How to Create Your Own Planets Using Your Panoramas

createyourownplanet.jpgScene opens to solar winds gently blowing intergalactic tumbleweeds past the open porch door. An eerie quiet blankets the solar system.

We don’t know about you, but ever since those astronomers kicked Pluto out of the party, we’ve been feeling mighty lonely over here on planet Earth.

But wait! We’ve just the solution: Our pal Dirk wrote up a tutorial that shows you how to turn any panorama or landscape photograph into a full-fledged planet!

Best of all, once you’ve selected an image to work with, the process takes only 5 minutes. (Launching your new planet into solar orbit may take a bit longer.)

There are special moments in the life of any photographer that suddenly change his view of his hobby (or profession). For me, those moments included:

  • Getting my first analog SLR (Nikon N2000/F301 in 1988)
  • Getting my first digital camera (Kodak DC120 in 1997)
  • Discovering a software that could stitch together photos into a seamless panorama (MGI PhotoVista 2.0 in 2002)
  • Discovering the rather simple instructions to create my own planet

To make a long story short: The “Polar Panorama Effect” is one of my favorite ways to process photos into unique pieces of art. It takes a panoramic (or landscape) photo and uses the Polar Coordinates filter of Photoshop CS or The Gimp to create a circular image that seems to wrap the panorama around a planet.

Two samples:

Click either image to see it larger.

Looks cool, and it’s easy to do! Let’s get started.

Selecting a Source Photo for Your Planet

When selecting a photo to start with you should keep the following things in mind:

  • Panoramas or landscapes cropped to have an aspect ratio at least 2:1 (the width should be at least two times the height) work best. Wider photos are better.
  • The bottom area (bottom 25% or so) of your photo should have very little detail (e.g. sand, asphalt, water). This area will become the center of your planet and will be distorted the most.
  • The upper area (upper 25%) of your photo should also be light on detail– preferably just one color (e.g. blue sky, night sky etc.)
  • The left and the right edges of your photo should match, or come close to matching, each other. (Always the case for a stitched 360 degree panorama.)
  • The horizon must be exactly horizontal. Since the left and right edges of your photo will be joined, if they are at different heights your planet will have a big crack in the surface. (Again, a non-issue for a properly executed 360 degree panorama.)

We’re going to go through two examples: the first uses a simple panorama, the second a landscape shot that we’ll crop before proceeding.

Starting Simple: Planet San Francisco

It’s simplest to work with a 360 degree panorama, so let’s start with this panorama shot of San Francisco taken from the Coit Tower:


Step 1: Resize and Rotate

screenshot1_thumb.jpgThe first thing we need to do is prepare the image for the Polar filter. We do this by stretching the height of the image so that the image is a perfect square.

Select Image>Image Size from the menus. Uncheck ‘Constrain Proporties’ and set the “height” to the same value as your “width”. Next, rotate the image 180 degrees. (Image>Rotate Canvas>180)

You should end up with something like the image to the right.

Step 2: Apply the Polar Filter

Next, we’ll apply the Polar Filter to wrap our image into a sphere.

Choose Filter > Distort > Polar Coordinates from the menus and in the resulting dialog box, select the “Rectangular to Polar” setting.

(If you’re using The Gimp the command is Filters > Distorts > Polar Coords.)

As you can see we’re 90% of the way there!:

Planet San Francisco, almost complete!

Easy cheesy, right? Now for some finishing touches…

Step 3: Rotate and clean up

The rest is just a little digital darkroom work: Rotate the planet to your liking, adjust the contrast and colors, clean up the sky and the edges where the left and right border of the image came together. (The clone stamp and healing brush may be handy here.) That’s it, we’re done!




More Advanced: Planet Venice

Planets work best when created using panoramas, but for this second example we’ll use the following landscape photo of San Girgio Maggiore Island in Venice. Islands are especially well-suited for planetization because the left and right edges of the images are easy to match up–you only have to make sure the horizon is level.


Crop and Straighten

Because we’re not starting with a 360 degree panorama, we’ll need to do some extra work before we can follow the steps above.

First we’ve gotta crop and straighten the image to make the horizon absolutely horizontal. Using the cropping tool of PhotoShop we can do both in one step:

First, we must ensure that our crop selection is parallel to the horizon. Choose the crop tool and select a flat rectangular area of the photo. Move the cursor just outside of an edge of the selected area so that the cursor changes to two arrows pointing left and up. Click the mouse button and you can rotate the cropped area.

By moving the top border of your selection to the horizon of the photo you can inspect the rotation closely. Move and rotate the crop selection until the top border and your horizon are parallel, but don’t crop your photo yet.


Now we want to make sure the left and the right borders of the image fit together. Look for areas on the right and the left where the buildings have the same height:


Move the right and left borders of your selection so that the edges will match up. Finally, adjust the top and bottom of your selection so your waterline is roughly in the middle of the cropped photo:


Double-click your image to commit the crop and you’re ready for the transformation! Just follow steps 1-3 as in the example above.

Here’s the final result:

San Girgio final result

More Samples


Click any image to see it larger.

See also: Dirk’s Create Your Own Planets photo set on Flickr.

What’s next?

Concert PlanetWant to do more with this technique? Here are some suggestions:

  • Upload your images to Flickr and add them to the Create your own planets group.
  • For some panoramas leaving out the 180 degree rotation creates an interesting effect. (See photo at right.)
  • Flickr user “Seb Przd” has experimented with other projections for his panoramas.
  • Try AutoStitch (freeware) to stich your panoramas and PanoramaFactory (shareware $30) for even more options.
  • The Flexify filter module ($35) for Adobe Photoshop creates polar panoramas on-the-fly and offers numerous projections for your photos.