Intro: Use Commonly-available Software to Manipulate Images
Professional graphic designers use expensive software like Photoshop and Illustrator to work with image files. There are free alternatives such as The Gimp and Inkscape, and they are marvelous, but there's still a steep learning curve, and they are really overkill if all you want to do is quick and dirty stuff. Also, if you are working at someone else's computer, say a friend or relative, or a public PC at a library or Internet café, you may not have access to these tools.
In this Instructable, I'll show you how to use Microsoft Word and MS Paint, readily available on most Windows-based PCs, to make a single .jpg combining several different elements. These are going to be low-res images, suitable for posting on, for instance, Instructables.com. :-)
NOTE: I am using the Office 2007 version of MS Word. This instructable will work with 2003, but some of the steps will look different because of the UI changes.
Step 1: Launch!
Usually you can find icons for the programs you want to use on the Windows desktop, but there's a fun shortcut for bringing them up without hunting for the icon. If you click Start->Run (or use the Windows key and hit R) you'll get a little dialog to run text commands. Launch Word by typing "winword", Paint with "mspaint" and Internet Explorer with "iexplore" or a URL.
To begin with, you'll want to open Word with a blank document. Make sure Word is in Print Layout View by clicking the appropriate icon in the lower right, or by choosing View->Print Layout.
Step 2: Find Pictures
For this image, I'm going to make a virtual book display using some popular teen fiction titles from my library. It would be easiest for me to use the library catalog for this, since it has images of most book covers, but in general, I use a Google Image Search to find pictures.
Open your browser to the Google homepage and click on Images, or save a step by going directly to http://images.google.com. Search for images just as you would search for webpages. Use one or two keywords for lots of results, add more to narrow down.
NOTE: Depending on what you're going to use the eventual image for, you might want to pay at least some attention to copyright. Ultimately, you are responsible for making sure you have permission to use an image. A good start is to use the Advanced Image Search and narrow your results by Usage Rights.
When you've found an image you like, click on it, and Google will take you to a split-screen page with the website below and a thumbnail of the image above. Click on the thumbnail or the See full size image link to get the image by itself in the window. Then copy the image. Most of the time, you can right-click on the photo and choose Copy.
Then switch windows to Word and paste the image. It doesn't matter where, because we'll be moving them around anyway. The important thing is, once you paste the image, you have to make it moveable. Word treats images like characters by default, so they move around with the text they are embedded in. We want the image to "float". The way to do this is to click the image and look for the Picture Tools tab. It should appear in the title bar when you have an image selected. Then, on the toolbar, click on the icon that looks like a dog behind venetian blinds. That's the Word Wrap icon. Choose anything except for In Line With Text. Square is usually my default.
NOTE: If you have access to Publisher, this step will be much easier, because it expects you to move things around. I'm using Word because it's more common.
Repeat these steps with each image you want. Once they are all in Word, it's time to play around with them.
Step 3: Stick and Move
Once you have all of your pix in one place, you need to move them around into a pleasing arrangement. This is the creative part, where you get to make your own choices, but there are some basic tools to know about.
My book covers are just as I want them, but my bookshelf is much too big. I just want a couple of shelves visible. With that picture selected, I can click on the Crop icon under the Picture Tools>Format tab and then drag the handles in to remove parts of the image.
Move and Resize
Since I got my books from different sites, they are all different sizes. I need to get them all placed and shrunk down. Clicking and dragging on the middle of a picture will let me move it around. Clicking and dragging on a corner will resize, keeping the picture the same shape. Unless you want to make your picture short and fat (or tall and skinny) don't drag any of the side handles.
Pay attention to how things overlap! Your images are stacked in layers in the document in the order that you pasted them. If one is under another, and you want it on top, choose Bring to Front from the Picture Tools>Format tab.
Step 4: Add Text and a Background Color
Adding words to your image is fun, but can be tricky. Here are some tips.
You can insert a text box under the Insert tab. Choose to Draw Text Box rather than a pre-defined style. Click and drag to draw the box, then type your text and format it however you choose, just as you would any other text in Word.
By default, the text is black on a white background with a black border. If you want your words to float above your image, you need to change those settings under Text Box Tools>Format.
Because all of this is on the plain white page, our final image will have a white background and border. To change that, draw a rectangle (Insert>Shapes>Rectangle), send it to the back, and fill it with a background color you like. Make it nice and big, and don't worry about the border color. We'll be cropping out the border anyway.
Step 5: Make It Real
Here's where the magic happens. We have the image looking exactly the way we want it, so we could save the document, but then we'd have a Word doc, and we want an image file. The trick is to take a screenshot of what we've created and then manipulate it in Paint to get exactly what we want (You wondered when I was going to get to Paint, didn't you?).
First, we want our image to fill the screen as much as possible, so we have the highest resolution. Use the Zoom slider in the lower right to zoom in until the image is as big as we can get it. Once you've got it right, hit the Print Screen key on your keyboard. It's usually above the arrow keys or above the number pad.
Now, open Paint (use the Start menu or Win-R "mspaint") and paste your screenshot. When you do this, the whole image is selected. On the toolbar to the left, there are two selection icons. The rectangle is currently active. Click on the star selector, then back on the rectangle to have nothing selected. Now, click and drag on the image to make a selection rectangle that's just the right size for your final image. If you don't get the rectangle just right at the begining, don't try to drag the edges to change its shape. You'll just distort the selected area. Repeat the Star/Rectangle step to unselect, and try again. When you have it how you want it, right-click and choose Copy To... A dialog will open up allowing you to save just the selected area as a bitmapped image. Save it wherever you want.
Your final step is to convert the bitmap to a .jpg, since websites don't generally handle .bmp files. To do that, just do File>Open in Paint, open the image you just saved, and do a Save As... JPG. You're done!
I hope you find this helpful. Once I discovered this "Copy to..." trick in Paint, it became my default method of quick-and-dirty imagemaking. In fact, every image in this instructable was done using these exact steps!