The GigaPan EPIC Pro
GigaPan Epic Pro
$895 / £599 www.gigapan.com
Panorama images have always been a favorite of mine. Looking at a well-crafted panorama is like watching a good movie: With each view you discover something new and exiting.
Having said that I don’t consider myself a panorama photographer as such. I used the excellent Hasselblad XPAN back in the day, but since my digital switchover the wider view has somewhat eluded me. I've made digital panoramas on occasion but I never really warmed up to the concept of stitching. For an assignment earlier this year I was, however, forced into embracing this technique. Soon afterwards I heard about GigaPan, and when I was offered the opportunity to test-drive an EPIC Pro I just couldn’t resist.
|Kilbaha Bay, Co. Clare, Ireland.
Canon EOS 5D MK2, 2.8/100mm; F18; 4 sec.; ISO 50; 3stop ND; tripod; EPIC Pro
The picture above was taken at my first photo shoot with the EPIC Pro at a local bay. I shot 30 frames, but in the end I only used 12 for the final image due to depth-of-field issues. The original idea was to include the rocky shore as foreground interest but getting everything from the foreground at my feet to the distant mountains into focus didn't work out on this occasion. Having said that it is possible to stop the EPIC Pro during the sequence to change focus so in theory front to back focus can be achieved. A 3-stop ND filter and low ISO sensitivity setting gave me a long exposure time, which I wanted to blur the waves and make stitching the single frames easier.
The GigaPan Universe
GigaPan was formed in 2008 as a commercial spin-off of a research collaboration between a team of researchers at NASA and Carnegie Mellon University. The original GigaPan prototype and the related software were devised by a team led by Randy Sargent, a senior systems scientist, and Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics.
The current Giga Pan EPIC is a family of motorized and computerized panorama heads based on the same technology employed by the Mars Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, designed to shoot high-resolution images in any format including 360-degree panoramas. This background in space travel probably explains why the EPICs all look like the lovechild of a child's swing and the Starship Enterprise...
There are three members of the family: The Epic (for compact cameras, e.g. Canon IXUS, Nikon Coolpix), the EPIC 100 (for bigger compacts and some DSLRs) and the EPIC Pro (for DSLRs). The one I'm looking at in this short review is the EPIC Pro.
|EPIC Pro with DSLR and long zoom lens.||EPIC Pro navigation panel: All functions can be accessed with 2 buttons (on/off & ok; cancel) and a wheel with directional keys.|
The EPIC family, however, is only part of the whole GigaPan experience. All EPICs come with a dedicated software application (GigaPan Stitch) that allow stitching of dozens of images and also includes an uploader for the GigaPan website where you can showcase, share and even get your “GigaPan” printed.
|360 degree pano of Corcomroe Abbey, The Burren, County Clare, Ireland.
Canon EOS 5D MK3; 3.5/24mm TS-E; f16; 1/125 sec; ISO 400; tripod; EPIC Pro; 24x3 frames HDR
The image above was actually intended just to be a test shot for a picture I wanted to take under a full moon and made in a hurry before the sun exited from the arch in the middle of the frame. I didn't do a nodal point alignment, which is why it looks a bit crooked in places, but the result is better than expected. I'm still waiting for a clear full moon night to go back and do it properly...
The biggest strength of the EPIC Pro is how easy it is to handle. The manual boasts 53 pages but as it turns out the explanation of how the EPIC handles fills only a few pages. The rest of the document is devoted to tips and tricks on how to shoot and stitch panoramas.
Shooting a GigaPan image takes only a few and very simple steps that are all carried out via a simple LCD menu and a four-way motion controller. Unlike most pano heads the camera is meant to sit horizontally on the EPIC and attaches to the device via a Manfrotto-style quick release. An Arca-style quick release is available but has to be purchased separately. The gimbaled design of the EPIC makes placing the optical center of the lens at the pan axis of rotation (finding the nodal point) a bit trickier than with conventional pano heads where the camera is mounted vertically. But with a bit of practice this is easily overcome.
The EPIC Pro and camera are connected with an electronic shutter release cable, which is included in the box.
Once the cameras is mounted and connected you need to tell the EPIC which lens you are using. This is done via the setup menu and involves aligning the horizon with the top and bottom of the frame to measure the vertical angle of view. This is all that needs to be done before you can start shooting panoramas.
|This is where the action is - the easy to understand control panel on the base of the EPIC Pro where you set everything from the amount of overlap you want between frames to the interval between shots.|
There are more settings that can be applied or changed: image overlap (the bigger the overlap the easier the stitching), time/exposure (time between exposure and moving into the next position), motor speed and motor’s rigid (to adjust for the use of big and heavy lenses), bracketing, mirror lock-up, and many, many more make the EPIC Pro highly adaptable to various shooting scenarios.
