You Need a Good Head and Great Legs

Me (to wife): “My head is unstable and I have ordered a new, $300 one.”
(wife): “I knew about the instability, but I didn’t realize you could buy a new one.”

Tripod and Panoramic Head in action

If you search around the internet you will find plenty of product reviews. One of the best reviews I ever read said something like this: “Save one thousand dollars by buying the right gear now instead of later”. He proceeded to describe how cheap tripod legs and cheap heads ended up costing more than had he bought the good gear from the beginning.

Wait, “heads?”, “legs?”

There are four parts to a tripod that are important to get right: legs, head, release, mounting plate.

 

But First… A Short Commercial

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Harold Davis and I will be conducting a workshop that you may want to attend. Registration is through Harold’s web site.

Tripod Anatomy

  1. Legs – The part that touches the ground, and yes the bottom of the legs is called the feet.
  2. Head – The part that is attached to the top of the legs and provides the ability to rotate and tilt the camera at various angles.
  3. (Quick) Release system – The method by which the Head can attach to the camera via…
  4. Quick Release plate – the part that you attach to the camera and mate to the release system. You can directly screw your camera on to many different heads, but you do not want to do that because it is really, really inconvenient.

If any bit of those is wrong, you have an unstable or even equipment-hazardous situation. Trust me, I started with “K-Mart” tripods (had 3 – each of which didn’t last long), 2 Manfrotto aluminum tripods (one is broken), and ONE Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. I have also owned at least 9 different heads including a pan-tilt head, SunFoto, Manfroto, Acratech, and a gaggle of off brands. The ball heads were bought for various purposes. I have also dealt with 3 different kinds of attachment systems: direct screw-in to the camera (really inconvenient), Manfroto style plate clamp (better), and Arca Swiss clamp (best of the bunch). I have also used a gaggle of different “quick release” plates from cheap off-the shelf, to custom made for my camera(s), including L-Brackets.

Trial By Fire

Trust me when I tell you I have discovered a lot of what not to buy, and can say confidently that if you want a stable, good quality camera support system you need to get all four components right. And doubly so for night photography where long exposures REQUIRE a tripod or other solid support system. My tripods have been to the top of Half Dome, Mount Whitney and Clouds Rest. I have used the “legs” as a walking stick to keep me from falling into rivers and ravines, to test stability of the ground before taking a step.

Many Paths to Failure – Plate and Clamps

Let me provide some examples of the myriad of ways things can go wrong: all of them have happened to me, by the way.

If the quick release plate is attached with a low quality screw or bolt… the bolt could snap and your camera and lens will tumble to the ground.

If the quick release plate is difficult to get a snug fit (or requires a special tool that you do not have with you), your camera will wobble or twist in the breeze no matter how stable everything else is.

If the plate is difficult to get into the latch (release clamp), you may think you have it ready to go, only to see your camera fall off the tripod onto the ground or down a granite staircase.

If the plate you have on the camera does not mate with the clamp on your tripod… oops. You’ve lugged your equipment for nothing.

If everything is solid except the clamp does not snug down well, you have wobble and ruined photos.

… and we have not even gotten to the head or the legs yet!

More Failure: Head and Legs

If your head requires superhuman strength to keep it from creeping under the weight of your camera and lens (or super human strength to undo it)… you get either painful fingers or a “sinking” camera angle.

If the tensioning on the head is either locked-like-super-glue or floppy-as-a-wet-rag, you may either have to give up aiming the shot as you want, miss the shot, or have the rig flop over when the camera does. And the flopping camera may pinch your hand, or mash your fingers or smack you in the face (Reminder: All these have happened to me!)

Even if the leg locks seem to be working well, unusually cold (or hot) weather may render the locks ineffective and your tripod may slowly – or suddenly – fall over.

If the legs cannot be adjusted wide-enough or accurately-enough or low-enough, a breeze or strong gust of wind may blow your rig over.

If the fully extended legs are so short that you fully extend the center column to keep from hunching over and hurting your back – you have turned your tripod into a wide-stance monopod that may not be able to bear the load.

If your center column has a tightening collar or wing nut directly below the weight of your camera, you may accidentally over loosen the column causing the camera to slide down and pinch the living daylights out of your hand.

If your legs are spindly, they may induce vibration, or just snap when you accidentally bump them.

… I could go on … but I am hoping you understand how hard knocks, broken lenses, and broken tripod components all add up to a severe lack of enthusiasm for all but the best built of components.

