Panoramas have been around for at least a century. In the old days, though, you had to combine a series of photos using scissors, tape, and elbow grease. These days, smart software seamlessly integrates your photos with little or no effort on your part. In the past, I've told you the best ways to shoot a panoramic series of photos. This time around, I've got some recommendations for a few programs that will take your photos and stitch them together for free.
Windows Live Photo Gallery
Windows Live Photo Gallery is my all-around favorite stitching program because not only does it do a superb job of making panoramas, but it's also a pretty good photo organizer, as well. I use Photo Gallery to manage my personal photo collection, and when I take a series of photo for conversion to a panorama, making that panorama is as easy as selecting the photos and then choosing from the Make menu. You don't have to fiddle with any settings, and the program creates a high quality, full-resolution panorama that you can save or share.
I'm also fond of Autostitch. It delivers good results, but more importantly, it requires no installation. This is a program that I leave on the 8GB USB memory key that I travel with; if I ever have to get some work done on someone else's PC, it's handy to have a suite of programs that can run directly from the memory key. It's not often that I want to stitch a panorama when I'm on a strange PC away from home, but it has happened, and Autostitch is always there for me.
Unlike Photo Gallery, Autostitch has a smorgasbord of settings to tweak, but you can also choose to ignore them and just import a slew of photos to transform into a panorama. If you are the tweaking sort, though, you can set the output size of the final image, the JPEG image quality, rendering settings, and more.
Image Composite Editor
This app stands apart in my book because it gives excellent results and supports absolutely enormous file sizes. If you have a large number of 12-megapixel photos, you can easily stitch them into a "gigapixel" panorama. It also supports some exotic file formats, like Silverlight's Deep Zoom mode that lets you zoom in--and in--and in--to ridiculous lengths. There are some excellent examples of this sort of thing at the Hard Rock Café Web site.
CleVR is a bit different than the other panorama apps. This Web site takes your panoramic sources and stitches them not into a flat JPEG, but into a curved, interactive image. It's like the old "virtual reality" panoramas that were somewhat popular in the early days of digital photography--you can use your mouse to zoom and pan around your image, as if you're looking though a virtual window.
CleVR does best with panoramas that span a full 360 degrees, so you can totally immerse yourself in your scene, but you can make panoramas that are just several images wide, as well.
When you're done, you can save your panorama on CleVR and share it online with others.