Hands-On with the GigaPan Epic Robotic Camera Mount

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GigaPan technology first made a big splash during President Obama’s inauguration in 2009, where it was used to capture a rather phenomenal photograph of the crowds that gathered in the Washington Mall. Wolf Blitzer was like a kid in a candy store, and kept looking in on the progress of the picture as it evolved. Since then, amazing GigaPan images have been used to capture Major League Baseball games, the 2012 London Olympics, the Democratic National Convention, the Republican National Convention, the Discovery Space Shuttle and the Mars Rover Curiosity.

Editor’s Note:  This article has been revised and updated as of October 2012.


GigaPan offers a complete innovative technology system, spanning hardware, software and cloud based solutions, to allow photographers, digital content designers and promoters the opportunity to expand the limits of traditional photography. These interactive panoramas bring zoomable, multi-dimensional stories to life through a system of dynamic tools, which drive exploration and engagement for brands, events, research and education.

In addition, GigaPan has introduced GigaTag, an application that combines interactivity and high-resolution imaging into a new social media platform.  GigaTag allows audiences to zoom into the incredible detail of high-resolution images, find themselves, friends, or interesting sights and then tag and share on Facebook. Audiences can experience and share the event as if they are there in the crowd.

Thousands of fans of Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer and the 2012 London Olympic Games have interacted with GigaTag images, fascinated by the stunning detail, searching every face in the crowd, then tagging and sharing on Facebook.

GigaPan EPIC, EPIC 100 and EPIC Pro

We did our own hands-on test of the Gigapan EPIC Robotic Camera Mount. In a nutshell, GigaPan Robotic Camera Mounts create photographs, section by section, in a series of rows and columns determined by the focal length of the lens used and the angle of view of the scene you wish to capture. These rows and columns are stitched together into a single, ultra high-res wide field image file that online viewers can zoom in and out of with the click of a mouse. Unlike 3D technologies, you don't have to wear any headache-inducing eyeglasses to enjoy the fruits of your labors. 

There are three models of GigaPans: the EPIC ($299), the EPIC 100 ($449) and the EPIC Pro ($895). The GigaPan EPIC is the base model and it's intended for smaller digicams. If you plan on using a larger point-and-shoot camera, small DSLR camera or micro 4/3 camera, the GigaPan EPIC 100 has a larger camera mounting stage to accommodate the larger size of these models.

The top-of-the-line model is the GigaPan EPIC Pro, which can support camera/lens combinations weighing up to 10 lb (4.5 kg), and includes a camera-mounting stage that allows for more precise camera positioning. The EPIC Pro firmware was recently updated to include translated menu options in French, German and Spanish, in addition to new features for selecting the pan motion and timer. The additional languages were added to meet the growing global demand and the new features were added in response to feedback from photographers on how to best support their interest and their business.

The EPIC Pro includes a rechargeable battery pack (7.2V, 4300mAH). Both the EPIC and EPIC 100 are powered by AA batteries. According to the folks at GigaPan you should expect to capture about 1000 exposures per battery charge, though like most things in life, your mileage may vary.

Gigapan Epic (left), Epic 100 (center), and Epic Pro (right)


 

Each of the GigaPan models works in the same basic manner and requires similar set-up routines. The GigaPan EPIC and EPIC 100 run on AA batteries only, and based on our test-drive, we highly recommend you purchase Lithium AA or rechargeable AA batteries to power the GigaPan. If you have to go the alkaline route, stay away from the generics and spring for the higher-output AAs. And if the "low battery" warning starts flashing halfway through your second exposure, don't say we didn't warn you. 

In terms of weight, GigaPan robotic camera mounts add little to your load (3.1 lb for the EPIC, 3.75 lb for the EPIC 100, and 7.25 lb for the EPIC Pro). They're also quite compact, measuring 7.75 x 7.5 x 4.9" (Epic), 8.4 x 8.8 x 4.9" (EPIC 100) and 11 x 12 x 6" (EPIC Pro). The images we shot for this review were made with a Canon G10 and a base model GigaPan EPIC. The GigaPan with the G10 mounted in place, along with spare batteries, and a (sturdy!!!)  tablepod all fit neatly into a small Domke F-3x Super Compact shoulder bag with room to spare. I also had a compact Induro AT014 tripod that proved to be sturdy enough for the rig and easy to carry about. 

The two photographs posted in this article, one of Times Square and the other looking north from 20 stories above 9th Avenue and West 35th Street, are typical of what you can capture after one or two test exposures. When setting up and calibrating your camera, the folks at GigaPan recommend keeping no less than 30% overlap between adjourning images in order to achieve smooth transitions between exposures.