Recommendations?

So here is where you might expect me to make recommendations, right? I usually avoid making recommendations because gear changes, and people have different reasons for choosing what they do. My criteria are pretty simple: I want stability, versatility, durability, and light-weight – in about that order.  While the first three seem to be pretty obvious criteria, the light-weight aspect was something I learned over time, too. It was a chore to lug my > 8 pound aluminum leg Manfrotto with a Manfrotto head to the top of Half Dome. By comparison my < 4.5 pound Gitzo plus Acratech head seemed like a feather. Manfrotto made a smart move when they bought Gitzo.

You might have noticed that I did not list price as important. It used to be, but too many failed choices made me realize that choices that are less than great become costlier in the long run.  In a similar vein I bought half a dozen sleeping bags hoping to get something lightweight and WARM until I finally spent almost $300 on a bag (Big Agnes Lost Ranger) and pad that provided the most comfortable, warm sleep – and was also lightweight. I’ve spent more for a single night in a hotel than for the sleeping bag, but that bag has kept me snoozing on many chilly nights in the wilderness. Indeed one night I had TWO cheap sleeping bags nested inside one another while in a tent in Grandview Campground at 8,600 feet on White Mountain and I was still shivering. The next time I went with my Big Agnes. The night was even colder, but I was snug as a bug in a rug.

I had similar experiences with camera backpacks. I liked the design of a Tamron bag. It lasted about a year until the zipper broke. The second bag lasted less than a year. By contrast, my F-stop Tilopa bag has been all over the world over 4 years now – sometimes as my primary and only luggage. To say I’m happy with its durability would be an understatement – and that it cost me 4 times as much as one Tamron bag ($320 vs $95), means I’ve broken even so far – without the inconvenience of dealing with broken gear.

What About A Ball Head And Tripod Legs?

Acratech GPS-s

  • Acratech Head (pretty much any one), but the GP-s is a nicely designed lightweight capable head unless you have a huge camera.
  • Gitzo carbon fiber legs, but NOT the Traveler series which is too flimsy and too short.
    I specifically recommend the Mountaineer Series 2. It is the best trade-off between weight, stability and usable height.  If you’re willing to pay a penalty in extra pounds, the Systematic series (3, 4, or 5) are good except for two things: The Systematic doesn’t have a center column and sometimes that column is useful – like when trying to shoot straight up since the camera may end up hanging partially below the level of the head. The other thing about a series 5 Systemic that bothered me was that I was shocked to discover that the leg locks must be untightened in a specific order to fold it all up because if an upper leg is not tight, the lock on the lower leg will just spin. The mountaineer doesn’t require that silliness.
  • Really Right Stuff with carbon fiber legs. Pretty much all of them are well done, light and sturdy.  The RRS ball heads are good too, it’s just that they are all heavy, heavy, heavy.

But, but those are expensive choices! Yes. I suppose paying $430 USD for a good head and $950 USD for good legs sounds like an excessive amount of money. But: how much did your camera and lens cost? How much will your back thank you for carrying a smaller load?  And finally, how much are you willing to risk watching your camera and lens flop over in a gust of wind?

Disclaimer

I write what I know – not what people or manufacturers or merchants ASK me to write. I paid retail price to purchase all the gear I’ve discussed. In other words, these are honest, unbiased, hard won evaluations of various gear. If you can purchase this gear at a local store, I recommend that you do so. You may spend a little more, but there is serious value to talking to real people, testing out gear in person, and in keeping a local business viable.

One Reason To Consider the Alabama Hills Workshop... The awesome landscapes

Down with the Noise!

Clouds, Coast and Milky Way (vertorama)

We need to start with a definition.  What is noise?  A reasonable, widely excepted definition is that noise is any artifact or defect that reduces the overall fidelity of an image. But this definition is too broad because defects like glare and chromatic aberration would be included. Glare and chromatic aberration are caused by the optical system, not by the sensor. So a better definition is needed.

Noise Means: Variations in luminance (brightness) and chrominance (color) in an image that are not in the object being imaged and not caused by the optical system. These variations generally are perceived as colored speckles and resemble grain in film photography.

There are, however, many types of noise – each having different causes and thus different solutions.

Astonishing Fact Number 1

Every image has noise!  Indeed, noise often aids in creating sharpness.

