Wonderful Photo
Of The Day

Really Right Stuff panoramic packages

     While a single picture may look really pretty, interactive panoramas have the incredible ability to make you feel like you're actually there!

     How would you like to stand atop Matterhorn, gaze up inside Sacre Coeur, sit underneath a rugby scrum, climb El Delfino, fly over Sydney, or hike down the Grand Canyon?

     In order to create panos like those listed above, you're going to need some specialized panorama equipment. There are a number of products available on the market today, but we're going to focus in on the offerings by Really Right Stuff, a company that creates high quality photographic accessories such as ballheads, clamps, rails, plates, and brackets. With their rails, you will have the ability to shoot single-row, multi-row, and spherical panoramas!



     Really Right Stuff offers two main panoramic products:

      1. Pano Elements Package : Single-row panos

    Pano Elements Package

    This setup consists of two individual pieces:

  • PCL-1 Panning Clamp (the circular part)
  • MPR-CL II Nodal Slide (the long rail with the clamp at the end)

      2. Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package : Multi-row and spherical panos

    Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package

    This more advanced setup consists of 5 pieces:

  • (2) PCL-1 Panning Clamps
  • MPR-192 Rail (bottom rail with no built-in clamps)
  • CRD-Rail (vertical rail with built-in clamp at the bottom
  • MPR-CL II Nodal Slide (top plain looking rail with clamp at the end)

     For more detailed information, you can order a free copy of RRS's catalog or simply download the Catalog PDF. (Panorama equipment starts on page 50.)

  • Single-row Panoramas

Pano Elements Package
RRS Pano Elements Package

     With the Pano Elements Package you will be able to do single row panoramas:

Jungfraujoch, Switzerland

     You can also do 360 degree panoramas:

Blarney Castle
Blarney Castle, Ireland

     Notice how in the above image, the castle is close to the center and there's a sidewalk off to either side. The castle is in "front" of you, and the sidewalk is actually one continuous sidewalk connected "behind" you.

     The caveat to shooting any single-row pano is that your horizon MUST run through the dead center of the image. If you want the horizon above or below the center of the image, you can zoom out enough to have everything you want in the image, but you'll have to crop away the extra top or bottom portion afterwards to move the horizon up or down.

     Here's the reason why: In order to point your camera up or down, you're going to have to tilt the setup at the ballhead. Do this and the lens will no longer be rotating about the nodal point so you will start getting parallax issues. Even more importantly, your PCL-1 panning base is no longer parallel to the ground and will be spinning at an angle. Once you go to stitch the image, you'll get an unnatural wavy look because the horizon will be low on the image in one point and high in the other. It is possible to "un-wave" the image with some panorama stitching software packages, but you'll have to do significant cropping to hide the fact that the image has been pulled up and down a bunch.

     Exception to the rule: If you have a Tilt-Shift lens such as the Canon TS-E 24mm f3.5L, you can actually shift the lens down and rotate about the panning base. Doing this, you keep the panning base level and you keep the nodal point over the axis of rotation. Avoid tilting too much though because you will start to get vignetting towards the edge of the frame and when you go to stitch multiple frames together, it will look ugly.

     Exception to the rule #2: If you have either a leveling base on your tripod (or you are willing to painstakingly extend or shorten each individual tripod leg while checking the tripod base with a bubble level) AND you have a ballhead with an integrated panning base such as the RRS BH-40 or the RRS BH-55, you can level your tripod and rotate the setup about the ballhead panning base.

     If you're working with exception #2, your abilities are still somewhat limited. You can only tilt your camera up or down so far. The more you point your lens down, the farther back you'll need to slide your rail to keep the nodal point over the axis of rotation. As long as you can keep your lens over the nodal point, you'll avoid parallax, but horizontal lines will look bowed and wavy and vertical lines will look skewed as well. Now imagine the extreme situation where you have your lens pointed straight down. No amount of sliding the camera back will place the nodal point back over the ballhead. As you rotate the ballhead's panning base, you will induce parallax errors. Again, this is an extreme situation which most people will never encounter, but it may be a possible situation such as if you wanted to shoot a panorama down into a canyon.

  • Multi-row panos

Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package

     Here comes the big daddy... the Really Right Stuff Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package (try saying that five times fast!)

     With this setup, you can shoot single-row panos pointed straight, up, or down, you can shoot multi-row panos, and you can shoot full 360x180 degree spherical panoramas!

