PTGui: Fstoppers Reviews the Best Tool for Creating Incredible Panoramas

PTGui: Fstoppers Reviews the Best Tool for Creating Incredible Panoramas

There’s a variety of options for creating panoramas. Lightroom and Photoshop both have it built in, not to mention the variety of standalone programs. One, however, stands far above the rest: here’s the best program to get if you want to create panoramas.

The Software

PTGui belongs to the category of in-depth panorama stitching programs that offer a huge library of features, complex projections (the way your set of images are actually mapped), and powerful tools for adjusting how those images are blended. To get a sense of how much more control is offered, consider these two screenshots comparing the controls offered by Lightroom when stitching and one of the dozens of screens you can access when working in PTGui.

Now, don’t confuse this depth for it being cumbersome or unusable. With the wizard, you can load images, align them, and create a panorama in about three clicks. You can really choose how much you want to dig into the different features. I still haven’t touched some of the projections, the HDR functionality, or the masking tools, but I appreciate that they’re there. 

When you first open the software, you’re actually greeted by that Project Assistant wizard. From here, you can load images, align them with one click, then save the resulting panorama. It's an incredibly easy flow that still gives you the same convenience as Lightroom or Photoshop’s pano assistant, but with far more power under the hood. What’s even nicer is that you can dig deeper as necessary, tweaking the masking, crop, projection, or other settings as needed.

The overall interface is very clean, with a contemporary dark theme. The layout is customizable, to an extent, with the primary interface really being two windows, with one controlling project settings and the second being a resizable viewport for seeing the panorama and making adjustments directly on it.

I personally love this level of control. I feel it would work well on any screen size. On small screens, flip between the two windows maximized to full screen, while on a single large screen, you can run them side by side and give each a dedicated monitor on a multi-monitor setup. There’s a slight learning curve to some of the buttons, especially if you’re new to panoramas, but fortunately, the hover-text is usually pretty explanatory.

PTGui is available for Windows and MacOS, with a personal license able to be installed on three computers. The recommended hardware includes 16 GB of RAM, an SSD for image storage, and a card with support for OpenCL — these are all essentially required for a positive panorama stitching experience with any software solution, in my opinion.

In Use

The actual process of creating a panorama with PTGui is remarkably simple, at least for the workflow I’ve developed. With my images in Lightroom, I grab one frame with representative highlights and shadows and apply the basic adjustments. While PTGui supports raw files and a 16-bit workflow, I find it easier to work with the single shot, rather than try and do basic adjustments to a 500-megapixel finished image. With the basics done, I sync the settings across and export 16-bit TIFFs to my SSD. From here, it’s easy to load the images into PTGui and begin the stitching process.

In PTGui, the first step is to load the images. If your images have EXIF metadata, PTGui should be able to automatically recognize your lens and camera, calibrating those specific settings for you. From here, you can click to align images: this aligns the images via control points, connecting each pair of images at specific points. While you can tweak these points manually, I’ve not yet found an image out of place. If needed, you can then mask out parts of individual images (think pedestrians, cars, or a blurry tree branch). 

For the basic panoramas, the last step is choosing your projection. PTGui offers a wide range of projections, from the essential rectilinear to the obscure Vedutismo. You can also create spherical, “little planet,” and cube face projections. One of my favorite features is the ability to quickly and dynamically adjust the projection, rotation, and centering. I’ve shot a number of panoramas with a sloppy, handheld technique, so being able to tweak the framing is essential.

One major takeaway from using the software: it’s fast. It opens almost instantly, buttons are incredibly responsive, and even dynamically adjusting the panorama in the preview happens instantly. I was primarily testing on a midrange 3700x and RTX2070, with 32 GB of RAM and NVME SSD, but it scaled down well to an older unibody Retina MacBook Pro, and remained perfectly usable. Continuing with the topic of speed, some of the processes are so quick that when I first ran them, I thought they failed to load, only to realize they actually are already done. Stitching 20 45 MP images and generating the resulting PSB can be done in 20-ish seconds. Somehow, it can stitch and save a PSB faster than Photoshop can save the file alone.

I typically will finish my panoramas in Photoshop, so I love the PSB option. As a bonus, PTGui can output the individual frames as layers atop the finished panorama, letting you easily blend in singular elements or touch up any problem areas.

Summary

As I mentioned, you probably have a number of options available to you for stitching a panorama, and they’re ok for what they are. Stepping up to a dedicated panorama program, however, brings a number of advantages. If you’re just learning the techniques, it’s a lot more forgiving of errors in the field; I’ve been able to go back and successfully stitch sets that Lightroom and PS balked at. If you’re experienced, the greater depth and feature set will let you create even higher-quality images at a faster rate.

In the actual user experience, I’ve got nothing but good things to say. It’s incredibly fast, even when working with large data sets. It’s very user friendly, particularly when it comes to adjusting the panorama to look “right.” The workflow is easy to learn and integrates well into the existing asset manager and Photoshop paradigm. Since getting the software, I’ve stitched dozens of panoramas with zero issues.

