How to choose your panoramic head to make a virtual tour ?
Shoot a photo of a complete sphere without a special accessory, the panoramic head, is illusory. When you want to make virtual tours, you absolutely need a panoramic head called spherical. It enables to direct the camera in absolutely all directions around the entrance pupil of the lens.
For the ones who want to create a virtual tour of high quality and above all, that stitches well, I still think it is better to set the camera at the entrance pupil, hence obvisouly using a panoramic head. Some pieces of panorama stitching software are undoubtedly very good but... not always and especially since it is about stitching all the edges of each photo. I'd like to say again that this ideal rotation point is always the same for a given camera, lens and focal. There's no need to look for it every time. Once you found it, quietly at home, you only have to set your camera at the right place, at the entrance pupil that you'll have marked with the marked reglets on the stages of the panoramic head.
Even if two moving axis are enough for the panoramic head, when you're trying to make a mono-range panorama stitching, as you could see in the tutorial dedicated to the stitching of a panorama and enable to set the camera ideally, meaning that the entrance pupil of the lens is just above the rotary axis of the panoramic head, in the case studied here, it needs to have third one, around the tilting axis. In the first case we were talking about cylindric heads, because they enable to make a cylinder (floor and ceiling of the photo are missing) and in this second case we're talking about spherical heads because they enable to shoot a complete sphere. The camera body also tilts at the entrance pupil. Here is a presentation of a spherical panoramic head and its different parts for starters...
The key points if you're a beginner
Here are the key points to remember about panoramic heads. The rest of this page is aimed at those who want to learn more.
To make a virtual tour, a panoramic head is almost essential, especially when you do it from time to time!
Choose its notched base carefully because it enables to rotate the panoramic head from the number of degrees you need without looking through the viewfinder. Very convenient! There are several models that I'll study in details in these pages.
Spherical panoramic heads can themselves be divided in two categories: the manual heads and the motorized heads.The manual heads in two sub-categories: the adjustable heads and the fixed heads for fisheye lens. In most cases, we'll use a manual spherical head or a fixed one, less expensive and more convenient when you only want to shoot a few photos. New motorized panoramic heads are, as for themselves, more dedicated to the realization of gigapixel panoramas and thus multirange like the project paris-26-gigapixels.com I realized with the company Kolor in March 2010.
My recommendation!: motorized heads are not adapted to shoot a complete sphere (in september 2016!). To realize a complete virtual tour (360°x180°), I really recommend manual heads.
Adjustable manual spherical heads
Unlike cylindric heads, it is thus possible with a spherical panoramic head to tilt the body in all axis of the entrance pupil and thus to realize multi-range panoramas and of course a complete sphere. These heads are adjustable and can thus adapt to all sorts of pairs camera/lens. They're almost always made of the following parts:
Marked and notched base (1) - not only marked on 360° but even better, notched every xx degrees depending on the needs in order to rotate it of the accurate number of degrees you need between two consecutive photos without looking through the viewfinder. The number of degrees depends of course on the focal used while keeping in mind an overlap rate of 25/30% ideally.
A horizontal marked and sliding stage at the bottom (2) - to shift the center of the lens seen from front above the rotary axis.
A vertical arm supporting a tiltable sliding stage (3) - On the head Manfrotto 303 SPH, the arm can be folded over for transportation. Tip! ideally, the arm must turn over on 180° to shoot the photo towards the floor.
A stage sliding in depth where you fasten the camera if it's a reflex one (4) - The camera is directly fastened on this stage 4(no need to mount an additional stage) if it's a reflex camera. You only have to make the setting in depth.
Clamping screw of the tiltable stage (5) - The tiltable stage is adjustable on +-180° and enables to aim at the zenith and nadir.
Entrance pupil and spherical head
On a spherical head, the body is fastened on a reglet sliding backwards that can be tilted. Just what you need for the entrance pupil of the lens to be above the rotary axis and in the tilting axis. Of course, it enables to shoot on several ranges because the camera rotate around the entrance pupil in 3D anyway.