     The appeal of multi-row panos is that instead of shooting a scene with, say, a 50mm lens, you can zoom way in with a telephoto lens, stitch all the shots together, then wind up with a massive, extremely detailed image with far more resolution than could ever be captured with a single 50mm shot.

     One question commonly raised is, "With long focal lengths, you're probably going to be shooting distant objects anyways. Why would you need a multi-row pano setup in the first place? Afterall, your subject will be far enough away such that parallax errors will be negligible and anything close enough to matter will probably be completely out of focus anyways." This is true true, but there still are a few advantages the rails will offer you.

  1.      You can look at the markings on the panning base and see how many degrees you need to turn the base in order to get the desired amount of overlap between subsequent images, ie. 25%. Then you go back and see how many shots you need to stretch from one side of the pano to the other. Once you know these two numbers, you can fire off each shot in rapid succession. This is a huge benefit when you're out shooting the last fleeting light of sunset.

  2.      Since your shots will be overlapping with such precision, when you go to stitch the multi-row image, chances are you will have very little extra photo area hanging off the edge that needs to be cropped away. This method is more efficient than trying remember where the pano starts and finishes when you shoot subsequent rows.

     The additional axis of rotation also makes it much easier to do vertical panos. With the single axis version, you'd have to flop the ballhead over 90 degrees (unstable) and rotate up and down that way.

     Now, we mentioned that telephoto lenses are great because you can zoom in and capture an extraordinary level of detail. One very important thing to keep in mind is that telephoto lenses can get pretty heavy. A Canon 1-series body and a 70-200 2.8 IS lens is too heavy for this setup to handle reliably. You can use this lens with the setup and it will work, but you will be placing a significant level of torque on the vertical PCL-1 panning base. The knob that locks down the PCL's turning abilities is quite small so turning it enough to lock down the PCL is challenging.

     With enough torque, you can lock down the top PCL, but if you nudge the camera or lens enough or pick up and set down your tripod somewhere else, there's a good chance that the top PCL will release and the camera will slam down onto the horizontal PCL! It's not a good feeling to have that happen. You better hope you don't accidentally get your fingers caught in there too!

     (If you want to use this setup with this lens, ask RRS for the little rubber grip which wraps around the PCL's tightening knob. This will give you a better grip when trying to lock down the knob. They gave me one with mine and it was a big help, but it eventually slipped right off and now it's long gone.)

70-200 2.8 is too heavy
70-200 2.8 causing the setup to fall

     70-200mm is an excellent focal range for panoramas and if you'd like to shoot panos at this focal length, go for a 70-200 f4 (IS) instead. The lighter lens creates a far more stable load. Besides, you don't need the 2.8's speed for panos. You'll typically be stopping down for critical sharpness and to reduce vignetting so adjacent frames match better.

     The camera's L-plate runs vertically. Tripod ring plates run front front to back. Thus, the MPR-CL II included with the Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package will not attach to a lens with a tripod ring. In order to fix this, instead of ordering the package with the MPR-CL II, I got an additional MPR-192 as well as a pair of clamps, the B2-FAB and B2-mAS. These two clamps can attach to each other in parallel or perpendicular. You need a hex wrench to change the orientation of the two clamps, but by using them, you can mount lenses by their tripod rings. If you decide to go this route, you'll want to bring the hex wrench out in the field with you.

     Look carefully at my full setup below and you will see the two clamps between the top MPR-192 and the camera's L-plate.

Spherical Pano Setup
Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package with additional clamps

     One more comment the B2-FAB & B2-mAS clamps (which you can see easily in the photo below): They add an extra inch of rails that need to be compensated for. In order to get a 1-series body over enough to line the lens up over the nodal point, the bottom MPR-192 needs to be slid all the way over until the stop screw hits the inside of the PCL-1 (notice how only part of the bottom PCL clamp is gripping the rail). Also, the CRD-Rail is slid all the way over to the far end of the MPR-192. The setup is still rock solid, but it is completely maxed out.

     And one final note about the clamps: Because the placement of the clamps on the top MPR-192 is adjustable AND the positioning of the MPR-192 in the PCL-1 is adjustable, it's not as easy to simply mark the rail with the nodal points of various lenses. It can be done, but you have to always put the clamps back on the same spot on the rail. It's very doable, but it's an extra step that wouldn't be necessary with just an MPR-CL II.

