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Not entirely fair review of the Gigapan imager

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.

Shutter servo

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!)


The battery problem is the worst thing about this great panorama mount. I tried to shoot a big panorama of about 320 picture but the batteries died 3/4 of the way through. Rechargable batteries are the way to go as the cost of replacing batteries for this thing is crazy!

I have done a 1200 shot pano and then a 220 shot pano on a single set of batteries. Although voltage seemed ok, I did not risk doing another as I was shooting 8000 miles from home and would not get a second crack at it. I also have shot panos with 320, 360, 280, 220, 220 in an afternoon. Yep I logged them to better understand duracel alkaline battery life. An external 9V supply with alkaline D cells or NiCd's would do a lot to help extend life but still not take the risk out of ending up with pano interruptus. Teh only way to avoid tha t is to profiel and understand your batteries. Adding external power is easy to do because the battery holder connection to the PCB is connectorized and accessible.

IF the gigapan has been sitting for a while and the batteries have "unsagged" or floated back to a peak voltage, the voltage can look "good" on the gigapan display. Then after a hundred or 2 hundred shots you end up with lack of shutter acctuation as the bateris have sagged again. I would suggest ignoring the "good" designation on the Gigapan and learn the discharge profile of the brand of batteries that you are using. Profile them so that in a rested condition you know the minimum voltage you can go to for a pano of X shots. Keep in mind that temperature factors into this as well. At cold temps, most battery types do not perform as well.


The positioning of the servo arm related to the camera shutter release can have a significan effect on current consumption. If you have a very small or no gap between shutter button and the arm, then it releases immediately. But it means that the servo cannot acheive its target mechanical set point (as commanded by PWM for the gigapan controler) and it will goes into a stall condition for the entire durration of the button press (shutter hold time). With a tight gap, the shutter release servo on the gigapan is a stalled DC motor for that duration and consumes lots of current. A few ways to deal with this.

1) Shorten the shutter hold time setting (on the gigapan menu) to diminish the time duration of the big current spike while the shutter is pressed and the servo is stalled. Yes there are limits to how short this can be and if you opt to use AF, it is not a good option since AF needs a longer button push.

2) Alternately, introduce an appropriate air gap between the arm and the button so that the servo does not go into stall condition when your shutter release is fully pressed. This takes some experimentation and you need to be careful that it maintains alignment (gap tolerance) as a slight increase in gap can result in lack of shutter release. Yes, introducing the gap will shorten the effective shutter hold time but you can compensate by increasing the shutter hold time setting on the gigapan. Because you have carefully calibrated the gap, increasing the hold time is less of an issue becuase you are not in stall condition on the servo. You can aleviate the gap tolerance issue by introducing a compliant material on the arm or making the arm itself out of a compliant material like spring steel stock. There are a lot of degrees of freedom in the design. You can play with the length of the buttom pusher arm, You can also revise the "horn" (little plastic arm) on the servo to introduce the gap and also to give it more mechanical advantage (to reduce current). Be carefully of friction as you decrease the horn length and increase that mechanical advantage. Where the horn contacts the metal may need polishing and the radius of the contact point on the horn many need increase to avoid plaxtic devormation. The slickest way to do it would be to have a small bearing to act as a roller on the end of the horn... check out your local hobby shop to get these bits.

The bottom line here is that the shutter release current draw can be significantly less if the servo acheives its desired "set point" of where the gigapan has told it to go. This can be accomplished by careful mechanical settings with the existing design or vastly improved by finessing the design of the current shutter release system.


Thanks for a great review! So, what are the options for those wanting to create a gigapix pano?

There are some very expensive automatic pano mounts. One method, used by a model that was around for a while was to have a single-line camera that would rotate and scan the scene. That works for static scenes, though, you can't have motion.

Right now the best approach in terms of portability and speed are the various lighter spherical pano mounts -- panosaurus, nodal ninja, king pano and a few others. Just get a good technique and you can shoot faster manually than the gigapan, and you can more easily carry it and set it up.

But the automatic shot is still very attractive since it is less likely to make errors (barring shutter press errors.)

Gigapan has a SLR version with USB shooting control in the works, they say. If I were them I would make that one, and then I would make a gigapan with a built in camera. Why? Well, the cameras are cheap, and you would not need a shutter servo. In fact, if you could convince a camera vendor to cooperate, you could put the control software on the camera itself, making the unit plus camera cost not much more than the current unit. No need for a complex mount as you only have to support the one camera. Alas, it has to be a zoom camera as nobody makes a standard long fixed focal length cheap digicam. But you might pick a slightly older model, one you can get a bulk order on at around $100 per camera. You don't need any features in the camera really -- just USB shooting and a decent lens.

Too negative.
In all fairness, Brad states it's a biassed review.
But a lot of his grievances might (would) have been overcome if he would have had a chance to get used to the device, and if he had had a camera that would have fit.
For example, the time between photo's can be adjusted, but if the device breaks before you can give that a try... it's a negative outcome.

