Recently blogged about my lightweight (and to some extent cut price) alternative to using a Panoramic head. By combining a Macro focussing rail (purchased from Amazon for an unbelievably cheap price) with an L-Bracket I was able to position my camera vertically and rotate it around the nodal point to avoid parallax error.
Parallax error occurs when objects in the distance appear to shift position in relation to foreground objects when you swing your camera in order to make exposures for stitching. If the movement is small, the stitching software you are using may be able to fix the problem. The best solution though is to avoid it. Panoramic heads fix the problem by mounting the camera so that when the camera is rotated it moves around the nodal point (actually the term is not entirely correct).
Whilst I have a couple of panoramic heads they are bulky and heavy and quite expensive. I have therefore been searching for lighter and cheaper solutions, hence my earlier post. One of the more expensive components in my solution is the L-Bracket which is a Novoflex item. This is very well built and quite light given its size. I hinted at the time that I was exploring an alternative and am now able to confirm this has arrived.
The new L-Bracket is much smaller than the Novoflex item as well as lighter. It was also around £20 including shipping which is amazing. I purchased this from ebay and here is the link.
To say that I am delighted is an understatement. The only problem some people may experience is that the item is small for SLR’s and may not fit larger models. For Micro 43 users however this is the perfect size and very well made. Even if you are not thinking of shooting panoramic images, this is a great solution to being able to change the orientation of your camera without moving the tripod head.
It’s not often you find something so good for such a great price.
Not too long ago I related how I had been struggling with the small size of my Olympus OMD EM5 when using it on a tripod. My solution to this had been to buy the two part grip and also to use an L-bracket from Novoflex. The Novoflex bracket wasn’t required to solve the size issue but was the solution to another problem of how to shoot stitched panoramic images with the camera positioned vertically. If you didn’t read the original blog you can find it here.
What I didn’t say in the original article is that I had even considering buying a Nikon D800E together with some lenses. Not a decision I would take lightly, as I am after all the Lightweight Photographer. I therefore decided to try an extended period of working with the Olympus on a tripod. This weekend past I had my opportunity to do just that. Here is what I found.
Firstly I need to share my decision. I won’t be buying the Nikon or any other DSLR for that matter. The OMD EM5 was a joy to work with on tripod using my new setup. Despite the Nikon D800E being a wonderful camera, there are some aspects to the camera that make me think it’s a backward step.
The new found size of the Olympus with the grip attached made it perfect for tripod work. Not only that, I found it very easy to work with and the L-bracket was perfect for quickly shifting the camera to a vertical orientation. If you are interested in shooting panoramic images but don’t yet have a head, then I really recommend you get one of these
Finally, I want to reveal my new panoramic set up for single row shooting and stitching.
As you can see, this uses my Novoflex L-bracket attached by the Novoflex Q-Mount plate. The Q-mount has then been attached to a Macro focus rack which is used to move the camera for focussing in macro work. Instead, here it allows me to position the camera lens on the nodal point so that I can easily create a stitch.
The cost of this setup – Novoflex L-bracket £69, Q-Mount £49, Focus Rack £7.30 – yes less £8 from Amazon (here is the link). I will also reveal that I have an even cheaper option for an L-bracket which is only £20, but I am waiting for that to arrive before I get peoples hopes up.
So, does it work? Yes it does and is much easier to work with than my larger and heavier panoramic head. I was able to carry this set up around all day (10 miles on day 1 and 8 miles on day 2). The only difficulty I had is in finding the nodal point. I needed to have worked this out prior to venturing out but because the focus rack only arrived when I was leaving the house I couldn’t and needed to guess instead. Trial and error seems to suggest the Nodal point for the micro 43 lenses is pretty much at the front element but that might not always be true. Once I have some time I will work it out properly and can then use the scale on the bracket and rack to find it quickly in the field.
As for the image above, this comprises 7 vertical shots using the 14-45mm lens at 14mm. It also swings through about 120 degrees. When stitched it gives a 17” x 54” print at 300dpi. If I drop the resolution to 250dpi and resize the image slightly then I believe a 35” high panoramic will be possible even if you press your nose to the image.
The stitching aspect of this image was done using Photoshop CS5 and there was very little distortion. I now need to spend some time working with Hugin to see what is possible as I took quite a few sequences with ultra wide angle lenses, as well as having the camera angled down.
The OMD EM5 has superb image quality and this set up allows me to make the most of it.
No I haven’t gone mad, but I do need a bigger camera – sometimes!
Some of you reading this will recall my decision a few months back to sell my Canon 5D MKII and switch to an Olympus OMD EM5. At the time I felt the EM5 would give me the quality I needed but provide me with a much lighter kit and greater shooting flexibility.
Well, the Olympus has met my expectation and more but it has a few limitations I can see now that I have been using it for a while:
- The hand grip isn’t large enough so after a while I find my right hand becoming tired because I need to grip the camera just a little too firmly. I suspect Olympus are also aware of this as they have addressed it in the new EM1.
