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Panorama Photography Gear

Introduction

Panorama photos are the ultimate in wide-angle photography. They can span 360° all around, far more than most wide-angle or fisheye lenses which are rarely wider than 115° and 180° respectively. Ultra-wide-angle lenses are also expensive and, depending on your photography style, may be of limited use. The solution is to create panoramas by combining multiple images using special panorama software.

Like any type of digital photography which requires combining multiple images, inconsistencies are the enemy of panoramic photography. While it is possible to create panoramas from a sequence of hand-held images, it introduces minute but troublesome viewpoint variations. These variations are far more problematic with closer subjects than with far ones.

Almost any camera can capture images for a panorama. All that is required is that it be capable of capturing a sequence of images with complete consistency: focal-length, focus-distance, aperture, exposure, ISO, WB as well as color and image parameters, unless shooting RAW. All cameras with manual controls such as SLRs, SLDs and advanced ultra-zooms can do this. P&S digital cameras often have a Panorama Assist mode which does exactly that. A few digital cameras can also automatically create panoramas directly. Such panoramas are always of much lower resolution and quality than can otherwise be done via software.

In order to keep the viewpoint consistent between frames, one must carefully rotate the camera and lens around its entrance-pupil. This is explained in How To Make a Panorama Photo Tutorial. To do this perfectly, you need a tripod, a panoramic head and, optionally, a leveling base.

Panoramic Tripods

A tripod is considered the ideal camera support. It provides stability and precise control over the viewpoint, which are both needed for panoramic photography. Stability is important because most panoramas are shot using a small aperture to get an extensive depth-of-field. This is needed to keep the environment in focus while rotating the camera. Even when shooting a panorama of a wall, the distance between the camera and surface changes as the camera is rotated.

There is really no such thing as a panoramic tripod. Tripods have to be chosen depending on your camera, lens and convenience in terms of size and weight. The first thing to look at is the maximum load capacity of any tripod. It should be enough to support, the camera, lens, head and leveling base, if you are using one. Add 1-2 lbs for safe measure.

When it comes to panorama photography, more tripod features are not really necessary. Some tripods have a rotating center column but it is far better to rotate with the head, as explained further. Some expensive tripods have a leveling mechanism which can be used instead of a leveling base. This lets you buy one component less but greatly restricts your choice of tripods.

Starting with the fact almost any tripod is probably better than no tripod, people on a strict budget can start with a relatively cheap Manfrotto 190XB. This one supports 5kg (11 lbs), weighs 1.8kg (4 lbs) and folds down to 53cm. To save some weight, particularly for travel photographers, it is much better to go with a Carbon-Fiber tripod like the Manfrotto M-Y which supports 3.5 kg (7.5 lbs), weighs less than 1kg (2 lbs) and folds to 42.5cm. At less than $225 USD, this is one of the best values around.

More tripods options to consider:

  • The heavy-duty Manfrotto 055CXPRO4 - Supports 8kg (17 lbs), weighs 1.7kg (3.4 lbs) and folds to 55cm.
  • The ultra-light Gitzo GT-0541 - Supports 5kg (11 lbs), weighs 0.8kg (1.7 lbs) and folds down to 48cm.
  • The tiny Gitzo GT-1542T - Supports 7kg (15 lbs), weighs 1kg (2 lbs) and folds to under 43cm.
  • The light and heavy-duty Gitzo GT2840C Basalt - Supports 10kg (22 lbs), weighs 1.4kg (3 lbs) and folds down to 43cm.

Panoramic Heads

Panoramic heads make the difference between a perfect and an almost perfect panorama photo. These specialized heads are designed to rotate the camera around the entrance-pupil of the lens to avoid parallax errors. Like most highly-specialized items, panoramic heads are expensive.

Panoramic heads come in two varieties:

  • Flexible ones which can accommodate most combinations of cameras and lenses.
  • Fixed ones which are precision-made to match a fixed camera and lens combination.

Flexible panoramic heads like Nodal Ninja Panoramic Heads are advantageous because they can be used with an entire collection of cameras and lenses. The double sliding-rail system is designed to place the camera in portrait orientation which gives a greater vertical field-of-view and reduces the need for multi-row panoramas which are more difficult to stitch. The disadvantage of such a system is that the rails must be carefully each time. They are also rather bulky.

Fixed panoramic heads are available from specialty retailers and must be ordered for a specific combination of camera and lens. These heads are generally available for premium configurations such as a full-frame DSLRs and high-grade prime lens. The primary advantage is that there is nothing to adjust. Fixed heads are still bulky but less than flexible ones.

For those who cannot afford a panoramic head or are not willing to carry one, it is still beneficial to get a suitable ball-head. Plus, by adding a nodal or macro rail, you can still rotate around the entrance-pupil with the camera in landscape orientation. In this case, what to look for is a ball-head with an independent pan-lock. This lets the camera rotate without changing tilt or pitch, as long as the head itself is level.

Two highly recommended ball-heads suitable for panoramic photography are the Manfrotto Midi Ball-Head RC4 and the 054 Mag Ball Head Q2. The former is light and holds up to 8kg, the latter holds 10kg and uses a small quick-release plate. The larger plate gives more grip but may be bothersome if left attached to the camera when off the tripod.

Leveling Bases & Accessories

The leveling base is the last piece of the puzzle. Although not strictly necessary, a leveling base greatly helps ensure that consecutive shots are taken with the same pitch. To keep a camera level as it rotates around the entrance-pupil, one must make sure the base of the tripod head is level. There are three ways to do this:

  • Level the tripod by adjusting the length of each leg independently to match the terrain. This is easier said then done because tripods are not made for precision adjustments.
  • Level the central column using a built-in mechanism available on select few Manfrotto and Gitzo tripods.
  • Level the head using a leveling base inserted between the tripod legs and the tripod head.

The most efficient leveling base is the Acratech Leveling Base picture to the right. It can support up to 11kg (23 lbs) and weighs ¼kg (½ lbs). Adjusting it works just like a ball-head: Loosen the knob, level the base and tighten.

Manfrotto makes the 338 Leveling Base that is highly precise. This one supports up to 15kg (33 lbs) and weights 0.6kg (1.2 lbs). It has three screws that adjust the tilt on each side. This makes it possible to level the ball-head above it while constantly keeping it steady.

Leveling bases have their own bubble level to ensure they are properly leveled. Going with the other leveling approaches requires a built-in level directly on the tripod legs. This is not available on all tripods, so check before buying.

All recommended panoramic heads and ball-heads have built-in levels to ensure the camera remains level while rotating. If levels below and above the rotation point are level, the camera will keep the same pitch while rotating. This is absolutely necessary for single-row panoramas and very important for multi-row ones.

If your ball-head does not have a level, another is needed. Some cameras have a level built-in, so nothing else is required. Otherwise, bubble-levels that attach to the hot-shoe are available. For most digital camera brands, the Interfit 3-Way Bubble-Level will fit. For Sony or Konica-Minolta, the Jobu Design Sony-Minolta 2-Axis Bubble Level will work instead.

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