Panoramic heads

Why do I need a panoramic head?

The purpose of a panoramic head is to allow you to accurately position your camera so that when you turn it you are turning it about the no-parallax-point of your lens. By rotating the camera around this point, you avoid parallax.

All professionals use a panoramic head, except if it is simply impossible (because of the size, weight or whatever) to use one. Parallax can result in a poor quality picture, so if you are selling your pictures, printing them very large or just being a perfectionist, you'll want to make sure you have a panoramic head so you can get the best possible pictures to produce the best possible panoramas. A panoramic head also makes shooting the pictures much easier, more systematic, and means that you will probably spend much less time trying to stitch the pictures together afterwards.

Here's a list of suppliers I know of:

Remember that the location of the no-parallax-point depends on the lens used, not the camera. Also, if you have a zoom lens, the position of the no-parallax-point changes as you zoom in and out.

How do I use my panoramic head?

Most panoramic heads are supplied with very good documentation, and I strongly suggest you follow the manufacturer's guide wherever possible. The following will probably work for you too.

left <-> right position

The first thing you have to do is align the camera so that the centre of the lens is above the centre of rotation. This involves moving the camera sideways, left to right, and you should only have to do this adjustment once for each camera you have.

Test shot to ensure accurate positioning

The most accurate method is to turn the camera so that is looks straight down (use your spirit level to make sure you are looking straight down). What you need to do is make sure the point around which the panoramic head turns is in the centre of the picture. On some panoramic heads this point is marked on the panoramic head with a cross, on others you might just have a bolt.

Whether you are using an SLR camera or not, it is a good idea to take a few test shots which you can then analyse to make sure you have the most accurate position possible. This is worth doing because it will save you time later when you are shooting and stitching your panoramic pictures.

fore <-> aft position: the "lamp post test"

Next you need to position the camera front-to-back by moving the camera forwards or backwards on the panoramic head. Even if you determine the no-parallax-point location by asking friends, colleagues, the manufacturer of the lens or panoramic head etc, it is still a good idea to test that you got it right. It is not complicated to do the test and doesn't take very long - more importantly you will then know that you're using your new equipment precisely.

Kaidan KiWi positioned close to railings ready for lamp post test

For a parallax test you simply need something very close to the camera and something much further away - you need plenty of details so that when you look at the images on camera and afterwards on a computer screen, you can be sure to the nearest millimetre (possibly less than that) what is the best setting. The photo to the left is my old Kaidan Kiwi panoramic head ready for a parallax test in front of some railings with a large building further away behind the railings. (This happens to be Buckingham Palace in central London, but that doesn't matter obviously.) This building has many windows, doorways, columns and other details which I can align with the railings in the foreground and then check for parallax shift as I pan the camera.

In the walk-through below I used my Nikon CoolPix 990 camera with the CoolPix fisheye adaptor set to full-frame mode ('fisheye 2'). It is this fisheye lens that causes the dramatic curves in the railings.

First of all I position the camera nearly as far to the front of the scale as I can, and then look at the picture as I turn from left to right:

left right
Position: 10mm (front)

Note that even in these quite small images above, you can clearly see that the railings seem to have moved relative to the building behind. That's parallax at work. If you have difficulty seeing what I am referring to, my parallax demonstration using a small video clip may help.

OK, next let's do the same with the camera as far back as possible. So far back in fact that my wide-angle fisheye lens starts to show the panoramic head itself!

left right
Position: 104mm (back)

Note now the effect is the same, but the images are almost reversed. In the first pair above, it appears as though the building has moved to the right relative to the railings, but in this pair it is the opposite way around. So unsurprisingly, I need to aim for somewhere in the middle, between 10 and 104mm.

Whatever kind of camera you have, you will only be able to get within a milimetre or two by just looking through the viewfinder or LCD on the back of your camera. What you really need to do is take a few test pictures at around the point you think is right, and then look at them carefully afterwards when you get home. Don't forget you'll need to zoom in to these pictures, so make sure you use the highest resolution on your digital camera, and use a suitably large depth of field to ensure front-to-back sharpness.

At 68mm, the small LCD screen seems to show that I have found the no-parallax-point:

left right
Position: 68mm

So I take a few test shots near this position and analyse them when I get home. Good job too because 69mm looks to be a better position than 68mm:

left (enlarged 400%) right (enlarged 400%)
Position: 68mm
left (enlarged 400%) right (enlarged 400%)
Position: 69mm
left (enlarged 400%) right (enlarged 400%)
Position: 70mm