The GigaPan Epic Review, A Motorized Panorama Platform to Create Stunning Photography

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.

GigaPan Epic

GigaPan Epic with camera

A stitched panorama and a 100% section, Shot with an Olympus C-7070

A stitched panorama and a 100% section, Shot with an Olympus C-7070

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.

The You Yangs

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.

The GigaPan Stitcher software

The GigaPan Stitcher software

Once your've added the images you may find you have too many. Here I added some from an aborted panorama.

Once your've added the images you may find you have too many. Here I added some from an aborted panorama.

Select the unwanted ones and delete them

Select the unwanted ones and delete them

With rows adjusted and just the images I want for the stitch

With rows adjusted and just the images I want for the stitch

The resulting panorama

The resulting panorama

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 built-in spirit level on the GigaPan

The built-in spirit level on the GigaPan

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 shutter trigger

The shutter trigger

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 lens should be positioned over the rotation axis

The lens should be positioned over the rotation axis

The height adjustment for the lens height

The height adjustment for the lens height

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.

The shutter trigger

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.

[pro-player width='640' height='450' type='video']http://www.dimagemaker.com/videos/gigapanmed.f4v[/pro-player]

There is lots of good informaton on the GigaPan Systems website and on the gigapan.org panorama site.

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14 Responses to “The GigaPan Epic Review, A Motorized Panorama Platform to Create Stunning Photography”

  1. G.BowlesJuly 14, 2009 at 7:51 am #

    ‘Most interesting prospect for the future (since Gigapan DSLR not yet available, and most likely version 2 will be more desirable than the initial release).

    The gigapan website, gigapansystems.com, claims a high degree of credibility but provides zero location or identification of principals, which always makes me a little uneasy.
    ‘Took a bit of looking, but I found: charmedlabs.com, which states:
    “GigaPix Systems LLC is a new company formed out of Charmed Labs”
    “Gigapan is an ongoing partnership between Gigapan Systems, Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, NASA Ames Intelligent Robotics Group, and Google”
    Austin TX

    It’s always nice to know who you’re dealing with, or thinking of dealing with.

  2. Wolf SteinkeJuly 14, 2009 at 3:25 pm #

    Most interesting. Good to see the Studley Park Boat House. So where in Melbourne Aus can I get to look at one and perhaps buy one? Can it be adjusted far enough to allow for a Manfrotto quick release plate to be fitted?

  3. Dave BelcherJuly 14, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    I have both the original Beta version as well as the Epic 100. For the most part the units work very well. My cameras: Panasonic Lumix FZ50 and Lumix LX2. The FZ50 has a 12x zoom lens made by Leica and it produces very crisp detailed images with the maximum efl of 420mm.

    One minor problem encountered was when shooting indoor subjects that required long exposures…more than 1/4 second or so. The inertia of the shutter release caused the camera and the Epic 100 mount to vibrate (causing blurred images) because of a sloppy fit of the drive gears on both axes. I fixed the problem very simply by wrapping a layer or two of thin Teflon tape around each axis shaft so there was as snug fit but free to rotate. Works fine! Any vibration is smoothly dampened.

    My largest image so far is one of 405 exposures and most of mine are 120-300. Largest file is 3.7 GB tiff (7.6GB .RAW) 111,867 x 18,317 pixels.

    One critical thing during the setup is selecting the FOV (field of view) with the proper orientation of the horizon so that the final file doesn’t take on a curve upward or downward.

    I have stirred the juices of several people locally who have large format digital plotters which will accept media of up to 72 inches wide by 150 feet long.
    Ripping a big file on the plotters could take anywhere from 1-6 hours. But they assure me they can handle the job.

    I’m planning an exhibition for next year of plotted images. I have currently about 30 finished files.

  4. Dave BelcherJuly 14, 2009 at 5:41 pm #

    I have both the original Beta version as well as the Epic 100. For the most part the units work very well. My cameras: Panasonic Lumix FZ50 and Lumix LX2. The FZ50 has a 12x zoom lens made by Leica and it produces very crisp detailed images with the maximum efl of 420mm.

    One minor problem encountered was when shooting indoor subjects that required long exposures…more than 1/4 second or so. The inertia of the shutter release caused the camera and the Epic 100 mount to vibrate (causing blurred images) because of a sloppy fit of the drive gears on both axes. I fixed the problem very simply by wrapping a layer or two of thin Teflon tape around each axis shaft so there was as snug fit but free to rotate. Works fine! Any vibration is smoothly dampened.

