Panoramas can make for a fun and interesting option for capturing photos. Whether you're capturing for a specific aspect ratio output such as wall display piece or website header, looking to incorporate a lot of visual data in the image, or just aiming for a different view, panoramas can be a creative approach. Personally, I'm a fan, and I've been shooting them for many years. By capturing a very wide--or, for that matter, tall--field of view, they can be dramatic. And they can be revealing, by adding context.
They also bring with them some challenges. Among those is how you take multiple images and stitch them together into a single panoramic image.
Some newer cameras and smartphones have an automatic panorama setting built in where you can sweep the camera around the view and it'll all be stitched together in the camera. But as convenient as that is, you often don't get much control over the finished product and the resolution is often much lower than you might expect from the camera's usual capabilities. You can often get much better results, and infinitely more flexibility, by taking a series of individual, overlapping images that you then later stitch together using software.
There are quite a few different software options that can stitch panoramic images. They range from full-featured dedicated apps that give you an enormous amount of control and that produce very professional results, to lightweight free apps that can get the basic job done but don't give you much control. And some of the most popular image editing apps have panoramic stitching capabilities built in, even if it's not always obvious they're there.
So here's a rundown of some of the better options for panorama stitching apps, ranging from simple, free apps, to much more powerful, paid ones.
The ones I'm focusing on here are still image, flat panoramas. There's quite a lot of overlap in software and technique between flat panoramas and 360° virtual tours, but there are some specific requirements when shooting and displaying the latter. Regular flat panoramas--still images that have a very wide or tall aspect ratio--are what I'm focusing on here.
Dedicated Panorama Stitching Software | Free
The best panorama apps tend to be paid ones, and not inexpensive at that. But there are also some free options available. Overall, their features tend to be pretty limited and their user interface is not particularly polished. But if you're dabbling or just have a one-off need, they're a useful place to start.
If you're after something straightfoward to use, free, and cross-platform, take a look at Hugin.
It's built on a set of underlying software called Panorama Tools, a suite that some of the other apps here are also built on. There has been steady development that has been building the app out to a stable release. Early versions were quite basic, but the developers have since added more sophisticated capabilities such as being able to manually tweak control points and projection.
Its interface is functional but not slick or especially refined, but it it does what it needs to do. Hugin is free and there are versions for Windows, Mac, and Linux.
AutoStitch is focused mostly on the underlying algorithm that is then licensed to other software manufacturers to use in their apps. But they have also put together a rudimentary front end for it. It's very basic, and you don't get any control over things like editing control points or choosing the projection, but it's simple to use and it's free. There are versions for Windows and Mac.
If you're shooting with a GigaPan panoramic robot, there's a dedicated Gigapan panorama stitcher available called, oddly enough, GigaPan Stitch.
Overall, it's fairly basic and quite outdated now, but one thing it does especially well is multi-row (or multi-column) panoramas, which is a bread-and-button feature of the GigaPan robots. But if you're not shooting with a GigaPan or uploading the stitched images to the GigaPan site, there's not much reason to use their GigaPan Stitch--there are much better options available. And even if you are shooting with a Gigapan (in which case you've already made a significant investment in panorama shooting) don't feel as though you have to use their software--other options like Hugin and PTGUI Pro work even better and give you more flexibility.
You can download GigaPan Stitch here. There are versions for Mac and Windows.
ICE, which stands for Image Composite Editor, is a product of one of Microsoft imaging research labs and is a good complement to the PhotoSynth technology. It has some unusual and really interesting features, like being able to create a still image panorama from a video pan and compositing images in ways that most stitching apps can't. But it doesn't have the end-user refinement of some of the other apps here--it basically feels a bit experimental, which is precisely what it is, of course. ICE is Windows only, free, and available as a standalone program or as a plugin for Photoshop.
Dedicated Panorama Stitching Software | Paid
PTGUI Pro is my go-to panorama stitcher, and it's one of been using for over a decade. It started as a graphical user interface for some underlying command line tools known as PT Tools--hence the name PTGUI. But over the years it has grown enormously and offers a wealth of powerful options in everything from masking out unwanted elements, manually editing control points, straightening horizons, and working with very large and multi-row panoramas.
