GigaPan photography - a whole lotta fun!
I bought a GigaPan 'Epic 100' robotic head in 2010. I must say, this little device has given me a lot of fun. Sure, the stitching software is so good these days you can make a decent panorama just with a tripod or even hand-held (hand held example here), but shooting several hundred images and remembering where you are in the sequence would test the patience of Job. Automating the process really reduces much of the tediousness, and also saves time. During the 'golden hour', when time is of the essence, this alone can mean the difference between shooting one or several panoramas. Initially, I made a lot of mistakes; looking back, almost always due to rushing. But, once you get the hang of it, and memorize the steps and checks, using a gigapan robot becomes pretty simple.
Yet using a gigapan robot is both a step forwards and backwards. Forwards, because it automates much of the process. Backwards, because it forces the photographer back to the old days, when you had to think ahead and compose the shot. These days, where everyone sets their camera to auto and points and snaps... well, that approach won't work too well with a Gigapan head. Apart from manually setting the aperture, focus and white balance - necessary if you want consistency across the panorama - you must also pay attention to the cloud cover and hour of the day if you don't wan't the pano to be ruined by the chequerboard effect and/or fading light.
In short, you must do a bit of planning, and be prepared to wait for moving objects like clouds, cars and people to be in the right position; a bit of simple arithmetic is required too, when synchronizing the shutter speed, shutter delay, and Gigapan's 'time per picture' functions - but all in all nothing too difficult, it just requires a bit of old-fashioned patience.
One tip: have extra sets of batteries on hand. Shooting with a heavy telephoto uses a lot of battery power, and the Epic 100 only uses 6 AA cells. My Pentax Kx DSLR fits on the Epic 100 - just - but the Kx is smaller* than most DSLRs; unfortunately it does not have a remote cable port - I would assume that shooting via an electronic trigger cable would use even less power. After some initial frustration with flat batteries, I bought an extra battery holder from Gigapan and made a simple modification, drilling two holes in it, so I could hook up an external battery:
The bigger the battery, my reasoning went, the better: I figured a heavy battery hanging off my 'el-cheapo' lightweight tripod would add some stability.
However, there was an even simpler solution.
I tried using high capacity recharegables, and have been able to shoot more than 1500 DSLR photos on a single set of six AAs, even with a hefty 300mm telephoto attached. However, this was on a hot day; cold weather weakens all batteries, and you will get less shots. So, the way to get around this on cold days is to have two sets of batteries, one in your pocket keeping warm, the other in the device, and swap them around after each gigapan. Simple! My batteries were Vapex brand, with 2900mAh capacity; there are now other brands on the market with even higher capacities (but beware some are cheap imitations!)
Be sure to use an "intelligent charger", as some cheap chargers can shorten the life of your batteries due to over-charging. The good chargers are quite expensive, but worth the money in the long run. The advertised cell life of hundreds of cycles can only be achieved with a charger that continually monitors the current, voltage and delta characteristics, and then backs off the current; I use a La Crosse model, and limit the maximum charge rate to 200mA.
I like my Pentax K-x because it too uses AA batteries, and has an in-camera processing function known as "HDR Capture Mode", which makes vibrant day and night panoramas possible. Its successor model, the Kr, has expanded HDR capabilities, and uses either a propriety lithium battery, or four AAs. Of course, the pros may want an AC adaptor, for those long, full day shoots, and would use 3rd party software like Photomatix to tone-map their auto-bracketed shots before stitching, but you can get a lot of fun just using what comes out of the camera.
Even greater detail can be had with DSLRs and tele-zooms - for example this shot taken with a Tamron 300mm out of my bedroom window in Dulwich Hill. When taking large numbers of photographs, i.e. up in the hundreds or even thousands, new problems begin to manifest, such as battery power, changing lighting conditions, and ever greater memory and computer requirements. But, with patience, trail and error, and a bit of forward planning, amazingly detailed panoramas can be achieved - like this one.
After I remembered my Canon HV20 video camera took still photos and had a 10x zoom, I made a panorama with it. However, the whole process was quite tedious because I couldn't use the Gigapan robot (although it would be quite simple to make a longer shutter-activating lever and use the robot) and the HV20 isn't well suited to high contrast panoramas, as the aperture resets after each shot, and can't be locked.