    My largest image so far is one of 405 exposures and most of mine are 120-300. Largest file is 3.7 GB tiff (7.6GB .RAW) 111,867 x 18,317 pixels.

    One critical thing during the setup is selecting the FOV (field of view) with the proper orientation of the horizon so that the final file doesn’t take on a curve upward or downward.

    I have stirred the juices of several people locally who have large format digital plotters which will accept media of up to 72 inches wide by 150 feet long.
    Ripping a big file on the plotters could take anywhere from 1-6 hours. But they assure me they can handle the job.

    I’m planning an exhibition for next year of plotted images. I have currently about 30 finished files.

  5. GregJuly 30, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    had a look at the gigapan site, some really amazing images on that site. I noticed the London at Night Big Ben shot, it took me back to when I visited London after the war in the was there in the early 60′s. So many memories and so different. This is truly an amazing device, I especial love the beautiful panos on that site.

  6. GregJuly 30, 2009 at 11:11 am #

    had a look at the gigapan site, some really amazing images on that site. I noticed the London at Night Big Ben shot, it took me back to when I visited London after the war in the was there in the early 60′s. So many memories and so different. This is truly an amazing device, I especial love the beautiful panos on that site.

  7. K.C. Williamson III, Ph.D.April 29, 2010 at 3:28 pm #

    Anyone know how to get ahold of these folks other than through e-mail. I purchased the GigaPan Epic Pro three weeks ago and it does not work. I have contacted them by e-mail they asked a few questions and then nothing. The concept of the robot is fantastic but responses from them are all but fantastic.

    • Wayne CosshallMay 2, 2010 at 4:48 am #

      The website lists no contact numbers at all, nor a physical address. From what I understand it is basically part of Carnegie Mellon University.
      But I do have this phone number of Gigapan systems 503.477.6870. I don’t know if that is to the switchboard or direct to the person I have dealt with. Hope that helps.

      What exactly is wrong with it?

  8. WayneJuly 14, 2009 at 3:06 pm #

    Thanks for that. I don’t know why but many businesses don’t put proper details on their websites and so it is a pain to find it.

  9. WayneJuly 14, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    I have two different Manfrotto quick release plates: a hexagonal one for my main tripod and a smaller rectangular one that is on my video tripod and also I use on a ball head. The rectangular one would certainly fit depending on the camera you use (the issue being the center lens height above the baseplate.

    I’m happy to let you see the Gigapan I’ve got here. I’ll email you about this.

  10. WayneJuly 14, 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    Hi Dave, you have great work there and thanks for the experienced input. I haven’t done long exposures yet, though it is on my list to do next. I’ll either modify as you have done or use the self timer and lengthen the time per shot to allow for it.

  11. WayneJuly 14, 2009 at 5:53 pm #

    Hi Dave, you have great work there and thanks for the experienced input. I haven’t done long exposures yet, though it is on my list to do next. I’ll either modify as you have done or use the self timer and lengthen the time per shot to allow for it.

  12. WayneJuly 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    It sounds like you’ve had both yours apart. I haven’t done this yet since I have a loan unit from GigaPan and until I know if they want it back or not I thought I’d hold off.

    From the specs I can see little difference between the Epic and 100 except for the adjustable tripod screw position backwards and forwards, they are so close in weight that I assume the motors and gearing are all the same. Is that your observation from opening them up? Also I assumed the drive was stepper motors through a worm gear similar to the astronomy mounts. Is that what you found?

    I am making up a small adapter that should let me get my infrared converted 350D on the Epic for some IR panoramas. Can’t wait to get that going as my own work (as opposed to what I shoot for the magazine) is IR landscape. The aluminium arrives Monday and I have the tap and die gear to thread it so I can move the camera back enough to both fit the camera in and move the cg to a better position over the pivot axis.

  13. WayneJuly 17, 2009 at 1:44 pm #

    It sounds like you’ve had both yours apart. I haven’t done this yet since I have a loan unit from GigaPan and until I know if they want it back or not I thought I’d hold off.

    From the specs I can see little difference between the Epic and 100 except for the adjustable tripod screw position backwards and forwards, they are so close in weight that I assume the motors and gearing are all the same. Is that your observation from opening them up? Also I assumed the drive was stepper motors through a worm gear similar to the astronomy mounts. Is that what you found?

    I am making up a small adapter that should let me get my infrared converted 350D on the Epic for some IR panoramas. Can’t wait to get that going as my own work (as opposed to what I shoot for the magazine) is IR landscape. The aluminium arrives Monday and I have the tap and die gear to thread it so I can move the camera back enough to both fit the camera in and move the cg to a better position over the pivot axis.

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