On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

Started Jan 16, 2018 | Discussions
James Palmowski New Member • Posts: 4
On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
1

I'm looking for a new (travel) tripod and I've seen a few comments regarding levelling and how it's supposed to be "done right" for panoramas.

From what I understand:

  • Spirit level(s) in the head are useless if the tripod base itself isn't level.  Makes sense, we need to swivel around a straight vertical axis so the horizon doesn't shift throughout the pano. 
  • If this is true, why are there so few tripods without a level in the base?  Is it just because shooting panos is deemed specialist and therefore it's assumed you're going to have a leveller and all the additional nodal rotators to "do it right"?  It seems like such a simple (inexpensive) addition so I'm just wondering why this isn't almost standard?
  • How would someone get around the fact that their tripod base doesn't have a built in level if you were travelling light say and didn't want to lug your full pano setup with you?

Thanks for reading and in advance for any comments!

James

wgosma
wgosma Contributing Member • Posts: 869
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
1

Yes, you need the base the camera is mounted onto to be level to shoot pano's; in my experience a spirit level is 100% satisfactory.

An inexpensive and lightweight leveling plate w/spirit level will suffice, assuming you don't mind jockeying the length of the tripod legs to make the level adjustment is a 'leveling plate' - basically spirit level mounted on flat plate that is sandwiched between the camera and tripod mount surface, like this: https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/882986-REG/Sunwayfoto_LP_76_Leveling_Plate.html

The above might be the best way to go for a lightweight travel setup. I will say, using a 'leveling head' that allows one to 'level' the head w/thrumb screws or the like is significantly easier to use than messing with adjusting the length of the tripod's legs. But these devices add some add'l weight.

This is the product I use, it's reasonably priced and not overly heavy - very smooth operation, quality built: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01A2KPSJ0/ref=oh_aui_detailpage_o02_s00?ie=UTF8&psc=1

(I use the above product in conjunction with a RRS BH40 ball head, camera has RRS L-plate for quick release; so not the lightest setup on the block but can level the setup in short order; I level the tripod head, then adjust/lock ballhead using camera's internal electronic level guides, vertical and horizontal)

Good Luck/Bill

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CaliforniaDave Senior Member • Posts: 1,947
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

James Palmowski wrote:

I'm looking for a new (travel) tripod and I've seen a few comments regarding levelling and how it's supposed to be "done right" for panoramas.

From what I understand:

  • Spirit level(s) in the head are useless if the tripod base itself isn't level. Makes sense, we need to swivel around a straight vertical axis so the horizon doesn't shift throughout the pano.

Correct, and this doesn't just apply to a panorama, it also applies to using a video fluid pan-tilt head.

  • If this is true, why are there so few tripods without a level in the base? Is it just because shooting panos is deemed specialist and therefore it's assumed you're going to have a leveller and all the additional nodal rotators to "do it right"? It seems like such a simple (inexpensive) addition so I'm just wondering why this isn't almost standard?

Some do have levels, and some tripods for video come with a 75 mm or 100 mm bowl, which an adapter attaches to that can easily be leveled, but this is probably overkill for general pano use. There are also hybrid tripods for photo/video that have a leveling base built into the column, such as https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1157845-REG/benro_hfta18cs2h_hybrid_9x_carbon_fiber.html

The head of such a tripod could be replaced with a different head.

  • How would someone get around the fact that their tripod base doesn't have a built in level if you were travelling light say and didn't want to lug your full pano setup with you?

I can think of several ways:

1 Buy a leveling base such as https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/1085247-REG/oben_lh_2510_leveling_base_head.html with a built in level. Disadvantage is extra cost and weight.

2 Buy an inexpensive circular bubble level to attach to your camera or panorama head, and simply adjust the tripod leg lengths to get things level. Disadvantage is that adjusting the tripod leg lengths is not very convenient compared to adjusting a leveling base.

