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For the very best panoramas, you want to shoot on a tripod with a special panoramic head. It is possible to shoot panoramas handheld with some of the latest software packages, and indeed you may decide to do this from time to time where it is not easy or even possible to set up a tripod, but if you want the highest quality and assurance you will be able to assemble your panorama without seams, you want the panoramic head.
This is particularly true if your scene features objects close to the camera. Without a panorama head you will experience parallax which you may be unable to fix on those items. Move your head from side to side -- forground items will move against the background. If you take two pictures from two different focal points, you will get something you can't reconcile.
If you don't have any foreground objects, you can get away without a panorama head, or even handheld. However, when handheld, your main curse will be keeping your camera level. Handheld, there is a strong tendency to drift up and down, or to tilt sideways. Some panorama software can handle the tilting, but if you drift up and down, when you try to assemble the row and want to crop it to a rectangle, you will have problems. That's because you can only include the scene from the top of the lowest picture you took to the bottom of the highest picture.
Shooting from your tripod will keep you level, however you may want to carry a "hotshoe bubble level" if you have a hotshoe. These are just a few dollars at most camera stores. Most panorama heads will include a level, as being level is essential in such shots.
Most panorama heads mount in portrait mode. Portrait mode is the norm for single-row panoramas. If you plan on doing all multi-row, the orientation doesn't matter, but it's usually easier to design a mount in portrait mode. However, that makes it harder to mount the camera, and sometimes to use it.
When considering a panorama head you will want to ask:
For the best panoramas, you want a Panoramic tripod head. Such devices have a level, to keep your panorama level, and arms that let you spin the camera around its "nodal point." This is the place where the light rays from the lens come to a single point before they spread to form an image on the film plane. It is almost never above the tripod mounting screw.
I've tried many heads starting with the Kiwi-L from Kaidan, which is no longer made.
I have also tried the Gigapan motorized mount. Here is my review of a beta Gigapan.
I have also tried the earlier version of the Nodal Ninja. (Version 2-SPH) This is a decent mount, though it is not able to hold very heavy cameras, and its fixed detents at 15 degrees were somewhat limiting.
I've also played with the plastic Panosaurus.
There are advantages and disadvantages to "click stops" on panorama heads:
So I do want it all, but I believe the above can be attained.
Here are some of the panorama heads I have worked with.
My review copy, the Nodal Ninja II, is now an older model, and the newer models look better.
My main reason for initially not enjoying the NN2 was its fixed detent interval of 15 degrees. That simply was not an interval I used frequently, and while I did use 45 degrees it was not a great solution. The newer model 3, mark II, which I have not tried, uses detent disks to allow you to select various intervals beyond 15 degrees, such as 0, 18, 20, 25.7, 36 and 45. The base model requires disk swap to change interval, which is not a very workable situation -- I would probably leave ther zero disk in place most of the time, defeating the purpose.
They also offer some special large rotators that allow you to change the number of stops. Unfortunately the smaller R-D8 does not support a 50mm lens (15 degrees.) The larger one is much more flexible with a very wide range from 3.75 to 120. However, with the NN3, this is $350. The heavy duty NN5 with this rotator is $500.
The Nodal Ninja is a spherical pano head, allowing you to tilt up and down. It packs down quite small and light, however the vertical arm is screw-bolted onto the horizontal rotator arm, which means it takes a bit longer to put it together or pack it down.
The NN is made of aluminum. While that is strong and light, I was surprised as to how much vibration there is in the aluminum after turning the camera into a detent stop. This is true even with a light camera. You definitely will want to wait a couple of seconds after turning to a new stop before shooting, unless you are holding the camera or mount with your hands to dampen the vibrations. Likewise with a long lens, you may wish to use mirror-up shooting so that the mirror movement does not blur the shot.
The NN2 is not really up to holding large cameras and lenses. The camera ends up with a noticeable tilt of several degrees from true, though most pano software handles that. There is too much wobble with a long lens to shoot at night.
It can be hard to get the tension on the detent rotator perfectly right. From time to time you should clean it and add some dry lube.
After many years of use, my NN2's vertical bar snapped in half while in checked luggage -- cause unknown.
This now discontinued pano head from Kaidan was my main head for some time. It does only single-row panoramas. It was built of aluminum, being reasonably light and strong. The rotator bar and the camera support plate clamped together rather than bolting together, which made it quite quick to take it apart and pack it down small in a camera bag.
The Kiwi featured a second screw on the mounting plate you could have the camera butt against to keep the camera stable even with a heavy lens. In theory one could do a multi-row with an imperfect nodal point, but I rarely did.
The base kiki had no detents, and instead used a teflon ring. This was a bit error prone, and the scale was made from a metal ink that was able to rub off.
Higher level Kiwis featured a rotator with detent disks, and still do. For a long time my most common panorama was 36 photos (10 degrees,) and they do offer such a disk now but did not in the past.
The Gigapan is a robotic imager. I tested their beta model, which could only hold very small cameras. I found it unacceptable for a number of reasons -- it was too slow, could not take most of my cameras, and had quality control problems. I returned it.