Overall, it’s a phenomenal piece of software. It’s available for purchase from PTGui’s website. In the US, a personal license costs $156, while the Pro version is $311. The differences are viewable here, but in summary, the Pro version adds more features for masking, batching, and HDR-style imaging. Both licenses are perpetual, with free updates for one year.

What I Liked

  • Quality of results is the best out of any panorama stitching method I’ve used.

  • Customization of mapping and projection is easy and effective.

  • Speedy. Every step is surprisingly fast, with good utilization of resources.

  • Perpetual licensing is a nice touch for this style of program.

What Could Be Improved

  • Setting defaults is a bit unusual.

  • Allowing the “Save New Project” prompt to be disabled would save time.

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12 Comments

jim hughes's picture

PTGui is great, I've had a lot of success with it, even sold a few. And it best of all, it doesn't make bogus claims about "using AI".

Here's one I did recently:
https://jimhphoto.com/index.php/2020/10/30/a-mall-parking-ramp/

Sven Lidstrom's picture

A very nice article about a very interesting subject! Thanks! Probably a definite must for the pro-photographer! I myself am just an interested amateur and a little spoilt by the ease of taking (many) digital pictures and then not going through with them but instead they just take up space on my harddrive ...

To at least stitch the panoramas together and get a quick look at them, with a minimum of job, I have used Microsoft ICE (free) for a few years now and think it is doing a decent job! Just drag and drop the pictures onto ICE - then it is fully automatic and it even has a autocomplete feature to fill in missing parts along the edges. I certainly prefer to use it over the Photoshop alternative - it is quicker and easier to use!

It is probably not anything a pro would use but if it has a relatively straight series of pictures it will do a quite ok job. "Easy" pictures like nature and landscapes turn out really good but indoor scenes with sharp edges pose a bigger problem. Lots of projections to use and zoomable preview to look for any misses before you actually commit to a stitch. Even if it usually manages to align the pictures it is pity there is no way to help the software find the control points if it fails. Autocomplete is good to use to get a "preview" how it would look if you put in a while editing it in Affinity Photo or Photoshop - but not always something you would keep! No limit to the size (according to MS) and you can set up structured panoramas of amazing number of pictures.

(I have included a few panoramas made with ICE in my profile.)

jim hughes's picture

I used to use ICE - it was amazingly good. The problem was that Microsoft stopped supporting or distributing it. Eventually I had to get a new computer, and found I could no longer install ICE - or maybe it just wouldn't run, I don't remember. PTGui has more flexibility and the ability to fine tune the matchups - although as this writer points out that's seldom necessary.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yeah, compatibility for older software is tricky. Diminishing stability for my older panorama software, as well as better projection support were the reasons for my switch.

Alex Coleman's picture

Thanks Sven! Yeah, as I tried to point out, more advanced tools really make a difference when your image set is suboptimal - parallax, subject movement, etc. If ICE is working good for you, that's great!

Paulo Neves's picture

I’m just an amateur and would like to try Microsoft ICE but it doesn’t run on my Pc. Tried Hugin just for fun but the results are awful.

I’m glad I have Affinity Photo that I bought on a one time payment of 50 euros, and still gets me free updates to new versions, which is a complete raw developer and photo editing amazing tool that does everything Lr and Photoshop does - only missing cataloging - for a one time fee, feels completely professional, is used by professionals, and has amazing fast reliable and faultless hdr, stacking, panorama and focus merge tools. I really don’t see the point of paying hundred of dollars or even a monthly or yearly fee when you have such power at your fingertips for a one time payment.

Really. I should get paid for promoting Affinity :-) but it’s not the case. Just an happy pro-sumer’s take on raw converters editing software. I also like Capture One but can’t justify paying more than 100 euros for it. I have the free version for Fuji which seems to deal better with the Fuji raw files. But I really only use it when there is a particular difficult job to try to save a really bad raw photo that needs special sharpening and/or noise reduction. Otherwise Affinity rocks. Try it. No other panorama tool I tried does a better job.

jim hughes's picture

Were you even able to find and download ICE?

Teake van Popta's picture

What I find an underrated quality of this (or potentially other?) panorama editors is reprojecting single fish-eye or ultra wide shots. Of course there are others, dxo viewpoint seemed a nice one but isn't quite as capable.
I tried a few panorama editors but ptgui has been my long time favorite.

Alex Coleman's picture

I don’t have a fish eye lens, so I didn’t get around to testing that - mind sharing an example? I’d be interested to see how it turns out.

kelly hofer's picture

I've made hundreds of panoramas, gigapixel images and other composites in PTGUI, it really is the powerhouse that could. I have found nothing that I can't piece together with that program and as importantly, that I can project in thousands of varying views. I've sold many wall sized pieces of gigapixle art made in that program. 10/10 stars!

Andrew Broekhuijsen's picture

Dang. Should have bought it back when it was $100 a few years ago haha. Still probably worth it for anyone shooting panos. I've played with it before and it was phenomenal. The ability to click and drag your projection in real time is irreplacable. Every free alternative I've tried (Hugin, etc.) has come away lacking.

I don't shoot panos enough to need anything more than LR offers for stitching, but if I ever do, I won't hesitate to buy PTGui.