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Gadget Bag: Gear For Panoramas
There’s a special allure to panoramic pictures. They force you to move your eyes across the image, even turn your body to take it all in. It’s as if the photographer wants you to take an active part in viewing the landscape, instead of just giving it one static look. Panoramas are special because in the past, you didn’t see them very often, mostly because they were so expensive to produce, requiring specific cameras and processing equipment. With the right gear and software today, however, you can make beautiful panoramas quite easily using regular film or digital cameras.
Digital technology has sparked a renewed interest in panoramas by making the format more accessible to everyone. Enthusiasts who have never even considered shooting panoramas now can experiment with them on a variety of cameras simply by shooting a series of photos across a scene, then merging them in the computer.
Many low-priced consumer digital cameras even have a special panorama mode that helps you line up the pictures. One camera offers the option of assembling a quick panorama on the LCD, which can be useful for a preview of the image. For all multi-shot panoramas, you perform the stitching on your computer with programs such as Adobe Photoshop or ArcSoft Panorama Maker.
When you’re shooting multi-shot panoramas with a digital or film camera, there are tools that will help you capture the best images. Tripods, heads and levelers are the basic essentials you’ll need for sharp, seamless compositions. It’s difficult to shoot a panorama without a tripod, since you need to keep the camera steady and on the same level for each shot in the sequence so it can rotate precisely and the images line up and overlap properly.
Ideal for shooting on uneven terrain, Gitzo’s MK2 Mountaineer Reporter Leveling Tripod is unique in that the pivoting center post can be easily leveled with a twist of a knob. A stainless-steel weight hook adds stability, and a removable spirit level at the base of the center column ensures that everything is properly leveled. Made of carbon fiber, the Mountaineer is durable but lighter, at 3.8 pounds, than an equivalent aluminum tripod. Its maximum height with the center column extended is 63.8 inches; the minimum height is 13.4 inches. Price: $896.
The Universal Tripod series from Giottos has many features that are perfect for shooting panoramas. Available in both carbon fiber and aluminum, the tripod features a reversible center column with a retractable hook for hanging a weight. The tilt control on the column allows you to use it at any angle, independent of the tripod legs. A spirit level also is built in. The maximum height varies by model, ranging from 63 to 71 inches; the weight is approximately five or six pounds. Price: $345 to $417 (carbon fiber); $186 to $205 (aluminum).
If you use a tripod without any sort of built-in leveling device, Manfrotto’s 3502 Compact Levelling Head can be a convenient alternative. Weighing 1.4 pounds, it fits between the center column of the tripod and head, and provides easy, fast leveling. Price: $94.
A panorama head is a special device for your tripod that allows you to accurately position your camera for each shot so that you’re turning about one of the nodal points of your lens. The nodal point is an optical center of the camera and lens. Rotating around it keeps perspective consistent. In other words, you want to rotate around a fixed point so that the perspective in the distance doesn’t change from shot to shot.
Panorama heads make rotating the camera faster, smoother and more accurate, resulting in less work to be done when assembling the panorama in the computer. The 300N Panoramic Head from Manfrotto is ideal for taking sequential constant-angle shots around the nodal point. A click-stop selector screw is included to make angle selection easier, and a secondary locking screw stops accidental rotation of the head. The set positions of the one-pound 300N provide multiple choices of rotation angles and covers the most common requests of panorama photographers. Price: $224.
A recommended accessory to the Manfrotto 300N head is the Manfrotto 3416 Leveling Base, which allows you to make fine adjustmentsto guarantee that the camera isperfectly leveled. The three-platform adjustment wheels have a locking ring to make sure the camera is stable once you have found the right position. For reference, there’s a built-in spirit level with a sensitivity of 0.5 degrees. There are three screws lo-cated on the top of the plate that firmly lock your camera head in place. Weight: 1.2 pounds. Price: $118.
The Manfrotto 303 QTVR (Quick Time Virtual Reality) Kit includes a panhead, a quick-release elbow bracket and the 300N panoramic unit. The panhead permits you to take an accurate sequence of shots, while the 300N adds a system of sliding horizontal and vertical plates to position the camera correctly. The system is compatible with most film or digital SLRs and weighs 3.6 pounds. Price: $451.
With Slik’s PRO 700DX 3-way Head, you can smoothly maneuver your camera into any position. This all-metal head is strong and durable, and features a quick-release system, making it fast and easy to use. For leveling the camera, the head has dual-axis bubble levels recessed in the quick-release’s mount base. The head weighs 2.64 pounds. Price: $99.
The PH-263QL from Hakuba/Velbon is a lightweight, heavy-duty magnesium ballhead that features a quick-release and two bubble levelers to ensure accurate leveling in all dimensions. Weight: 11.4 ounces. Price: $239.95.
Another appropriate ballhead for shooting panoramas is the MH 7001 by Giottos. The one-touch lock allows for platform and pan movement, and two bubble levels help maintain accuracy. Weight: 21 ounces. Price: $69.50.
A useful accessory for shooting panoramas is Novoflex’s Panorama base. It smoothly rotates 360 degrees and is equipped with a pan lock and spirit level. You can mount it between the camera and tripod or between a tripod head and the tripod. Price: $166.
To quickly level your panorama head without having to adjust the length and angle of each tripod leg, use Manfrotto’s 554 MDEVE Carbon Fiber Levelling Center Column, available in carbon fiber or aluminum. A leveling half-ball mounted at the top of the center column makes the angle of the top plate independent of the rest of the tripod. Price: $250.
As you can see, leveling is the most critical element in capturing attractive panoramas. The tripod, as well as the camera, must be perfectly level. If your equipment isn’t level, your up-and-down perspective will change, and you’ll end up having to crop large sections of the panoramic sequence from the top and/or bottom, or you won’t be able to stitch them together at all. Because of the importance of leveling the camera, many pros working the panoramic format use a small spirit or bubble level that attaches to the camera’s hot-shoe. Portable and inexpensive, this is a device that everyone should have in their photographic toolkit.
Manfrotto’s 337 Hot Shoe Two Axis Bubble Level is a double-axis spirit level that gives you a finer degree of accuracy. It mounts to the hot-shoe of any standard 35mm or D-SLR camera. Price: $39.
The Adorama Double Bubble Level mounts on any camera flash or accessory shoe for panoramic photography. Price: $32.95.
Really Right Stuff has a series of accessories specifically tailored for panoramas. The PCL-1 is a panning base with an integrated quick-release clamp and a built-in circular spirit level. It can take the place of the clamp on the top of your ballhead, eliminating the need for a leveling base. Degree increments are laser-engraved on the base so you can precisely control the amount of rotation for each shot. The PCL-1, weighing 8.4 ounces, can be used with the MPR-CL, an integrated multi-purpose rail and mini-clamp. It provides the fore-aft motion needed for positioning the nodal point of the lens over the center of rotation. Price: $235 (PCL-1); $110 (MPR-CL).