3 Most modern digital camera have built in levels that can display roll and tilt, so that can do the job that the circular bubble level can do. Disadvantage is that adjusting the tripod leg lengths is not very convenient compared to adjusting a leveling base.

Edited to add: I see that Bill has provided some good advice while I was writing my response.

Bing Chow Senior Member • Posts: 2,519
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
4

James Palmowski wrote:

  • Spirit level(s) in the head are useless if the tripod base itself isn't level. Makes sense, we need to swivel around a straight vertical axis so the horizon doesn't shift throughout the pano.

True. But I never use them when I do panos.

  • If this is true, why are there so few tripods without a level in the base? Is it just because shooting panos is deemed specialist and therefore it's assumed you're going to have a leveller and all the additional nodal rotators to "do it right"? It seems like such a simple (inexpensive) addition so I'm just wondering why this isn't almost standard?

I don't know.

  • How would someone get around the fact that their tripod base doesn't have a built in level if you were travelling light say and didn't want to lug your full pano setup with you?

Thanks for reading and in advance for any comments!

James

Does your camera have an electronic level? I always use Live View in my Nikon D810, so I use the Virtual Horizon. That's why I don't need a bubble level. Even so, if I'm shooting at eye-level, seeing the bubble level on the ballhead clamp can be tricky because I'm not tall enough to look down on it. I can see the bubble level that's in my Gitzo, but levelling the tripod by adjusting the legs is annoying.

The best way that I have found to do single row panos is to not even pan with the base of the ballhead. As you already know, doing that requires you to level the tripod. Instead, try a panning clamp that can be attached to an Arca-Swiss compatible quick release clamp of the ballhead. This way, you never have to level the legs. You adjust the ball so that the panning clamp is level. And you're good to go. I challenge you to find a faster way. It's an extra 250g to carry though. It is sort of redundant: a clamp on top of another clamp. But you can remove it when you don't need it.

A second option is to replace the clamp of your ballhead with a panning clamp, which is what I do. You carry a bit more weight full time, but less than 2 clamps together.

Third option: Use a levelling base between your tripod and the ballhead (no panning clamp.) You can then pan with the ballhead base, but you now have two components to level: the levelling base, and camera. Whereas with my preferred method, you only level the camera.

Fourth option: Use a levelling base and a panning clamp. Skip the ballhead altogether. Sturdiest option. But you're limited to 15 deg of movement afforded by most levelling bases.

Fifth option: Cheapest and lightest but you still have to level with the legs

kli
kli Veteran Member • Posts: 3,995
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

James Palmowski wrote:

  • Spirit level(s) in the head are useless if the tripod base itself isn't level. Makes sense, we need to swivel around a straight vertical axis so the horizon doesn't shift throughout the pano.
  • If this is true, why are there so few tripods without a level in the base?

No real clue, but my guess would be because you can get a cheap hotshoe spirit level if this really matters to you?

  • How would someone get around the fact that their tripod base doesn't have a built in level if you were travelling light say and didn't want to lug your full pano setup with you?

Well, I shoot 360x180 panos, so levelling isn't an issue at all, since, with full spherical coverage, I can always adjust for yaw/pitch/roll in post.

But generally, the hotshoe spirit level would fix the issue for me. I've often used one in conjunction with a plumbline to do handheld 360x180 panos with a fisheye lens to make sure I'm rotating around the no-parallax point of the lens.

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OP James Palmowski New Member • Posts: 4
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

Bill, thanks for taking the time to respond.

That's definitely helped solidify some things in my head.  Thanks also for the links and references to what you use, it's helping get my mental picture right.

OP James Palmowski New Member • Posts: 4
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

2 Buy an inexpensive circular bubble level to attach to your camera or panorama head, and simply adjust the tripod leg lengths to get things level. Disadvantage is that adjusting the tripod leg lengths is not very convenient compared to adjusting a leveling base.

3 Most modern digital camera have built in levels that can display roll and tilt, so that can do the job that the circular bubble level can do. Disadvantage is that adjusting the tripod leg lengths is not very convenient compared to adjusting a leveling base.

