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.
First of all, you know not every situation calls for a Gigapan. It all depends on how much detail you wish to capture. In the past, photographers used various simpler techniques: hand-held (usually results in parallax), a ordinary tripod (good for single row panoramas, especially if your camera has its tripod mount centered under the lens), a philopod (basically a piece of string and weight arrangement that guides correct rotation of the camera), and a panoramic head, which allows tilting but still maintains the nodal point. You can easily make your own, or buy a quality units like the Nodal Ninja or Panosaurus, which when set up correctly, eliminates parallax and is perfect for panoramas of, say, less than 50 images.
But if you need to shoot more than 50 images - to capture everything going on in a town as seen from a hillside lookout, for example - well that's when a robotic head like the GigaPan unit becomes convenient.
I would say 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 locking the aperture, focus, shutter speed 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 rechargeables, 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. This requires multiple shots and extra processing time, all of which eats up more of your battery power. 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 zoom out of my bedroom window in Dulwich Hill. Its important to remember, gigapanning is all about capturing detail, so a panorama taken with a zoom lens will not be as sharp as one taken with a prime lens.
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.
It goes without saying that not every scene is suited to gigapanning. A brick wall, for instance, would usually not be worth the effort for capturing via the gigapan technique. But, say you were interested in studying the insects that were crawling around on that wall, then gigapan technology would be very useful. Scenes with a lot of movement - for instance a busy harbour - while they make interesting gigapans, are difficult to capture; but it can be done. Usually a scene with a wide variety of mini-scenes within it, like a a cityscape, or a sporting tournament, make good gigapan subjects. Festivals like Burning Man make good subjects, especially since the people and constructions are unique to each year.
The word GigaPan comes from "giga" - meaning one billion - and "pan" - "panorama", ie a panorama with a billion pixels. But gigapanography need not be restricted to panoramas in the conventional, wide-angle sense. Some excellent gigapans of antique engines, lichen, insects, car interiors and other macro-vistas have been made. Large scale maps are another interesting subject, especially if they are one-off, unique copies, like this one. One enthusiast has created a massive 36 gigapixel map of the UK by stitching together smaller segments of ordnance maps that were already online. The result puts at your fingertips the equivalent of a huge number of paper maps (click here, then zoom out!) Other niche fields are infra-red gigapans, ultra-violet gigapans, underwater gigapans, then-and-now gigapans, rupestrian gigapans, stereographic gigapans, night sky gigapans, 3D anaglyph gigapans, and mosaic gigapans (mosaic gigapans can be built up by hand in Photoshop; but simple grid-type mosaic panos can be quickly be created in many stitching programs including Gigapan Stitch, while clever hybrid-type panos are easily facilitated by dedicated software like AndreaMosaic.) When you consider you can mix and match these niche fields, creating, say, a stereographic infra-red rupestrian gigapan, well... its obvious, the possibilities are almost endless.
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 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. So, if contemplating buying a point and shoot, or a camera that has no cable remote, check whether the start delay stays on in manual mode after each shot... it will make shooting a gigapan so much easier (see my list of essential and desirable camera features below). In some situations, such as when using an extremely long telezoom on a flimsy tripod or on a floor that is subject to footsteps or other vibrations, you might like to use an external accelerometer; some are built into smartphones that you place on the camera and activate via an app, allowing you to know when the camera is truly motionless. This method requires pausing the gigapan at each and every shot, a rather slow process, but if you have vibrations travelling up the tripod, or induced by camera "mirror slap", it is one way of getting sharper images. Slap can be minimised by using the "mirror up" option available on some cameras, or eliminated on cameras that have electronic shutters.
In this regard my older Ricoh GX200 compact is much easier to use than the Lumix ZS20. In fact, the GX200 can even shoot bracketed RAW 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 entry-level 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. 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 its the DSLR which will deliver greater image quality - as explained here. 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, because it can be programmed for both multiple exposures, and/or repeating a complete panoramic shooting sequence.
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 three functions that could help you here: 1., you can pause the robot and wait for the moving object to move out of view, 2. you can repeat the last panorama shoot with the push of a button; and 3. you can also program the mechanism to shoot up to 9 exposures at each position. The last two 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 fish-eye lens and large sensor camera, 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 fore-mentioned "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:
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; MS ICE has an intersesting feature whereby you can create panoramas from a video file, while Hugin is a top-notch open-source program, but its learning curve is steep and has a rather convoluted user interface. Better, user-friendly commercial programs include Autopano Giga and PTGui. An interesting, lesser-known alternative is PTAssembler, which has an amazing variety of panaromic projections.
