obviously very very little time. Hopefully, I'll get to learn Autopano in more detail in the next while. There was a pretty big difference in performance in my experience, however. One required me to do a lot of manual work, the other was near instant. Maybe it was because of the images I was using, but I tried the same two batches of images on both programs. Autopano worked both times, the other program did not both times. The price difference was only about 25% between the two.


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