3D Photography by Brian Greenstone, Austin TX

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HOW TO: Complex Pano Rig

The Hardware

This is what my largest rig used to look like when I used an old Powershot Pro 1 with a Raynox conversion lens. I've since switched to the Canon350D/Sigma 8mm combo, and I use a simpler version of this rig, but this is still a good reference for how to totally pimp out your setup.

The pan-head is a modified Manfrotto 303SPH, but the rest of the stuff is mostly stock. This rig takes very accurate panos which stitch together incredibly well. Note, however, that I almost never use this rig like this. This is with all the bells and whistles, but most of the time I strip down some of the extra parts to reduce the weight.

Part Cost
Canon Powershot Pro 1 8MP Camera
Hot Shoe Bubble Level $35
Raynox FE180 Pro Full-Frame Fisheye Lens + Canon LA-DC58C adapter tube + Raynox IE6257 adapter ring.
Manfrotto Quick Release 3157N
Manfrotto 303SPH Pano Head $500
Manfrotto 300N Rotator $157
Manfrotto 3416 Leveling Base $83
Manfrotto 486RC2 Ball Head w/ Quick Release
Manfrotto 3021N Tripod $130

Canon Powershot Pro 1

Most people seem to use a Canon or Nikon DSLR camera for taking pano shots, but at the time that I bought my rig I was trying to keep things economical, so I went with the Powershot Pro 1 since it was a little less expensive than say the Rebel XT, and I had more lens choices that were much less expensive. This is by far the best sub-SLR digital camera out there, and at $700 or so, it's a good deal. My Canon 350D that I use now works much better and takes cleaner, less distorted images. Nonetheless, I was able to make very good panos with the Powershot Pro 1.

Raynox FE180 Pro Full-Frame Fisheye Lens

This is a very nice conversion lens, and I'm very happy with it. With the Powershot Pro 1 you need to get the conversion lens adapter tube from Canon, remove the 2nd stage, and then screw on the 57mm step ring from Raynox. The image quality from this lens is not as good as the Sigma 8mm, especially around the edges. With the Sigma you can get away with taking only 4 shots for your pano, but with the Raynox you need at least 6 since the outer edges are just too blurry in my opinion. The only other downside to this lens is the weight. It makes the entire camera assembly very heavy compared with a Rebel XT and a Sigma 8mm. But despite all that, I am able to create fantastic panos with this lens.

Kaidan Hot-Shoe Bubble Level

I cannot understate how important this tiny little part is. The bubble level on the tripod head only tells me if the base is level, but the rig flexes, so it's critical to have a bubble level on the camera itself to insure that you're really level. It is especially critical for the times I have to use a monopod to take my shots.

Modified Manfrotto 303SPH Pano Head

The key word here is "modified". There are a lot of pano heads out there, but only a few of them can be easily modified like this one. Below, you can see that I've added a 2nd 300N rotator to the base of the unit:
I only use this extra 300N rotator in rare cases when I'm doing indoor shots where the shutter speed it too slow to take nadir shots hand-held and the floor is a complex pattern that can't be Photoshoped easily. The rotator allows me to swing the camera *outside* of the tripod as shown below:
When swinging the camera outside of the tripod I've got to move the tripod to get the camera lined up to approximately where it was for the regular shots. Even with the camera swung out like this, the tripod is still in the way, but it does give you a little more to work with when patching the nadir images in Photoshop later. Removing the 300N lightens the load a bit, so if I'm going to be hiking around taking outdoor shots, I get rid of it.
The second modification that I've made to the 303SPH is to remove the top slider bar assembly and replace it with an RC2 quick release. You can see two slider bar assemblies in the pictures above: the base plate slider bar and the nodal point slider bar. The 303SPH came with a third slider bar assembly which was attached to the nodal point slider bar. This extra slider is for aligning lenses to the x-axis rotator knob, but it's only needed if the camera's mounting socket is not in line with the lens. Luckily, the Canon lens tube adapter has a mounting thread on it so the lens is always going to be perfectly aligned with that knob:
When you buy the 303SPH, you get two sets of plates: long ones and short ones. With this modified setup that I've created, you don't need to use any of the long plates - only use the short ones. This saves in weight and size, plus, you can use those long plates with the extra slider bar assembly for making really cool 3D anaglyphs! (not a topic covered here)

The 300N Rotators

The 303SPH comes with one 300N rotator that the entire assembly sits on, and as mentioned above I use a second 300N on the base plate in rare cases. These rotators are really nice. Changing the step settings is as easy as moving the set screw to a new hole. No discs or anything to mess with. It takes 5 seconds to make a change, and everything can be locked down if needed.

I should emphasize that the second rotator really isn't all that necessary. I almost never use it since it adds more weight to the rig, but it's nice to know that I have the option if I ever need it. So, if you are building a rig like this then I don't recommend spending the extra $160 on that rotator, because you'll proabaly never use it.

Manfrotto 3416 Leveling Base & 486RC2 Ball Head

These two parts work in conjunction with each other. The ball head is used for rough leveling, and the leveling base is used to fine tune it. The leveling base has a bubble level on it, so even if no fine tuning is necessary, I still need that bubble level to let me know if my adjustment with the ball head did what I needed.

Over time I got really good at leveling with just the ball head, so the leveling base began to lose its usefulness. So, in place of the leveling base, I also have a large Manfrotto quick-release plate that has a bubble level on it that I use most of the time now. The quick-release plate itself serves no purpose here, but it's the only thing I have with a bubble-level on it, and it weighs much less than the leveling base.

Manfrotto 3021N Tripod

I chose this tripod because it was fairly lightweight for it's size (5.x lbs.). It can extend to around 6 feet or so which is more than I ever need. I've noticed, however, that with the center column fully extended, the heavy pano head can occillate quite a bit, so I don't recommend extending the column too far for slow shutter speed shots. Speaking of heavy... don't even think about using some cheap tripod with a small 1/4"-20 mounting thread! Make sure it's a good tripod with a 3/8" large thread that won't snap off if you bump the pano-head the wrong way. Next time I'm looking to upgrade, however, I'll probably buy a light-weight carbon fiber tripod to reduce my rig by another pound or two.

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©2005-2009 Brian Greenstone