What if you are confronted with a document that is much larger than your scanner's bed? What if you are confronted by a large map hanging on the wall of a library that will not fit in your camera's viewfinder even at its widest angle? All of these issues have been answered and resolved for many years. The issue was recently raised again by The Ancestry Insider in reference to an upgrade to Microsoft's Image Composite Editor. How can I say this gracefully? Well, I can't so here it is: Microsoft is not in the image business and their software is not usually mentioned in the world of composite photographs.
Composite or "stitched" photographs have been in existence almost since the beginning of photography. If you would like to see some of the early attempts at panoramic photography see The Library of Congress' (LOC) Prints and Photograph's division. The LOC has about 4,200 panoramic photos in the online catalog.
Making large either panoramic or composite photographs can be accomplished today either through mechanical photographic means by using specialized cameras and lenses, or by using an ordinary camera and specialized software. If you would like to see how to do it with specialized equipment visit one of many sites such as GigaPan. Another example of the current world's record for a Gigapixel photo is the huge photo of London on 360Cities.net that I mentioned recently in a recent post.
There are any number of programs available to turn your individual photos into a composite. These programs are generally referred to as photo stitching programs and may be free with your camera or cost many hundreds of dollars. One notable program is Canon PhotoStitch, which comes with the purchase of most models of Canon cameras. You can get a free download at Cnet Download.com.
Another very popular and sophisticated program that does a really good job of photo stitching is the latest version of Adobe's Photoshop, Photoshop CS5. Previous versions also did a good job of photo stitching which Adobe calls "Photomerge."
I use some dedicated programs that do a wonderful job of making composites while adjusting the exposure and to some extent, the distortion. I can recommend PTGui Pro and Pano2VR. If you want some basic instruction in how to make composite (stitched) photos go to the PTGui website for links to instructional tutorials.
I have been taking composite photos since the early 80s when I was asked to produce a composite of a proposed road grade for a highway development by an engineer. At the time, the computer software available was very limited, but by manually stitching the photos together we were able to produce an acceptable composite. The problems posed by The Ancestry Insider have long since been resolved. This is not an area that the non-photographer non-computer person is going to be successful in initially, as it takes a pretty high degree of both photographic and computer skills to make really good composites. But if all you need to do is get the information, almost anyone can get a very good stitched photo using either Canon's software or similar products.
I could go on and on, and probably will in the future, now that I have gotten started in one of my specialized areas of knowledge. In all fairness, I should probably disclose that I have been in the graphic design and photography business, including making composites, for about 25 years (in addition to my law practice).