This is where I get confused, all these options are essentially part of the head/camera.  It still doesn't mean the base is level right?

I think I have it figured out but I'm scouring the inter webs for a more in depth look into levelling with some examples to really help nail it but can't find one

biza43 Forum Pro • Posts: 13,881
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

Stitching software has become so good these days that I would not bother with such minutia. Unless you need absolutely perfect results for professional jobs.

I mostly shoot my panos handheld using the in-camera level indicator to provide some guidance.

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wgosma
wgosma Contributing Member • Posts: 869
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
1

biza43 wrote:

Stitching software has become so good these days that I would not bother with such minutia. Unless you need absolutely perfect results for professional jobs.

I mostly shoot my panos handheld using the in-camera level indicator to provide some guidance.

Agreed re: stitching software and hand held method works very well   Still, there is value to using tripod setup, such as windy conditions,  need for slow shutter speed capture, bracketed exposures and the like.  And tripod if setup properly gives higher level of confidence one will achieve flawless results.

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biza43 Forum Pro • Posts: 13,881
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

wgosma wrote:

biza43 wrote:

Stitching software has become so good these days that I would not bother with such minutia. Unless you need absolutely perfect results for professional jobs.

I mostly shoot my panos handheld using the in-camera level indicator to provide some guidance.

Agreed re: stitching software and hand held method works very well Still, there is value to using tripod setup, such as windy conditions, need for slow shutter speed capture, bracketed exposures and the like. And tripod if setup properly gives higher level of confidence one will achieve flawless results.

Agree also on tripod. But even then, perfect levelling is no longer required for many applications.

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CaliforniaDave Senior Member • Posts: 1,947
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

James Palmowski wrote:

2 Buy an inexpensive circular bubble level to attach to your camera or panorama head, and simply adjust the tripod leg lengths to get things level. Disadvantage is that adjusting the tripod leg lengths is not very convenient compared to adjusting a leveling base.

3 Most modern digital camera have built in levels that can display roll and tilt, so that can do the job that the circular bubble level can do. Disadvantage is that adjusting the tripod leg lengths is not very convenient compared to adjusting a leveling base.

This is where I get confused, all these options are essentially part of the head/camera. It still doesn't mean the base is level right?

It depends on what head you are using. If you have some sort of flat panoramic head that can only rotate around a vertical axis, and the camera mounts directly onto it, then having the camera level means that the base is level.

On the other hand, if you have the camera attached to a ball head with a base that rotates around a vertical axis, having the camera level doesn't mean that the base is level, and this will become immediately apparent once you start rotating the base around a vertical axis.

Ellis Vener
Ellis Vener Forum Pro • Posts: 15,776
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

You want to make sure the camera itself is level. The goal is tomake sure the plane the camera is rotating through is level to the horizon.

Levels on the leg set and on the camera platform are not totally worthless they get you in the ballpark making it easier to do the more precise work of levelign the camera's rotational arc.

Most cameras, even recent iPhones, have built-in electronic levels. Either use the camera's electronic electronic level or a two way level like this: https://www.amazon.com/Camera-Bubble-Olympus-Perspective-Control/dp/B076ZP56R3/ref=sr_1_4

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CaliforniaDave Senior Member • Posts: 1,947
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
2

Ellis Vener wrote:

You want to make sure the camera itself is level. The goal is tomake sure the plane the camera is rotating through is level to the horizon.

Therefore not only the camera must be level, but the vertical axis it is rotating around must also be level.

For example, suppose you set up a tripod that is not level, and you have a ball head tripod head that is mounted on the tripod, and you attach a camera to the ball head, and then adjust the ball head so that the camera is level. As soon as you start trying to pan the ball head tripod head around its base, you will quickly discover that you are not rotating the camera around a vertical axis.

