As my passion for panoramic photography evolved, I looked for equipment that facilitated the production of larger, higher quality images. In hindsight I could have discovered some of these tools and techniques a bit earlier. In fact it would be nice to have a do-over on some of the locations I have photographed using my present gear, although that is probably a common feeling among photographers as our equipment continues to evolve.
Panoramic Tripod Head
The greatest revelation for me was that there actually was such a thing as a panoramic tripod head. It was not uncommon to spend days in Photoshop stitching ill fitting photos together that were taken with a conventional rotating tripod head.
Putting it simply, multiple overlapping images must be taken from exactly the same optical point in space to successfully stitch them together. The panoramic tripod head accomplishes this. It allows the camera to be aimed by pivoting around something called the entrance pupil of the lens. I purchased my Nodal Ninja M2 tripod head within about two hours of learning this. There are still many image assembly challenges, but not due to image alignment.
With any panoramic tripod head, it is necessary to find the no-parallax point adjustments for each of the various lenses and focal lengths. They are marked on my equipment with dots using a ‘paint pen’ and I carry several copies of a chart with this info in my backpack. Thank you to John Houghton for his excellent discussion on the topic of how to determine these numbers for your particular equipment.
The Gitzo G-Lock Ultra, carbon fiber tripod is probably the fourth tripod I’ve purchased, and the second for panoramic shooting. Acquiring hundreds of megapixels for a landscape image usually involves lenses with longer focal lengths such as 200mm or more, and that requires a solid tripod.
I don’t use a shutter remote since it is less practical with panorama shooting. When your hands are continually on the gear while positioning for the next shot, there will always be vibrations introduced. I use a shutter delay along with mirror-up mode on the camera to allow the camera to settle. A good tripod saves much time by dampening these vibrations quickly, as the shutter delay can be reduced to one second instead of two or three. That is a lot of time saved in image acquisition, considering that many or all of what could be 50 or more images may need to be shot at multiple exposures or focus points (another discussion).
Wind will of course also affect the stability of the equipment. The more solid the tripod is the slower the shutter speed can be in an effort to keep the ISO at a minimum and F-stop at a maximum. This is VERY important for large images. Images taken at 300mm don’t have a huge depth of field. When you print a wall sized image, the blur is going to be visible. I try to stay at an F13 minimum, and keep to the native ISO of 64 on the camera. These targets will will dictate a slower shutter speed at times, and a rock-solid tripod like the Gitzo is a must.
I had become rather adept at leveling a previous tripod using only the adjustments of the legs, but after purchasing the Gitzo, decided to go all in and get a leveler. It had to be a sturdy one because of the total weight of the Nikon DSLR and Nodal Ninja panoramic head. The SUNFOTO DYH-90 shown in these photos is pretty much complete perfection in a design. It is extremely robust, quick to adjust, and has a built in rotator. It would be nice if it weighed 3 oz., but the speed and convenience more than make up for its additional weight.
I mention this last because panoramic photography can be achieved with any quality camera. Without the other three pieces of equipment mentioned, quality multi-shot gigapixel compositions would not be impossible. Having said that, I am a huge fan of my Nikon D810. This is why:
Many landscape scenes present an HDR challenge, as they regularly contain very bright AND very dark areas. One could simply bracket the shot with multiple exposures and blend them together for an optimum result. That technique is very popular and effective for single photographs but is very unwieldy when the “shot” may actually be 30 to 50 images or more. The Nikon D810 has a full frame sensor with excellent dynamic range that produces 14-bit RAW files. That means that lights and darks can be very effectively recovered during processing. This greatly (not totally) reduces the need for multiple exposures to expose the entire scene properly. At 36mpix it is no longer the king in its class of DSLR’s but that is still a huge image. Once you take two or more photos and stitch them together, the resultant image is larger than a single shot of even the most recent cameras.
For panoramic shooting I currently use three lenses for most of the work.
Nikkor 70-200mm f/4G ED
After using mostly prime lenses for a stretch (85mm 2.8 was a favorite) I decided to try this one in order to reduce the number of lens changes, and also produce some really large compositions. The lens has not dissappointed. The images are every bit as sharp as the primes, and it’s great to be able reach further for a larger more detailed panorama. It is a fairly light weight lens but the longer physical length means allowing a bit more vibration settling time on the shutter delay. This is currently my first choice for panoramic shooting.
Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR
This lens gives me the reach to produce a large panorama when it is impossible to get close enough to use something smaller. And to be honest, I enjoy photographing birds, airplanes and other objects. Life’s not all about work! This really is an excellent lens. It is very light weight and produces a fantastic image. As I mentioned earlier, depth of field is a challenge on this one. If there are both near and far objects in the scene, multiple focal points are usually required.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G
I seldom use focal lengths of less than 70mm, and aperatures larger than F8 for most panos, so this lens at 2.8 is larger and heavier than I prefer. It is, however, the highest quality lens that Nikon makes in this range, and there are still plenty of single shots to be taken that make this a very useful lens.
It would be an oversight to leave out the detail of this indispensable piece of equipment. The crippling challenges of stitching these monsters together with a “high powered” 32GB, Quad-Core I7, off-the-shelf HP computer have become a distant memory. For months I waited for that ad stating that Dell or HP had finally loaded up a machine with the amount of memory that was actually needed for this line of work. That never happened, but thanks to an excellent company near Seattle, WA called Puget Systems, I have the necessary horsepower to handle any stitching assignment. After loading up my custom work station with 128GB of RAM and getting to work, the true level of resources demanded by Photoshop became much more apparent. It is very common to see 80Gb of RAM in use, as well as 300Gb of Photoshop .tmp files on the two SSD drives.