The GigaPan Epic automates the shooting of panoramas and photo mosaics. In this review we cover the unit itself and the free stitching and uploading software that is provided. A panorama allows you to capture a much wider field of view than your camera and lens can do in one image. A photo mosaic uses many overlapping images shot in a grid pattern to produce images of much higher resolution you’re your camera is capable of.
There is a video review at the end of the article.
Shooting panoramas manually can be a painful and time-consuming business. It is also prone to variation in the amount of overlap between images, which can create issues with stitching. All this is multiplied further when shooting mosaics of images to raise the effective resolution of your camera. A motorized platform removes all these hassles and makes the whole process faster, simpler and more accurate.
The GigaPan Epic is the first of a series of such motorized platforms from GigaPan Systems Inc. The Epic, reviewed here, is designed to take small, compact point and shoot digital cameras. The Epic 100 is sized to handle larger compact cameras and a not yet released model will support dSLR cameras.
When you open the box you are presented with what reminds me strongly of the base on a Celestron telescope. The base attaches to your tripod with a tripod screw (I immediately attached a quick release plate for my Manfrotto tripod). This base rotates to turn the device to point in different directions. Above this is the control panel, with buttons and an LCD screen. Rising from this is an arm that provides the second rotation axis. Projecting from this rotation point is a platform onto which you mount your camera and which contains an adjustable arm to trigger the shutter button.
Based on the way it operates I would guess that the unit contains a micro-controller, two stepper motors, gearing (probably worm gears), a solenoid to press the shutter button and the buttons and LCD display. So the resemblance to a Meade or Celestron telescope mount are even closer.
While motorized platforms are nothing new, what is so clever about the GigaPan is its ease of use. The device is powered by six AA batteries. With these installed it is simply a case of mounting the camera, adjusting for the height of the lens so the vertical rotation axis is through the center of the lens, placing the shutter arm so it triggers the shutter properly and turning it on. You also have to set the time that is allowed for each image. This is an important step as you need to allow for the write time to the camera’s memory card, which can be longer when you shoot RAW or when shooting at night. Lastly you need to configure the field of view of the lens. You do this by placing an object on the top edge of the viewfinder, pressing the OK button and then moving it to the bottom and pressing OK there. These settings are remembered by the GigaPan, so you only need to so it once.
Taking a panorama is a simple process. To make the resulting panorama as seamless as possible you should, if possible, set the camera on manual focus, manual exposure and set the white balance to a set white balance, like daylight, rather than auto. The device steps you through what you have to do. Use the arrow keys to point the camera to the top left hand part of the desired panorama. Press OK. Then use the arrow keys to point to the bottom right part of the panorama and press OK. The screen will tell you how many images will make up the panorama. You can then preview the panorama movement if you want. I usually skip this. Then when you are ready to trigger the panorama it will, if you have the menu option set, step you through reminding you to turn the camera on, set manual focus, manual exposure, etc and then start then start the panorama.
It works stunningly well. Setting it up is very straightforward when you get to the location and actually doing the panorama is quick and painless.
What resolution image you end up with depends not only on the angle over which you do the panorama but also on the zoom capability of your camera. For a given scene, a 3x zoom camera will require a certain number of images, say 15, to cover the area while a 10x zoom, if you zoom to the maximum magnification, will require many more, increasing the resolution of your resulting stitched image. So if your aim is for a very high-resolution image it will pay to choose your camera carefully and go for one that has a nice, long zoom lens. You also ideally want a camera that allows you to set a manual exposure so you get a consistent exposure across the whole panorama and also manual focus. The manual focus is important not only to make for a consistent depth of field but also to ensure that the camera does not go into a focus hunt mode and fail to take an exposure at a particular point in the panorama because there is insufficient contrast at that point.
Battery life seems to be excellent, with the device not going through them as quickly as I was concerned it would. If you use the recommended rechargeable NiMH there is minimal cost in running the device. I carry one set in the camera and a spare set and that seems to do me fine for a typical day of shooting.
Once you have your images on the computer you have a lot of choices. You can use the free Stitcher software that you get a download link for. This is very easy to use software that does a great job. At present you can only stitch JPEG images, RAW is not supported at the moment, though I expect this to change. You can, of course, also use other stitching software, such as the Autodesk Stitcher that I use.
At a recommended price of $379 this is a great device if you have a suitable camera, and if you don’t it is worth buying a suitable camera so you can use it. GigaPan has a summer special on till the end of August, selling the Epic at $299, which is a stunning deal.
The one real negative to this device is that I can’t help feeling that if they just made the platform a bit larger and with the ability to move the shutter mechanism around you could fit much larger cameras in it. I know my first reaction was to try to fit a larger camera in it. I suspect that most photographers would have the same reaction of wanting one platform that they can fit anything from their dSLR down to a compact camera, even if there are some limits to the size of dSLR you can fit.
The size issue is one of positioning. On the Epic the camera attachment screw can only slide from side to side. This is used to position the camera so that the lens axis sits over the rotation point of the base. The vertical adjustment allows you to effectively raise and lower the camera so that the lens axis also is matched to the vertical rotation axis. The unit that presumably contains the solenoid that triggers the shutter button is not adjustable in position. With larger cameras this provides the main issue, as with the Epic it limits the depth of the camera you can mount successfully. To fit my Olympus C7070 requires that I mount it skewed slightly off axis. I’ve noticed no problem with doing this. The Epic 100, as far as I can tell from the pictures and specs, is an identical unit but with the screw you mount the camera to adjustable not only from side to side but also backwards and forwards, so a thicker camera can be accommodated.
The limits of the unit are determined by the width of the camera mount platform, the thickness of camera that can be accommodated, the height of the center of the lens above the base (so power grips are out), out of balance weight if you position the camera for the lens’ nodal point (you can adjust for this), overall weight on the arm and the position of the lens on the camera body so you can position the lens axis over the base rotation point. Looking at the Epic, as an engineer, I can see how all of these limits could have been easily removed or lessened by making the unit only slightly larger and adding a bit more adjustment, while making the unit only slightly more expensive. The adjustment on the vertical post for lens height can accommodate lens center heights above the camera base of 1.46″ or 3.7cm.
So while I absolutely love the Epic, I can’t help thinking that the model most photographers will actually want to spend their money on is the Epic dSLR that is yet to be announced, or the Epic 100 that can accommodate many smaller dSLRs so long as the total weight of camera and lens is under 3 pounds or around 1.35 kg, which is enough for something like a Canon 450D with a decent lens.
The Epic points to great image capability. It is possible to set it to take more than one image in each location, make HDR panoramas possible and also noise reduction in night panoramas by frame averaging.
If you happily work with a compact camera, the Epic is a great buy. If you crave the use of a larger compact or a smaller dSLR then the Epic 100 looks to be the right choice. Either way, the GigaPan is an amazingly easy system to use and to love. Very highly recommended.
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