The Times Square shot displays some rather intriguing lighting effects, because I somehow bumped the meter setting from Manual to Aperture priority. The constant movement of people, cars, taxis, buses and flashing signage also adds to the unearthliness of the scene, which sort of looks like a noir-ish cityscape out of a Batman movie. The constant movement of people, vehicles and animated signage also causes some rather interesting "artsy" imagery, especially when you zoom in tight. The photo looking up 9th Avenue is sharper overall due to the lack of moving elements, but the Times Square shot packs a higher "wow" factor. 

The photos below are examples of what you can expect to capture using a "simple" camera (a Canon G10) and the GigaPan EPIC. The photo of midtown Manhattan was taken from the roof of our corporate office looking north up 9th Avenue, and is composed of 68 individual exposures. The actual file size is about 400MB and takes in an angle of view of 147.7° x 28.5°. The photo of Times Square is composed of 200 individual images, weighing in at a hefty total of 1.06GB, and take in an angle of view of 174.2° x 63.2°.

For the full 'Gigapan Experience' click on the images below. You can also use the Zoom Bar or Scroll Wheel on your mouse.
 
 

Thoughts on Stitching

The rules and parameters of stitching, until now, have been greatly determined by the camera being used. Many point -and-shoot digicams automatically set the lens to a fixed focal length, optimized for whatever stitching process the camera employs. Others allow you to experiment by zooming in or out until you find a focal length to fit your needs in terms of field of view, resolving power and file size, which in the case of GigaPan imaging can get real big, real fast.

Choosing the "Best" Focal Length

Since GigaPan robotic camera mounts are designed to be used with most commonly used DSLRs and digicams, it's up to the user to determine the focal length of the lens, or focal point of the camera's zoom range. As for a starting point, most stitching applications are optimized for images captured by a lens equivalent to about a 38-42mm lens on a full-frame (24x36mm) format (D)SLR. This focal range, which closely replicates space and perspective the way our eyes interpret the world around us, is also the focal range that requires the least amount of trimming along the corners when cropping the final image. 

But the GigaPan process doesn’t abide by the same rules and logic of other panoramic imaging processes. With GigaPan mounts, the rules can be altered and otherwise toyed with, to create images to meet very specific parameters, and for any number of applications. 

According to the (downloadable) user's manual, you should set your camera to "full zoom," which I soon learned means longest focal length. In other words, zoom in. If you're shooting with an interchangeable lens camera your choice of lens should be determined by how much resolving power you'll need to produce images that satisfy the needs of the final application. 

A thought to keep in mind when planning your shot is that the longer the focal length, the higher the resolution of the final image will be, due to the fact you will need more pictures to assemble the final scene. The Times Square image shown here was captured at the long end of the G10's focal range (140mm equivalent) and required 200 images to create. Had I shot the same scene at the widest focal length (28mm equivalent) it would have required far fewer exposures at the cost of resolving power when zooming in to extreme close-ups. The choice is yours. 

While images being produced for web-only needs will (almost) always require smaller file size compared to the resolving power required to produce a high-def banner stretching across the front atrium of a museum or convention center, but even for web-related applications, you must consider how much detail you need to resolve when scanning the image using the zoom tool at its maximum reach. And remember—the more detail you need, the larger your file size will be.

Out in the Field

For our test we used the GigaPan EPIC and a Canon G10. The set-up procedure is pretty straightforward and involves mounting the camera squarely onto the camera stage and running a few calibrations to establish the ideal position for the camera being used. Each time you change the camera model, the camera position and/or the focal length of the lens, you must reset all of the above. Once calibrated and ready to go, the camera menu walks you through the rest of the steps, starting with establishing the upper left-hand corner and the lower right-hand corner of the desired field of view. 

When shooting with a GigaPan, it is recommended you set all camera controls to manual mode, including focus and exposure. Auto white balance (AWB) should also be set to a fixed setting, i.e., sunny, overcast, etc., with the goal being to eliminate all variables that can possibly upset the fluidity of the images as they are stitched together. And before starting a capture sequence you are reminded about each of the above by the unit’s LCD. 

It’s worth noting that, aside from straight wide-field imaging, the GigaPans can also be programmed to shoot complex exposure and time-delay sequences when needed. 

Once you establish these parameters and give the OK to proceed, the menu takes you through a final checklist to confirm you have set the correct focus, turned off the flash, set the manual exposure, set the WB, and that all other functions are ready. You then have an opportunity to preview the four corners of the intended image, or simply click on the OK button to fire up the works.

