Product Review: Automated Zoomable Panorama Photography With GigaPan Epic Pro

Create panoramas and virtual tours that let you zoom in for fine detail with the GigaPan Epic Pro

The Gigapan Epic Pro and Stitch EFX software make it easier than ever to create zoomable, fully immersive panorama photos out of multiple images.

Gigapan burst upon the world stage in 2008 when a panorama of President Obama’s inauguration, photographed by David Bergman with a Canon compact digital camera and Gigapan panorama head, had so much detail that users could zoom in on individual faces in the massive crowd. It went viral.  Since then, Gigapan has updated and refined its system, and the Gigapan Epic Pro robotic panohead ($895 at Adorama), which is designed for use with most current DSLRs, is the result. The new software, Gigapan Stitch.Efx, promises greater automation to smooth image transitions and gives you greater multi-image exposure control.

Gigapan Epic Pro

The Gigapan Epic Pro brings robotic automation to photographing not just panoramas, but also time-lapse and HDR images with exposure bracketing. Gigapan Epic Pro takes control of the camera, working as both a remote control and robotically controlled automatic rotating pan head.

I had the opportunity to take a Gigapan Epic Pro into the field, shoot panoramas and put them together, learning along the way what it takes to plan, shoot and stitch together a winning panorama in the wide, real world. Here’s what I learned.

 

Gigapan Epic Pro

Field test: A Gigapan Epic Pro and Pentax K-5 II recording a panorama of a scene with a lot of little details that you can zoom in on. See the resuts, below.

 

Setting up

After charging and installing the battery (ya gotta push and lock it in; it takes a bit of effort) mount the Gigapan Epic Pro on your sturdiest tripod and then mount the camera. There is an adjustable camera rail, bubble level and adjustable camera platform that lets you align your camera just so, and shoot with the nodal point for more natural-looking panoramas. Connect your camera to the Epic Pro via one of seven electronic trigger cables. One of them is bound to work on your camera, but if you want to make sure, here’s a list of all compatible DSLRs. Be sure to use your largest memory card, because the image is going to need a lot of storage space. GigaPan recommends at least 4GB. I’d go with more. I used a 32GB SD card in the Pentax K-5.

Then it’s time to program the robot. First, you need to zoom your lens to the desired focal length, and program the unit to recognize your lens’s angle of coverage by aligning the horizon and setting the field of view. To set the field of view of the lens you’re using, choose an object and frame it so it is near the top of the frame, OK that, and then tilt the camera up until the same object is near the bottom of the frame. This will tell the pan head how much to overlap images.

Set your camera to manual mode, and adjust focus and exposure. Now you can choose to shoot either a full 360-degre panorama or one covering a smaller angle of view. In the second choice, the GigaPan prompts you to set the upper left corner and lower right corner of the area you want covered. You may want to do a test run, where the camera and lens is moved through all the steps to capture the multiple panorama images. Look through the viewfinder to make sure there is good overlap between the images. Now you’re ready to shoot your panorama—which could take anywhere from a minute or two to several hours, depending on how large a view you’re covering, your chosen focal length, and how much overlap you have. The final image can consist of anywhere from a handful to literally thousands of individual images.

I was concerned that my aging iMac might not be able to handle a really detailed shot, so I did a panorama that covered about 130 degrees using a 55mm lens, which worked out to be 45 images that would end up taking up "only" 180 megabites. If I wanted more detail in the same scene, I would have used a longer lens. A 100mm lens would have required at least twice as many images, although it probably would have been more because it is important that the images overlap for smooth stitching.

 

Gigapan Epic Pro panorama photography

Step 1: Select, drag and drop all the photos into the GigaPan Stitch.Efx window.

 

Shooting a Panorama

Although I rehearsed these steps in my home and backyard, I came across an unexpected roadblock—literally—when I went out to shoot. I’d chosen a dramatic location that lent itself to a nice, detailed panorama: Washington Rock State Park, in the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey, is a a high point with a clear 30-mile view all the way to New York City. Perfect, right? I waited for a brilliant, clear late autumn day and drove there. The problem? Unbeknownst to me, Hurricane Sandy had closed the place down, and it was being repaired when I got there. After driving up the mountain, I was waved on by the repair crew. Can’t stop, too dangerous. Oops.

