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Old 10-01-2004, 05:00 PM
Neil Enns
Join Date: Mar 2004
Posts: 356
Default The Panosaurus: A Tripod Head With a Funny Name

Product Category: Digital Photography
Manufacturer: Gregwired Digital
Where to Buy: Gregwired Digital
Price: $85.95 USD ($30 discount available if you are a registered PTAssembler user)
System Requirements: See site for details on how to determine if your camera will work with the head

  • It's inexpensive;
  • It makes good panoramas.
  • There are lots of screws to keep track of;
  • Printed instructions aren't included in the box.
One of the fun things about having a digital camera is the ability to quickly make panorama photographs. Many low-end digital cameras come with a "stitch-assist" mode that helps in determining the appropriate overlap for later manipulation back on a computer. While panoramas of far-away objects are pretty easy to do, any panorama that includes objects in the foreground can suffer from parallax problems. To deal with the effects of parallax professionals use a specially designed panorama head. I've always wanted to play with one, but the professional versions are way out of my price range. So, when I discovered the Panosaurus head at only $80, I was eager to give it a try. Read on to learn more about it!

A funny name for a funny-looking head
Panorama heads generally help take panoramas in two ways: first they give you an indexed base to help ensure a consistent overlap between your images. The second, and more important use, is to prevent parallax problems by placing the nodal point of the camera lens (where all the light paths cross before being focused onto the sensor or film) directly above the rotation point of the tripod head. To see what parallax is, hold a finger in front of your face, and alternately close your left and right eye. You'll see your finger jump to the left and right. When shooting panoramas this left/right movement, particularly of foreground objects, makes stitching later in a stitching application quite difficult.

Figure 1: The Panosaurus bones

The Panosaurus head comes in a simple box with both horizontal and vertical mounting pieces (most panoramas are shot with the camera vertical), assorted screws and knobs for assembly, and a small block for aligning the lens. Most of the head is made out of PVC, except for the metal vertical mounting bracket. Omitted from the box are assembly instructions, which can be found at the Panosaurus website. While this may not seem like a big deal, I wound up having to print the instructions anyway so I could follow them along in another room while I assembled all the pieces. Having printed instructions in the box would have saved me the trouble.

Left, Right, Left, Right: Assembly and Alignment
Assembly and setup took about 40 minutes. This is not something you screw together and go use. Instead you have to take the time to assemble it for your specific camera and lens combination: depending on the size of your camera and lens you'll have to position each piece appropriately. The instructions do a good job of walking you through the calculations. Once assembled you do a series of tests to ensure parallax has been eliminated. Unfortunately the pieces required to do this testing are not included in the box either. The instructions do tell you what you need (some paper, a nail, and something to stick the nail through), but that's all stuff I had to go scrounge to find. It would be nice to have them included in the box.

Figure 2: My camera mounted on the Panosaurus

Once everything's aligned you use a pen to mark the Panosaurus with reminders so you can quickly put everything back when you want to use the head. You'll need to go through the alignment process for each lens and camera combination you want to use with the head. In my case I aligned for a Canon 10D with a 17-40mm lens. While marking on the Panosaurus is a great way to ensure you always have the positioning information handy, the surface of the PVC is a bit hard to write on. A treated surface on the head specifically for writing the information would be a nice addition.

Trying it in the Field
I put the panorama head through its paces both in my back yard and on our vacation to Hawaii. After you've figured out all the alignment points for your gear actually using the head in the field is pretty quick. It takes about two minutes to put everything together, and then you just shoot. The base has indicators so you can quickly spin the camera the same distance between each frame. A bubble level is integrated into the head as well to ensure a level base before you take your photos.

My biggest complaint about the Panosaurus is the number of screws required for the system. It's a pretty big head when put together and there's no way it fits in travel bags all assembled. Since all the pieces go together with screws you're forced to carry a screwdriver with you to wherever you're shooting. Not only that, but the screws are not captive in the head: once you unscrew them all the way they come out. This is a major pain. You really don't want to have to juggle a little bag of screws and a screwdriver when in the field. This is especially frustrating with the mounting plate that attaches to the bottom of the camera. A thumbscrew, like those found on tripod mounting plates, would be very helpful. Taking the plate off to re-attach my vertical grip after shooting panoramas is a pain.

One other thing to be careful of when considering the Panosaurus is the weight of your gear. This isn't a high-end head, and the instructions specifically state that it wasn't designed to hold more than about 3lbs. My 10D and 17-40mm lens weigh slightly over 3lbs, and it really was about the limit of what the head could hold. Without tightly cranking down the mounting nobs the arm would slip. Anything heavier is definitely too much. A sturdy tripod is a must too. My cheap-ish Bogen tripod could just barely handle the head and camera combination. The sturdier the tripod the better!

Stitching is a Breeze
I must admit to being sceptical of the value of a panorama head before using one. I've stitched images before without one and they've always turned out ok. But nothing compares to the ease of stitching together the images shot with the Panosaurus. The three examples below were stitched using PTAssembler. The first photo, my backyard, was my initial attempt with the Panosaurus and as you can see it worked ok but not perfect. I�m pretty sure I didn�t have the camera level when I shot it. The final image size is 16000x2400 (yes, sixteen thousand, not sixteen hundred) stitched from 10 images, and is a whopping 150MB TIFF. To be kind to the Thoughts servers the click-through image is only 1/4 the size and is saved as JPEG

Figure 3: Our backyard (click for larger image, 474K)

Note that Internet Explorer might will auto-scale the larger images to fit your screen when you click through to the full-size versions. If this happens hover your mouse over the image until you get the expando button in the bottom right, then click on it.

The second two are from our Hawaii trip and were stitched with PTAssembler using the Autopano and Enblend plug-ins. I basically loaded the images in, let PTAssembler do its thing, and then did minor colour correction in Photoshop on the resulting stitched image. The Waimea canyon photo is about 5200x3000 and was stitched from 5 images. The waterfall was a stab at doing a vertical panorama, from 5 images, with a resulting size of 1800x7600.

Figure 4: Waimea Canyon, Kauai, Hawaii (click for full-size image, 1.28MB)

Figure 5: Hidden Waterfall, Kauai, Hawaii (click for full-size image, 903K)

Note how nicely aligned all the foreground objects are in the backyard and Waimea photos. Without the head I would have spent a lengthy amount of time trying to correct for parallax problems.

If you've got a digicam and a hankering to experiment with panoramas the Panosaurus is a good head to start with. If you can live with the quirk of carrying a screwdriver you'll be rewarded with beautiful source images to load into your favourite panorama creation software. Professional photographers, however, will definitely want to invest in a higher-end head.
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