Also, Brad thinks that a USB control to the camera would be better than the shutter-servo. Again, it is clear he's had problems getting the servo to work reliably - it takes time to get to know the device and Brad didn't have this time.
Let me just say that when it comes to USB control of camera's, every brand, make and model is different. Trust me, I have tried. USB support would guarantee total failure as the whole gigapan would work with a fixed number of camera's and nothing else.

To be strict I say the review is not fair because I did not get to completely examine the product -- because of its own problems -- not because of a bias. If I have a bias it's that I would dearly love a product like this.

I realize that USB control is not nearly as easy as it should be. However, I have used software that does it. What I try to point out is that the use of the shutter servo is also a choice that limits what cameras can go on the unit. The use of USB would also limit what cameras could be used, but for the cameras that worked, the result would be superior -- confirmation of when the photo was taken, ability to time photos, ability to set camera parameters and ability to look at exif data to confirm camera parameters are correct. USB control is a question of software (not trivial) but involves minimal per-unit hardware costs. Servo control requires minimal software but has higher per-unit hardware costs. One can of course make a unit which has a servo as an add-on. (USB control requires a USB controller which is fairly cheap, but he big issue may be whether the microcontroller in the unit is up to the USB task.)

The time between photos can be adjusted but it is still rather slow even at the fastest safe speed, or so I was led to believe.

I don't think it's that much of a sin if the gigapan works only with a set of fixed cameras, unless the set is too tiny. Truth is, it costs more than most of the tiny cameras and it is much bigger and heavier than them, and it's hard enough to put the camera on and off that there would be a strong temptation just to buy a camera just for the gigapan. Indeed, the right move may be to design a unit around a particular camera which is low in features but has a decent lens, and can be controlled by USB in manual mode. It's interesting to ponder if such a unit might cost a fair bit less than a general unit, enough less to justify adding the camera. Especially if it's a slightly older camera, as the gigapan doesn't need the features of new cameras, such as extra megapixels beyond reason, super-tiny size, fast start-up etc.

Wow, you're right.
It does not say so in any of the other reviews, but the shutter servo assembly is really close to the camera. That 'Epic' device will only take small compact camera's and nothing else.
Any slightly serious camera, like a Canon G-series or a superzoom from any brand requires the much more expensive Epic-100.
This is a showstopper for me. The Epic needs a mod or else it's just pointless. If you get such an expensive device to make high quality panorama's you should not be restricted to the smallest of the compact camera's.

I still like the servo-shutter as it is universal and anyone can work it out on their own. USB support sounds good in theory but is far more complicated than you might think. The variety in models and protocols make it hard to offer one software package with universal support. Gigapan would find itself constantly maintaining and updating their software to fix bugs in specific models, and to keep track of all the new camera's. In addition they would have to install an update-feature on their device, and open a service center to help customers who wiped their device. All that is simply not their businessmodel.

But the main point of the review holds very true. The Epic standard model is sadly only designed to support camera's with anything resembling a decent lens, and the Epic-100 is just so much more expensive.

Ideally, it would have metal wheels, a much more adjustable shutter-servo and a counterbalance to accomodate larger camera's.

That is my point. The shutter servo seems "universal" to you but it limits what cameras you can put on the unit, quite seriously. It would require some redesign to make it go further from the camera.

To be fair, it is hard to deal with large cameras. You need heavier duty equipment, not just bigger. And long moment arms are going to mean vibration unless they are very heavy duty. In fact, even the mirror slap on an SLR is too much, so you want to work in mirror lock mode. I don't know if you can program the gigapan to work in mirror lock mode but it turns out you can simulate that with live preview mode. To use mirror lock mode via USB is not possible right now. USB control programs end up having to use a second shutter control that plugs into the wired remote control on the camera.

Note that the wired remote control is another option for devices like the Gigapan. There are various companies who make USB adapters for the wired remote because of the problems with USB control (mirror lock and rapid fire) which could be used. And on the newest DSLRs they have finally realized they should support infrared firing which is another option and requires no plug in hardware.

On the plus side, we can hope that the camera companies wake up to what people want to do with USB control, and allow full access, and standarization of it.

I managed to to adapt the Beta gigapan to my LUMIX FZ18 a couple different ways. Method 1 would allow even a DSLR to work with the Beta.

1) Flip the entire platform upside down and have the servo actuator at the back. OK, now the servo is not high enough to acctuate the shutter from behind the camera. To solve this add a 6" length of 1x 1 x 1/16 aluminum angle (from Ace hardware) with 3 sensibly located holes drilled using a hand drill. One end of aluminum angle is bolted to the housing hanging below the platform and the other end protudes up above the platform and y attach the servo assembly to it. In summary, 3 holes in the aluminum angle, a couple machine screws and you are done. No permanent change to the mount. Totally reversible.

2) Add a 3/16 thick aluminum plate to extend the back of the original platform. Drill hole in new plate for the camera. Peel the rubber from the original platform and put it on the new plate. Works for the LUMIX FZ18 but not likely for larger DSLR. Yes this requires a couple holes drilled in the original plate. I used #8 screws and taped the aluminum plate as I wanted to have maximum freedom to use other camerad by not having nuts on top of the plate.

This project is completed and there are now over 100 users of the system.

The system works very well and is less expensive to put together than the Gigapan Epic.

