I’m always happy to run outings or learning sections by other accomplished photographers who wish to share their experiences with photography or traveling in the Asian theatre.  Tom Tweedel is a good friend with significant experience in China and has self-published several interesting volumes of his travels in China complete with many great images and informative narrative.  A few months ago he visited Thailand for the first time and I had a great time showing him around the area.  When Tom told me he’d like to share some of his work in this weekly I was both excited and grateful.  I hope you enjoy China through his lens as much as I have.  For those whose plans include extended travel in China I’d recommend contacting Tom and inquiring into obtaining copies of his books.  Tom Tweedel is an Austin, TX based photographer and can be reached at tomsds@austin.rr.com


Panoramas on the Go

Panoramas are very fascinating aspect of photography. It allows you to capture and present the grandeur of scene better than any other photographic technique. With the advent of digital cameras and sophisticated software they have also become more accessible.

With the addition of QuickTime VR and Flash movies panoramas have moved into the digital age with more options. These new tools allow us to use our images in new ways besides just having them printed.
 

High Resolution Landscapes-

One of the drawbacks of panoramas was that they are fundamentally clumsy to deal with on paper because of their aspect ration (height/width). If you have a very impressive shot that is 120 degrees wide you often had to compromise its display because your paper was only so wide. To fit the whole thing on you had to make the print very narrow. This applied web images as well. If the pano is as wide as your monitor it’s usually not tall enough to see the detail or get the effect. By taking your high resolution image and turning it into a pano movie the user can pan and zoom across your landscape and see it in its full detail. While it’s not the full magic of a large scale print its pretty good.

Below is an example of a panorama of the Bangkok skyline rendered 800 pixels wide, not very impressive.

One of the drawbacks of panoramas was that they are fundamentally clumsy to deal with on paper because of their aspect ration (height/width). If you have a very impressive shot that is 120 degrees wide you often had to compromise its display because your paper was only so wide. To fit the whole thing on you had to make the print very narrow. This applied web images as well. If the pano is as wide as your monitor it’s usually not tall enough to see the detail or get the effect. By taking your high resolution image and turning it into a pano movie the user can pan and zoom across your landscape and see it in its full detail. While it’s not the full magic of a large scale print its pretty good.

Here are two flash movies of the same scene. The first is low resolution for slow connections. The second is high resolution for high speed connections.

Use the control buttons to scroll and zoom

BKK Panoramic High-Rez

BKK Panoramic Low-Rez

360VR  Pano Movies

The second new use for pano images is creating 360 degree VR Movies. This opens a lot of options for capturing the reality of a place that a single photograph (or even a group of photographs) cannot.

Here is a Flash 360 movie taken in Suphanburi.

Suphanburi

Gearing up for Panos on the Go

Traditionally shooting panoramas involved large tripods, specialized cameras and heads. Not quick, cheap or easy. Digital trimmed that down significantly in terms of cost and weight. Still it required a tripod and a mechanically complex head along with significant setup time. I wanted to take panos in Thailand but knew that it wasn’t feasible to carry a full kit around and spend several minutes setting up each time I wanted to take a shot. There had to be a better way. So I did some research and this is what I found.

The lens – Your choice of “which lens” is naturally the foundation of everything to come. There are a number of options out there. The first choice is if you want to invest in a fisheye or use “regular” wide angle lenses. Both will get the job done (especially if you have something in the 10-24mm range). Fisheyes just let you get the job done faster and easier.

For those of you like myself shooting Nikon DX cameras the Nikon Fisheye 10.5mm f/2.8G ED AF DX is an excellent choice. Its lightweight and not much bigger than a 50mm prime and fast (F2.8 max aperture). Plus when your not doing panos you have a fully functional fisheye to play around with.

If your shooting a full frame Canon they have a Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye for about the same price.

For full frame Nikon there is the Nikon AF 16mm f/2.8 D Fisheye for a few bucks more.

Support-

After I had picked out the lens the next question was how do I ditch the tripod? After thinking about it I realized the tripod did three things for me

1 – It made sure all the shots were taken from the same level and the same point of rotation.

2 – It helped to make sure each shot was equally spaced apart.

3 – It provided support for maximum sharpness and allowed the possibility of longer exposures.

When considering all the options I realized that a monopod could do 1 & 2 and some of 3. In my experience with stitching, especially doing VR type images the critical sharpness of the image really doesn’t matter since its getting stretched and distorted every which way in the processing. I would miss the tripod for the longer exposures, but something was better than nothing.

So a monopod it was. There really wasn’t anything special about the monopod. I selected one that had a comfortable folded and extended length and wasn’t too heavy to carry or on my wallet. For me something light enough and small enough to hang from my belt was the main criteria.


Mounting Hardware

After getting the monopod the next challenge was to get the camera mounted on the monopod in a portrait fashion. For that I turned to the guys at Really Right Stuff. I’m a big fan of their L-Brackets, every time I get a new SLR I get a custom bracket for it. It allows me to fit it into my existing tripod head, flash bracket and more. They stock excellent modified Bogen monopod head that is factory attached to one of their clamps. You just screw it on and you’re ready to go with your L-plate in either portrait or landscape.