The best bet is to use a tripod head that only pans, and either level the tripod by varying the leg lengths, or by use of a leveling plate between the tripod and the panning head. Of course you can measure level by using the level displays in your camera.

john isaacs Veteran Member • Posts: 5,879
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
2

James Palmowski wrote:

I'm looking for a new (travel) tripod and I've seen a few comments regarding levelling and how it's supposed to be "done right" for panoramas.

From what I understand:

  • Spirit level(s) in the head are useless if the tripod base itself isn't level. Makes sense, we need to swivel around a straight vertical axis so the horizon doesn't shift throughout the pano.
  • If this is true, why are there so few tripods without a level in the base? Is it just because shooting panos is deemed specialist and therefore it's assumed you're going to have a leveller and all the additional nodal rotators to "do it right"? It seems like such a simple (inexpensive) addition so I'm just wondering why this isn't almost standard?
  • How would someone get around the fact that their tripod base doesn't have a built in level if you were travelling light say and didn't want to lug your full pano setup with you?

Thanks for reading and in advance for any comments!

James

I shoot a lot of panoramas, and I am also a fan of traveling light. As a result, I have tried most of the solutions.

BUILT-IN LEVEL.  If you can find a tripod that has a built in level and meets your needs, then that's the best solution for minimizing gear. My favorite tripod is medium sized, and does have a level. With practice, it is very easy to level the tripod base using that level (two leg adjustments, done).  But most truly compact travel tripods don't have room to for a level, especially a level that is large enough to be visible and accurate.

LEVELING PLATE.  You can add a plate between the head and base.  It works, although the levels are small and difficult to read.  The problem with my compact travel tripods is that the legs fold over the head; the leveling plate sticks out and interferes with collapsing the legs.  So you have to put it on and take it off.  You can leave the head off when you pack up; but then you ALWAYS have to put the head on when you want to use the tripod.  Not my choice when traveling light because I'm also usually travelling fast.

LEVELING BASE.  There are two types; three point and low profile ball.  They work well.  The low profile ball is much faster to use, not as precise but that's not usualy an issue.  But again, they interfere with the legs on a compact travel tripod and have to be removed when packing up.  And they are large and heavy.

PANORAMA HEAD.  I have an Acratech ball head, which allows me to invert the head so that the panning base is on top instead of bottom.  This works well, you just need to level the camera.  But it is too large to use on a compact tripod, as it doesn't allow full folding of the legs.

PANORAMIC CLAMP.  This is a rotating clamp that mounts on top of your ball head.  This is the solution I use most often.  You can get one that has indexing (15 deg steps, great for most panos), which makes rotating the pano very efficient.  You simply clamp it into the head, and clamp your camera to it, and level the camera.  It is an extra piece of equipment, but it is lighter than the leveling bases, and I can leave it attached to most of my compact tripods (at the cost of slightly increased length but not width when packed). But it does mean you need to have an Arca quick release head.  Many compact travel tripods have Arca heads these days, but that's a consideration.

Now, I try to be precise when shooting panoramas, because I will shoot them in nearly any circumstance.  Which means I not only set up a level rotation axis, but I also try to align the no-parallax point of the lens with the rotation axis.  And I prefer to shoot panoramas in portrait orientation.  So I add a Nodal rail slide and L-bracket to my setup.

It's still pretty small, but that's a tradeoff between casual panoramic shooting and precise panoramic shooting.  It works well enough with my micro four thirds gear that I rarely use my full sized panoramic heads.  I only take them out when I've got full frame gear.

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Ellis Vener
Ellis Vener Forum Pro • Posts: 15,776
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

To follow up on John’s great overview and advice, the easiest thing is to use and travel with is a tripod head with a panning clamp. A good quality tripod that can support a heavy load is ideal. I prefer the Arca-Swiss Z1 Monoball as it has a high load support to size/weight ratio (credit to Arca-Swiss’s patented aspherical ball) but there are others in the same class. I keep a Really Right Stuff PC-LR clamp permanently attached to my Arca-Swiss head and use it as my standard clamp. I also use a Really Right Stuff “nodal slide” , I think it is the MPR-II model.

for highest resolution imaging it helps to have the camera in portrait orientation. In practical terms this means using an L-type quick release frame on your camera bodies. You have to shoot more frames to get your desired horizontal arc but having greater vertical coverage can allow some leeway to crop if the rotation arc is not perfectly level.

