This is an unfair review of the “Gigapan” motorized panoramic mount. It’s unfair because the unit I received did not work properly, and I returned it. But I learned enough to know I did not want it so I did not ask for an exchange. The other thing that’s unfair is that this unit is still listed as a “beta” model by the vendor.
I’ve been wanting something like the Gigapan for a long time. It’s got computerized servos, and thus is able to shoot a panorama, in particular a multi-row panorama, automatically. You specify the corners of the panorama and it moves the camera through all the needed shots, clicking the shutter, in this case with a manual servo that mounts over the shutter release and physically presses it.
I shoot a lot of panos, as readers know, and so I seek a motorized mount for these reasons:
- I want to shoot panos faster. Press a button and have it do the work as quickly as possible
- I want to shoot them more reliably. With manual shooting, I may miss a shot or overshoot the angle, ruining a whole pano
- For multi-row, there’s a lot of shooting and it can be tiresome.
- With the right shutter release, there can be lower vibration. You can also raise the mirror just once for the whole pano, with no need to see through the viewfinder.
Alas, the Gigapan fails in a number of ways. Many of those failures are tied to their decision to use a servo to do shutter release. The servo shutter release seems like it is more universal — you can trigger any camera. However in practice, the physical servo, which is mounted on the camera plate, makes serious restrictions on the size of the camera. I had not expected the Gigapan to handle my heavy SLR camera, but it could not even handle the compact format Canon G5 I have, because the shutter servo is in the way. Without the shutter servo, weight (and the protocol of the alternate method) would be the only limiting factor. You can see how cumbersome the shutter servo is in the promotional photo.
As such the only camera we had which fit was the Canon 870IS. This is a very nice ultracompact, but as a consumer P&S it lacks the ability to lock the focus. It also officially lacks the ability to do manual exposure but it can lock the exposure by being put in its panorama mode. I suppose it’s a bug that Canon doesn’t lock the focus in panorama mode. Without focus lock, you have the risk of focus hunting on some exposures, and of course having it focus on something close in one frame and something far in another. This is not the gigapan’s fault directly, but it is to blame for only taking tiny cameras, which tend to be this way. Update: I have seen reports of some tricks you can do to lock focus and exposure on the canon P&S models.
The shutter servo is also not very reliable. While the instructions said I should lay it flat on the button, in fact it had to be laid at quite an angle to get a proper trigger. That’s more a documentation problem. In this position, it gets in the way of accessing the camera’s zoom controls. It has no way of knowing if it triggered correctly, and may miss a shot, leaving you with a ruined panorama unless you watch carefully. I presume with some cameras it can be set up pretty reliably but you must re-set it every time you put the camera on the mount. Perhaps the gigapan is best if you buy a dedicated camera for it.
The alternatives to a shutter servo are USB control, infrared control, and wired shutter release control. The latter would tend to require buying and hand-wiring the camera’s official wired shutter release, if it has one, or selling kits with common releases. Many cameras will accept infrared control, and learning those protocols is not a hard thing for a vendor to do. Even the latest SLRs have finally realized they should do infrared. IR has the advantage of higher reliability with no need to mount a servo, and of course it’s cheaper and does not interfere with camera mounting much. Its disadvantage is that not all cameras have it.
USB control is the best choice by far. Almost all cameras have mini-USB and there are open libraries for the major camera protocols to control shooting. However, it would mean a few cameras could not be used, but fewer than are lost to the physicality of the servo.
USB control offers a number of other giant advantages:
- The unit gets confirmation the shot was done — 100% reliability. This also means more speed, no waiting required.
- The unit can learn what camera is connected, and have a library of information about it, or information it learned in other sessions.
- The unit can take a test picture and learn about the lens, focal length and orientation. This allows it to calculate the field of view and automatically know how to space out the shots. The user can just change focal length or lens and the pano head would figure it out.
- In some cameras, the unit can put the camera into desired panorama modes — manual focus, fixed exposure, mirror up, fixed white balance and more, or warn the user if the camera is not in the right modes so the user can make manual adjustments.
The main downsides are the inability to control all cameras, and the requirement to plug in mini-usb every time you mount the camera. In addition it requires much more computer power in the controller. There is some merit to finding some cheap PDA that has USB master and selling that with the unit, or allowing users to buy their own. If the protocol is open, control software might also appear for other devices. Another interesting idea would be to write the controller in J2ME and use bluetooth, allowing most common cell phones to act as controllers. (A used cell phone with bluetooth and J2ME is very easy to find for very little money.)
The good news is that Gigaplan intends to move to USB control in their SLR version. Update: I am told that Canon has, bizarrely, removed remote shutter release from the USB protocol of newer powershots, and that fewer cameras are coming with IR remote capability. As such, I recognize the need for a shutter servo — as an option, to be plugged in, and possibly paid extra for, when the user has a camera that can’t do remote release.
