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What is a Gigapan EPIC PRO? It’s a robot that takes gigapixel (one billion or more) photos for you. There is programming to be done first, but once all the parameters are set, the unit will pan and tilt to create proper coverage for intense panoramas. Unlike a panorama where a wide or semi-wide angle lens is used to take a few shots and stitched together in a computer, the idea with the Gigapan is to zoom in and get as much detail as you like, then stitch with their software that understands how the panorama was shot. I was lent a Gigapan by the folks at BorrowLenses.Com to take to Hawaii for some testing and this review.
Heavy. Cumbersome. Awkward. Solid. Complicated. Fancy.
That was my first impression of the Gigapan EPIC PRO upon opening the box and taking a look. As you can see in the pictures, the unit is sizable, and for good reason. First, it has to house a battery pack to move all the gears when you are out in the wilds. Second, those gears are precise, this is not a cheap unit by any stretch. Lastly, it has to have a large range of motion in order to capture 360 degree shots.
The unit has a base, which contains the mount for a tripod, which contains the brains of the unit, accessed by an easy to read LCD. The controls for the LCD are easy enough to get accustomed to. A multi-directional controller sits in the middle, flanked on both sides by a X button and an OK/Power button. Most video game controllers are more complex than this unit. Just above all these controls is one of the most important features: a built-in bubble level.
Rising from the sides of the unit are two arms which hold the camera mount. These arms are responsible for swinging the camera up and down, and have degree markings on their sides to aid in precise calculation of panoramas if you so desire. Inside of the arms is the camera mount, a somewhat complex looking arrangement at first glance. The mount is designed to be universal and will work for most any lens/camera combination less than 10lbs. The mount comes with a quick release head to make life easy and the tray the head sits in can be adjusted forward and back. Likewise, the whole tray can be raised and lowered where it attaches to the two side arms.
Why all this room for adjustment? To create precise panoramas, especially when zoomed in at 300mm+, the unit needs to swivel around the center of the lens. The instructions include a process for setting the unit correctly and rather than regurgitate those step-by-step instructions here, I will summarize by stating it’s best to have the bulk of the camera weight over the center of the plate while making sure the height is set properly. One read through of the instructions is about all it takes to get the unit ready for shooting.
Someone asked me, “Do you have to use a tripod with that thing?” (I should note, you will get a lot of questions when using this unit from passersby) Yes, you do. The unit turns left and right by way of the bottom mount, so it is essential that the plate is held in place. I’m sure special adaptations can be made, but a tripod, with a quick release, is the easiest route.
My first use of the unit was on the back deck of the Ali’i Kula Lavender Farms on the island of Maui, Hawaii. A wide expanse of the central island lay before me and I was excited to start playing, errr, testing the robot. With the camera mounted I hooked up the control cable (your camera will need to be able to accept a remote control and a full list of compatible cameras is available on GigaPan Systems’ website) and instantly my Canon 7D started shooting at its highest frame rate. Mistake number one. If the unit is off, it may trigger your camera when the control cable is first installed.
Once I had regained control and turned the unit on, it was time to setup my camera. Each focal length needs to be set invididually because the field of view changes. GigaPan makes this easy with one of its menu options. Find an object once you have selected your desired focal length. Place an object near the top of your viewfinder. After clicking OK, you will then move that object to the bottom. That’s all the GigaPan needs to know!
If you only use one focal length for all your panoramas, this setting will never have to be adjusted again.
Now the unit is ready to start shooting! The menus will walk you through a few things you need to do first to insure solid panoramas:
At the beginning of setting up your new panorama, the unit will tell you to move the camera, via the cursor key, to the top left of your desired image. Then move it to the bottom right. As you have programed the field of view earlier, the unit will now tell you how many rows, columns and total photos will be taken. And if you desire, the unit can show you a dry run and pinpoint corners before actually commencing with the panorama. After that, it’s time to hit OK and the robot work its magic!
The software that comes with the unit is simple and in its first version. In my view, it has a lot to improve upon, but for now it does what it’s told. Firing up Gigapan Stitch (Windows or Intel-based MAC), the first task is to tell it how many rows are in your panorama. This is an annoying little step as, after a week on Maui, I hadn’t a clue how many rows were in each panorama. No big deal, really, to go count them, but just a bit annoying. Also, the program can only handle JPG images, not RAW.
Click “Save selection and stitch” and away it goes!! Depending on the number of images, their size, you computer’s processor, RAM, and any other sundry factors, you stitch will take a while to complete. The program is fairly swift on my computer for the example above, taking approximately ten minutes to stitch together 18MP images. Of my three test shots, one, from Haleakala National Park at sunrise currently refuses to stitch right-side-up. I am not sure why because the preview image, when the rows are all laid out before stitching, shows it right-side-up.
After finishing the stitch, you can review it and then it’s time to upload to the website.
To make the panoramas work, with their millions and millions of pixels, takes uploading them to gigapan.org. Currently there is not another option with the software, other than uploading to gigapan.org to be able to share the images with others. Yes, you could use other stitching software and save as you wish. The panorama photos, once uploaded, can also be viewed with Google Earth. An example of the photo being stitched above can be found here. Another example of the Napili Kai Beach Resort can be found here.
The unit is a lot of fun and can give some amazing results. If you look at both examples I linked to above, you will notice the photo at the resort can use a lot of work. As you can image, anything moving between shots stands a chance of being cut off or copied twice. Things like waves at the beach, people, animals or fast moving clouds.
I was only able to use the Gigapan for a few days on this trip before returning it to BorrowLenses.com (thanks again for the lend!). Since that time I’ve been noticing excellent places to shoot around town and have been scheming how to justify the $900USD sticker price to purchase one. They have some very cool applications for cityscapes, landscapes and creating 360 degree images for real estate. It is a piece of hardware I hope to own one day, once they update the software a bit.