Astonishing Fact Number 2

Usually the problem is not noise but with noise that overwhelms the “signal”.

The Five Kinds of Noise

There is not just one kind of noise. There are five. Ok, there are actually MORE than five kinds of noise, but here are the most significant ordered from most to least likely to overwhelm a night image.

  • Random (quantum effect) noise.
  • Fixed pattern noise (banding)
  • Stuck (Hot Pixel) Noise
  • Offset noise
  • Shot Noise – applies to very dim subjects and shadows

You may see different terminology in other articles. For example “Fixed Pattern Noise” is often used to describe stuck/hot pixels.  For me “stuck pixels” while often annoying are one of the easiest to control using “dark frames” – or with newer cameras, require NO work. More on that in a moment.  Let’s briefly address each kind of noise, what causes it, and how to best prevent it.

Random Noise

Despite what you may have been lead to believe, random noise IS random. Speckles can appear anywhere on your image in light or dark areas. These speckles are caused by *random* quantum effects.  Electromagnetic induction, electro magnetic fields, gamma rays, sunspots, static charges, impurities in the electronic substrate, and blind bad luck. ALL of these effects are magnified by heat which is the single nastiest mafioso of noise. Longer exposures produce more noise. And “Dark Frame Subtraction” (an element of Long Exposure Noise Reduction aka LENR) can do *nothing* to alleviate random noise. Soon however we will tell you how to reduce noise the way an astrophotographer does.

Fixed Pattern Noise (e.g. Banding)

The more you push an image, the more likely you are to see vertical or horizontal banding – or both.  Pushing refers to high ISO sensitivity or large increases in exposure in post processing. Pushing also refers to using lower quality sensors at well above their quantum efficiency – which we will explain in a moment.  As with random noise higher ambient temperatures can intensify this type of noise.  Another example of fixed pattern noise refers to pink, purple or overly bright areas in an image. Early cameras were particularly prone to this form of noise because the electronics of the camera were unevenly heating the sensor – and as has been pointed out above, temperature is the enemy of a clean image.

Stuck / Hot Pixels

To be precise, it’s usually not “pixels” that are stuck or hot – it’s sensels. Because each pixel is comprised of two green, one blue and one red sensel it’s often easy to tell which of the sensels is defective by observing the color of the pixel. If red – the red sensel is registering a value higher than it should. “Stuck” sensels usually result from one of the following causes:

  1. Measurement errors in the electronics (e.g. photon collector doesn’t empty properly, current leakage), or an unusually high offset bias.
  2. Physical damage to the filter (lens) over the sensel – usually at manufacturing time.

Often the higher the ISO, the more offensive a stuck pixel appears – however stuck pixels which are present in every frame can be removed using dark frame subtraction, and indeed modern cameras can remove these automatically. Dark frame reduction is something the camera does when it does “Long Exposure Noise Reduction”.  Sometimes resetting the camera can dramatically reduce the hot pixels. The method for resetting a camera varies, but on many Canon cameras, the prescribed method is to use the manual “sensor clean mode” -> Now and leave it in that mode (with no lens attached) for at least a minute before turning off the power.  Also note that heat often exacerbates the stuck pixel problem, too.

Tip 1: “Reset your camera after it has temperature stabilized and before shooting. Usually this is a simple as “Clean Sensor -> Now” Many modern cameras make note of the stuck pixels and will automatically remove them for you!

Offset Noise

The process of measuring each sensel involves an imprecise analog to digital conversion. The measurement phase can introduce its own error called bias. Rather than reading an unexposed (black) sensel as a zero, some sensels may read 2, some 4 and others 7.  This offset noise is also managed pretty well by LENR and except when it is really bad, is not significant.  Merely darkening the darkest pixels may be sufficient to hide offset noise.

Shot Noise

This is a curious name but it refers to the fact that photons (light) do not arrive at a regular rate – especially for dark subjects like dim stars or the darkest of shadows. Since the camera collects and counts photons, variations in the rate of arrival of photons results in speckling. However normally shot noise is minimal and not noticeable. Shot noise is usually noticed only when severely underexposing or by aggressively brightening underexposed areas.