Shutter can be triggered via wired remote connection or via IR, from the camera control port of the Merlin/Orion.

The system is driven by the free Open source Papywizard software, written in Python, which runs on Nokia Internet Tablets (the N80 can be bought used relatively cheaply), Windows and Linux.

Connection between the Papywizard host system and the Merlin/Orion mount/head can be a wired serila connection of a wireless Bluetooth connection. There are two alternative plug-n-play Bluetooth adapters available for the Merlin/Orion head.

The Autopano Pro and Giga stitching software has explicit support for the Merlin/Orion+Papywizard robotic pano system which uses data recorded during the shoot to assist with the placement of images when sticthing so that even 'featureless' images such as clear blue sky images get placed and stitched correctly.

Inciudentally Autopano pro and Giga also support the Gigapan robotic heads.

IMO the Merlin/Orion+Papywizard system - especially when combined with Autopano Pro or Giga - is the best reasonably low cost robotic pano head system available.


My last examination into this showed some concerns. One was that it possibly was even slower than the gigapan, and I think the gigapan is too slow. Secondly that it was heavier and bulkier, and I think the gigapan is too heavy and bulky.

I do like the ability to tell autopano pro about where the shots were. I wish I could easily do that even for my manual pan heads, as it often insists on thinking the camera twisted when it could not possibly have.

I have begun to think that any kind of automatic pano mount for gigapans from SLRs should be designed around lenses with a tripod mount on the lens. You can get collars for many lenses that don't have these built in, and I would bet you could make generic collars for various diameters of lens as long as they have a spot to be held. you could also make foam mold collars to hold the lenses at their nodal points. This is primarily for long lenses. An automatic mount isn't nearly as valuable on short focal panos which you can do quickly on a manual mount as they are under 30 shots.


I agree that Merlin/Orion is not the speediest of robotic heads.

OTOH if as you correctly point out the most valuable application for robotic heads is using longer focal length lenses, then such lenses mounted on DSLRs are relatively heavy and there's s limit as to how fast one can move them and such setups require a 'settling' time after each move. The Rodeon VR head is faster but it costs 10X as much - 3,700 Euros! Pixorb is faster but that costs US$10,000!!

The most typical application for robotic heads is to shoot high res. mosaic panos of distant city/landscapes - moving clouds are likely to present the greatest challenge in such scenarios; and if shooting a mosaic comprising hundreds of images the challenge remains regardless of how fast the head movement is.

Merlin/Orion is quite happy to accept mounting of lens/camera via a lens collar mount in landscape orientation, after all the mount was designed for use with telescopes.

I'm not sure what the Epic 100 weighs; Merlin/Orion is not as heavy as it looks and if it was any smaller if would further restrict the range of pitch angle that can be acheived.

To reiterate I believe that Merlin/Orion+papywizard offers an unrivalled 'bang for your buck'.

I agree with you that you really don't need a robotic head for panos comprising 30 images or less.

Moving things other than clouds are an issue. I think many popular large panoramas are popular because they have some action in them, people are doing things, it is not just a static landscape. The inauguration is a good example, possibly only because most people are sitting.

Now the gigapan takes an up-down first approach so shooting the matrix, which has some minor advantages but is the worst for motion because most motion is horizontal, including clouds. And clouds can be blended in any event without ruining a picture, while people and vehicles are much harder.

With distant cities, one of the things that gigapans do is actually include the people in what would otherwise be a shot without enough resolution for them.

I may try the Orion at some point. I have seen robotic servos that are fast, accurate and able to move 10lb objects, and they are getting cheaper. The killer as you say is also needing time to stabilize wobble after you move on a long lens. This is why lens collar mounting is important, the moment arm is way too long without it. I wonder if a 3 servo approach might work better to avoid the long moment arms. For this approach you would have a lens collar mount and it would be on a linear track servo to move it backwards and forwards to put the nodal point in the right place after moving the tilt servo, because an off-nodal tilt servo can have a shorter moment arm. I will think about this.

No Parallax Point (NPP or Nodal Point) doesn't matter much when shooting distant subjects with long focal length lenses.

If you are shooting an entirely distant scene, so much so that you don't need to spin about the nodal point, than the existing pano head designs are all a poor choice as they are much bulkier and heavier than they need to be, and they can't support a very heavy camera because of the long moment arms required and the vibrations that happen.

Building a panorama head without nodal point spinning has been treated as a "what would be the point?" problem, though there is a sub-sector of the market that would like it.

It might be interesting to look at designs which can be reconfigured for short moment arms when you are doing a distant shot. But sadly, I find a shot that is entirely distant is rarer than you would think, especially if you start doing 360 degree shots or sphericals. For single-row panoramas, it is more common. For single row, a motorized mount is either very simple or barely worth it.

There may be no good universal answer.

I am certain that there is no good universal answer.

I wish the gigapan had a preshot delay parameter to allow the paltform to stabilize before releasing the shutter. Obvious benefits are related to normal shooting and shooting at night with the longer shutter times where essentially no movement can be tolerated.

Please ...please just one more parameter.....!

Hmm... I have a Beta. If a newer release of firmware has this feature, please post.

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