Anyway, so when I first set out to shoot panoramas I ended up making do with the head in its original configuration. I would level the head and visually determine the overlap from frame to frame. It seemed to work – at least when generating panoramas in Lightroom, using its Photo Merge/Panorama feature. But I wanted more – I wanted tighter control over my panos and I wanted to try dedicated pano software for this process.
So my next step was to talk to Acratech about their pano gear. It’s still somewhat of a learning process, especially in terms of the software – I opted to use PTGui (review to come). But I now feel that I have a much better handle on it, with a greater understanding and appreciation for what’s involved. And that wouldn’t be possible without this Acratech gear.
Note: be sure to click Read More for a guide to Determining the Nodal Point and 10 Tips to Successful Panoramas.
Acratech sent me their Panoramic Head, Leveling Base, L-Bracket, and Nodal Rail. Let’s address each in turn. While I could have added an Acratech QR plate as well, I opted to stick with my Giottos universal QR plate. I should add that Acratech makes plates custom designed around numerous camera bodies and lens tripod mounts with a special back lip that prevents accidental rotation.
Panoramic Head. This is a work of art in itself! Much like its siblings, it could easily be mistaken for a museum piece were it not so practical to work with. It’s sexy and solid. Movements are fluid and all the knobs work smoothly and effortlessly, locking firmly in place, with no fear that they’d come loose or shift my viewpoint upon tightening (something heads of lesser quality are known to do). Aside from etched markings for horizontal panoramic movement, there are also marked settings for vertical movement, so the head can easily be used for multi-row panos. For the horizontal panos, there is a movable indicator to notate your starting point. What’s more, the QR clamp rotates (for camera positioning as needed) but does lock in place. And the head is fully compatible with all tripods. This head easily fits on the Acratech Leveling Base (strongly recommended). Verdict: the Acratech Panoramic Head is the perfect tool for the job.
Leveling Base with stud. There are two types of leveling base that I’ve come across in researching the topic. One type uses three- or four-point leveling. The Acratech base uses one-point leveling, meaning, the base pivots around a central axis. Less to fuss with, as I see it. The base screws right onto the tripod. There is also a Large Leveling Base, for larger still heads and professional video heads, and a Leveling Base with QR Clamp, for direct mounting of a camera (with QR plate) to the base. A large bulls-eye spirit level makes it easy to level the base. Verdict: With the Acratech Level Base, I can get the camera level or at least to within a few degrees in a minute or two. May take a bit more finessing with the camera mounted, owing to greater torque, but certainly doable.
Universal L-Bracket. This bracket is a practical necessity to allow you to simply and effortlessly shoot vertical panos without throwing off camera alignment. It quickly lets you switch from vertical back to horizontal shooting. A larger version, the Extended Universal L-Bracket, is available for cameras with battery grip and oversize bodies. The bracket attaches to the nodal rail. For verticals, the raised L should be on the right, to allow enough room for the grip. When shooting horizontals, that part of the bracket resides on the left. Verdict: it’s so much easier to go from horizontal to vertical and back again with the Acratech L-Bracket, without spoiling the framing. My one concern – attaching the Nikon wired release MC-DC2 being hampered by the bracket – quickly dissolved, thanks to the open channel in the bracket.
Nodal Slide. This nodal rail is what you need to ensure accurate, parallax-free frame-to-frame alignment, regardless of which lens you use. There are two stops that you can lock in place to guide positioning of two separate focal lengths (the provided hex wrench lets you adjust them on the fly). Meaning, you don’t have to mark down the positions of the lens along the rail, as you’d ordinarily need to do with conventional rails. The camera, alone or on the L-bracket, just slides into the designated position marked by the stop. The clamp knob should be facing you. The clamp rotates by releasing the hex screw on the bottom (using the hex wrench) to orient the camera as needed. (Of necessity, the orientation changes when using the L bracket.) Verdict: those two stops along the Nodal Slide are a game-changer. Unless you use more than two focal lengths, you’ll find setting up for the lens’s sweet spot to avoid parallax is fast and effortless. And if you need to change it on the fly, that’s quickly doable as well.
This was my first time working with a panoramic head, L-bracket, leveling base, and nodal rail, despite my many years as a photographer. They’re just not tools I found I needed till now. And now that I’ve found them, I wish I’d had them decades before, although I’m not sure I would have had the wherewithal to make the best use of them back then. What’s more, for many years I simply preferred to shoot handheld. So all this extra gear would just have been gathering dust.
