GigaPan Panorama Camera Review

GigaPan-2.jpgThe GigaPan is one of those, I have to have it gadgets that any no-life photographer salivates after. The concept is simple and perfect, turn a pocket camera into a Gigapixel producing machine. It was developed at Carnegie Mellon University with support by GoogleCMU and the NASA/Ames Intelligent Robotics Group. The term Gigapixel became popular a few years ago in Geek photo circles when people started stitching multiple images together to create extremely high resolution images. This allows the creation of images which could provide for the archiving and exploration of our world in a way never before possible. The super-high resolution image can be zoomed in on, and minute details of the world explored. This is all great, but when I finally received my GigaPan from the Beta program, I sort of lost interest in creating gigapixel images. What was probably one of the first GigaPans in Switzerland sat on my desk for a week, and in the interest of actually using it for something I loaned it out to a photographer who had time to play with it. Then I got inspired again and took it back. The point of the GigaPan is to take a large number (like 50, 100, 200 exposures) of images with the camera set on it’s maximum focal length (and therefore it’s highest resolution for a given scene). These are then stitched together, creating images in the 50 Megapixel (at the low end) to the multi gigapixel range. This is great, and I’m sure many photographers are using the GigaPan for it’s intended purpose, so the scientific researcher in me decided to go rogue and mount a wide angle Ricoh GR Digital instead of a normal point-and-shoot digital like a GX200 or Canon G9/G10.

My desire is to eventually use the GigaPan to create automated panoramic images for 360 degree visual environments as one would find at VRMag. As I don’t know how to make these interactive environments just yet, I started by taking more traditional mountain landscape panoramas. There’s an advantage to using a wide angle camera with the GigaPan. If you use a camera with a long focal length (100-200mm) which is continually zoomed to it’s maximum focal length, then it will be difficult to take descent images with foreground objects, since these will most likely be out of focus with respect to the background. With a wide angle lens and small aperture however, it is much easier to get both the foreground and background sharp in focus. Thereby you can create panoramas that better represent the local environment around the GigaPan, instead of just capturing a far-off scene.  For this intended application, the Ricoh GR Digital with it’s fixed 28mm, and add-on 21mm and 40mm lens options seemed like the perfect camera to use with the GigaPan.

My first outing with the GigaPan was to the Jungfraujoch, “the Top of Europe.” My parents were in town and I took them up to the Jungfraujoch, a train stop and observation station at something like 3454m in the Swiss Alps. It’s a “must stop” on numerous Swiss tours and is a fantastic money-maker for the region. Actually, I think the entire tourist economy of the Swiss Alps is tied to the Jungfrau Bahn, and without the train the country would fall into a crippling recession (yes, I exaggerate). Since the GigaPan is realistically too large, bulky, and heavy to take on a climbing trip, the Jungfraujoch provided a painless way to test the GigaPan in the mountains. The weather was as perfect as I have ever seen in the Alps.  I shot with the Ricoh  GRD and the 40mm GT-1 add-on lens.  This allowed me to test how well the GigaPan and panoramic software would work with a moderately wide angle lens, and provide a good technical basis for later projects, which will utilize the 21mm lens.



Ricoh GR Digital
Ricoh GT-1 40mm lens
Manfrotto 055PROXB
Manfrotto 486RC2 Ballhead
GigaPan Robotic Head

Ease of Use

The GigaPan is easy…I mean, jaw-dropping-drunk-dialing easy to use. There’s some video tutorials on YouTube, but I was able to figure it out before the first video was halfway finished. There’s only a few buttons to push, and all you do is set the top left and bottom right hand corner of your panorama and push the start button. The field of view of your camera can be calibrated, so you can use wide angle or long focal length lens without any fuss. The battery life of the GigaPan is supposed to be an issue, but it outlasts the batteries of my Rioch, so I’d say I haven’t found the battery life to be an issue. I used basic rechargeable AA’s, I imagine battery life would become an issue at low temperatures.

A key to creating good stitched panoramas is accurately centering the camera on your panoramic mount and figuring out things like the nodal point of the lens and other important details I don’t care about. I deal with technical details in my research work, I avoid them with my photography. In this respect the GigaPan rocks, because it has a marker for exactly where the lens should be in relation to the camera mount, so all you have to do is attach your camera with a screw and center it on the mount. I’m under the impression that given the small physical size of a compact camera lens, the exact location of the nodal point of the lens in relation to the rotating base isn’t as critical as with a DSLR. There’s a bubble level on the GigaPan which makes leveling the camera quick and painless, which is also important for creating images which are aligned well and makes the stitching process easier. My Ricoh GRD with the GT-1 40mm lens just barely fits on the GigaPan, but this is because the 40mm add-on lens is wider and physically larger than the GigaPan was designed for. For the automation process, a robotic arm depresses the shutter release on the camera to take a picture, and then moves to a new position and takes another image, and so on till the pano is finished. The camera has to be pre-focused (generally focused to infinity) and the exposure needs to be locked so the images can be accurately stitched together without exposure mismatches between images. In this regard the Ricoh GRD, GX100 and GX200 cameras are perfect, because all those operations are extremely easy to do on those camera models.