Similarly, I recently bought a Lumix ZS20, mainly for its 20x Leica zoom lens, and ability to bracket shots at +/-1. The Lumix has helped me shoot good gigapans in many situations (example here). However, it has one major drawback for gigapanographers, namely you have to reset the shutter start delay button after each exposure. When fully zoomed, the shutter delay, in conjunction with the programmable delay function on the Epic 100, allow the tripod and camera to 'settle' after the shutter button has been pressed. Not a big problem with a dozen or so shots, but if you start shooting upwards of two dozen images then it becomes tiresome.
In this regard my older Ricoh GX200 compact is much easier to use. In fact, the GX200 can even shoot bracketed images with a time delay start, a highly convenient characteristic that allows the rig to 'settle' after the shutter button has been pressed; its something most DSLR's can't do (though you could work around it using a remote, coupled to the Epic button pusher, but it would be a bit of a hassle). Many of my smaller panoramas were shot with the versatile little GX200 (which handily also accepts two AAA batteries, and can even shoot bracketed RAW with its integral programmable interval timer, great for HDR time lapse videos). In fact, for panoramas shot in three rows or less, I mainly use the little Ricoh, often just with the tripod without the gigapan robotic head, or even hand-held. For such a small camera, its resolution is quite surprising.
And, as Mike Franz, Gigapans' Director of Products and Training pointed out in a recent webinar, although compact cameras usually have lower resolutions, they have a depth-of-field advantage over DSLRs at the same aperture setting, a side-effect of their different sensor-size to focal length ratio. Usually, in panoramas, you DON'T want bokeh, you want everything to be in focus in a panorama, and this can sometimes be challenging in scenes where the foreground or side walls close in. Another, more complicated solution is using focus-stacking techniques, which can be facilitated by the gigapan mechanism, which can be programmed for both multiple exposures, and/or repeating a complete panoramic shooting sequence. However, you need to remember, while point and shoots give deeper depth of field for the same f-ratio, at the same physical aperture size, a DSLR and point and shoot have the same depth of field, and the DSLR will have greater image quality - as explained here.
If I see a lamp post or pole, and have a camera in my pocket, I often use the pole as a kind of surrogate tripod: holding the camera vertically with its base firmly against the pole, shooting an image then moving the camera, say, 30 degrees further around the pole, you can often obtain quite good results; that's how I shot this one. Likewise, if I am in an interesting restaurant or cafe, and there is glass or bottle handy, you can use it instead of a tripod; if you are careful to pivot the camera around the lens 'pupil' point, you can minimise parallax error of foreground objects and get surprisingly good results: this panorama was made this way.
I have also shot a two-row panorama containing 93 DSLR images with just my tripod, carefully making sure there was enough overlap: the result was pretty good.
Fast moving clouds, and waves by the ocean can play havoc, as the stitching software gets confused as to where to stitch portions of the image which have moved between shots, and you end up with uneven horizons, or what appear to be square-shaped clouds, or serrated ocean waves. One possible solution to this problem is to use a long exposure with a neutral density filter, to even out the waves over time. Conceivably, one could also use a neutral density filter and, say, a 20 second exposure, to eliminate moving cars and pedestrians from street scenes, though I myself have not yet tried this method, others have with good results. And remember the Epic 100 has two functions that could help you here: you can repeat the last panorama shoot with the push of a button; and you can also program the mechanism to shoot up to 9 exposures at each position. Both options offer possible ways to 'average out' moving objects.
Another tip, useful when shooting a 360 when there is changing light or fast moving clouds, is to position your camera close to a building, hill or other large object that fills the frame up, and shoot your first frame there. That way, when you get back to where you began your panorama, it won't matter that the clouds have moved, the stitching program will have no problems matching the two static start and finish frames, example here.
With extremely large gigapans, such as a sweeping view of a city from a hill, using a zoom-lens and tele-converter, moving clouds, shifting shadows and the changing position of the sun can create problems over the course of a shoot that might take the best part of a day. The pros get around this by using two rigs, or, conceivably, two or more cameras on a single rig, pointed in different directions. Another solution might be to shoot part of the panorama one day, and return to shoot the rest the next day - but you would be hoping the cloud cover or lack thereof were pretty much the same on both days.
With the Gigapan mechanism you can shoot semi-spherical panoramas, and stitching software has a range of projections, so for some situations you may want to postpone investing in that expensive fisheye lens, and experiment with stitched images and varied projections, which will also give you much better resolution in most cases.