I tend to use AutoPano Giga the most often. One feature I really like with APG is you can mix and match images of different focal lengths. This comes in handy for instance when you want to fill in the sky, or foreground, where there is no details "worth" magnifying. So you might shoot a large number of zoomed in images of a tropical island, for example. Then shoot a few zoomed out, wide angle shots of the sea and sky. APG will stitch them seamlessly, up-rezzing the sky and matching it correctly with the higher-resolution images of the island. This is quicker to shoot, and quicker to stitch than hand-manipulating high-res sky shots into place (which is possible with most premium stitching programs), and give a more natural look than cloning or the automated "fill in", mirror options of some programs.
Ocean and sky images are notoriously difficult to stitch because they contain no hard surfaces for control points to latch onto; apart from cloning, filling, or hand-placing, an automated head like the Gigapan makes its easier, as several programs will automatically know exactly where to place the image, as automated heads shoot in neat columns and rows. I know that MS ICE, AutoPano Giga, PTgui and Gigapan Stitch all have this feature. Gigapan StitchFX has the added bonus of letting the user move individual images around to anywhere in the mosaic grid. So, you might make a panorama of, say, a baseball stadium from a point high in the perimeter seats. That would capture the other spectators in their seats. Then return the lens to centre-field and take more shots. At the end of the shoot you could hand place the best image of the day, say when a player strikes a home run, or a boxer strikes a knockout, or a keynote speaker takes to the microphone. The possibilities are endless.
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 Gigapan 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. Microsoft ICE has it too in its panorama-from-video option, where you can force the inclusion of a certain moving object from a specific video frame by drawing a box around it and saving it to the panorama.
If you keep in mind '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.
A word about shooting in RAW. RAW lets you have more control over the final image, at the expense of lots of disc space. If you are a dedicated gigapanographer, you would already be used to needing lots of disc space, but with RAW you need even more. Shooting RAW has, on occasion, saved some of my panoramas from deletion: sometimes the sky is hard to get looking right, especially on newer lenses without an aperture ring, shooting in fully manual mode is no guarantee that sky will have a consistent blue tone across the panorama. I have found that stitching the RAW files directly in APG and saving as a TIFF file often helps, or completly eliminates, these mismatched sky problems.
Another advantage of RAW is, if you shoot several identical images and 'stack' them, you can get improved resolution and even a higher pixel count via this method. Some purists might say thats cheating, but you are only mimicking what some cameras do internally: newer cameras like Olympus OM D EM5 Mark II and Pentax K-3 II take multiple images and process them internally to produce much higher resolution images. But you can already achieve the same on almost any camera using the above-mentioned method, or third party software like PhotoAcute. You can automate this process in three ways: (1) program your camera to take multiple images (2) program the Gigapan to take multiple images at the same image location, or (3) program the Gigapan head to repeat the previous panorama. Options 1 or 2 are usually the best options, as the subjects of the scene, or cloud/lighting may have changed by the time the panorama comes back to starting position. But you might want to repeat a panorama using method 3 for these very same reasons. Also, option 3 opens up the intriguing possibility of a Gigapan time-lapse... if you have oodles of memory cards, spare batteries, and unlimited spare time, that is.
Time and timing are critical when shooting a gigapan. In outdoor shots, changing weather, fading light, or moving objects have to be considered. But an indoor gigapan may also be subject to considerable time constraints, for example, you might want to shoot the interior of a cathedral between scheduled church services. You need to do a calculation on the optimum number of shots you can take in the time available, adjusting your zoom and gigapan settings accordingly. One possible solution in gaining more base images in less time is to use two cameras on a single gigapan rig. Newer compact camera are incredibly lightweight and have impressive zooms which the Epic 100 would have no problem handling as their combined weight is still less than the max weight allowed (1.3 kgs for the Epic 100 and 4.5 kgs for the Epic Pro.) A variation to the above example would be to mount one camera facing backwards, the other forwards, effectively halving the shooting time for a 360 panorama. You would need to fabricate your own bracket and devise a dual remote cable, not a terribly difficult project. (BTW, speaking of multiple camera setups for panoramas, check out Max Lyon's ingenious DIY six-camera rig.)
A series of gigapans, taken over set interval, raises the possiblity of ultra-high resolution timelapse. Actually, Gigapan timelapses have already taken off. Fascinating subjects for a GigaPan time lapse would be a combination of what makes a good panorama and a good time lapse, namely, a wide vista with lots of varied things within that vista, and a subject that changes over time. For example, a building being constructed, or a view of a city from a high point.
For some photographers, the temptation of being able to claim "I just shot the world's largest panorama of 'whatever'..." has led to some dubious use of filling sky and ocean, or even the actual target image, with low res images uprezzed by interpolation software, just to be able to make these claims. In other cases, no interpolation or uprezzing has occurred, but atmospheric haze or boring sky makes up much of the pixel count without really adding any meaningful detail to the panorama. This in turn has spurred calls for some sort of test as to what defines a "true" gigapan. Overall image quality, with regards to contrast and actual, effective resolution are more important than a big tally of megapixels that look blurry when you you zoom in. As far as I know, currently there is no accepted definition of what defines an acceptable "biggest" panorama, but this article by Brad Templeton proposes sensible criteria.
