Archaeologists, botanists, zoologists, and geologists out in the field have today digital imaging technology of unprecedented sophistication. Unfortunately probably 90% of the university and museum projects (especially in Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador) are using old-fashioned cameras. Most projects lack professional studio equipment as well (lighting and backdrop equipment for studio-quality photography).
I was the same way when I did archaeological field work, but at least I got a Leica when I discovered the Tomb of the Jade Jaguar (in 1969 in Tikal). And later I got three Hasselblad cameras in the 1970’s when I began to systematically photograph Maya architecture: Puuc, Chenes, and Rio Bec. But today in 2011 the options available for field photography are impressive.
First of course, the future of photography in the present decade is digital. It is not realistic to use old Leica or other old cameras. Although I can shoot a 4x5 chrome that can blow away most digital capture, using film in today’s world of science is not recommended. With digital capture you can do a neutral gray balance and achieve close to perfect color. That was not very realistic with film: color might look nice but it was only a superficial appearance. Today you can measure precisely whether your images are color balanced, nor not.
GigaPan Epic Pro is a remarkable panorama digital camera technology that today (2011) allows zoologists, botanists, geologists, and archaeologists to record remarkable panoramic images of the entire eco-system where they are doing field work.
The first two generations of GigaPan robatic pano heads were much beloved by many photographers but these early systems had several major issues (such as not enough battery life). So I and thousands of photographers declined to buy one. Now that the third-generation GigaPan is available, most of the earlier issues have been overcome. Although I look forward to a fourth generation model, the third generation offers so many possibilities that it is a must-have to most archaeological projects.
And it only costs about $800.
Gigapan Epic Pro System
What is a GigaPan Epic Pro?
This is a tripod head that holds your camera that takes a photo with a Gigabyte of file size (minimum). You can take larger photos if you wish. So this is not a single-shot camera: the intent of this system is to take an average of about 200+ overlapping shots and merge them together with sophisticated software.
Although most of these photos are traditional panoramic photos, what the GigaPan can do, that only a few earlier systems could even think of, is that the GigaPan system can allow you to shoot far up above you, and all the way down to your toes (in addition to right and left).
This is not really a QTVR system (there are plenty of those available elsewhere). This camera is most useful at about 120 degrees to 180 degrees of panoramic view.
You can see thousands of GigaPans posted by enthusiastic photographers on the GigaPan web sites.
What other panorama photography systems are available
Seitz panoramic systems have been available for many years. I had one of their earlier 70mm pano systems: very well machined. But then Better Light came out with a digital system that was easier to use than 70mm film. The FLAAR Reports cover the Better Light Pano/WideView in many full-color PDFs for over 13 years. This same large-format tri-linear scanning camera can also do circumferential rollouts of Maya vases.
Seitz moved relatively quickly into the digital era, considering that Swiss companies are not known for speed in taking up new technology. Their Seitz 6x17 Digital with Seitz D3 digital scan back with Seitz Motion Tablet PC J3500 is “under 40,000 EUROS” ! That is over $50,000. Not within price range of most archaeological projects or even most botanical gardens.
The camera is remarkable: can reputedly be shot hand-held (not possible with a Better Light tri-linear scanning back). But the price tag pushes this system out of reach.
The GigaPan costs $800 and you can use your normal Nikon, Canon, or other digital SLR that you already have.
The impressive looking Merlin “pano head” is a telescope mount
At Photokina 2010 I think I saw a Merlin pano head system in the booth of Kolor (sic). But on the Internet most of the adjectives use the words lowest cost. A lot of the comments also seem to deal with self-made accessories. And in reality the system is made for holding a telescope for viewing the heavens at night.
The GigaPan is made from the ground up to take encompassing panoramic visions: up and down in addition to left-to-right. My vote would be the GigaPan since today you get a third-generation system.
Dr Clauss Rodeon is L-shaped (not a positive feature)
The Dr Clauss Rodeon VR Station ST is, I believe, the camera I saw at Photokina 2010. He did not have a booth; the camera was informally visible in another booth. But the first thing you notice is that the system is L-shaped. This means the camera is not held in a balanced cradle; the camera is held only on one side.
Since the GigaPan is only about $800, and as I would guess the Rodeon costs thousands and thousands, frankly I remain to be convinced about the need (today, with a third-generation GigaPan) to experiment with an L-shaped system from ten years ago.
My experience with GigaPan
I first learned about GigaPan from Jim Trotter. He is the best cityscape photographer in St Louis. He is also the local Hasselblad dealer. He uses both Hasselblad and Canon cameras.
He had an earlier version of GigaPan, which had several deficiencies (mainly not enough battery to last more than a few panos). So I waited for the newer GigaPan Epic Pro, which has two significant improvements:
- The container is U-shaped, so the camera is held from both sides.
- The battery is large, and you can have an extra battery
The U-shape sets the GigaPan Epic pro apart from all German competitors (which are still L-shaped, which is the old-fashioned way to make a pano head).
Why are all the competing models L-shaped?
Three years ago, the only way to get your panorama to include high up and low down was to use a wide-angle lens and set your camera in vertical position. Only by putting your camera in vertical position could you get a view upwards. But this is now obsolete because a GigaPan can move your camera up and down; you don’t need to keep the camera stationary on any one plane.