Pseudo Pano Elements Package
Pseudo Pano Elements Package

  • Spherical Panoramas

Spherical Pano Setup
Fisheye lens rotating around the RRS Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package

     Now we've gotten to the third type of panorama: spherical. This is where things get fun!

     In order to create spherical panoramas, you will need a fisheye lens. My lens of choice is the Tokina 10-17 fisheye. Why? Because it's the only fisheye lens which will give you a 180 degree view full frame on a 1.3x crop body. You can achieve the same look using a 15mm fisheye on a full-frame body or an 8mm lens on a 1.6x body, (or 10.5mm on Nikon's 1.5x crop), but the Tokina is the only fisheye that can zoom to fill the frame at 13mm.

     (Stitching software is usually smart enough to know if you're shooting with a spherical fisheye, like an 8mm lens on a full-frame body, and it will crop away the vignetted area automatically, but this comes at the cost of reduced resolution.)

     The premise behind a spherical panorama is that you take 6 shots in a circle, each 60° apart, as well as a shot pointing up (zenith), a shot pointing straight down (nadir), stitch them all together, insert the completed pano into a Quicktime package, and you get the ability to interactively look around in any direction!

Click and drag to look around:

Franciscan Friary, Killarney, Ireland

     Getting the rails set up so that you're shooting over the nodal point is pretty straightforward. There are several excellent tutorials available online.

     Here's a few key differences I've noticed between the RRS pano setup and other pano heads:

  • Certain pano heads such as the Nodal Ninja have click stops so you can easily click it in place every 60 degrees. This makes things much easier when rotating around in a circle. With the RRS version, you have to look at the degree markings and mentally think (0, 60, 60, 0, 60, 60) as you go around in a circle or (30, 90, 30, 30, 90, 30) to designate where you stop to shoot each successive pano. More than once I've gotten mixed up and turned either too far or not far enough and I didn't wind up making it all the way around properly. Not having click stops is understandable because this is designed as a multi-row pano device. The spherical pano capabilities are a bonus.

  • Unlike heads such as the Nodal Ninja, the RRS head supports 1-series bodies. The Nodal Ninja only supports "half-sized" bodies like the 5D.

  • The RRS version uses Arca-Swiss quick release plates so it's compatible with their full line of QR products.

  • The rails are all solid metal so they're pretty heavy. Consider this when planning your next hike.

     And a few final points:

  • They take a little while to set up at first. It comes in a lot of pieces and you have to get everything leveled, put together, and aligned just right.

  • It's definitely a good idea to locate the nodal point for the lenses you want to use and mark the location on the rails for quick access.

  • When you mount the camera vertically, it's actually easier to mount it the opposite way you'd handhold it vertically. This way it keeps the connector for your remote release cable facing up so it's easy to access and less likely to fall out, plus when you want to point the lens up, this keeps the other half of the camera's L-plate from hitting the rail as the camera pivots down.

  • Make sure your camera's L-plate has markings to denote the center of the lens. This way you can easily match up the clamp with the plate. If your plate is an older model without these markings, you can use a dab of whiteout on the plate to mark the center of the lens, but the whiteout will wear off. Without the camera aligned properly, you will get parallax errors. RRS does not have a trade-in program where you can trade in an older plate towards the cost of a newer plate. I've asked... =)

  • Conclusion

     RRS makes an excellent set of rails. They are very versatile and can be set up in a variety of configurations. They're smooth and easy to use. The durability is reassuring, especially when compared to other plastic pano heads., will last a lifetime, and they're a joy to operate. This is the best route to go if you're looking to get into panos and you want to stay with the Arca-Swiss QR system. You can start off by purchasing just the Pano Elements Package and then later upgrading to the full Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package thanks to RRS's convenient Ultimate Omni-Pivot Package which includes everything from the Ultimate-Pro package less the Pano Elements components.

     The Ultimate-Pro package does have a few sticking points such as the fact that a 70-200 2.8 is a little too heavy for this setup. However, hiking around both with the rails and that beast of a lens, along with a camera, tripod, and the rest of your lenses will definitely take its toll on you, so you'll probably want to bring a lighter telephoto anyways.

     Overall, I'm very happy with the whole package. Sure it's a pricey item, but as the saying goes, "Buy quality products and you only cry once."