To program the EPIC for the actual shoot you simply have to move the head to the top left corner and bottom right corner of the panorama you would like to make and the device does the rest. It will reposition itself and trigger the shutter for each frame while you sit down for a nice cup of coffee. It really is that simple.
In the field
Shooting panoramas with the EPIC Pro head really is a simple and foolproof process… almost. There are some traps along the way.
The camera has to be in manual mode with exposure locked, and AF has to be turned off; otherwise you will end up with differently-exposed and focused images, which will make stitching difficult if not impossible. You can even program the device to remind you of these things, which is handy.
|A closer look reveals amazing detail from my panorama.|
What the EPIC and its manual don’t tell you is that the camera has to be in single shot mode and live view has to be off. If live view is left on and the camera is in series mode the EPIC Pro gets confused and either takes several shots of the same frame and/or misses other frames completely.
The other big problem is that the GigaPan isn't completely stable. Even mounted on a heavy and shock-absorbing tripod (I tried aluminum, carbon fiber and even wood) it is prone to vibration. Especially in windy conditions but even on still days with relatively short exposure times I did have occasional issues with blurred images.
Another downside, although one which is inevitable due to its unique design is that the EPIC Pro is rather bulky. Other pano heads fit into many bags along with camera, lenses and all the other stuff. The EPIC Pro on the other hand needs a bag of its own. This makes bringing it 'just in case' almost impossible, unless you have help.
The GigaPan EPIC heads come with GigaPan’s own stitching software, which is tailor-made to stitch huge amounts of single images. GigaPan Stitch does a reasonably good job but is miles away from other products in terms of accuracy and features.
|A scene rich in detail should be no problem to stitch and it wasn't for PT Gui and other applications. GigaPan Stitch however had its problems, as you can see from the wobbly text on this sign (a detail from a larger panorama).|
The biggest drawback for me is that manual adjustments are not possible at all. If Stitch does get it wrong there is nothing you can do. What I consider a basic feature for stitching software - crop - is also missing.
I'm told that GigaPan is putting a lot of energy behind making Stitch better and more user friendly but until that is done I will do my stitching with the far superior PT Gui. It's about the same price as GigaPan Stitch but obviously has to be purchased on its own.
As mentioned earlier the GigaPan website acts as an online community where you can upload, share, discuss, print and sell your work. At first this looks like a great idea. Unfortunately if you look closely at the terms and conditions, GigaPan claims non-exclusive rights to all uploaded images and all revenue created by print sales goes to GigaPan. I'm told that various image sale options that will share the profit are on the way, but as it is as of this writing I'd be very reluctant to upload any images.
When 'Giga' is too much...
Although I often refer to the images made with the EPIC Pro as panoramas the GigaPan philosophy isn’t limited to a certain format, it’s about high-resolution images. Depending on the file format you are shooting in (RAW or JPEG) a finished GigaPan image can easily add up to one or more gigabytes (hence the name). Handling these files requires some serious computing power and my aging Apple iMac, despite its 8GB of memory, struggles on a regular basis. The benefits are images with incredible and unparalleled detail.
A major problem with shooting GigaPans is finding worthy subjects. It is very tempting to use the EPIC just because you can, but the outcome is often a bad image with loads of detail. Landscapes and interiors are the most rewarding subjects, but close ups of flowers and even insects can also result in stunning images. The GigaPan website is a good starting point for inspiration and how to - as well as how not to - do it.
|Hills of the Burren National Park, County Clare, Ireland.
Canon EOS 5D MK2; 2.8/90mm TS-E; F16; 1/500 second; ISO 400; tripod; EPIC Pro
The scene above cried out for a panoramic approach but the resulting image is rather boring. This is a good example of a bad panorama, and it proves my point that a good pano needs a lot of planning. I still believe the scene has potential with better light and a more interesting foreground (cattle or wildflowers later in the summer) so I'll almost certainly revisit it.
The final question of course: is the GigaPan worth buying? When I first read about the EPIC family I really wanted to like it. Having spent several weeks with the EPIC Pro my feelings are a bit split. The software and online community side need some major improvements, but the EPIC Pro hardware itself does a marvelous job within the limits of a pano head, and it comes at a reasonable price.
The EPIC Pro retails for $895.00, the EPIC 100 for $449.00 and the EPIC for $299.00. This doesn’t sound cheap, but compared with the other big player in the field - the Swiss company Roundshot - the EPICs are a comparative bargain. If you are regularly shooting panos or high-resolution images, the EPICs are definitely worth considering.
What we like: Ease of use, excellent build quality, value for money (compared to similar products)
What we don't like: Size and bulk, occasional vibration issues, clunky bundled software