That provided me with a good platform to work off of. Now the only thing missing was how to make sure each shot was level and equally spaced apart. There are all sorts of heads and contraptions to mount on your support to do this. But it was important to keep it small and light. Once again Really Right Stuff had the answer in the form of the PCL-1 Panning Clamp with the PCL-DVT attachment. It is a small but solid head that can easily clamp into the jaws of that Bogen monopod. You can then put your camera into its clamping jaws. If your looking to save a few bucks and a little weight you can actually dispense with the Bogen head all together and screw the PCL-1 directly onto your monopod. I preferred to use it with the Bogen head however as it gave me additional utility when using just the monopod. The PCL-1 is a wonderful little gadget. It has etched markings in 2.5 degree increments and a built in bubble level. This allows you to check your level and helps assure even spacing between shots. When your done it easily fits in your bag or pocket with no disassembly required.
 

Shooting the Panorama

Shooting a Panorama on the go can be quick and easy once you’ve got it down. With a bit of practice you can go from deciding to shoot to moving on your way in a few minutes.

Once you have picked out a location extend the monopod to a comfortable height and place your camera on the PCL-1 (preferably in portrait orientation).

When shooting Panoramas it’s very important to set your shooting mode to manual. The range of exposures in other modes will make the blending both ugly and difficult. Since you’re likely to be shooting things from bright sunlight to deep shade you need to make some choices about what to expose for. Usually I choose a key object or view that is going to be the most attractive thing in the picture and expose for that.

Its also a good idea to lock your white balance in one of the closest presets. Using Auto white balance can cause color differences.

If y you want to avoid any possible focus mistakes you should put your camera into manual focus mode and focus at infinity.

Pay attention to the orientation of your monopod. The most common mistake when shooting from a monopod is creep. As you shoot and rotate the camera on the PCL-1 you tend to rotate the monopod as well. This will result in gaps in the final product. I avoid this by starting at the zero degree setting and having that pointed or lined up with something distinctive around me. That way when I’m shooting I can easily check if I’m still lined up. You can also use the screw knob of the monopod clamp as a pointer.

After lining up look at your bubble level. Shift the pod around until your bubble level is in the middle and then take the shot. If you’re using the fisheye you’ve got a little play if your not totally level so don’t sweat it too much.

After you’ve take the first shot hold your monopod steady and then rotate the camera on the PCL-1 head. Line up with your bubble level and take the next shot. Repeat this until you’ve done all 360 degrees (6 shots with a Fisheye). If you’re not using a Fisheye you’ll need to figure out a head of time how many shots it will take you to go 360 degrees. As a rule you should overlap about 1/3 on each side to give plenty of overlap (only the middle third is used on each shot). In a pinch you can get away with less but better too much than not enough.

Once you’ve shot all around you can shoot a top shot if you like. The top shot is a little different. Pull the camera out of the PCL-1 and then lay it down on top of it pointing straight up. Eyeball it to make sure the monopod is level (or put a bubble level in your hot shoe) and take a shot. It’s a good idea to rotate the camera 90 degrees (spinning it around on an axis through the lens so that it’s still pointing straight up) and take another shot. This will make sure that you have enough reference points on the top shots to stitch with the regular shots. In some cases (like a uniform sky with nothing in it a top shot really doesn’t add much to the pano so you might skip it all together.
 

But what about the Nodal Point?

One of the bane of shooting panos has been getting everything around the nodal point. This is the optical center (not actual center) of a lens. If you don’t use the nodal point it’s possible to have parallax errors and distortions in the final image. In the past I spent much time, pain and effort in trying to get my shots around the nodal point. Then I realized that many times it doesn’t matter. If your shooting in any space bigger than a medium sized room the nodal point doesn’t really come into play when your using a fisheye or wide angle lens.  There’s just not enough difference between your rotational point and the nodal point to be a factor. The further away your subject is the less of an issue it becomes.


What about the Bottom?

Getting the bottom shot (so you have full 360x180 view) is tough. Stitching it is even tougher and Parallax errors can come into play. In my opinion its really not worth it since it doesn’t add too much to the pano.

To illustrate this point I shot this panorama on the Island of Ko Samet handheld (no pod or clamp) using an 18-200 lens shuffling my feet around as I rotated.

Ko Samet

After you’ve got all your images captured the next step is to put them all together and turn them into a VR movie which will be the topic for my next article.

Happy shooting!

Photography News of Interest

Adobe has released RC versions of Lightroom 2.3 and ACR 5.3  You can download them here.

A father and daughter have both won first prizes in the national photo contest of Ireland.  Great accomplishment!   You can read about it here.

Super-zoom point and shoots are all the rage lately.  Image quality isn’t better than from any other point and shoot, but the zoom range can certainly make for interesting photography.  Of all the current models the Panasonic FZ28 interests me the most.  You can read a review on the FZ28 here.

I’ve done workshops to Alaska but have only dreamed about one to Antarctica.  The adventure is extreme and the images simply stunning.  Read this blog entry on this groups trip to Antarctica here.