Not today. I’ve got my MindShift Gear backpacks configured so they easily tote the Acratech panoramic components along with my Giottos carbon fiber tripod. By “configured,” I mean, I’ve made sure they’d fit easily in the bag without bumping up against other gear or me having to dig for them. Granted, owing to its L shape, the L-bracket is the most cumbersome to carry. I do leave the leveling base attached to the head, since they neatly and snugly fit in one modular section in the pack. (Your mileage may vary.)
What I don’t do is leave all this attached to the tripod, because it makes for awkward portage, especially when carried along the side of the pack. And whether side- or front-carried, the head alone (or seated on the leveling base) sticks up, so that it might catch on something or bump into things along the way. Leaving the rail and bracket attached on top of that just compounds the situation. Sure, if you’re going by car or hand-carrying, then leave everything in place on the tripod, although that awkwardness does manifest itself when schlepping the tripod by hand from one location to the other. Remember, the added gear does make the tripod considerably more top-heavy.
As to actual use, once I got past the intimidation factor, it was smooth sailing. I’m still mastering the art of the panorama, but I’m confident that I have a firm handle on it, thanks to this Acratech gear.
Acratech is a master at designing and machining components that fit well together and fit well in your workflow. I did have to go back to the company’s online tutorial videos once or twice before everything clicked, but now, even in extreme cold conditions, I can manage to rig the tripod in moments ready to shoot panoramas. I’m still getting the hang of the stitching process vis-à-vis the software (specifically, PTGui) but mastering that phase of it is next on my agenda.
Zeroing out the bubble level on the leveling base proved fairly effortless. I’d recommend carrying out this operation before attaching the head, but certainly before mounting the camera onto this rig. The greater torque with the added load works counter to making easy adjustments.
A couple of points worth noting. When using my more stable tripods, I didn’t find it necessary, to lock down the panorama knob on the Acratech pano head as I panned with the camera. This way I could quickly move from one exposure or bracket set to the next. And you can avoid the nodal rail entirely when shooting fisheye panoramas. (Despite claims to the contrary, a fisheye lens can be used – just expect some distortion.)
Admittedly, when you add all the components together, shooting panoramas becomes an expensive proposition. But it also has potentially great rewards. And once you’ve got a handle on the mechanics of shooting panoramas, you next find yourself muddling over the software and trying to make heads or tails out of, why don’t these frames fit together the way they’re supposed to? Frankly, it’s a serious commitment in money, time – and patience.
There’s one thing in this Acratech gear that puts you on the right footing: Every component has a bullseye level, so you can start working on a level playing field – literally.
The pano head itself has a drag/friction knob. Ease back on this just a bit so it allows some movement as you twist the main knob and move the camera. It may take a while to find the sweet spot to control drag for your rig, but keep in mind that the amount of drag will have to be adjusted for different loads. Once locked in place, the camera stays put – there’s no shift when locking the knobs and no drift after the camera is locked in place.
In fact, if you’ve worked with any Acratech ball head, working with the pano head shouldn’t be much of a stretch. The only difference: the pano head tilts only front to back, not side to side, as would be the case with a regular ball head. This keeps you level. The forward/backward tilt, aside from leveling the head initially, is to allow you to build horizontal layers and add depth top to bottom so the panorama doesn’t begin to look like a strip mall.
Final word: the Acratech pano gear is an investment that will pay for itself before long. As with anything, mastering panoramic photography will take time and patience. But the Acratech gear will put you on the right path and put you on solid footing.
Made in U.S.A.
Acratech Panoramic Head ($379.95)
Acratech Leveling Base ($149.95)
Where can I get more info & order this product?
Acratech Universal L-Bracket ($229.95)
Acratech Nodal Rail (Nodal Slide - $199.95)
Who Should Use This?
Landscape photographers, travel photographers, and essentially any photographer who wants to create stitched panoramas.
Fairly easy to use (small learning curve); relatively lightweight (all components combined); smooth movements; ultra-stable camera platform; durable and easy to maintain (not that I’ve had to do any maintenance to date); priced right – trademarks of Acratech gear; does add height to the tripod, so you may have to take that into account when extending the legs or choosing a tripod; avoid extending center column, since added weight/height raises center of gravity, which could add wobble to less sturdy tripods.
Which Tripod Should I Use?
I would use a full-size tripod, one that won’t require you to bend down (or at least will minimize how much you bend down) to look through the viewfinder. A full-size pod also tends to be more stable, especially in windy conditions. And because they do best at dampening vibrations, the obvious choice falls to either a wooden or carbon fiber tripod. That said, I have had good success with my all-metal tripod – a Benbo (not to be confused with Benro). Benbo tripods have a reverse leg joint that lets them be positioned in water up to that leg joint without water damage. I would avoid extending or articulating the center column on any metal tripod, if you can help it. Even with carbon fiber, center column extension should be kept to a minimum.