To process and stitch the images together, you open up the downloadable GigaPan software application, select the series of images you wish to stitch together, and using a toggle switch that controls the number of rows needed to assemble the image in proper order, you click up or down until the images fall into a grid pattern that replicates the scene you recorded. It’s worth noting if you can’t get your images to fall into place it’s most likely because there’s a stray image floating about that doesn’t belong in the group. Once you figure out who the culprit is and remove it, all the others quickly fall into place. From here you simply hit the "Save Selection and Stitch" button, and when the process is complete you are prompted to hit the "Upload" button, which takes your image to the GigaPan website.

 
Watching Gigapan images come alive on the computer screen is as close as it gets to watching a print come up in the darkroom.
 

Watching the image switching from a grid pattern to a single integrated image is as close as you can get to reliving the anticipation of watching a black-and-white print come up in the "soup." Once processed, images can be saved to your desktop as TIFF files or Adobe RAW, which allows an ample opportunity for editing of the final image for print applications. 

Once the image is hosted on the GigaPan website, GigaPan.com, it is available for viewing publicly or if you prefer, only by those with permission to access the URL. It’s interesting to see the "snapshots" taken within each picture by visitors to your page, which contains info about the details of each photo, along with comments from viewers. When you click on a snapshot, the image slowly zooms in, making it easy to pinpoint exactly where the snapshot originated. Click on another snapshot and you slowly zoom back out and zoom back into the new snapshot.

The interactive, ultra high resolution GigaPan panoramas can also be embedded on any web site or blog, driving traffic to a site as well as engaging with audiences through a rich, dynamic user experience.  GigaTag interactive panoramas can boost social engagement and pass along excitement after you shoot a GigaPan of an event, while increasing your clients brand growth and re-enforcement.

Helpful Hints

 A few things we learned along the way about shooting with a GigaPan include the following:

  • Use a sturdy tripod
  • Make sure you level the tripod
  • Make sure you check the level again after you mount the camera/GigaPan (and if you can’t see the GigaPan’s bubble level because it’s above eye level, make sure you pack a small mirror in your bag, or use a shoe-mountable Lucite bubble-level on the camera)
  • Double-check all camera positioning carefully when calibrating your rig
  • Make sure you have plenty of memory cards (at least 4GB is recommended)
  • Don’t kick the tripod in the middle of a session

So Who Should Consider a GigaPan?

We tried to come up with a user profile for the GigaPan system and quite honestly we couldn’t narrow the range of applications. Photographers, digital content designers and promoters have all used GigaPan.

Considering it works with almost any camera, is relatively affordable (in some cases far less expensive than the cost of the camera or a second lens) and can be easily taken along for travel and vacation purposes, it’s truly a product that can greatly expand the picture possibilities of shooting landscapes, cityscapes, architecture, interiors and even insurance documentation (shoot a high-def 360° view of each room and store it away for safekeeping in a vault before the next tornado blows through town!).

Regardless of what you use your camera for, the GigaPan system greatly expands the creative possibilities, both figuratively and literally, of what kind of pictures you can produce with whatever camera(s) you own. The EPIC Pro is designed to work with DSLR cameras and larger lenses; the EPIC 100 is for larger point-and-shoot cameras, small DSLR cameras and micro 4/3 cameras; and the EPIC is specifically designed for compact digital cameras.

We plan on exploring the imaging possibilites of the GigaPan system further, using higher-definition cameras, and will publish the results over time.

Add new comment

With the Gigapan system would it be possible to use the motorized robotics to create a panning timelapse, not just a panorama style image? 

I just finished a 10,000 mile road trip around the U.S. and Canada and you have me considering all of my lost opportunities for a Gigapan. Ah, well. Next time.

Using your examples you listed above, how long did it take to take all the pictures in your set, from the first picture started to the last? (not including prep time)

In the lower photo of Time Square the stitching program didn't handle the flags very well.  Is it possible to custom stitch frames in which an object moved between captures?  I'm thinking about seascapes with waves breaking on the shore or other subjects that have some sort of action taking place. 

Dennis

Trying to take a Gigapan in a dynamic landscape such as the ocean with moving waves or cities with people walking would have many matching errors between the photo tiles; you could work around this problem by using a neutral density filter and taking longer exposures to blur out the moving objects... I believe the timer on the Gigapan head will allow for at least a 2-minute exposure - plenty of time to smoothe out movement or to take high resolution astro photos.

How does the Gigapan trigger the camera to take a shot after its position has stabilised?

- Pete

My apologies!  I only just saw about the 7 trigger cables included (at least, with the Pro model).  My D3 is covered!

Sorry.