In some situations, like shooting large gigapans in a sports arena, or where the sun or clouds are moving quickly, you want to shoot as fast as possible for the sake of consistency. This is where the write speed of your camera, and your camera's buffer, come into calculation. If you shoot RAW, it becomes even more critical. Two ways you can shoot more rapidly: one is to shoot at a speed a little quicker than your camera can write to the card, knowing the camera will "catch up" with the delay it takes for the GigaPan unit to move the lens to the beginning of a new column. The second way is push the envelope bit, and do a pre-shoot test of how many photos the camera can write to the card before the buffer fills up, and, including the forementioned "new column delay", then calculate the new shooting delay. Newer DSLRs can often write so quickly and have such large buffers that no delay is needed at all (bearing in mind a small delay is often beneficial because it allows the lens to "settle" into position, but older cameras and slower cards can be optimised uising this timing-synchronizing technique.
Until you get familiar with them, GigaPans - especially 360 degree ones - fool the eye, which at first 'sees' what appears to be a single wide-angle shot. Below is a 360 degree panorama shot in Cambodia with an Epic 100 and a Ricoh GX200 compact, taking only a few minutes, but providing a quite unusual perspective. If you zoom into the patch of bare ground on the centre-left-hand side (using the zoom tool on the left) you will see a person riding a bicycle - quite surprising since the Ricoh has only a 3x zoom.
The fact that the Ricoh shoots in RAW makes it much easier to create great tone-mapped images, which can be stitched into dramatic gigapans like this airplane:
or this warehouse:e
or this Peruvian shopping mall:
Some of the above examples were shot without the gigapan mount. However, for really big panoramas, a DSLR with a zoom lens, coupled to the Gigapan or other robotic head, is a must. Bigger, better panoramas, filled with amazing detail, just waiting to be "explored", make the extra effort well worthwhile. For example, this panorama is stitched from 100 individual images:
Zooming in on the above image, you will see how the gigapan/zoom lens combo really shines, revealing amazing detail, like this man talking on his mobile phone. This exemplifies how different photography has become in the digital age. Before, after a quick glance at an image, your mind can easily 'sum up' what the image contains. Today, with some larger images being stitched from tens of thousands of individual shots, that is no longer possible: you have to zoom in and explore before you know what a gigapan has captured.
As you attempt bigger panoramas, you might want to try third party software: good free ones include Microsoft I.C.E. and Hugin; even better commercial programs include Autopano Giga and PTGui.
With larger panoramas, numbering in the hundreds of images, computer power becomes a factor. With gigapan org's own stitching software, I have successfully stitched a panorama of 1600 images, and the company claims up to 2000 images can be stitched with just 2GB of RAM. GigaPan's premium program, StitchEFX, also has some quite handy extra features, such as colour correction, and the ability to manually move individual images around, like you would pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. I use those features a lot in certain situations. AutoPano Giga's software does a better job in terms of anti-ghosting and has more variety of projections, however, you need a lot more RAM. The biggest pano I have been able to stitch with APG on my ancient laptop tops out at around 250 images. Upgrading my computer would certainly raise this limit considerably. Over at the APG forum, there are members who will stitch your panorama for you, so I wouldn't limit my shots on that account alone; sometimes I shoot a large number of images with an eye to stitching it at a later date. In any case if you have the Gigapn mechanism you would also have GigaPan's free, standard stitching program, which can process over a thousand properly-shot set of panorama images with ease.
One little trick I worked out is that with software such as Autopano Giga, its anti-ghosting feature lets you include moving objects which will not appear in the final stitch; the centre section of the image is given precedence when stitching. So, thinking ahead, you can shoot a street scene with people walking past, and as long as those peoples' bodies are not in the centre of the individual image, they will not appear in the final stitch; on the other hand, if you time your shots so they are in the middle, they will appear in the final stitch. Autopano Giga, PTGui and Hugin all have nifty little masking tools that lets you force the inclusion or exclusion of a moving object regardless of where it is in the frame.