My review is not entirely fair because it has to be based on a unit that did not work properly, but you can read the not entirely fair review of the gigapan on my blog.
They have released new models, known as the Epic and Epic 100. The Epic has the same size limitations. The Epic 100 is more expensive at $450 but can handle more cameras, including the smaller consumer DLSRs, but not the more serious DSLRs such as I use.
Gigapan says a new SLR model is coming, and that it will use USB camera control instead of a shutter servo. I am very interested in seeing that.
This is a chinese-made motorized telescope mount which, while sometimes hard to find, can be had for $150 to $250. It is quite strong and can handle SLRs with fairly long lenses. On its own it does nothing, but a team of people have worked to make special hardware and software to turn it into a panoramic mount.
In this forum on the AutopanoPro site you will find information on how to interface a computer or Nokia handheld linux PDA to the mount via bluetooth ($60) or serial ($20) and then use the free Python program "Papywizard" to control it to take panoramas.
You also will want to buy a custom shutter release cable for your camera, but this unit does support shutter release, unusual for a telescope mount.
There are a number of advantages to this system:
However, there are some downsides:
I am still experimenting with this mount.
The Panosaurus is a very low priced mount made from ABS plastic. It is lightweight, though a touch bulky. For light cameras, such as a typical P&S, it is satisfactory and a good bargain. For heavier cameras such as SLRS, it is not really strong enough and suffers too much vibration due to the long moment arms. However, it is important to note that the vendor is quite clear that the mount will have problems with heavier cameras.
The panosaurus design is good, but it is remarkably difficult to assemble, and its instructions need work.
It comes with a bubble level, which is good, but this is put in a place where it needs to be removable, and thus attaches with a magnet. It comes off far too readily, and I am confident I will lose this level in any amount of serious use. The manual warns of this.
It uses a regular screw to mount the camera, which means you must carry a screwdriver. The only really acceptable thing to do is to mount a quick release clamp on the unit, and since most people want to do this, the screw can be tolerated. Normally I make the recommendation that all pano heads simply come with with an Arca Swiss style clamp rather than a tripod screw, but on a low price unit like the Panosaurus, aimed more at the P&S market this may not be appropriate.
However, since a QR clamp is a must, it would be nice if there were a way to mount that directly on the arm, rather than requiring a sliding camera screw plate to go on the arm. To do that you need a second screw that stops the QR plate from being able to rotate.
In spite of these flaws, it is hard to argue with the price of this unit on lighter cameras, and it is actually quite stable on those cameras.
This is just camera mounting rail that goes onto your regular tripod head and has a QR clamp or screw to mount your camera. You generally want to be able to adjust the distance, either because the rail is an arca dovetail going into the arca clamp on your ballhead, or you can slide the clamp around.
You can get such rails for $40 on eBay, and add a clamp for $25. As such, this is about as cheap (and portable) a panorama mount as you can get. In addition, because the rails are strong, this tends to be the most sturdy panorama mount you can get. You can usually hold a huge lens SLR and have it stay stable in the wind. If you put a spacer between the rail and the front of the lens, you can be super stable.
Cheap, light, portable and sturdy -- what's not to love? Well, this only shoots in landscape mode. Most people do panoramas in portrait mode to get the largest field of view. In landscape mode you either need to reduce your focal length to get the same field, or do multi row. (If you are doing multi-row, it does not matter whether you use landscape or portrait generally, though most cameras perform better in landscape.)
You can shoot portrait mode if you get an "L" bracket. Such brackets are custom made for most cameras and cost $120 to $150 from the same vendors who sell Arca plates and clamps. This will be slightly less stable.
The other downside -- you can't easily do multi-row. It is possible but only typicall up and down about 45 degrees, and only with some calculations and eye work.
You do need a tripod head that can be level and pan. Most ballheads have a pan mode but you must level the ballhead with your tripod legs or another leveler. If you have another panning head, you can put it on your ballhead to use the ballhead as the leveler. RRS and some others sell tiny pan units for just this.
I recommend everybody have a rail pano system because it is so cheap. It's really easy to travel (it barely takes any room in your camera bag) and easy to set up if done with QR clamps. It also is what you will want to use if using a big heavy lens in places where vibration is trouble. Most other pano heads shake like a leaf in these situations.
It is worth noting that if you are shooting a panorama without objects in the foreground (ie. close to you) you can usually get away without trying too hard to spin around the nodal point. Your regular tripod head can do the job. In fact, with more modern software, you can often get away with handheld shooting!
Strangely, this is why it needs to be very easy to put your panorama head together and shooting needs to be done quickly. Handheld panoramas will work fine most of the time. And they are so much easier and quicker to do that it is very tempting to do them. But sometimes they will fail, and you won't know that until later when your curse yourself.
The easier it is to get your panorama head based shot done, the less tempted you will be to do it quick-and-dirty. Of course, if you have plenty of time, and your tripod, you will always use even a hard-to-use or slow pano head.
If you do put the pano head together, and you want to shoot panos with different focal lengths (as I usually do) you may also find you are more tempted just to hand measure the intervals rather than change detent disks, especially if this requires any disassembly of the unit.