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...

First contact

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.

My first attempt at a 360-degree indoor pano - of a foundry in Kilbaha, County Clare, Ireland, was pure fun. Made from 40 HDR images (120 exposures in total) this is my biggest GigaPan to date.

Canon EOS 5D MK3; Sigma 1.4/35mm ART; F16; 1/8 second; ISO 800; tripod; EPIC Pro; 40x3 frames HDR
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. 

At home

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. 

Summing Up

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

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 39
Lew K
By Lew K (8 months ago)

For stitching software you might want to look at AutopanoPro or AutopanoGiga: http://www.kolor.com/

I've been using them for a while. I started with AutopanoPro and upgraded to AutopanoGiga. They allow quite a bit of ability to edit before doing the stitching and work very well. I also have one of their manual pano heads and rotators.

Lew Kopp

0 upvotes
gooseta
By gooseta (10 months ago)

Why would you pay that much money for it? People have been doing panos for ages without blowing half a grand on something that just moves your camera around and remote releases.

0 upvotes
nathantw
By nathantw (10 months ago)

Because shooting about a thousand pictures can get really tedious and having them all line up when stitching is a challenge, especially if you forget one part when shooting manually.

1 upvote
nathantw
By nathantw (10 months ago)

I've been creating Gigapans for a few years now. I started with an Epic 100 and this year I purchased an Epic Pro. Not sure why I got it since the Epic 100 worked so well. I like how the Epic Pro has a count down timer to tell you how long you're going to be sitting there reading a book when using a 400mm lens.

One thing that's rarely covered is if you're a shy person and don't like talking to people, don't buy a Gigapan. It attracts people like flies to honey. People will ask you all kinds of questions even if it's not related to the Gigapan itself. I had a young teen ask me about Nikon or Canon just a few weeks ago. Too funny.

Overall, I like the units. I haven't really used the Pro as much as I did the Epic 100 but I can see it being a great unit to own, especially if you use heavy lenses.

1 upvote
Timmbits
By Timmbits (10 months ago)

Some of the images on their website are very interesting to look at.
The level of detail (and amount of images) on some of these is quite impressive.
Here's the link for you all:
http://gigapan.com/gigapans/51465

1 upvote
feraudy
By feraudy (10 months ago)

There is an alternate called Panogear.
It would be interesting to copare this with GigaPan.

0 upvotes
rfsIII
By rfsIII (10 months ago)

One question I've not seen addressed is whether the Gigapan can handle the classic landscape shot where you have a big foreground object like a rock or a tree close to the camera, something in the middle ground like a meadow, and something far away like mountains? Obviously every camera handles autofocus differently, but does it seem to work out OK? Do you lock focus on some hyperfocal distance? Use a very small f/stop? Or do you just let the autofocus do its thing?

0 upvotes
BJN
By BJN (10 months ago)

With an APS-C or full frame sensor camera, you'd better use manual focusing and plan out depth of field via a DOF calculator. With autofocusing active and a near/far scene, you'll end up with with tiles where the foreground object is sharp and the background makes a poor stitch with the rest of the scene. Other issues you need to be mindful of are wind (nearby foliage is very prone to motion blurring), and waves (tiles take of wavy bodies of water are usually hard to stitch very well).

0 upvotes
Timmbits
By Timmbits (10 months ago)

hmmm... sounds like a case that could be well addressed by focus stacking (as they do with macro photography). choose your favorite aperture, and do either 2 or 3 passes, and voilà.
(now all you need is a faster computer LOL)

0 upvotes
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (10 months ago)

I didn't address this issue because I am still in the process of figuring out an easy solution. Placing the focus point 1/3 into the frame and setting the f-stop around f16-f20 works rather well. For some however this doesn't produce high enough quality files because diffraction becomes an issue (depending on the lens used). Focus stacking is a possibility but not very practical, same goes for adjusting focus for each tile. In any case use MF, AF only causes problems.

0 upvotes
mrdancer
By mrdancer (10 months ago)

Btw, there is a free viewer that works well for panoramas, called wpanorama. Do a websearch and you will find it.

1 upvote
mrdancer
By mrdancer (10 months ago)

I've been using MicroSoft ICE (Image Composite Editor) for years - how does it compare to PTGUI? I like ICE because it is super-fast, automatically takes care of many issues, plus you can center the panorama as well as cropping - best of all, it is free! Anyway, I was curious if PTGUI created better panoramas - I really can't tell as I shoot primarily "point-n-shoot". I set the camera to "panorama" mode (which locks white balance and focus), shoot twelve photos for a 360-degree pano (I have masking tape with marks on the tripod to show me where the "stops" are), then quickly render the photos in ICE.

You might try hanging a sandbag from the tripod if it needs stabilizing (sounds like it doesn't); otherwise, additional weight to the EPIC head may be your best option. Sounds like they need more/better bearings in their swivel array.

1 upvote
BJN
By BJN (10 months ago)

Gigapan robot heads have low precision motors and the camera brackets are stamped steel. They're prone to vibration no matter how solid the platform. They don't work well in windy, low light. They don't work well in morning and sunset light (too slow to capture many tiles under changing light color and angle).