One thing I did with the Giottos… I removed the head-locking pin. As much as I prefer this feature on a tripod – it prevents a head from twisting off as you rotate it, I found there was little to no danger of that happening with the Acratech heads, which sit securely in place. And when traveling, I prefer to separate the head components so they don’t get in the way or bump into things. Besides, it would have been moot to leave the pin in place (and chance loosing it when it was not in use): the bottom of the Acratech Leveling Base has depressions on the underside, so there was no place for the pin to grab onto and lock in place.
Also, while many compact tripods have a compact platform on which the head is seated, that didn’t prove a problem with either my Giottos or Benbo. It can be a problem when the platform is even smaller, as on many sub-compact tripod Sirui. When I used my Sirui T-025X, I found the head was coming loose. Whether during movement from one location to another or during panning, I can’t be sure.
Also, I’d avoid using an inverted-leg tripod which has a center column that is permanently extended, as on my little Sirui. The wobble proved too much. To get around the problem, I would have had to remove this section of the column (it does unscrew), but that would have lowered the tripod even further, to a decidedly uncomfortable level.
Which Lens Should I Use?
The idea behind shooting stitched panoramas is not so much to get ultra-wide views. You can do that with a fisheye lens. But if you take that same 180-degree view and make it a stitched pano, you’re measurably increasing the file size. Which means, you can paint a wall with it without the image breaking up in the process. Stitched panos can run from a mere three or four frames to easily over a hundred (when you incorporate HDR).
A telephoto lets you capture many small slices of the scene as overlapping frames. Common wisdom dictates the overlap should be from 30 to 50%. I look at it another way. Using the panning gauge on the Acratech head, I go by degrees. For a 70mm lens, I rotate the head in 10-degree increments. At 24mm, I switch to 15-degree increments, although I could stick with the same 10-degree increments to ensure that enough of the scene overlaps so as to make it easy for the software to join the frames together – and indeed have done on occasion (easier to stick with one methodology to avoid mistakes when you switch focal lengths). Lenses longer that 70mm will allow you to capture an ever increasing number of overlapping slices for a more detailed panorama.
As you move to telephoto focal lengths, and probably best even when shooting at 24mm, you’ll have to find the nodal point for the lens focal length you’ll be using.
Determining the Nodal Point
Establishing the nodal point is especially critical to achieving a good stitched panorama when using telephoto focal lengths. It eliminates stairstepping in the stitched panorama. That means you’ll have to do minimal cropping after stitching and will be left with more image top to bottom.
So we have to first test for the nodal point for one or more focal lengths we plan to use. The nodal point is that point in the lens that acts as the wheel axel for your panoramas. If you have an unbalanced wheel axel, the wheel doesn’t rotate smoothly, but instead jumps around. Finding the nodal point ensures you don’t get rattled. How does it do that? It ensures parallax-free images as you rotate the camera about its axis on the pano head. The nodal point goes by different names but I like to call it the “pano sweet spot.” (The nodal point, more formally the optical center, is also known as the parallax-free point or no-parallax point for a specific focal length or lens.)
You determine nodal point by focusing on a foreground object in relation to a background object – from a fixed point. (If the concept eludes you, Scott Dordick of Acratech explained it this way: Place your index finger in front of your face and look at it in relation to a fixed spot. Now turn your head to each side. As you do so, you’ll see the finger shift position in relation to the backdrop. That’s parallax. Scott has a great video outlining the procedure on the Acratech website.)
By Jack Neubart
- Any camera and any lens will do for starters. Shoot horizontal or vertical. You can use any stable tripod and any tripod head. For better results, however, consider the following…
- More advanced panorama shooters will want to use a telephoto lens/focal length and shoot verticals. This will allow you to grab more individual slices of the scene to build up the panorama and create a larger file.
- If you use a wide-angle lens, you'll be shooting fewer frames. If you use a telephoto lens, you'll be shooting more frames. I’ve successfully stitched panoramas with frames shot with a fisheye lens. The advantage to telephotos: less optical distortion.
- Use a remote release or the self timer. Actually, both together will ensure you minimize contact with the camera and allow sufficient time to dampen vibrations (see Step 9b, below, on exposure bracketing).
- More advanced panorama shooters will want to use a dedicated panorama head, such as the Acratech panorama head. This head features smooth panning movement and prevents you from accidentally tilting the camera to either side. You can rotate the head’s quick-release clamp (on which the camera with QR plate is seated) at prescribed angles so that you can shoot verticals with the basic head (sans accessories) and build up the panorama top to bottom with additional layers (see Step 10, below). Using the head alone is not the ideal approach, but is certainly doable.
