Panoheads: How to Choose and Operate a Panohead/Gimbal for 360 Photography
What is a panohead and why you need one
A panohead allows photographers to shoot images around the entrance pupil of a lens to produce a panorama. It is possible to create high resolution or ‘gigapixel’ equirectangular spherical panoramic images with a DSLR camera by attaching a panohead to a tripod. With it one may obtain all of the images required to manually stitch a 360 image together with the help of other software tools.
Generally speaking, there are mainly 2 kinds of panoramic heads for shooting 360:
–Spherical heads, which enables 360/spherical panoramas to be created, which is the kind of panoheads we will be discussing the most in this tutorial;
–Robotic heads, which are automated spherical heads so they can take gigapixel panoramas automatically.
Throughout this tutorial the term ‘panohead’ and ‘spherical head’ will be used interchangeably to mean the same piece of equipment.
Function of panoramic heads
A panohead ensures that the actual lens/sensor of your camera, sometimes also referred to as the no-parallax point or the nodal point, stays in exactly the SAME spot whilst the body of the camera and its optics rotate around a single point in space so that the entrance pupil passes the data on through to the sensor. You can think of it as a visual center of gravity and it must remain perfectly aligned with itself to gain a good result.
You may manually stitch together the photos in post-production. Correctly aligning your sensor with a panohead negates the parallax effect which is otherwise created when you rotate the camera around any other visual center of gravity. When you are moving the camera around its nodal point, the action can be referred to as the ‘nodal rotation’ or the ‘nodal axis’.
In rare circumstances, this nodal point can be the same as the optical center of the lens but it can occur. When this happens, it is much easier to find the nodal point but as it is so rare, this tutorial can always come in handy for you.
Panoheads normally fit on top of tripods with a standard ¼ inch thread and consist of a specially designed right angle bracket with the ability to turn and twist in place to gain the sequence of images required for your spherical format panorama.
To obtain all the shots required to create your chosen spherical image, a panohead is rotated at a specific number of degrees per shot, enabling overlapping of matching control points. Once obtained, the panorama can be built with different pieces of software. This process is known as ‘stitching’ together the images and it can be done either manually or automatically. Examples of software used to accomplish this are: PTGui, Hugin, Microsoft Image Composite Editor (known as Microsoft ICE) and Autopano. There are different price points and range from open source software through to tools which cost a fortune. VeeR has tutorials on most mainstream 360 editing software, which you can check out under “VR Tutorials”.
What makes a good panohead
A good quality panohead will have scales to utilize different angle points and detents to utilize along with this so that you know where the most common degree points are, high quality bearings and levels so that adjusting the head is made much easier. One may also purchase what is known as a ‘robotic panoramic head’. These automated systems are what is known as ‘fire and forget’ and will go through the rotation process themselves with no input from you once you have hit the start button.
A good quality spherical head is made up of three distinct parts:
- The base, which is marked and/or notched every x degrees depending on your required overlap to obtain control points for accurate stitching in post processing. A large overlap of around between 25% to 30% is considered normal to obtain control points on all images.
- When considering purchasing a panohead, choose the notched base carefully, as it is essential for the panohead to rotate for a certain number of degrees without you having to check the viewfinder. A notched base will show you the amount of degrees it rotates, and how many shots it will take to complete a full panorama.
- A horizontal slider, which moves along the horizontal arm, to enable the moving of the sensor to directly above the rotation axis of the panohead.
- A depth slider, which moves along the vertical arm, to enable the entrance pupil to stay above the rotatory axis.
If you have a normal camera you can also use a spherical panohead but there is an extra piece to the panohead. A final slider is added so that you can place the pupil of the camera at the visual center of gravity as point and shoot cameras often have a standard mounting thread but this point and focal point of the camera itself are non-standardized.
A robotic panohead has a further piece where the computing takes place and often has a screen such as in the example below.
It is possible to build your own spherical panohead if you have a low budget, or are wanting to make one for a specific piece of equipment that no universal slider is compatible with yet; or if you want one for a phone, even. In that case you can still buy a rotatory base only to speed up your McGyvering.
How to find the no-parallax point/nodal point of your camera
To find your camera’s no-parallax point through trial and error, you can do the following:
1. Mount your camera.
2. Level your panohead.
3. Find two objects on the left hand side within the viewfinder. One close and one further away from you.
4. Make a note of how far the objects are from one another in your view finding reticule.
5. Rotate your camera so that these objects are now on the right of the viewfinder.
6. Is the distance the same? If so, you have your horizontal axis correctly positioned. If not, you do not and adjust the head accordingly. This difference is known as the parallax effect.
7. Adjust your head slightly to make up for the difference. Repeat until there is no difference between the two objects when on the left or on the right of the viewfinder.
8. Start again, this time using the top and bottom of the viewfinder and repeat until there is also no difference.
Once this is completed, you are ready to actually begin taking the photographs that will go on to make up your spherical format panoramic image!
List of panoheads
Don’t know which panohead to buy yet? Check below for a list of panoheads to get some ideas!
Fanotec (Nodal Ninja)
Fanotec, founded by developer and inventor Nick Fan, is based in Hong Kong. Fanotec manufactures the award winning Nodal Ninja panoramic tripod heads and accessories. Fanotec uses high quality lightweight aluminum alloy and state of art CNC machining processes. Nodal Ninja accommodates most cameras and lenses as well as shooting styles. These pano heads allow the user to produce virtually any type of panorama.
Level: Amateur – Semi Pro.
Lenses: 8mm – 50mm focal length
Features: Compact, Inexpensive, Durable
Popular Uses: Real Estate, Travel, Hobbyist, Amateur
Cameras: Compact, Micro Four Thirds, smaller DSLR’s
Level: Amateur – Pro.
Cameras: DSLR’s, + Medium Format
Features: Upper Rotator 7.5° stops or free rotation
Popular Uses: Landscape, High Resolution, HDR
Level: Amateur – Pro – Google.
Lenses: Fisheye 4.5-17mm.
Features: Smallest Pano Head, fits to lens not camera
Popular Uses: Google Street Views, Real Estate, Poles
Cameras: Any – fit based on lens
Level: Semi pro – Pro.
Lenses: M1 Series 8- 200+mm / M2 Series 8-400+mm
Features: Arca-Swiss Modular Design, Upgrade paths
Popular Uses: Landscape, High Resolution HDR
Cameras: DSLR’s, Medium Format
Novoflex is a German photography accessory manufacturer that offers now three different sets of already pre-assembled products as well as four different rotators. All parts are built modular to be combined with other parts from Novoflex, which makes it easy to customize your panohead for specific demands.
Tom Shot 360 offers a series of ultralight panoheads.
Dimona is a VR evangelist and spherical content creator based in London, UK. They have been experimenting within this arena since discovering VR as empathy machines whilst studying psychology at university. Dimona can be reached at Dimonauk@360camerasandfilm.co.uk or on social media by searching for dimonauk.