1 upvote
rfsIII
By rfsIII (10 months ago)

For those of you commenting that the writer just needs a better tripod to avoid wind-related camera blur, you have to understand that Ireland doesn't have normal air currents. It is the country for which the term "buffeting" and "blustery" were created. The north and west coasts of Ireland are two of the windiest areas in Europe and Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, the guy who created the wind measurement scale we use today, was Irish.

3 upvotes
Rexyinc
By Rexyinc (10 months ago)

I've had the old original grey gigs pan since they first came out - but only recently been able to use it properly due to only having large d3 style dslrs. Now I have a little Sony rx100 and it just fits in it and works perfectly. I actually brought it with me on this china trip - been here in china since march 2012. And yes it's awesome and yes people all like to stand around and watch it in public which is very annoying as they don't understand it spins around grr so most of my panas have a bunch of people standing close to it looking at it haha - cant win eh ? And I can't speak Chinese to tell them to bugger off either lol

0 upvotes
Dan Tong
By Dan Tong (10 months ago)

Carsten,

This is a superb review. Not only do you go over all of the important details of the product, but supply excellent illustrations of the resulting images. Furthermore you appear to have a really good objective approach giving both the pros and the cons of the device as well as the bundled software and the forum features.

Great Job.

My question is it not possible to configure the controlling process to increase the "settle down" time between each shot? This would allow any vibrations to settle down after moving from one position to the next, assuming that the vibrations are cause by the position stepping, and thus eliminate the motion blurring.

Thanks very much,

Dan Tong

Comment edited 42 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (10 months ago)

Thanks Dan. You can indeed adjust the settle down time between each shot. Unfortunately the vibration problem I had was caused by external factors, mainly wind (unfortunately we have a lot of it in Ireland). The EPIC Pro picked up even light to moderate breezes. Due to the unique construction of the EPIC Pro these vibrations are passed on to the camera (at least that's my theory). No settle down time or tripod made a difference. Exposure times faster than 1/500 managed to avoid motion blur in most cases, anything slower and motion blur showed up in some shots.

0 upvotes
Deleted pending purge
By Deleted pending purge (10 months ago)

Carsten,
... maybe you can use the method I devised years ago for my long-exposure shots. It is a triangular net or cloth, which has Velcro loops on each corner. I fasten the net between the tripod legs and simply place some locally found "weight" in it.
This can be water-filled bottles, plastic bags with shingle or earth, rocks, even waterlogged pieces of wood - whatever is heavy. You make your shots, discard the "weights" and that's it.
A friend of mine used to "weighten" his tripod by driving a tent peg into the ground beneath it, and then he spanned the central column to it (using the same excenter friction system that tents are set up with). It works, but if your ground is a sandy beach or a solid rock, the triangular net will work better.
Anyway, both systems worked, so maybe it will be helpful to you (or any other photog here).
Good Luck (& Light)!

0 upvotes
BJN
By BJN (10 months ago)

You can increase the pause between photos. That will help with vibration that the motion of the robot causes. But Gigapan brackets are flexy, so they'll amplify camera and wind vibration like a lousy tripod set up in "flagpole" center column mode. You could screw a Gigapan to a 2-ton boulder and that wouldn't help with it's inherent vibration from the flimsy bracket and sloppy clockwork.

0 upvotes
Artak Hambarian
By Artak Hambarian (10 months ago)

Just found an incredible option: http://www.fotorobot.cz/ - no connection to this company!

0 upvotes
Artak Hambarian
By Artak Hambarian (10 months ago)

http://www.fotorobot.cz/robots/panorama/#can - this is more direct.

0 upvotes
HSSwan
By HSSwan (10 months ago)

Addressing the bulk and weight ... it is a bit much, but I found a way to take it on motorcycle trips and happy I did. You just can't execute a panorama in quick time without one. Nothing like coming to a vista in the Canadian Rockies and leaving minutes later with the shot you saw in your mind. HDR mid day shots make for some really nice prints....

0 upvotes
Actrurus
By Actrurus (10 months ago)

Massive overkill for 'normal' panoramas'. I always thought it's main application was for super detailed panoramas where you use a telephoto lens rather than a wide angle and then shoot 100's of images resulting in a massively high resolution final image. The auto/motorised solution then becomes fairly practical or useful, I guess.

Also - why bother with their software? The industry standard, PTGui Pro, is a mature and well regarded tool, copes well with any unintentional tripod movement too.

1 upvote
SeeRoy
By SeeRoy (10 months ago)

Some of the examples shown - where there is nothing even resembling foreground - could equally well be shot hand held! A ludicrously over-engineered "solution". As for the others any decent pano head plus a wired remote release would do the same job providing you take the time to set up the no-parallax point for the lens used (I assume that the GigaPan doesn't do that automatically for you does it?) and adopt a disciplined technique.

3 upvotes
Artak Hambarian
By Artak Hambarian (10 months ago)

It would be interesting to know if Gigapan Clamp Bar by RRS makes any substantial difference in terms of overall sturdiness. Can anyone comment?