- More advanced shooters will want to use an L-bracket for verticals. This puts the vertical axis right over the center of the tripod head for optimum balance and perfect alignment and also lets you easily switch from vertical to horizontal and back again. I found that working with the Acratech L-bracket made the operation smooth and simple.
- As you pan, overlap each frame by 30% to 50% to ensure that the panoramic software you'll be using has enough common ground to grab onto in order to successfully merge the frames into each other. For example, if each of two overlapping frames shows the same tree, that helps – two trees may be even better. If you only have an open expanse of sky, that gives the software conniptions – a cloud or two may help, as will some foreground. On the Acratech pano head, I use the engraved markings and pan in increments of 10 degrees with a 70mm focal length.
- Level the camera on the tripod. A slight forward/backward tilt is OK, but you want to avoid tilting side to side. Again, the Acratech pano head won’t allow you to inadvertently tilt to either side. While the Acratech head has its own bullseye level, you can optionally attach a shoe-mount spirit level. Using the camera’s electronic level gauge may prove less than optimal, but if that’s all you have, use it to determine (up/down) pitch and (side-to-side) roll, and level out.
- More advanced shooters will eventually lean toward adding a leveling base to assist in leveling the camera. The Acratech leveling base features a large bullseye bubble level to help in the process.
- More advanced panorama shooters will want to establish the nodal point (also called optical center, parallax-free point, no parallax point), or as I like to call it, the pano sweet spot. That requires you to use a nodal rail. This will help you position the camera at the optimum point and avoid stairstepping when frames are stitched together, and it will give you more real estate to work with as a result (otherwise you end up cropping quite a bit top and bottom). The Acratech nodal rail benefits from having two (adjustable) physical stops that you lock in place for two different focal lengths. This way you know exactly where to position the camera along the rail and don’t have to guesstimate or refer to previously recorded settings.
- Set focusing to Manual and preset focus.
- Set shooting mode to Manual and set exposure. You don't want bright or dark backgrounds or foregrounds suddenly throwing off the exposure in any frame.
- Since you're working on a tripod, use the lowest practical ISO. Try to avoid shutter speeds that will visibly blur movement. Use a lens aperture (f-stop) that will give you enough depth of field (foreground/background sharpness). You'll need smaller f-stops with telephoto lenses and nearby foregrounds. But avoid stopping down too far (back off by at least 2 stops from minimum aperture), as very small f-stops will actually degrade the image overall (that's due to "diffraction"). At the same time, gauge the aperture and shutter speed so you avoid using high (noisy) ISO values.
- Bracket exposures, especially if the scene is high contrast with a bright sun in the picture. You may find one frame/exposure preferable for one part of the panorama, another for a different part. I adjust my exposures and many other settings in Lightroom. You may wish to make adjustments to the final stitched panorama instead. Bracketing also gives you the option to employ HDR to maximize the tonal range in the panorama.
- You can build up the panorama by first shooting a horizontally panned series of overlapping exposures (with the camera in vertical or horizontal orientation), then returning to your starting point, tilting the camera slightly upward, and shooting a second series from left to right. Then, tilt the camera down for a third series, if you wish to add depth. This way you can avoid the panorama looking like a strip mall while building it up. You’re basically starting with the first floor as your foundation, adding a second floor, then a lower level. You can add more levels if you wish. Just remember – the more frames you shoot (especially if you bracket), the more memory you use on the card and space on your hard drive – and the longer it will take to process, while requiring greater computer system resources. You can use this procedure to build a vertical panorama as well.
- Be consistent. Shoot from left to right, then stick with it, or right to left and consistently follow this approach.
- Make sure you note your starting point. The panning base on your tripod head should have engraved markings. Nice thing about the Acratech pano head is that it has a moving index marker – rotate it to the starting point, but you will have to make note of where you ended. (Do not use a permanent marker, since this point may change for the next panorama and you'll end up making it difficult to see the engraved markings later. But you can make a note on your smartphone of your starting and end points - simply shoot a picture when you start and when you finish, or add a note in one of your apps.)
- Of course, to give the impression of added depth, you can simply shoot fewer frames horizontally to start with and avoid adding the additional layers. However, this won’t give you the expansive viewpoint or the large file you may want.
- To stitch the panorama, you can use Lightroom, Photoshop, PTGui or other software. Lightroom is the simplest to use. PTGui gives you the most comprehensive set of tools for panoramic projections. (More on PTGui in a follow-up review.) I’ve found that Lightroom works best when using the “spherical” projection.
- To judge the success of the projection (in other words, to judge if the image is being distorted to the point where you find it objectionable), look for square and round shapes. Squares should remain square and circles should remain perfectly round – or at least minimally distorted.