I also have the full RRS PG-02 panning set up and use it  when shooting multi-row panoramic.

One more thing to keep in mind when considering purchasing gear like this is how might it be used for other types of work. A nodal slide for instance is very useful when doing macro photography,  and a panning clamp on top of a ball head is useful for precise framing vertical compositions once you have the horizon level.

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DutchMM Senior Member • Posts: 1,953
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

Perhaps I am trying the impossible, but I need to take a stitchable panorama set slightly above the horizontal plane, with a long zoom.

This is because my point of view is about 150 metres above sea level, and the mountain peaks (130 km away) go up to about 3500 metres.   Thus the angle above the horizon from my tripod to the top of Monte Rosa is roughly 37% (that seems very high, but I trust Wikipedia over my nearly 60 years-ago trigonometry).

So I think what I need to do is get the tripod absolutely level using some kind of levelling device as discussed here, and then switch over to a ball head whose longitudinal rotation is aligned with the lens - this will allow me to raise or lower the angle of sight without disturbing the "level" of the swing.

If I have over-complicated things, I shall be very grateful to be put straight.

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Ellis Vener
Ellis Vener Forum Pro • Posts: 15,776
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

DutchMM wrote:

Perhaps I am trying the impossible, but I need to take a stitchable panorama set slightly above the horizontal plane, with a long zoom.

This is because my point of view is about 150 metres above sea level, and the mountain peaks (130 km away) go up to about 3500 metres. Thus the angle above the horizon from my tripod to the top of Monte Rosa is roughly 37% (that seems very high, but I trust Wikipedia over my nearly 60 years-ago trigonometry).

So I think what I need to do is get the tripod absolutely level using some kind of levelling device as discussed here, and then switch over to a ball head whose longitudinal rotation is aligned with the lens - this will allow me to raise or lower the angle of sight without disturbing the "level" of the swing.

If I have over-complicated things, I shall be very grateful to be put straight.

How long of lens?

but practically speaking It sounds like your subject is entirely at photographic infinity even if you are using a 2000mm lens so I suspect that a simple tripod head, ball or tatiknale (panting and tilting should work with no need for nodal point displacement.

Bit if you want to get more technical, a simple gimbal should work as long, or if you want to get even more technical, the full Really Right Stuff PG-02 Panoramic kit with a plate for your lens will be the most precise.

I think the math calculating the maximum level of inclination as 37 degrees just seems way, way off for a 3500 meter peak that is 130km away. You would have great difficulty walking up a 37 degree slope.

i calculate the maximum angle of inclination as 1.542 degrees.

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Boomanbb
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Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?
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DutchMM Senior Member • Posts: 1,953
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

Ellis

I am sure your maths are superior to mine.  I am 71, and I last took a trigonometry class in about 1963.  2 degrees it is.

Further thought persuaded me that I could use a levelling base plus a ball head, the base giving me the sweep in the same plane, and the ball head giving me the elevation (because of the project aims, I am going to have to put the camera in Portrait orientation, and I have seen what might be the ideal Neewer solution on Amazon).

The only lens in my collection that gives anything like the magnification I need is the Bigma.  On my A77ii that has a max of 750mm.  I should like to pull it in a tad, say to 400 nominal, because I don't want to spend the whole Christmas period playing with sharpening tools.  It's bad enough I can't find anyone in NW Italy to clean my sensor, so I have to apply "healing" tools to every frame.

This is max extension for one landscape frame:

Thanks for your help.

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DutchMM Senior Member • Posts: 1,953
Re: On Tripods, levelling and panoramas - how many spirit levels do you need?

Thanks!  The bottom levels and the top inclines?

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