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 the Gigapan. 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 b it 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 rechargables, 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 to process their auto-bracketed shots into HDRs, but I 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 and something my Pentax DSLR can't do (though I 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, can shoot RAW, and has a programmable interval timer, great for 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.
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.
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:
But for really big panoramas, a DSLR coupled to a robotic head like the Gigapan is a must. 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 440 images. But, AutoPano Giga's software does a better job in terms of anti-ghosting, colour-correction and varied 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.
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. Both Autopano Giga and Hugin 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 (or even other worlds) we would otherwise never see.
Interestingly, there are independent developers working on integrating GigaPan panoramas with Google Earth; one noteworthy site 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.
So... I really think robotic panorama heads like the gigapan really are great little gadgets - I wish they (and digital cameras) had been around 30 years ago... what fun you could have had!
(*note: Pentax's top-shelf K5 DSLR also fits the Epic 100, but you must use a cable remote. The Penatx Kr, which superseded the Kx, also fits and works via the shutter-button pushing mechanism, according to gigapan's official list of compatible cameras).
Gallery of my tone-mapped gigapans
Article about my gigapans and use of GigaPan Epic 100 at GigPan.org
Article about my Iquiteña Gigapans