This is a polite way of saying that, to me, any system which is L-shaped is old-fashioned. If you want to make a good gigapixel system, made a horizontal cradle. Horse and buggy was a great way to get around the city in the 1800’s, but is not the way to design a car in 2011. Let’s move beyond L-shaped systems and get into the 21st century with some better solutions than something from the last century (anything with an L-shaped structure).
What would I like to see in a 4th and 5th generation GigaPan system?
Jim Trotter has been able to jerry-rig even the earlier generation GigaPan to take a Hasselblad. But he has access to a machine shop; he can adapt and machine any accessory he needs.
The better medium-format digital cameras can switch their sensors to vertical position without needing to move the camera itself sideways. Any medium-format system, sideways, is simply asking to slip and not stay in position. Don’t even try; not worth it.
But horizontal format, the medium format camera, no matter how heavy, will work perfectly. Long telephoto lenses will be a challenge, but frankly a GigaPan with a 50 megapixel digital back and a 150mm or 250mm medium format lens should be plenty good enough (yes, sure, there will be people who want to use 500mm on a medium format, but for the normal photography, you don’t need that).
In other words, I would like to see a new model GigaPan cradle developed to work exclusively with medium format cameras (not to give up on the Epic Pro; not to abandon 35mm DSLR cameras, but to reach out to the thousands of photographers who prefer the quality of medium format digital photography).
It might be nice for GigaPan incorporated to interact with individuals like Jim Trotter
There are probably a lot of Gigapaners who have adapted their systems to special needs. It might be nice to gather together all these adaptations, and find out which should be, and could be, realistically incorporated into a 4th generation GigaPan. I myself would like to see the GigaPan with the precision of a German pano system. I would not expect this at $800. A pro-strength GigaPan could sell for a European-level price.
Yes, I know the idea of GigaPan is to make a “camera for everyman” but there are thousands of photographers around the world who have medium-format cameras, and we would prefer to use these, even over a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III (I also have this Canon; but a medium format simply has better image quality no matter that the 35mm web sites pretend to claim).
I would like to see software even more sophisticated so resulting images are better
As an architectural historian, I need to photograph buildings in situations that I can’t get any higher than the plaza floor level. But the building goes way up high. And in many situations you can’t back up to get a better view: there are either trees or other buildings in the way.
So as an architectural historian (17th-18th century Spanish colonial churches in Guatemala), I need software to remove the distortion from the position that causes the camera to need to point almost straight up to record the entire building.
Same when photographing some Maya temple-pyramids: you often can’t get far enough away.
Here is Sofia in the type of photo situation that needs some new software (and hardware) tricks. We have a sacred ceiba tree (Kapok tree) that we need to photograph. This is the most sacred tree in ancient Maya religion, and still the National Tree of Guatemala today. The spines on the truck are what identify it (and the attributes that the Classic Maya show in their art for over a thousand years). This particular tree has the absolute best spines I have seen in 47 years of studying ceiba trees (from age 19 while at Tikal). I have raised ceiba trees since planting them at Yaxha in the 1970’s.
But this yard is in the middle of a city. There is no way to get more than five feet away. Yet the tree is as high as a two or story building!
We tried a 14mm super ultra wide-angle lens (Canon 14mm, 115 degrees of view). This is “all” this remarkable lens could capture. So if we want to get an image of the entire tree, we need a GigaPan.
Here is the resulting GigaPan photograph. It is an up-and-down-panorama (so to speak). I guess you could use a tilt-and-swing large-format camera, but that would take hours to set up. The GigaPan set-up was less than 20 minutes. Taking the photo was about 15 minutes, more or less.
Sofia is a talented Guatemalan student. 22 years old and already experienced in digital photography beyond her years after only seven months working with FLAAR. Every new digital system we provide her to evaluate, she figures out how to use it in a few hours, and moves forward to improving her abilities with each week of experience.
Sofia works with Jaime, and with Jennifer; also young Guatemalans interested in advanced and sophisticated digital photography. I have worked with students from all over the world. Guatemalan students do excellent work. A volunteer from Ukraine also works with us. She is great too. A student from Armenia worked with me when I was a professor in BGSU. He still works for FLAAR after graduation. Students from Nepal were outstanding.
Students that spend their time on Facebook, messaging friends on their cell phones, or comparable personal chores do not last long at FLAAR.
What counts is that they are motivated, have initiative, and are willing to work with hardware and software they have never seen before.
It would also help to have the occasional glitches and joins minimized
Although most glitches come from a car moving, a tree branch swaying in the wind, or people walking in and out of a frame, there are other glitches that come from simple errors: either in the photography or in the software (a specialist would need to look at each pano and suggest which is the cause). It would be nice if there were a software, or a hardware, that could guarantee “perfect panoramas” (assuming there was nothing in the scene that moved during photography).
Suggest to organize a GigaPan Improvement Committee
There are thousands of Gigapaners with more experience using GigaPan now already for several years. But as an evaluator, I specialize in understanding what a product needs to make it even better than it is already.
I would rate the GigaPan as the most impressive technology to hit digital panoramic photography since the Better Light and Seitz. The Seitz costs, what, $45,000? $53,000? The GigaPan is about $800, and very easy to learn how to use.
I am new to doing GigaPan gigapixel photographs. But I can sure recognize remarkable potential when I see it. Over the coming months our team will be improving our experience with the GigaPan (for example we definitely need a better lens than the Nikon zoom lens we started with).
As we take more GigaPans we will post our results on their site. But we will also issue FLAAR Reports to describe step by step our suggestions based on our learning curve.