- I find myself shooting a little too much material because the EM5 is so easy to use. Its size and weight make it ideal for hand-held work but that means I am not slowing down sufficiently. If I were shooting on on a tripod I would be slower and I suspect my work would appear more considered. As it is, I think I am producing more but lower quality work.
- You may be thinking have read point 2 above “why doesn’t he just put the camera on a tripod?” The answer is my third limitation – this isn’t a good tripod camera. It just feels too small when tripod mounted. It may just be psychological but I want my camera to feel natural when shooting both hand held and tripod mounted. The EM5 doesn’t do that for me.
My solution to the above points was to buy the two part optional grip for the EM5. This has made a tremendous difference to the feel of the camera. Initially I thought I would just use the first part of the grip which adds another release button and extends the body forwards. Having experimented further, I find that I prefer using both grips (the other part adding a battery pack and extending the camera downwards) when using a tripod. When I shoot handheld I like to remove the battery pack part of the grip.
Now, I have also been toying with a separate problem. I like to produce multi shot panoramic images which I later stitch together in software. I don’t however like the extra weight created by my panoramic head; it’s bulky, very heavy and slow to set up.
What a panoramic head does is to mount the camera so that it rotates around the nodal point of the lens, making stitching much easier because there is no parallax error. Providing however that you don’t use a very wide angle lens (or include the foreground), you can get away with mounting the lens over the centre of the tripod and dispense with the panoramic head.
Unfortunately, the above scenario limits the height and/or quality of the final panoramic as you can only shoot with the camera in a horizontal orientation. Try to flip the camera through 90 degrees using the tripod head and it no-longer rotates around the lens. This proves quite a problem for most stitching software.
My new solution to this problem is to mount the camera on an L-shaped bracket that allows me to set the camera on the tripod in either a horizontal or vertical orientation. In either configuration the centre of the lens is directly over the tripod and it makes switching between the two a snap. The bracket I have chosen is from Novoflex and is very light. You can see it in the following shot.
The nice thing about this set up is that it feels substantial for tripod work yet its very light to carry. Better still, I can easily separate the two grips by using the locking wheel on the back of the camera. This leaves the hand grip in place on the camera (ideal) and provides an easy way to reattaching the camera to the bracket when I want to work on a tripod.
At the moment I love this set up and the flexibility it gives me. I will however report back in the future once I used it for some serious landscape work.
I am and always have been a fan of panoramic photography. I’m not sure why but the format (usually somewhere between 2:1 and 3:1 ratio) really appeals to me and makes sense as the way I see the world. Unfortunately, to create good panoramic images you need additional equipment beyond just the digital camera and this tends to go against my lightweight ethos.
Typically to make a good panoramic I need a tripod, panoramic head and stitching software. Unless you are prepared to spend tens of thousands of pounds (or dollars) on a digital panoramic camera, panoramic images need to be shot as a sequence of overlapping images which are then stitched together in specialist software.
I should at this point mention that I am a real stickler for quality so if any aspect of my images is lacking (in my mind) I will not be satisfied with the finished panoramic. This means that I don’t like to handhold my camera when shooting image sequences and always try to mount my camera on a tripod. I would also like to use a panoramic head to avoid problems of parallax error where objects in the various images don’t align correctly, as the stitching software will either distort the images to make them align or leave “ghosting” traces of objects. I do have a panoramic head for my tripod but it’s so heavy and bulky that I seldom take it with me.
This combination of problems means that I need to rely on stitching software to do a good job of aligning and merging images. Until now I had been using either Photoshop or Panorama Factory to complete my stitching. Photoshop seems to do a reasonable job but feels a little clunky and doesn’t give me the fine tuning/image optimisation that I want. It also has a habit of distorting images when I don’t want it to and not aligning all the objects along a stitching seam correctly. It’s usually close but not quite good enough.
As I have never really felt completely satisfied I tried out and invested in Panorama factory. This does a nice job of aligning the elements of the image as well as offering lots of power, but really does need a panoramic head to work properly. It often leaves some areas which are not quite sharp e.g. where fine details such as grass didn’t align exactly between images. My solution to date has been to output the panoramic image as a layered Photoshop file. This allowed me to fine tune the blending to remove blurred areas by adjusting the masks in the layered file. This is time consuming and quite complex even when you know exactly what you are doing with Photoshop masks.
If I am totally honest with myself I shouldn’t have invested in Panorama Factory if I wasn’t prepared to use a panoramic head but I was swayed by the cost. You see, when I did my testing a few years back PTGui was really the best option given how I wanted to shoot but I was put off by the cost. PTGui is only a graphical front end for Panorama Tools (which is a freeware package) and I just wasn’t prepared to pay a hefty license fee for something built around the genius of another’s work. This was the wrong decision and I think I should have purchased PTGui.
As I have now decided to make panoramic work a major feature of my photography I have recently downloaded the trial version of PTGui and PTGui Pro once more. I have to admit that I am very happy with the ease of using the software which can be highly automated saving me time and effort. This sits well with my lightweight philosophy. The only problem; I am still reluctant to pay the license cost as I would need the Pro license.