A few more remarks: There are many models of spherical heads on the market of panoramic heads. This models however, unlike cylindric heads, are noticeably les stable because the camera and its lens are in back and side overhang as you can see in the photo above.
Fixed spherical heads
When you're shooting a complete sphere with a fisheye lens, it is possible to shoot a field of 180° vertically on one photo with a circular fisheye lens. It is thus, theoretically, possible to shoot the complete sphere in one range of photos, without tilting the spherical panoramic head, in two or three photos only. You can thus use a special head, fixed, perfectly adapted to each fisheye lens thanks to a specific clip. The most famous model is the Nodal Ninja Ultimate R1 (there's another version, simpler and less expensive, the R10).
A specific clip circles the lens and enables to position the entrance pupil just above the rotary axis. It is easy to spot the right position found at home thanks to the marked reglet.
With this head, the camera and its lens rotate around the entrance pupil. It is especially not bulky, light and fits really well at the top of a telescopic pole as seen in the previous page. However, this setting has two points that could be bettered if you want to get the best possible quality of harmonization at the level of the sky and the floor. Indeed, if you're shooting with a full-frame fisheye lens (hence not a circular one), the vertical field of view isn't 180° but only 150°. So there's an overlap zone missing at the top and the bottom. There are two solutions then:
Either you don't want a part of the sphere - the floor or the sky - and you just have to tilt the head slightly upwards or downwards thanks to the little blue screw (tilting screw here on the right). It enables to benefit from a small overlap zone.
Either you tilt your camera slightly on 30° seen from front on the left or the right for the diagonal of your sensor to be now placed vertically. This diagonal shoots on 180°, as for itself. But be careful, even if you shoot on 360° x 180°, you won't have any overlap zone in the sky or on the floor. It is thus an interesting solution when you want to shoot a complete sphere at the top of a pole while accepting that there will be edits to perform.
When you tilt the body on 30°, the sensor's diagonal is placed vertically and includes a field of view of 180° then.
It is interesting to note that the new head Novoflex VR Slant works on that principle.
Motorized spherical heads
Panoramic motorized heads are in fact spherical heads which rotation AND tilting are motorized and which can have two vertical arms, as in the case of this head Gigapan Epic Pro. It is almost essential to make gigapixel panoramas hence virtual tours in very high definition. They have an incredible zoom-in power! Come what may, it is so convenient that you'd better not try it if you don't want to be addicted! However, I still prefer my manual head to shoot virtual tours with my fisheye lens hence in eight photos.
My recommendation!Caution, motorized heads are not really adapted to shoot virtual tours with only a few photos shot with a fisheye lens. It is indeed complicated to shoot the zenith and the nadir with it. I keep my motorized head for gigapixel panoramas and my manual head for virtual tours, of hotels for instance.
Rotary base controlled electronically (1) - all the parameters of shooting, field of view, number of ranges, of columns, of sequences, and so much more... are controlled via the control box. You can see the control window here.
A horizontal stage sliding forward/backwards manually and marked (2) - to slide the entrance pupil of the teleobjective lens above the rotary axis (or at least get close to it) and above all, balance the mounting for the engine not to force too much.
The tilting arm - two here for more stability - can be set in height (3) - in order to center as much as possible the optical center of the teleobjective lens with the tilting axis of the motorized head.
Entrance pupil and motorized head
On a motorized head, the focal used is often very long and it has two interesting consequences:
The entrance pupil of long focals is always found in the depths of the teleobjective lens hence close to the junction lens/camera hence the balance point. And it is very important to place the set lens/camera at the center of gravity of the panoramic head in order to alleviate the engines of the head. Being close to the entrance pupil is widely enough.
Moreover, we saw in the page dedicated to the entrance pupil that it was even more important when you shoot a the same time a sharp foreground and background. But with a long focal it is never the case because of the blatant lack of depth of field!
