Photospanning: For Photos So Big They Burst Out of Their Frame

Some things are just too colossal to fit in one photo: Easter Island heads. An extended family reunion. Conan’s pompadour.

Don’t give in to the tyranny of the frame! Bust your subjects out of their borders with a technique we call “photospanning.”

Photospans cross multiple frames: the Easter Island chin in one shot, the face in another, and a third shot of the brow sitting on top.

With just a little planning-ahead, they’re easy to make (and: easy to simulate).

After all, your photos have always been big! It’s just the picture frames that got small.

The Photojojo Guide to Photospanning

Ready to make your photos leap through frames? We’ll walk you through two different techniques: making real photospans with brand new photos, or fabicating them out of photos you’ve already taken. The process is basically just like taking multiple shots for a panorama, only instead of stitching them together, you’ll be keeping them split apart.

We’ll start with instructions for creating the effect from scratch; and then we’ll switch gears and walk you through the process of turning your old images into photospans.

How to Make Real Photospans

(We’ll show you how to do simulated photospans, too.)

Step 1: Plan Ahead

Oh, sure, you could just wander out and snap a bunch of random shots of whatever tickles your fancy. (Actually, yes, do that whenever possible, it’s fun.)

But this project calls for a little critical thinking. Remember, whether you’re photographing people or animals or scenery or robots, you’ll need to take multiple photos that sit next to each other. So ask yourself beforehand: What exactly are you photographing? How many frames do you want to fill? Will the frames be aligned horizontally or vertically (or a combination of the two)?

And when planning your shots, remember The Rule of Thirds: avoid placing the main area of interest in the center of the image. Instead, you’ll get a more pleasing composition if the subject is one-third of the way into frame.

Scenes that work well:

  • Wide or tall panoramas, like a city skyline or towering skyscraper
  • A series of people or things in a line, like your friends on a couch or nesting dolls on your windowsill
  • Extreme angles, like a palm tree as seen from very low down or a courtyard as seen from very high up

Bonus points: draw diagrams of what you want to photograph. Chances are, you’ll change your mind once you’re out shooting; but pre-drawn storyboards give you an excellent foundation from which to start. And they’ll help clear up the confusion when you explain what you’re doing and everyone else says, “huhwhat?”

Step 2: Master Shot

When shooting for TV and movies, Hollywood-types usually start with a “Master Shot” — that’s a big huge wide version that gets as much of the scene as possible. Start your shoot the same way: back up and get as much of your scene in the shot as possible. You use it or you might not, but either way it’ll serve as handy reference later on when you’re trying to remember where everything in your scene was in relation to each other.

Step 3: Move in Close

Now it’s time to start snapping each individual frame. Get close to your subject and take the first snapshot; now move over a bit and take the second; now the third. Keep moving along, capturing the scene from left to right (or top to bottom, or in a spiral, or whatever) until you’ve covered your entire scene.

Step 4: Hang it Up

Nice work! Your photos look great together. Once you’ve picked out your faves, it’s time to print’em out and go frame shopping.

When gathering the photos together to display, you’ll have a bunch of aesthetic choices to make:

  • Aligned or wobbly? You can position your photos so that the subjects all perfectly flow exactly from one image to another — or you can give them a wiggle and a twist so that the angles in one clash with the angles in another. Clashing can be good! It adds conflict and drama.
  • Straight or tilted? Aligning your images with perfect right-angles makes them look orderly and sophisticated. Giving them a bit of a tilt makes them look more silly and fun.
  • How far apart? You can stretch out a scene by adding extra space between the photos. That can create the illusion of greater distance or size — but if you have limbs that cross from one photo to the next, it can also create the illusion of creepy elastic arms, or worse, decapitation.
  • Did you follow The Rule of Thirds? Remember how we mentioned that your subject should be one-third of the way into the image, rather than in the middle? If you’re not thrilled with the composition of your photos, now’s a fine time to give them a satisfying crop.

Step 5: Show the World

Want to show off your work online? (Of course you do! Where else do people show off?) You’ll need an image-editing app for this — no need to get all fancy and Photoshoppy, the most basic of image editors will do. In a pinch, we’re fans of free open-source photo editors like Gimp, which is more than up to the challenge of pasting photos next to each other.

Start by creating a new blank document. If you’re just posting online, it doesn’t have to be huge — in the neighborhood of 1000 pixels along its longest edge should do. But if you’re planning on printing, it should be at least twice that size for a 4×6 print; or 3000 pixels long for 8×10.

Next, open up your best work from the photo shoot. Nudge them into position so that each image flows into the next. Those aesthetic choices that we mentioned in the previous step still hold true, so give some thought to how your positioning of the images affects their tone. If you’re going to whimsy, give ’em a tilt and a wobble. For something more refined, keep those angles straight.

How to Make Simulated Photospans

Step 1: Pick a Photo

Okay, so you don’t feel like going out and shooting new material. That’s fine! You can make photospans with the images you already have lying around. Just pick something wide or tall, or just plain big — we’ll chop it up and re-frame it so that it looks like you always meant for it to be that way.

Step 2: Get to Chopping

You can pull off this look with all but the most rudimentary of image-editing apps. We’re going to be using Photoshop so we can take advantage of its fancier features, but you could do it just as easily with Gimp or even good old MS-Paint.

Quick and dirty method: in the image editor of your choice, select chunks of your photo, and then one by one paste them into a new blank document, leaving a bit of a gap between them.

Slow and tidy method: in Photoshop, duplicate the layer with your image several times. (Press Command-J on the Mac or CTRL-J on a PC to do that.) Next, select a chunk of your photo on one of the layers and create a layer mask by clicking Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal Selection. Repeat for each layer, selecting a different chunk of image each time. Soon you’ll be left with just a few rectangles of image with gaps between, just as though you’d shot your photos that way originally.

Step 3: Hey, You’re Done!

That’s it! If you want to add a little pizzazz, you can rotate your images slightly or use Photoshop’s built-in layer effects to add borders and shadows if you want.

Check out your awesome simulated photospan: nobody would ever know it’s really just one picture chopped up a couple times. Nobody, that is, except the Mythbusters team. They can always sniff out one of your hoaxes.

Take it Further:

  • Looking for inspiration? Check out this kiss across photos, and Ginger on Safari. Impressively done!
  • Shadows and borders: Time for more Photoshop fun! Give your photos a bit more dimension by adding subtle Layer Effects. To open the Layer Effects dialog, just double-click one of your layers. Then click on “Stroke” to add a border around your image, and adjust color and size to your liking. Click on “Inner Glow” to add a white border around the inside, then set the opacity to 100%, the choke to 100%, the color to white, and nudge the size until you like how it looks. Shadows require even less adjustment: click “Outer Shadow” and then slide the size, spread, and distance to your heart’s content. When adding Layer Effects, remember that less is more: subtle effects tend to look better than ostentatious ones.