- Pete

I see that you can do a full 360 degree pan with the device. Is the tilt range from -65 degrees to +90 degrees (from horizontal)?

Since I have the 1D Mark III and 1Ds Mark III bodies, it looks like I'd need to get the EPIC Pro model... The only question I would have, now, is what I would shoot with it, which lens I would use (from my arsenal) and when do I place the order for it.. I'll need to double check my tripod head to see if it will be able to handle the weight of the EPIC device along with my lenses (such as my 300m f/2.8L)... I can only imagine the details I could capture with that lense. Of course, using the 1Ds Mark III would mean I'd need to go for the largest of my memory cards, or get even larger ones. I could use both cards slots, so that it can go from one to the other as they fill up...

Would you suggest shooting RAW or large JPG files for this?

I would be interested in seeing more shots taken with the unit (especially the EPIC Pro, and a 1Ds Mark III combination) before I invest in one.

A close examination of the Times Square shot (center bottom at high zoom) suggests that the stitching software still has some bugs.The young mom in the blue shirt has no legs and her son's head is disembodied.

I saw the inaugration photo that these folks did and it is spectacular.

I can't wait to see what they bring out for 2012!

Does this unit allow for a true 360 degree shooting? It's got to be more like 350 degree or something. Usually for true 360 you need to take the camera off and move the tripod to get the ground underneath. Do all models allow for this? Does the software stitch this together as well, or will you need different software? Finally, What type of file is exported? Quicktime? Can you embed on your own website, or do you have to use their service to host the stitched images?

I run Windows 7 64 bit on my computer I use for my photography. Is the software compatible with this operating system?

Nice, but can you turn the camera vertical? Those of use who do this for a living use the camera in a vertical orientation and 18 to 24mm FX lenses.

Hi, is the EPIC100 will fit a Canon EOS 5D MkII with a 24-70L 2.8 ???

Thanks,

Hi, is the EPIC100 will fit a Canon EOS 5D MkII with a 24-70L 2.8 ???

Thanks,

 Hi, is the EPIC100 will fit a Nikon D1x?

Thanks.

I've been looking at the gigapan for a while now and think it's quite cool what it can do. 

In talking about the gigapan, however, there's no need to tell blatant lies to make it sound more revolutionary than it already is. For instance:

"As for a starting point, most stitching applications are optimized for images captured by a lens equivalent to about a 38-42mm lens on a full-frame (24x36mm) format (D)SLR. " 

Umm... What planet are you on? How many stitching programs are you considering when you say "most"? As far as I'm aware, there are a handful of dedicated stitching programs around and almost all of them can handle stitching together images from lenses of any focal length - up to crazy 180 degree fisheye lenses. (like Hugin - which is free, or PtGui - which is not to name a few). 

I've had a Gigapan for nearly three years and made a lot of pictures with it. It's great fun but with plenty of difficulties. First of all it's amazingly time consuming and depending on the length of lens you choose which, along with the amount of panoramic coverage you want, determines how many individual exposures you end up with. Just shooting a Gigapan will take the device from ten to twenty minutes. Stitching the picture on your computer also takes from ten to twenty minutes, the upload the finished picture to the Gigapan site can easily take an hour or two.

On the other hand, what you have finally is a very, very, large file that can be printed very big by a commercial printing house such as Lgphotoprints.com. In this way you can make a grand mural with great detail -- so long as it's the kind of scene that accommodates the robot’s limitations. For example, the Times Square picture shown as an example is not going to be anything like you hope for with the people moving in the street. The reason is that the individual exposures are taken in vertical sequences, starting from the upper left in columns one after the other, with from one to seven or eight exposures per column working from top to bottom and left to right -- as many columns as you've instructed it to include. For the Times Square picture, the movement of people at the bottom of one column is going to make stitching indecisive wherever the scene has changed because so much has shifted from the end of one column to the next column.

The Gigapan is best for scenes where not much movement takes place such as a distant landscape or cityscape from a high position.

Is it worth it? Despite its many limitations the Gigapan robot is a lot of fun. Of course it works best if you happen to be a patient and meticulous type – even an obsessive type who feels at ease with challenging gadgets.hour or two.

On the other hand, what you have finally is a very, very, large file that can be printed very big by a commercial printing house such as Lgphotoprints.com. In this way you can make a grand mural with great detail -- so long as it's the kind of scene that accommodates the robot’s limitations. For example, the Times Square picture shown as an example is not going to be anything like you hope for with the people moving in the street. The reason is that the individual exposures are taken in vertical sequences, starting from the upper left in columns one after the other, with from one to seven or eight exposures per column working from top to bottom and left to right -- as many columns as you've instructed it to include. For the Times Square picture, the movement of people at the bottom of one column is going to make stitching indecisive wherever the scene has changed because so much has shifted from the end of one column to the next column.

