Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lightweight Panoramic Photography On A Budget (Part 1)

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By: Justin Serpico

In the modern age of digital cameras and panoramic software, creating a panorama is almost as easy as taking a normal photo. I've seen and created some very good handheld shots. I even have a 20x30 on my wall, taken with a 4MP digital compact which was hand held.

Some would argue that a tripod and specialized head isn't necessary because the software can correct many problems. To a point this is true, the level of accuracy needed to stitch panoramas on a computer is pretty generous.

However, when you combine all the factors that weigh in against creating a high quality, a large print panorama a tripod mounted head removes almost all of them.

What a tripod and panoramic head does, among other things, but most importantly, is allow you to eliminate a phenomenon known as parallax error. This is where the no-parallax point of the lens doesn't line up with the rotation axis of the head, such as the photo below where distortion combined with parallax creates a curved building!

To understand parallax in its most simple form, put your thumb in front of your face with an object behind it, now move your head (but not your thumb) to the left and right. Notice how your thumb no longer is lined up with the object as it was before you moved your head? That is called parallax

With a very good distortion free lens, and a distant landscape with no foreground, parallax can be a relative non issue with some care, especially for small prints. However, if your goal is to create high quality panoramic views for large prints, the only way to assure perfect image alignment is with a panoramic head.

Another major advantage of a panoramic head is the ability to use wider angled lenses. The more distortion prone a lens the more parallax and other errors play a role in the final image.

Nodal point calibrated panoramic heads are most useful in complex panoramas that include both a foreground and background. City scenes with layers of straight lines, or natural scenes with foreground trees, flowers or boulders. Not to mention if you ever want to try QTVR or multi row panoramic photography having a nodal point calibrated head is nearly essential.

The panoramic head I decided upon for use in the field (aka, while on mountain tops, or traveling with gear on my shoulders), is the Fanotec Nodal Ninja 3 MII -known as the NN3 or NN3II throughout the rest of this article. This head is extremely light, it's well built, and it has reasonably high tolerances. It's also under $225 direct from Fanotec.

Most of my photographic gear is centered around compact light weight equipment and the Nodal Ninja 3 MII is precisely the right size, you can even leave it in your camera bag in the supplied case. If you’re someone toting an $8000 DSLR that weighs more than my entire travel/backcountry kit, the cost and weight of a higher end head will probably not bother you.

Fanotec also has a generous upgrade program where you essentially sell back your old Nodal Ninja when a new model comes out. Since the systems are to a point modular, even an old Nodal Ninja can be upgraded to some degree in many cases. So often Nodal Ninja has used trade in models for sale at a sharp discount.

Fanotec is a customer service oriented company focused on creating quality panoramic tools at a fair price. Ask a question and they will get back to you usually within hours, send in some feedback and they will take note of it. If you lose a part, or need another piece of the puzzle to make your system work, it will arrive quickly.

Now bear in mind that while the Nodal Ninja is a high quality piece of machinery, it’s not quite on par with a significantly higher cost head, which are also significantly bigger and heavier. Those heads have better rotators and more precise settings, but as I noted above with digital image stitching 110% accuracy at time of capture isn't needed anymore. And the settings on the NN3/NN5 are precise enough to be accurate within a 1mm or so! So the question is, with advanced software, do you need a head that cost 3-5X as much, and weights 2-3X as much when your final results will be the same?

Of course, Fanotec didn’t completely abandon precision; it just dumbed it down to the point where it was acceptable in the digital era. The dumbed down precision means stout build quality at a price that is more acceptable to most photographers not making a serious living off panoramic imagery. So while those other brands do offer more precision, they also weigh more, cost more, and are essentially overbuilt for modern panoramic photography.

For larger cameras, like medium format or some very large DSLR models, like the Canon 1D or Nikon D1/2/3 series, Fanotec makes a larger head, the NN5 MII. Along with the larger head, Fanotec also makes high precision upgrade rotators that can be used on either model Nodal Ninja. Bearing in mind these upgrade rotators cost almost as much as the base NN3, while the stock rotator is pretty decent with many high quality detent rings to allow precise rotations! Most people using a light camera setup will get by just fine with the stock setup which offers quite a bit of precision and adjustability.

For the money the Nodal Ninja is the best value in panoramic heads, and with the company’s easy customer loyalty upgrade path, along with a wide selection of accessories, I can't see any reason you'd need or want another head!

Stay tuned for part two of this series where we calibrate the NN3 to locate the nodal points of individual K mount lenses!

Thank you for reading,

Justin Serpico

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