A few last remarks: there are more and more models of motorized heads on the market of panoramic heads. These models are more or less convenient, bulky, stable, open, and it will be easy to find the one at your convenience!
Caution! motorized heads don't all enable to photograph the zenith automatically. And of course, the nadir can't be accessed directly...
Different parts of a panoramic head
Let's now see in details the different parts of a spherical panoramic head before enumerating a few spherical panoramic heads on the market.
1 - Marked base, notched if possible
A marked rotary base and if possible notched is essential. It enables to rotate the camera of the number of degrees you need between two consecutive photos without having to look through the viewfinder. It is very convenient and fast! Almost all panoramic heads on the market nowadays have a rotary base - even if there are two kinds as you'll see below.
My recommendation! it is one thing to have a notched base to make your work easier during the shooting, and it is a different one to be able to change the number of notches easily when you change lenses.
For those who'd want to build their own head, it is possible to buy the rotary base only, which I highly recommend, but in this case, it might as well be notched. I see three interesting ones among all head brands: the base Manfrotto Ref. 300N, the bases Novoflex Panorama and the notched model Panorama=Q Pro and finally, the positioners Nodal Ninja R-D3, R-D8 and R-D16.
Why notched? Thanks to the notches, there's no need to look through the viewfinder anymore to see if you rotated the camera enough. You just have to rotate the head feeling when the head stops on the next notch. It is convenient to work fast during the shooting. There are also occasions when you can't look through the viewfinder because of the lack of space. I happened several times to shoot 360° on Paris roofs or in the mountain and I couldn't walk around the camera because it was at the edge of empty space. But, since I couldn't watch through the viewfinder all the time, I couldn't always check the angle of the rotation... Not so convenient! Moreover, with this possibility, I can shut the peephole on my viewfinder to make sure that no light will come through it. I failed some photos because of a nice halo! So this notched base isn't essential, but so convenient when you tried it. By changing hole on the head above, it is easy to change the number of photos to shoot a 360°.
Particular case: the head Nodal Ninja
On some panoramic heads like the Nodal Ninja, the notched base is made of a brass stage pierced of a certain number of holes every xx degrees. The head is sold with several brass clips, pierced differently on each side. The setting of the number of notches is thus done by completely dismounting the rotary base. You just have to place the notched clip with the right number of holes. To change the number of notches often, it is not so convenient, however, it makes a really not bulky base hence more stable if, like me, you use your spherical head with the same lens all the time. Clever!
2 - Sliding and marked stages
On spherical heads, you'll find a marked and sliding reglet at the bottom, a vertical arm with a tilting axis on which is also fastened a second reglet marked and sliding supporting the cmaera body. The most important is that they're marked, in order to spot once and for all all their settings depending on the lens you're using. You can't possibly look for the settings of the entrance pupil at each mounting of the panoramic head!
My recommendation! Heads Nodal Ninja and Bushman Panoramic Kalahari have a clever set of small mobile wedges to fasten against your vertical arm, at the bottom, and your camera stage, at the top, once you found the right setting. It couldn't be more convenient.
3 - Vertical arms
On spherical heads (here a Nodal ninja 3), this arm, more or less thick, supports a sliding stage exactly in the tilting axis in addition, maintaining the camera backwards, and enhancing the overhang, especially with short focals which entrance pupil is always close to the front lens. It is often necessary to set the camera as far back as possible. It is not really compatible with big reflex cameras or middle-sized cameras. They will always tilt slightly on the side, and you'll almost always have to avoid long exposure times since the vibrations transmitted will take a while to be absorbed. On mounting photos you can find on the web, it works but really, as soon as there's a little breeze, it shakes. I don't recommend it...
My recommendation! it is important for those who want to make a virtual tour on a complete sphere, from the floor to the ceiling, that the vertical arm can turn over easily on 180° in order to direct the camera towards the floor. Explications in the page shooting
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