The Gigapan is best for scenes where not much movement takes place such as a distant landscape or cityscape from a high position.

Is it worth it? Despite its many limitations the Gigapan robot is a lot of fun. Of course it works best if you happen to be a patient and meticulous type – even an obsessive type who feels at ease with challenging gadgets.

How easily would it be to use this to capture and stitch mural painted ceiling like that of the Cistine Chapel for example? A subject where the crucial detail is above rather than towards the horizon line?

So, where is the buy-it button? I can't be the only one searching for a price.

You can purchase this from B&H here is the link

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/689699-REG/Giga_Pan_EPIC_PRO_EPIC_Pro_Robotic_Camera.html

I recently purchased the Epic Pro. I do a lot of panoramic and ultra res. (tera pixel) images. This has become an invaluable tool. I am so pleased with the head and software combination that I added it into my site. If you truly what to delve into Panoramic and ultra hi resolution images this will get you there. There is a learning curve with this like all hi end equipment but in my opinion it is well worth the effort and cost.

I've been a gigapanner since the beta program and have over 100 up at the gigapan.org user site (under the same name), have been using either the beta unit or the Epic 100 for several years now. I shoot with Olympus products (disclaimer: no commercial ties to B+H, Gigapan or Olympus whatsoever, just a happy consumer...), but also use Leica, Nikon and Olympus legacy lenses.

The strengths have been very well described in the B+H article. Some of the folks at B+H were instrumental in helping me find an excellent solution to carrying all of my kit (Cyberpack 8) and I was there recently to pick up some equipment. One of the salesmen, the very friendly and competent fellow in the cases department, remembered me from when I picked up the case and has indicated that there are a few gigapanners out there in the wild besides myself. :-)

One of the major strengths of the gigapan unit is the extremely high quality images that you can generate. Generous overlap of the images is critical: I get the best results with a long lens, generating 25% overlap or more. While this sounds like a lot, given the ease with which you can generate such huge images, it is a small price to pay for the significant easing of stitching problems.

As the article mentions, getting the unit centered and balanced is critical: the most epic fails I've seen (and made myself) were of units that were not properly centered and balanced. It's not hard, just necessary. Allow 1 second between pictures to ensure that all movement vibration is dampened, but be aware that if you are taking pictures in a windy location, the gigapan unit itself will generate some vibrations, critical if you are taking time exposures on a light tripod. Use the heaviest tripod you can lug around/own!

The stitcher is excellent and the newest version (i.e. what you get today, not the beta version) is an excellent multi-threading application. It will generate both TIFF and Adobe DNG formats for further processing (which is not easy, given the very large size of file that you can generate: a machine with 4GB of RAM using GIMP or Photoshop will not be able to handle any TIFF file over 1GP in size without resorting to swapping, which will make anything but the most trivial processing extremely slow and intolerable!).

Downsides: several.

First: you need multiple sets of batteries if you are on the road or on location. Battery quality is CRITICAL: cheap NiMH will not hold their charges over time, meaning that you may find yourself out of luck on large gigapans taken, say, at the end of a 6-hour hike 3 days after you last charged the batteries. But this is a battery problem, NOT a gigapan problem! It took me quite a while to find a 12-battery charger, rather than carrying multiple 4-battery chargers. You *can* use alkalines, but be aware that they will be consumed at a fairly ferocious rate. From a set of good 2700mAh NiMH batteries, I can get around 1200 images or so: from a set of 2200mAh NiMh batteries, this drops to ca 1000 images.

Second: only the gigapan Epic Pro will handle larger DSLRs. I use the E510 on the Epic 100, which fits and works fine. I have the occasional issue with some centering problems, but they are my fault, not gigapans as such.

Third: you will need serious disk space. I store the originals in the same directory as where I generate the gigapan, and 10 gigapans from a recent vacation generated 74 GB of images (there were some 3GP+ images there...). When on the road, I use a notebook with two external drives, a 500GB and 1TB 2.5" units to ensure that I have enough room.

Fourth: THINK. This is a unit that makes it very easy to take pictures that would be otherwise hard to make. The images demand, however, time and effort to make, and I've taken plenty of images that really didn't deserve the treatment, where in retrospect I could have done better and spent my limited time more efficiently.

But then again, you can generate images which make it all worthwhile (tried to include a link, but it triggers the spam filter). Go to gigapan #55449 to see one of mine...