Alley in Pisa, Italy

by Lars Kotthoff

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As an amateur I've done several panoramas of landscapes and city views. I've mostly done it hand-held with a DSLR, with exposure lock and at the wide end of my zoom-lens. I do the stitching in Photoshop CS5 with the built-in panorama plugin. Given enough overlap I get good results with no weird seams.

What is it that a panoramic head and tripod add to the result? I know what it does and how it works (more or less), but I'm interested in how a series taken hand-held would improve when a tripod and panoramic head is used.

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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

A big reason is that it just makes getting the shot sequence consistent and accurate. In general, you're looking to keep the vertical plane level through the whole sequence and move along the horizontal plane in smooth, even, steps. A panoramic head is simply going to make that easier to do with less effort and risk of a muffed shot at all kinds of focal lengths.

The other big reason, and most important, is parallax. Basically, as you rotate from a fixed position, the distance to the subject changes and that effects the final image. When doing a panorama, you want to find the nodal point of the lens, the point at which parallax disappears, and then rotate at that point. A good panorama head will allow you to do this by adjusting the slide position to the point where your rotation for the panorama won't suffer from parallax. Basically what it does is move the camera away from the point of rotation.

Anyways, if you're really serious into panorama, then this is the way to go. There are some great options out there.

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A panorama head is the most useful when your panorama includes both near and far objects.

The reason for this is that the effect of rotating accurately around the nodal point becomes more important if your objects are near.

The second reason for panorama heads as I see it, is that older software (10 Years ago-ish) did not include the possibility of automatically finding perfect homographies between images. Rotating perfectly horizontally and with the same angle every time became a necessity.

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A panoramic head on a stable tripod allows you to rotate the camera around the nodal point of the lens. This has the effect of making it appear each shot was taken from the exact same spot with no change in perspective. It is especially effective with lenses that have no barrel or pincushion distortion at normal focal lengths of around 50mm.

For a discussion that includes the nodal point of a lens, see this question. It is basically measured along the optical axis of the lens at a distance of the focal length of the lens as measured from the focal plane.

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1  
A lens has two nodal points, neither of which are what you want to pivot around (this is a common misconception, repeated even by the manufacturers of tripod heads - yes I'm talking to you, Nodal Ninja!) You want to pivot about the entrance pupil, which is the centre of projection for the lens (the point where the light rays "cross"). –  Matt Grum Apr 29 '13 at 15:35
    
Would the entrance pupil always be 1/2 the effective focal length as measured from the focal plane? –  Michael Clark Apr 29 '13 at 21:53
    
Nope, the position of the entrance pupil has nothing to do with the focal length, it's position is determined by the lens design, a 50mm retrofocus will have it's entrance pupil in a completely different place to a 50mm double gauss lens. –  Matt Grum May 1 '13 at 8:05
    
So it is based on the actual position of elements as opposed to a theoretical "simple lens" with one element that has the same focal length and aperture? For what it is worth, I had always associated the term nodal point with what you define as entrance pupil rather than the correct points in the objective lens. –  Michael Clark May 1 '13 at 8:48
    
Focal length tells you almost nothing about a lens other than field of view. Just look at all the 50mm lenses on the market, they're all totally different sizes from pancake models, to large f/1.2 lenses, there's nothing general you can say about where the entrance pupil lies from the focal length alone. The entrance pupil is more of a plane than a point, the point we're interested in is where the optical axis intersects the entrance pupil, hence my preferred term is "centre of projection" since the name tells you what it is (all points are technically nodes!). –  Matt Grum May 1 '13 at 12:18

Panorama heads allow you to put the camera and lens in portrait orientation to be rotated in yaw, so that you get more vertical coverage with single-row panos.

They also allow for adjusting the camera/lens combo's no-parallax point over the center of rotation on the tripod head, so that you can eliminate parallax that could prevent a clean stitch.

Thirdly, the three separate arms of a panohead mean that the camera can not only be rotated in yaw to gain horizontal coverage, but can also be rotated in pitch to gain more vertical coverage with additional rows or even to take zenith (straight up) and nadir (straight down) shots if you're creating a spherical virtual reality panorama.

Pano heads are also precisely marked off and may have rotational detents (clicks every x degrees) so that tracking the shots taken and knowing that you haven't missed one and have precisely covered each bit of the scene is very helpful if you begin shooting with a telephoto lens for better image quality, or for spherical VR panos.

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