Note that if you save your panorama as a .kro file and host it at gigapan.org, in theory there is no file size limit. But if you use other image file formats and hosts, there are a few tips worth knowing, summarized in this good article by Aaron Priest: file size limitations.
Depending on the subject matter, I usually strive to capture the maximum pixels with the modest equipment I own, and in many cases the resulting image is the world's largest panorama of "whatever". But pure image size is not what I aim for per se: I aim to capture scenes, such as cityscapes or harbours or airports, or even just street scenes, that are both sharp and high resolution, large in their coverage, and unique, interesting snapshots in time, and will hopefully be of interest to present and future generations.
The good news is you don't need and expensive stabilized, auto-focus zoom lens for gigapanning, as the camera is required to be locked in manual focus and aperture. Set up a bare-bones manual lens once, then shoot away knowing the settings can't change on a manual lens. You don't need an f2.8 or f4 lens, as bokeh is usually not wanted in a panorama, I usually shoot at f11 or f13, or sometimes even more, to get greater areas in the focus zone. But, a basic law of optics is that smaller apertures increase diffraction, so you gradually lose resolution. So, adjusting your aperture becomes a fine balancing act. Prime telephotos tend to give sharper results than zooms, and are cheaper to buy, and lighter weight than a zoom, meaning your Gigapan head has less heavy lifting to do, so its batteries should last that little bit longer. Manual aperture rings give more consistent results too, important when you are trying match dozens or hundreds of individual images. So an old legacy lens bought on eBay might actually give you very good results for a fraction of the cost of a modern telephoto, which are loaded with lots of extra features needed for sports and wildlife photography, but not really needed for gigapanning. But you also need to consider that modern sensors are starting to "outresolve" older lenses, so you need to do your research on just how sharp your intended lens is.
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!) And, because it is such a unique, little-understood field of photography - because it requires so much planning, photographic savvy, computer software and hardware, patience and a certain amount of luck from the weather gods - it is likely to remain a niche field for quite some time. If you take this challenge up, you may well be one of a handful of people in the world who is creating high resolution gigapans of your area. Your contribution to documental photography will be important and unrepeatable. Like when I snapped up this scene, which happened once, but will never happen again, certainly not with same people in the same time and space.
Apart from such 'people panoramas', which often happen due to a bit of luck, 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. Billboard hoardings are a classic example of being "a sign of the times" (pardon the pun!)
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 and contrast slightly. Also using the 'exposure fusion' process in Photomatix often minimizes haze, and improves the look of your panorama.
Yet another way to cut through haze is to shoot in infrared. You can use filters, or use a custom modified IR camera. You can even create bracketed HDR in infrared (good gigapan example here). Lifepixel and Maxmax are two companies that will modify your existing camera, or sell you one already modified. (Interestingly, when cameras are modiified for IR use, the IR blocking filter is removed. This filter is often sandwiched to the AA filter, so that is often removed as well, resulting in a much sharper final image.) Or you can try filters and fusion workflows that are intriguing, if not a bit complicated (look here, here and here.) Note that IR cuts through haze, but does NOT cut through fog. Another way to get better resolution is to use a camera with a black-and-white sensor. In theory it should have 3 times the resolution of a colour camera, as it has no Bayer filter.
Extrapolating the above points, perhaps the highest resolution gigapan you could get from a DSLR overlooking a hazy cityscape would be to shoot multiple IR raw or dedicated B&W images in each position, in a camera with no AA filter, using a prime lens, using super-resolution software to get sharper images. Some super-resolution software claims it can even eliminate the ghosting caused by moving objects (info here). However, while the overall resolution would be higher, the drawback would be the lack of true colour dynamics, and a huge increase in the amount memory, shutter actuations and computing time needed (PhotoAccute recommends up to 16 raw files for each SR image, resulting in a file with two to four times the resolution.) This probably explains why few - if any - Gigapan photographers use this theoretical workflow. In most cases it would be easier just to buy a longer lens, or a camera with more megapixels, or a teleconverter, and wait for a day when there is less haze!
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!
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A CAMERA FOR GIGAPANNING:
1. Essential features: ability to lock ISO, aperture, shutter speed, white balance and focus to full manual control; and the camera must have a tripod mount underneath. You can check your camera's compatibility on GigaPan's official list of compatible cameras.
