I don’t shoot a lot of panoramas, but I’ve always been curious about the GigaPan robotic camera mounts that automate capturing complex panoramas that include hundreds or even thousands of individual images. Thanks to BorrowLenses.com, I was able to get hold of one to test for episode #6 of All About the Gear.
There are three GigaPan models:
- EPIC (US$299) for compact cameras such as Canon PowerShot or Nikon Coolpix
- EPIC 100 ($US449) for small cameras such as Fujifilm, Leica, Sony NEX, etc.
- EPIC Pro (US$895) for DSLRs
I tested the GigaPan EPIC Pro using a Nikon D800E with a 24-70mm f/2.8 lens.
How it Works
You first mount your camera in the gimbal/yoke and attach the shutter-release cable to the GigaPan’s USB port. Next you adjust the height and forward/aft position of the camera so that it rotates around the parallax-free entrance pupil. (Someone decided we can’t call this the nodal point like we used to.) The adjustment is fairly simple. You manually pan the camera while watching the relationship between foreground and background objects. When you can pan without the background appearing to shift behind the foreground objects, you’ve got it right.
Set your camera in full-manual-everything mode. Find an exposure that will work for the entire panorama and lock that in. If necessary, you can use the GigaPan to shoot bracketed exposures, which you can then process as HDR images. Also set your focus and white balance manually.
The next step is to calibrate the overlap of your exposures. This is also made simple by the prompts on the GigaPan’s display. You set your lens to the desired focal length and tilt the camera so the top edge of the frame aligns with the horizon. Then you adjust the tilt so the bottom edge of the frame is on the horizon and you’re done. For example, at 50mm on a full-frame DSLR, the angle of view is about 25 degrees. The GigaPan figures out what the frame overlap needs to be. It’s great to be freed from having to figure all this out for yourself and run the risk of blowing a panorama when you’re most of the way through it.
After that, the device prompts you to position the camera first to the upper-left exposure, then the lower-right exposure. The GigaPan calculates the number of rows and columns in your grid, and you’re all set. You’re prompted with some handy checklist items (which saved at least one of my panos) then slick Start and watch it go.
http://www.gigapan.com/gigapans/140616/options/nosnapshots,hidetitle,fullscreen/iframe/flash.html?height=250One of my first GigaPan panoramas. 32 images (8×4), Nikon D800E, 24-70mm f/2.8
[Note: If you zoom into the above image — look at it full-screen — you’ll notice it’s not very sharp. That’s due, in this case, to atmospheric aberration. Around sunset, the cold air coming from the Pacific ocean hits the warm air over San Francisco Bay, and this is what you get. That’s why the sharpest images in areas like this are shot in the very early morning, when temperatures have equalized and the air is most stable.]
The owners won’t let me embed their images here, but you might want to checkout a few impressive GigaPans:
- President Obama’s first inauguration captured by David Bergman, composed of 220 images, is perhaps the most famous. Justice Clarence Thomas appears to be sleeping.
- Alfred Zhao’s pano of Shanghai may be one of the largest. It’s a 272GP — gigapixel! — image composed of 12,000 shots in a 150×80 grid. You must look at this one full-screen and zoomed in all the way.
GigaPan provides their own GigaPan Stitch software, which I found worked reasonably well for stitching the small panoramas I shot for these tests. Once the stitching is complete, their app uploads the files to the GigaPan website where you can view the composite image, share it with others, and download code to embed their viewer in your own web pages as shown above. Unfortunately, their only viewer uses Adobe Flash so you can’t view these images on iPhones, iPads, etc.
GigaPan Stitch only accepts JPEG files. This wasn’t a problem, however. I shot most of my panos in RAW and then exported the exposure-corrected images as JPEGs. I picked an overall “best” exposure and synchronized those adjustments across all images in Lightroom before the export.
Successes and Failures
At US$895, the GigaPan EPIC Pro is reasonably priced and used properly it delivers great results. Okay, so what’s properly?
The sweet spot for these devices is large panoramas shot in good light.
If you’re only shooting small grids, maybe a dozen images or so, you have to ask yourself if you really want to carry something like this around with you. Particularly if you don’t have anything in your foreground and therefore don’t need to worry about rotating the camera about its lens pupil or nodal point, any good ball head should be enough to get good results. But when you start to talk about panos composed of dozens of images, a GigaPan will quickly become your best friend.
Another case in which I don’t recommend the GigaPan is when you need to use slow shutter speeds either for effect or due to low light. It’s just not a very stable device. It wobbles in every axis. It moves in the wind. Even if you put it on a rock-solid tripod, the shutter bounce from a big DSLR moves the camera enough to ruin the high resolution of your shots. And after all, isn’t high resolution the whole purpose of these big panoramas? If you can use a shutter speed of at least 2x or 3x your focal length, you should be fine. Anything slower and I think you won’t be happy with the results. To see how much and for how long your camera vibrates using a GigaPan or any other support, zoom in using LiveView as far as you can. You might be surprised.
If you use GigaPan Stitch, you will only be able to upload your images to the GigaPan.com website and will only be able to see them with their Flash-based player. Of course there are other stitching options. I tried to stitch a few of my panos using Photoshop CC, but it crashed on many of them. I snooped around and learned that many people are using the open-source Panorama Tools along with front-end apps such as PTGui and Hugin. Windows users might want to consider Microsoft ICE.
If you want rock-solid support for your panoramas, such as if you’re shooting with slow shutter speeds in low light, consider some of the gear from Really Right Stuff. It’s all manual — no motorized robotic mount — but it’s very well built and will keep your camera from wobbling. Unfortunately, it won’t save you much money as compared to a GigaPan. By the time you buy a RRS gimbal and the various slides and other pieces, you’ll probably pay quite a bit more. RRS also makes a replacement slider for the GigaPan. I didn’t test it, but I expect it’s quite an improvement.
I asked around about other robotic gimbals, but found surprisingly few. Roundshot makes some dedicated pano cameras, but they cost a fortune. TheGadgetWorks has an interesting product called AutoMate that can be controlled by Android devices. I haven’t tested it and don’t know anyone who has.
If you want to get started in large daytime panoramas, I do recommend the GigaPan Epic Pro. It’s fast, simple and worth the cost. Just go into it understanding its limitation and don’t try to use it at those slow shutter speeds.