0 upvotes
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (10 months ago)

Didn't know such a clamp exists, thanks for the pointer! Only looking at it I don't think it will improve sturdiness as the clamp doesn't change the basic design of the EPIC Pro.
But being able mounting the camera vertically would make an overall improvement, it's on my wishlist now.

0 upvotes
photobebr
By photobebr (10 months ago)

Yes it helps, I use it together with an "L-bracket" on my caméra making the whole compatible with the ArcaSwiss standard.
The most annoying with the epic pro is the difficulty to screw tightly the head on the tripod !

0 upvotes
wazu
By wazu (10 months ago)

The Arca-Swiss optional clamp will allow one to utilize an Arca-Swiss compatible L-bracket and mount the camera in portrait mode. I don't have trouble with shake since I keep the exposures up over the focal length ratio. I don't have any issues rotating the rig tight onto the Nodal Ninja EZ Leveller II which I feel is essential for quick levelling. I do wish one could change the pattern it takes the panos from columns to rows since that might help avoid ghosting. The other big issue which has been point out is the size and weight of this rig as well as the need for heavy batteries. Not something you'll be hiking the mountain paths with.

0 upvotes
Stefan Tuchila
By Stefan Tuchila (10 months ago)

thank you for this review! The Epic looks interesting but the weight+size are not interesting for travel photographers.
after thinking for a few months I choose the Nodal Ninja 3Mk2, as I need something light and easy to transport. Also, I don't like to travel with an extra kilo of batteries.

As for the software, I would recommend Autopano from Kolor, I use it for almost 2 years and it is a wonderful piece of software!

2 upvotes
sm176811
By sm176811 (10 months ago)

Finally some talk about motorized heads. Has anyone used Celestron Skywatcher Allview? Any insights/feedback? It's a far cheaper option like the Merlin head.

Also, insights on papywizard software would also be good.

🌜

0 upvotes
JamesMoyna
By JamesMoyna (10 months ago)

Thank you for the review, I've been wanting to get this for.awhile now... I just wish they would upgrade it in such a way so I don't need to be using the Merlin head for timelapses for planing and tilting. I know this is possible but why not now...

2 upvotes
Stefan Zeiger
By Stefan Zeiger (10 months ago)

I've been shooting for some months with a GigaPan EPIC and a Sony RX100. I also had problems with blurry pictures in the beginning but haven't seen those any more since I bought a more stable tripod (but, of course, that's with a much smaller and lighter-weight camera than the one you used in the review; plus, I spent more on the new tripod than on the GigaPan). I wish there were an option on the GigaPan for a delay before taking each shot to give the camera time to settle. As a work-around, you can increase the per-shot time and use a self-timer on the camera (2 seconds on the RX100, so it greatly increases the time needed to take all the shots).

I have to agree on the software. It's OK when it works but without a way to control it manually, it is very limiting. I tested many stitching tools and found Autopano Giga to be the most capable with the pre-aligned shots from the GigaPan (but also one of the most expensive options).

1 upvote
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (10 months ago)

Unfortunately letting the camera settle before each exposure doesn't address the problem I had with the EPIC Pro. If the device wobbles at the moment of exposure - caused by wind, a passing truck, etc. - you get blurry pictures. Neither time delay or stable tripod will make a difference then. And in my experience the EPIC Pro is very prone to these external influences.

0 upvotes
hjaeger
By hjaeger (10 months ago)

Carsten, first of all thank you for the review - with regards to the wobbly tendencies of the EPIC Pro, is it not possible to have it take multiple shots in each "location"; not bracketing but shots with same exposure? I believe I read that somewhere; I do know that it may result in extra post processing effort to remove the doublets

My own EPIC Pro is making its way through customs clearance here in Japan, so I am looking forward to testing it next weekend - weather permitting :o)

0 upvotes
CarstenKriegerPhotography
By CarstenKriegerPhotography (10 months ago)

Not sure if you can repeat the same exposure at the same location during one run (will check the manual) but you can save and repeat panos which has basically the same effect.

0 upvotes
mikiev
By mikiev (10 months ago)

That would be interesting = non-bracketed multiple exposures at each position. HDR panos would use bracketing at each position, so taking a burst at each position might help overcome short-duration wobbles.

0 upvotes
KeeChiuPeng
By KeeChiuPeng (10 months ago)

I would still prefer my RRS omni pivot package as it is designed to be future-proof, maintenance-free. Takes no more than 2 minute to setup in either portrait/landscape mode and fire away.

0 upvotes
Motagaly
By Motagaly (10 months ago)

Actually the pre delay feature before each shot is available "pre trigger delay", you will find it in the extended menu, I am using it since day one and have Zero issues with blurred images

0 upvotes
image360by180
By image360by180 (10 months ago)

This is a pathetic review, the reviewer admits they don't shoot panos which the product is all about. And yet DP Review still publishes this dribble? Please let me review a product I don't own and have never used, same as what you've just read pretty much. And by the way, the Giga Pan Pro along with the rest of the heads is worth what you pay for here - not much. If you want to shoot quality pano's in close foreground to background locations you've got to step up and do the homework to get geat results.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 39