Its user interface is another that falls in the functional but not pretty categories, and there is a bit of a learning curve to get the best results out of it. But if you want maximum control over your panoramas or are shooting them professionally, it's hard to beat.
Panorama Stitcher Mini
Available from the Mac App Store. There's a free version that's limited to 5 images; if you want to stitch together more images than that, you'll need to upgrade to the Pro version.
Overall, it' not in the same league as PTGUI Pro, but it is also a lot cheaper. Mac only.
Free Image Editing Software that Includes Panorama Stitching
These apps don't have panorama stitching as a primary objective, but they either have the capabilities already built in or can be extended with plugins to add them.
GIMP. GIMP is an open-source and free image editing app. It's surprisingly powerful and is backed by a dedicated and committed development community. It's often seen as a good free alternative to Photoshop.
Paid Software that Includes Panorama Stitching
Again, these apps don't have panorama stitching as a primary objective, but they either have the capabilities already built in or can be extended with plugins to add them.
If you're already using Lightroom, you already have a very effective panorama stitcher baked in. You don't get much control over the process, but in many cases, the stitching engine works very effectively with excellent results. And there's a lot of convenience in having it so readily accessible in the place where you're managing and editing your images.
Lightroom is a paid app for Windows and Mac and has a trial version available.
Photoshop is the gold standard of image editing apps, and one of its numerous features is that it can stitch panoramas. It doesn't make much sense to buy Photoshop just for the panorama stitching option (called Photo Merge), but many of us already have it installed. And it's quite a powerful and effective option for this task.
Photoshop's panorama stitcher works very similarly to the one in Lightroom--they share underlying engines and algorithms. If you're already using Lightroom, it can be more convenient to use the one there. If you're not using Lightroom, Photoshop's version will give very similar results, although it does give you more options. One I particularly like is the option to use the Content Aware Fill feature as part of the photo merge process to fill in transparent areas--it can work really well in some situations.
Photoshop is available for Windows and Mac and is a paid app with a free trial.
Some of these apps support RAW files, but many don't. If you want to work directly with RAW files--and there are some advantages to doing so--you'll need to make sure the app supports the format. Lightroom is an example of one that supports working with RAW files directly, and it even outputs the stitched panorama as a RAW file (DNG format).
Panorama - Perspective Image Stitcher. This Mac app looks on the surface to be good, but it doesn't work well for stitching more than three images at once. If you want to do a panorama with more tiles than that, you can technically stitch them in small batches and then stitch the resulting mini-panos, but that's a really poor way to do it. Users have also reported that its merging algorithm also leads to substandard results.
Canon PhotoStitch. While it's put out in support of Canon cameras, it's not limited only to working with images shot with a Canon. But there's not a lot else going for it when there are much better options available. Windows only.
No Longer Available
Kolor / Autopano Pro, AutoPano Giga. For a long time, the various Autopano products put out by color were among the best in the business, with powerful stitching apps that gave a lot of control over the whole process. But Kolor closed down in 2018, and their Autopano products are no longer available.
iFoto Stitcher. It was pretty basic, but had two notable aspects: it made it very easy to work with multi-row stitching, and it had good built-in tools for sharing panoramas on social media. It's no longer available the Mac App store.
If you're after the best free panoramic stitching software, start with Hugin.
If you're after the most powerful panorama stitcher, take a look at PTGUI Pro.
If you're already using Lightroom, it's worth giving the built-in Photo Merge function a try--you might be surprised at how effectively it works for such a simple-to-use tool.
And, as always with any of these, the results you get out are directly related to what you feed in. Carefully captured images with a reasonable amount of overlap and minimal perspective shift are much more likely to yield good results than rough shots where the camera moves. If you're finding that the automatic alignment of one of the basic apps isn't working, it's worth trying something more powerful such as Hugin or PTGUI because they have tools that let you manually tweak alignment points and even mask out parts of an image where things have moved, such as people in a crowd.