This is element which stands out in my mind. The GigaPan looks like it was designed in a lab because it looks like a piece of boring lab equipment. I say this from the viewpoint of an academic researcher who has spent various nights in front of boring box-like designed lab equipment pieces, and who is now dreaming up designs for his own furniture. I mean, seriously, it’s beige, it’s made of bent metal, and the body is as angular and unsexy as possible. In the future, I highly recommend that the GigaPan design be outsourced to the CMU School of Design as a student project. I had high hopes of being able to take the GigaPan on climbing trips, but my climbing partner nearly flogged me to death with a quickdraw when he saw that I had taken my Fuji GA645w, Rioch GRD, and a small Velbon Sherpa tripod on our last Alpine attempt up the North ridge of the Weissmies. So, tossing the GigaPan and full tripod in my climbing pack is sort of out of the question. As I’ve left the academic research world and become a full-time simulation/optimization engineer, I know for certain that the GigaPan could be redesigned to be lighter and more functional. Future versions are said to include plans for a DSLR GigaPan, and I can’t imagine how large and heavy such a design would be if the current GigaPan were simply scaled up.

Panorama Processing

As part of the GigaPan program, free stitching software is available from the GigaPan website. This is great, except that I use a dual 1 GHz G4 PowerMac and the software only runs on Intel macs. This was fine though, because I purchased PTGui Pro, which is one of the best panoramic stitching programs on the market. I chose PTGui because Hugin, the free Canon stitcher, and Photoshop CS3 all proved inadequate for the job of stitching 20-200 images together. Plus, as I’m using a wide angle lens for my panos, I figured it was better to use software optimized for different panoramic stitching techniques, where I can choose and optimize my control points, image distortion, and exposure of the images. I’m pretty sure that the GigaPan stitcher software was programed with the idea of people shooting with their cameras zoomed in to the maximum focal length, on the order of 100-200mm, which is exactly what I’m not doing. PTGui Pro is as painless to use as the GigaPan, and makes quick work of any number of images which require stitching. It just takes a while to stitch 200 images because my computer is slow by today’s standards.


The GigaPan is a fantastic piece of equipment for the lazy panoramic photographer, or those who actually want to make Gigapixel images for research and exploration of our world, or photo geeks in general. It’s painless to use, portable for many applications, and is pretty hard to screw up due to its simple design. I didn’t find battery life to be an issue and it’s pretty cool to shoot with. Everyone stops by to check out what you’re doing when you shoot with a GigaPan. Kids will be amazed that you’re shooting with a camera that looks like a mini anti-aircraft weapons system, their Dads will ask you questions, and in general women will probably be turned off by the fact that you have the least sexy panoramic camera mount a person can buy. But I digress, good design is the combination of form as well as function, and what the GigaPan lacks in style it makes up for in terms of function. In some ways shooting with the GigaPan is like wearing a colorful pair of Onitsuka Tigers on a fine Autumn afternoon. You get noticed wearing Tigers and it’s the same with the GigaPan. Now, Imagine if the GigaPan were designed with a body style other than “as-unsexy-as-possible” and a color other than beige? Imagine the possibilities when I could wear my Onitsuka Tigers and shoot GigaPan Berlin city panoramas in style with an air of well-designed confidence.

Essential Links
Global Connection Project
GigaPan Video Tutorials

Ricoh GT-1 40mm – The Sad Clown Portraits

The Ricoh 40mm is one of those fantastic photo accessories which is amazing under certain conditions, and fouls the mind when used in sub-prime environments. The Ricoh GR digital is one of the best digital cameras around, and possibly has the most legacy support of any digital camera I’ve come across. I use an original GR Digital, and bought the 40mm lens for it, what follows is my review of it’s capabilities in a controlled light (studio) environment.

The original GRD (28mm lens) was released as a stand alone small sensor camera, and additionally with a 21mm lens in a creative set. Basically, the GR Digital is the most portable and useable wide angle point and shoot digital every created, which means it’s also the most portable and usable wide able camera ever created. There were limitations of course, one being that the 28mm and 21mm focal lengths are great for city and landscape work, but more difficult to use for portraits. So it was intensely cool when Ricoh released the GR Digital II, an updated version of the GRD, as well as a new 40mm add-on accessory lens. The new 40mm lens is compatible with the “old” Ricoh GR Digital camera. A weak dollar and rampant vacation through Detroit made purchasing the 40mm add-on a no brainer for me.