That’s when I came across Hugin which is also a graphical front end for PTGui. It feels remarkably similar to PTGui in terms of operation and it appears to be just as capable with very similar features to the Pro version of PTGui. The image above was created from 4 images captured on a Panasonic GX1 which was tripod mounted. I tried the stitching in Photoshop and Panorama Tools but I could see problems. PTGui did a great job but so did Hugin with an almost identical result even down to how it determined the stitching – not surprising given they both have the same stitching engine.
Now you might be thinking that I am about to repeat my past mistake of not paying for the best tool because of the cost. I don’t however know at this stage which is the best tool. And, Hugin is freeware so there is no cost other than in my time to learn and experiment with the package. I might still decide to invest in PTGui but so far Hugin is doing a great job and meeting all my requirements. If you are interested in shooting and stitching panoramic I think this is a great package that’s well worth investigating and it’s free.
Recently I realised there was a feature I was missing from the Sony NEX camera that I sold last year. This is the sweep panoramic where you simply sweep the camera horizontally or vertically to produce a panoramic when taking the shot. I thought this was a great feature and one that I could have used when shooting the Ribblehead Viaduct in an earlier blog. My friend who had an iPhone with him at the time had this feature and I now discover I have something similar on my Samsung phone.
To be fair, the Sony Sweep Panoramic dealt fine with large detail but if something had lots of small detail like rocks in a landscape, it didn’t always work well (again, covered in an earlier blog). Additionally if you didn’t move smoothly or in a straight line you could get some strange results. It complained when you moved too fast or too slow. Worse still, if the subject or you were moving, well you probably needed to forget it. I’m actually starting to wonder why I miss it so much!
Now, some of the cameras I use also have a Panoramic Assist mode, for example where they show a faint version of the previous picture overlaid on the camera LCD to help you line up. Again this isn’t perfect and I find it slow to use which means it might not be suitable for many situations where you need to act quickly. The only real solution to this is a true panoramic camera such as my Xpan but then I am back to shooting film which I don’t always want to do.
If you are a RAW shooter and you want the best quality possible, you will need to shoot individual images and then stitch them in software. That’s exactly what I did with the image you see above. This is a series of 6 images shot in RAW using a GF1. I shot the images from a moving boat when passing this particular island and the angle of coverage is about 160 degrees. Quite an extreme set of circumstances to shoot panoramic and one where speed was the key.
If you are wondering how I lined up 6 images so quickly (the boat was travelling quite fast), I used the cameras gridlines. On all my cameras I have the gridlines turned on that divide the screen horizontally and vertically into 3rds. I make a mental note as I shoot of where the vertical grid line is on one side so that I can move the camera to align the vertical line on the other side when shooting the next image in the sequence. This ensures I overlap my images about a third which is ideal for putting through stitching software such as Photoshop’s “photomerge” function. The horizontal gridlines also allow me to judge easily if I have moved the camera up or down.
This takes a little bit of practice but shoot around 20 such sequences and you can become incredibly quick. The image above is 10” x 36”, shot in RAW and could be printed at double this size with some interpolation. The stitching is spot on and there were no telltale joins. I could never have achieved this with any other method
I have discussed on this blog in the past how I sold my NEX5 because I wasn’t happy with either the range or quality of the lenses. These factors were very important to me so I’m not saying the NEX5 is a bad camera. Quite the opposite in fact and there is one feature in particular that I deeply miss and that is the Sweep Panorama.
This is the ability to shoot a panoramic picture by simply releasing the shutter and moving the camera slowly and smoothly in a given direction. The camera takes images in quick succession and then stitches them into one long panoramic image in camera to produce a final JPG. If you have never used this feature I can assure you it is very addictive and makes shooting panoramic much easier than shooting and stitching multiple images in software. What has suddenly made me nostalgic for this feature was my recent trip to Whitby where my friend was using his new Sony camera and I would regularly hear the tell tale clicking shutter of the sweep panoramic.
With this in mind I decided to review some of my old sweep panoramic images such as the one shown above. Now whilst I am raving about the sweep panoramic there are a few limitations you need to be aware of – at least in the NEX5 at the time I was using it.
Firstly you need to set up the camera with the direction of sweep. Is it left to right, bottom to top or the reverse of one of these? This can take time and sometimes you don’t have the camera ready at just the moment you need it.
Moving subjects can be difficult to capture. Imaging you are standing on a beach and photographing a wave coming in. The wave will have moved slightly between each shot and the stitching usually couldn’t deal with this.
Finally there was the problem with stitching fine details which was magnified further when using a wide angle lens. Take a look at the sample below which shows this problem.
This can of course be overcome with some work in Photoshop however I would rather avoid this and have a finished image where possible.
On a final positive note, the Sweep Panoramic seemed to overcome the problem with soft corners (although this may be due to in camera cropping).
For now then I will still have to lust after the sweep panoramic mode and continue to stitch my images in software.