If you keep in mind this 'centre weighting' of the inclusion of moving objects is a characteristic of some stitching programs, and you shoot two or three rows just above the heads of people and traffic using a tripod set at eye height, you can take your time doing the bottom, final row, waiting till cars and pedestrians are in the middle square of the grid lines most modern cameras have. That way you can usually get a good panorama even with lots of moving objects in it, like this one (click on the image below to open it as a a gigapan)
This technique would not, however, work for panoramas where you are zoomed so far in only part of the moving object is framed. In those cases it goes back to what I said before: you just have to be more patient, and wait for the object to move out of frame. The Epic 100 has an integral pause button and reverse functions especially for this purpose. BTW, someone - not me - noticed that I inadvertently captured a man doing something suspicious in the above shot. Can't see him? Click here.
Why do I like gigapanography? Despite the fact that few of the larger gigapans will ever be printed on paper, they can be accessed by millions via the net. They are, in fact, and amazing free window offering a highly detailed view into other parts of the world we would otherwise never see (or even other worlds!)
Interestingly, there are independent developers working on integrating GigaPan panoramas with Google Earth; one noteworthy website is kilgore.org.
I myself favour cityscapes, because cities change so quickly. What is documented by gigapanography today will certainly be different, or maybe even gone, in a few years' time. By the way, when shooting a cityscape from a lookout, early Sunday morning is often better than late Friday afternoon, as heat haze and air pollution often manifest in the latter timeslot. Still, some haze manifests even at optimum times. You can improve the clarity of your panoramas by using APG's nifty 'Neutralhazer' app, or, simply by increasing the saturation slightly. Also using the 'exposure fusion' process in Photomatix often improves the look of your panorama.
Funnily enough, despite their drawbacks with regards to movement, wind and cloud can help you shoot a better gigapan. A slight wind will blow away air pollution and heat mirages; while clouds, if they are uniform and unbroken, diffuses the light and often results in a more saturated image, with less shadow/highlight and diffraction problems. BTW, usually polarizing filters are of little use on a gigapan, because both the sun and the camera move too much, dramatically changing angles over the course of a shoot.
So... while some extra effort is required to shoot a good panorama, the results are well worth it. This extra work has re-introduced some aspects that have been slowly disappearing from digital photography: skill, planning and patience. But I like the challenge! I really think robotic panorama heads like the GigaPan are great little gadgets - I wish they (and digital cameras) had been around 30 years ago... what fun you could have had!
March 2014 update: my Ricoh GX200 died after I dropped it, and it's unrepairable. I sorely miss its interval mode, 1/1.7 inch sensor, RAW capabilities, quality teleconverters, external power supply and bracketed shooting with a time delay... After spending a long time researching on the net, I bought a Canon SX160 as a temporary back-up for my Pentax DSLR. Initial impressions is this little camera is quite capable. Although it has a smaller sensor, its of more modern design, has huge 16x zoom and 16mp to boot. It takes AA batteries and while it doesn't have RAW capture, interval or bracketing, those features are in the firmware pipeline thanks to the CHDK developers. One feature handy to gigapanographers, the SX160 has a 10 second start delay that automatically takes three sequential pictures. That is handy if you are zoomed a long way out, it gives the camera time to settle before firing away, and you can select the sharpest of the three (the 2nd and 3rd shots have a 2 second delay). In Photomatix and some other software, you can use the three pictures to reduce ghosting and digital noise. I used this technique to make this panorama, shot at maximum zoom (ie almost 500mm equiv). In any case, you can use the Epic 100's repeat "last panorama" feature to capture bracketed images in separate batches to make a HDR panorama. My first attempt captured a dimly-lit church altar back-lit by tropical sun shining through stained glass windows, successfully using 9 brackets ranging from 1/5th second to 1/800th second. Here is the result.
Also, my Durabook Twinhead laptop finally gave up the ghost, and I bought an ASUS with and i7 CPU and 8GB RAM. The main difference, apart from much speedier stitching, is I can now stitch panoramas with upwards of 500 images in the APG program.
(*note: Pentax's top-shelf K5 DSLR also fits the Epic 100, and you can then use a cable remote. The Pentax K-r, which superseded the K-x, also fits and works via the shutter-button pushing mechanism, according to gigapan's official list of compatible cameras. )
A useful app that lets you see on an interactive digital map, all the nearby Gigapans (if they were uploaded with GPS coordinates).
Gallery of my tone-mapped gigapans
Article about my gigapans and use of GigaPan Epic 100 at GigPan.org
Article about my Iquiteña Gigapans