Hands-On with the GigaPan Epic Robotic Camera Mount
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.
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°.
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 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.
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.