Configuring the Gigapan
To set up the Gigapan, you use its arrow keys to move the camera through one vertical frame so it can get an idea of the field of view. It seems to assume 4:3. It always shoots in landscape mode, which is easier to mount, but is the wrong mode for most single-row panoramas. (With multi-row, it doesn’t matter very often which mode you use.)
Unfortunately, the Gigapan only has one configuration. They expect you to typically configure it fully zoomed in, to get the most detailed multi-row panoramas. That is not a good assumption, and you may wish to change the focal length for a variety of reasons. Changing the focal length requires reconfiguring the gigapan, and changing it back requires another reconfigure. At the very least it should have a memory of pre-stored configurations that you can scroll through. It could name them by 35mm focal length and this would be usable.
You can configure the shutter interval, and you may want to do that, because by default it’s pretty slow. In fact, it takes a lot longer to shoot a pano on the gigapan than it takes me manually on my Kiwi panorama mount, or on a regular mount, for that matter. As such that goes against one of my main goals.
The gigapan is controlled by a few buttons on the base. The base however is on the horizontal servo, so it moves as the camera moves. Since operation and configuration involve moving the camera to the corners of the planned pano, you are pushing buttons on a unit that is twisting. Buttons on the base would be better but impossible to reach in this design. Infrared control of the gigapan might have made more sense in this case.
There are really not enough controls, making the menus a bit of a pain to move through.
One trick I think more products should do: Have an IR sensor and work with a standard device remote. Tell people to buy or get a universal remote (we all have several of them) and to program it to control some well established model of TV or other suitable device. For example, there are only a small number of Sony TV code sets, so if you tell them to set a remote to control a Sony TV, it will probably work, but you could do the “try the codes until it beeps” methods that people do with TVs. Now you have a full function remote with all the buttons you could ever want, and you can use it while the unit is spinning or mounted way up high. (For way up high mounting, you need a button to do a shutter half-press in case the screen goes off during aiming.)
Though only meant for tiny cameras, the Gigapan is fairly heavy, and also fairly large and unwieldy, as you can see from the picture. It doesn’t come apart, unlike most manual panorama mounts. This made it quite a burden to pack in my luggage, and not something one would want to carry so readily in a backpack or on a trek to a photographic spot. That really limits what sort of shots it can do, and what trips it will go on. This is a mistake, in my opinion, because while most of the panoramic market has been in real estate tours, a tool like the gigapan is not for that, but instead for high resolution landscapes and urban vistas. Landscapes often require treks.
My gigapan died quickly on my first set of batteries, which showed 9 volts (6x1.5 volts) The battery case is not what I would call well designed. When it died in the middle of shooting a nice pano, K. ran down to a store to get a pack of fresh batteries. Now the unit didn’t die but kept reporting that the shutter servo cable was disconnected. It wasn’t disconnected, and I got no shots. Gigapan support said this was a problem with low battery voltage, but again the new batteries showed 9 volts. (That’s a little lower than some fresh batteries which will show as much as 9.6 volts, but if the unit fails on just dropping to the rated voltage that’s not acceptable.) I am told there was a firmware error which they may have fixed, but again this review is unfair as I didn’t give it the chance.
As noted, the speed of the unit is not acceptable. Serious pano shooters seek speed not just because their time is valuable. Things may be moving in shot, and the longer you take, the more they will move, causing problems. At a gathering another photographer attempted to use a gigapan to shoot the group photo. In its normal configuration, that would have resulted in about 8 minutes to take the pano at the rate it was going, and the group gave up. To fix this he would have needed to reconfigure the gigapan for a shorter focal length, and then get it to do the pano in a more modest number of shots, but even that would have involved several minutes for reconfig and re-shoot, and the crowd would have revolted. Handheld, I can shoot a 10 shot pano of a crowd in 10 seconds.
The gigapan doesn’t at all reach my goals for a pano mount. If I had had a camera more suited to it, it would still have been too slow and hard to use. People wanting to take gigapixel photos want to use more serious cameras — they are obviously very keen on high photographic quality.
However, I want this to work a lot, so I will still be interested when they come out with their SLR version with USB control. However, as that will have to be stronger, I fear it will still be heavy, hard to pack and hard to carry. A different design is called for to fix these problems. In particular, you need a way to be able to take the unit apart or fold it up, the way the Kiwi or Nodal Ninja do.
Many people are working on turning the Orion/Merlin Teletrack ($245) telescope mount into a panohead. There is a program for Nokia linux tablets to do this. This unit is larger and heavier than the Gigapan, but its L-shaped design might actually make it more portable and packable. Powerful servos that are small and light are readiliy available, if the right design is used. I might even consider it appropriate to make a mount that has a servo for horizontal movement — which thus is all you need for single-row panoramas — and uses manual adjustment between the rows, to save the issues of having a 2nd servo. Not that it hurts, but I want to make the unit light, portable and cheap.
Verdict: not yet recommended.
Update: Gigapan has released a new unit (the Epic Pro) which addresses some of the concerns here but at a much higher price. They declined to offer one for review. (Which is a bit strange since this review is the 4th hit for “gigapan review” on Google!)