2. Non-essential, but desirable features include: cameras with remote cable release, time delay shutter release that does not reset after each exposure; ability to shoot bracketed in full manual mode; ability to shoot RAW; ability to change battery and/or memory card without removing from tripod (via a side door); ability to power the camera with an external battery or AC adapter; camera with a quick write-to-card speed; camera that remembers and returns to the previous settings after powering down; camera that accepts ND filters and lens hood; camera without an AA filter (AA filters reduce moire, but also reduce overall resolution). Note that the specs for the minimum FOV on the Epic 100 mean about 650mm of zoom (35mm equiv) will be the limit for the Epic 100 model to handle. In such cases, use a lesser amount of zoom or upgrade to the top Epic Pro model, which has smaller motor increments and also can support much heavier camera-lens combos.
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. Further update late 2014: My Canon SX160 didnt last long, I actually broke two of them but was able to get a new GX200 so Im back to shooting with that great little camera again. Even greater when you consider it was launched way back in 2008.
Also, my Durabook Twinhead laptop finally gave up the ghost in February 2014, so I bought an ASUS with an i7 CPU and 8GB RAM. The main difference, apart from much speedier stitching, is I can now stitch panoramas with upwards of 1000 images in the APG program.
(*note: I have been a Pentax Ricoh user since the days of film. My digital Pentax DSLRs have ranged from K-x (died after I dropped it), to K-r (gave it away after the sensor was scratched in a botched cleaning attempt), to my current K-5. All of them fit the Epic 100, and with the K-5 you can then use a cable remote. On both the K-r and the K-x you have to use the shutter-button pushing mechanism. Pentax cameras have the added advantage of sensor stabilization, so old lenses will work just as well as a newer, more expensive stabilized lens. But in gigpanography, this is not really needed, as the camera is mounted on a tripod, and all stabilization should be switched off. But sensor-stabilization does offer a definite advantage during hand-held panorama shooting, as well as a cost advantage over stabilized lenses. )
My largest gigapans, ranked by size
Alternative view: thumbnails
Interestingly, after showing some initial interest in linking to gigapans that have GPS co-ordinates, Google Earth seems to have abandoned the idea. However there are independent developers working on integrating GigaPan panoramas with Google Earth; one noteworthy website is kilgore.org.
Kilgore also has an extremely useful app that lets you see on an interactive digital map of all the nearby Gigapans . But you need to first enter the id number of a known gigapan for a reference point, and that gigapan has to have valid GPS co-ordinates, that has been uploaded for at least 1 month, so that it has had time to appear in Kilgore's database. (In other words, copy and paste the gigapan reference number from a gigapan that was uploaded more than 1 month ago, and which also has a blue "View on Map" button).
Number of GigaPans in each country (if they were geo-referenced on the map via the gigapan uploader).
Interesting summary of the pros and cons of panoramic stitching by Max Lyons (PDF download)
How do you shoot and stitch a linear panorama, i.e. for a wall mural or other times when you have to move the camera parallel to the subject? Autopano Giga has a "multiple viewpoint" option that is useful for linear panoramas. This tutorial by Jamie Hamel-Smith is aimed at Hugin users, but the shooting technique would be valid for most other stitching programs as well. In theory, you could shoot several images at each viewpoint, even, conceivably, with a gigapan unit, and stitch them together later for huge, gigapixel-sized linear panorama.
Interesting article here about how North Carolina State University set up a gigapan workstation to batch-process their insect collection, drawer by drawer. One combination they found useful was linking a gigapan of an insect with a gigapan of its native habitat, for example, a branch of a particular jungle tree.
Article about my gigapans and use of GigaPan Epic 100 at GigPan.org
Article about David Bergman's gigapan of Barack Obama's 2009 Inaugural Address. Interesting to note Bergman used relatively modest gear to capture this auspicious moment - a 14mp Canon Powerhot G10 coupled to the budget model Gigapan Epic. But that was all he needed to get a good result, capturing a unique, 1.47 gigapixel high resolution moment in history that will be of great interest for generations to come. Currently it is the most viewed gigapan on the gigapan site, with more than 16 million views to date.
Article about Mike Franz' superb New York gigapan taken from the top of the new One World Trade Center.
Online publication, GigaPan Magazine (6 issues, from 2009 to 2014)
If you're competent in electro-mechanical DIYing, you can make your own gigapan robot, Xavier Gonzalo explains how here. An Australian university has done something similar using a small 2mp security camera, controlled by opensource software and a Rasberry Pi, more info here and here. Another DIY by Yani Dubin using the Parallela chip here.
If the above projects seem too daunting you could always build your own rig out of Lego pieces and DC stepper motors, like James Catan's Lego Tilt-Pan rig. (Some of these DIY rigs require programming skills and physically appear very fragile, something to keep in mind when mounting your expensive camera-lens combo on them. That's why I prefer the Epic 100 with its cast-aluminium frame... and no programming knowledge required.)
Article about gigapanning for nature conservation: gigapanning in Patagonia by Dr Stuart Pimm.
Article about my Iquiteña Gigapans
Accomplished gigapanographers profiled and interviewed about their craft click here.
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