My main desire in buying the 40mm was to extend the portrait capability of my GRD, by using a more patriot-oriented focal length (40mm). I use my Ricoh for controlled light (studio) portraits, often employing a “strobist” inspired lighting philosophy. One advantage of using the GRD for controlled light portraits, is that it’s so small it can be used in many situations where a DSLR is too bulky to use, like in confined-space conditions.

Wait…why use a point-and-shoot camera when you have a full DSLR setup?

There are many benefits to using a small sensor camera with studio lighting for portraits. In general, one key element of portraiture is ensuring that the eyes remain in Focus. You can have all the diffused areas you want around the subject, blur out the mouth, whatever, but if the eyes aren’t in focus, you don’t get that feeling of being pulled into the image and conversing with the soul of that face staring back at you. This is where small sensor cameras are awesome compared with DSLRs, because with the Ricoh GRD and 40mm lens, the very large depth of field means that the eyes will pretty much always be razor sharp, and you can add all the blur and diffusion you want later in Photoshop.

When you start getting into a serious camera and photography knowledge collection one thing is clear, there’s no end to it. Once you understand cameras you move on to lighting, and once you know how to light for portraits and mood, you generally get into fashion and design, and once you get past basic fashion down, the most logical step is getting into make-up. This is confusing territory for guys who aren’t into drag, so I went to the Source to get a crash-course schooling in eyeliner and foundation.

The makeup was sort of a freak accident you see. I was strolling through the Somerset Collection, an upscale shopping experience a-la-mall in the suburbs of Detroit, and after checking out the Levi’s store I wandered into Sephora. Previously unknown to me, it’s one of the prime makeup stores in the States. I walked in with a vague idea about asking for eyeliner, and a minute later found myself sitting in a chair with a makeup artist named Susan applying foundation to my nose and facial structure. 10 minutes later I was being told by everyone in the store that I looked fresh from a rock stage. I ended up dropping $100 on eyeliner and makeup. With my new look intact I headed to suitable location to make some magic.

Cramped Basement

The perfect cramped studio location presented itself in the form of my parent’s basement in the Detroit suburbs. The place is still cluttered with things like my old G.I. Joe and Star Wars toys. I found a section of wall to work with and setup my lights: one Contax TLA280 and a Sunpak 383, both placed in Alzo digital softboxes. After a wardrobe change plus a few lighting adjustments I had a set of images called:

The Sad Clown

Every photo needs a back-story:

The Sad Clown has little ambition or direction in life, schooled on the streets and usually found sleeping in the gutters of Paris, he sports a stripped sweater, yellow button-down shirt by Ben Sherman, and occasionally a sport coat by “WE” and a tie by the same label.

The Sad Clown smokes 15 year old cigarettes and laments on the laughs he cannot produce due to this wasted life on the stage.

The Sad Clown I

From a tech standpoint, the 40mm Ricoh is a sharp and rather bad-ass piece of glass. The detail from well-exposed portraits is really excellent. However, the lens is also big, and pretty much kills the convert, concealable factor, for which the GRD is known for. The 40mm also flares like a Phoenix farting in your face whenever a light source is pointed even remotely towards the front element. This shouldn’t be a surprise, the main element is massive, and sets the perfect stage for ungodly internal reflections. I had to be sure my softboxes were not directed at the camera, otherwise big red blotches would show up in the images.

The Sad Clown II

You can see in this view that the eyes couldn’t be sharper. This is one reason to use a Ricoh Digital over a massive DSLR with an 85mm f/1.4 lens, the quality of small sensor Ricoh GR portraits include very sharply defined lines – and when properly exposed, excellent subject-background separation. I don’t think it would really even be feasible to produce an image like this using my Minolta 7D, or any other DSLR, unless using a very long lens to compress the image and increase the depth of field by using a very small aperture. With the Ricoh GR and Alzo Digital Softboxes, it took 5 minutes to setup and execute this portrait in a very confined and cluttered space.

Every piece of equipment has it’s limitations, and in total the 40mm is an excellent lens, extending the usability of the GR digital system considerably. With the 21mm and 40mm lenses, you have an excellent small sensor camera system, suitable for travel, landscapes, city, portrait, and the production of unique images with studio lighting techniques. Well, actually, you can use it for whatever your heart desires – go out and make the Sad Clown smile again.

The Sad Clown on Flickr