Plan B: I scouted out another nearby location—a local park—not quite as exciting, but it was open. I found a location with plenty of zoomable details, and shot a bunch of panoramas.

A few challenges:

1.    It was a partly cloudy day, and during the shooting of a panorama the sun went into and out of the clouds. I was worried: how would the stitching software handle this? As it turned out, GigaPan's Stitch EFX would smooth out the transitions. It came out fine.

2.    When shooting multiple panoramas in one session, I learned that I needed a frame to separate the panoramas for when I got home and started editing, so I could easily tell where one panorama ended and another started. I placed my hand over the lens and took a shot. A completely black frame separated the panoramas.

3.    For a panorama that didn’t cover 360 degrees, plan the shot in advance. Look around, see where to begin and end the panorama. You will be prompted to set the upper left and lower right corners of the panorama, so plan out where you want the edges to fall.

4.    Your camera’s battery may fade out before you do. My camera battery was running down after nearly an hour and while there was still some juice left, if I were to shoot a more extensive round of panoramas, I might have run out of power. Bring enough batteries.
 

 

Gigapan Epic Pro panorama photography

Step 2: Press the stitch button, then go get a cup of coffee. This one took just under five minutes.

 

Using the Software and Uploading Panoramas

Buying the GigaPan Epic Pro (or any other Epic product) entitles you to a free 14-day trial of GigaPan Stitch.Efx software. I expected the process of stitching an image together to be a challenge, but I found that GigaPan Stitch.Efx was intuitive. At first, the program prompts you to tell it how many rows are in each image, and based on that it figures out how many columns there are. My shot consisted of five horizontal Rows and nine vertical columns.

Once I selected all of the images and dragged them into the GigaPan Stitch.Efx window (see above), thumbnails of all the images showed up immediately. I pressed “Save Selection and Stitch” to start the process, then walked away from my computer and got a cup of coffee. A few minutes later, when I returned, the stitching process was complete.

 

Gigapan Epic Pro panorama photography

Step 3: Adjust the color, exposure and other parameters on the stitched image.

 

Now you can adjust colors (dialog box shown above). Press the Adjust Colors button and a dialog box pops up with sliders to change black and white levels, gamma, exposure, temperature, tint and saturation. I increased saturation slightly, warmed up the color temperature, and reduced exposure by 1/3 stop. I also deepened the blacks slightly.

Before uploading, check the panorama carefully. Use your mouse thumbwheel to enlarge areas of the Panorama. In one of the shots that I ended up not using, I was aware that people were walking through the picture as the panorama was being captured, and in the stitched image some of them got cut off. In fact, if you compare the image in the screen shots used to illustrate the article, you'll notice it's slightly different from the final shot. That's because of the cut-off moving elements.

Lesson learned: Shoot multiple panoramas while you’re on the scene…just in case.

 

Gigapan Epic Pro panorama photography

Step 4: Upload to the GigaPan web site to share your zoomable panorama with the world.

 

Conversely, the image I did end up using has a squirrel that first appears on an uprooted tree trunk, then scampers around through the scene, to be captured again and again. Take a look at the final image and see how many times the same little critter appears! (Here's one of them!)

 

Gigapan Epic Pro panorama photography detail

 

Once you’re satisfied with the image preview, hit the Upload button. If you haven’t already done so, you’ll be prompted to set up an account with on GigaPan.com for free hosting. Once you’ve done that, upload your picture. It’ll take a while. My modest 180MP panorama took approximately 10 minutes; your timing may vary depending on your connection speed. If you have dial-up, forget it. You need a fast connection for this!

 

Gigapan Epic Pro panorama photography online

 

Finally, the iamge was done. Notice how the image moved from cloudy to sunny on the right third. The software handled this transition better than I expected. You can see the final, zoomable version here, on the GigaPan web site. Now go find that squirrel!

Conclusion and Recommendation

There is a bit of a learning curve when getting to know the GigaPan Epic Pro and the accompanying software. But once you get the hang of it, it is a fantastic tool; the example shown here barely scratches the surface of its potential, and I encourage you to snoop the “Explore More” option when viewing the sample image to see the kind of applications other photographers are using. There is potential here for architecture and event photographers, and much more. If you are a serious hobbyist or a pro shooter looking to offer a photographic service that sets you apart from the competition, the Gigapan Epic Pro is worth serious consideration.

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