 

Noise Reduction Methods (Pre and Post Shot)
Type of Noise Pre-Shot  Post Processing
Stuck Pixel(s) Cooler, Camera Reset, LENR Dark Frame Subtraction
Random Cooler, Shorter Averaging, DeNoise, ACR
Banding Cooler DeNoise, ACR
Shot Longer Exposure
Offset LENR Dark Frame Subtraction

 

Looking Noise in the Face

Zooming in on a dark frame – one taken with the lens cap on shows the nature of noise. First is a dark frame without any adjustments.  Some red and green noise is barely discernible.

Dark Frame 1 - Linear Mode, Unmodified

Dark Frame 1 – Linear Mode, Unmodified

Looking at the same frame with an adjustment to boost the saturation and brightness, the nature of random noise is more obvious.

Same Single Dark Frame Boosted with curve to show content.

Same Single Dark Frame Boosted with curve to show content.

Notice how the noise is different in the same area of another frame.

DarkFrame2Boosted

For more examples of noise in dark frames, see this article.

Noise Reduction – The Environment

Sadly, one of the most significant sources of noise is heat – the heat in the air.  Shooting in the desert at 100 degrees Farenheit will always create far more noise than shooting at 30 degrees F below zero.  Can you help the problem by cooling the camera? Yes you can!  Gary Honis built a cooler for his camera (used for astrophotography) and got quite impressively better results. His chart of noise pixels is no longer on the site, but it dropped from thousands of bits of noise to to tens by cooling his camera 40 degrees Farenheit. However beware that if you also cool the lens you’re likely to get dew.  And if you have an open system like in Gary’s Telescope scenario, you may get dew on your sensor, too.  Not surprisingly ALL high-end cameras for astrophotography are cooled. The most extreme are cooled with liquid nitrogen!

The second take-away is this:

Tip 2: If possible, opt for shooting in cooler climes.  If you’re shooting the Milky Way, for example, you can check a Planisphere and you’ll find that you can get the same star configuration at different times of the night in different parts of the year.

 

Noise Reduction – A Better Sensor

You may have seen some velvety smooth night images produced by top of the line cameras and may be wondering if you can achieve such results with your middle of the line equipment. Unfortunately the answer is mostly no.  Generally speaking two things dramatically affect the amount of noise produced in a camera’s sensor with regard to night and low-light images and those are:

  • Sensor density: the more sensels you pack into a given amount of space the less light they receive. Set out a thimble and a bathtub in a rainstorm and it will be no surprise to find far less water accumulates in the thimble than the bathtub. The smaller, closely packed sensels in high megapixel crop-factor cameras have a distinct disadvantage over the relatively lower density, larger real-estate full frame cameras.
  • Sensor design: Modern camera sensels are spaced more closely together so they waste less light. They are also more efficient.  Better sensors also have higher “full well” capacities – that is they can count more photons more accurately before filling up or spilling over. Because of better sensor design it is possible for a higher megapixel sensor to outperform a lower megapixel sensor of the same size.

There is one other measure of a sensor that keeps getting better: it’s quantum efficiency.  In an ideal sensor each photon will increase the count of the sensel it strikes by exactly one.  The efficiency of a sensor can be determined by calculating its “ISO at Unity Gain”.  The higher the number, the better the sensor performance.  DxO Mark calculates approximately this value and represents it as the ISO value in its “Sport/Low Light” rating.  For daylight subjects with gadzillions of photons flying a great picture doesn’t require a high efficiency sensor. But in low light every photon should be counted!

Here are the top 3 Full Frame or crop cameras (plus #4, the one I chose) ranked by ISO of the “Sports Score” (a good approximation of the quantum efficiency) and initial price as of November 16, 2017. Click the image to see the latest chart and to find your own camera.

DxO Mark “Sports” Score by Cost

Tip 3: Learn what your camera quantum efficiency is and shoot near or below that ISO level. Selecting a higher ISO than the quantum efficiency magnifies the noise, while a lower ISO tosses out good data.

Noise Reduction – Software

There are many ways to use software to reduce noise in an image. Tools like Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP), Adobe’s Camera Raw (ACR), Lightroom – which uses the ACR component, and many plugins and filters within Photoshop.  Keep in mind that no noise reduction technique will result in keeping a perfectly sharp image – all methods blur the result.  TopazLabs DeNoise (and inFocus) product claim to have deconvolution techniques to keep edges sharp. The good news is that a slightly blurred sky – like clouds, looks quite natural. What is my preferred method?

  1. Ignore it!  That’s right. Many images that appear noisy when pixel peeped are really quite fine for reproduction at reasonable sizes and viewing distances – especially if no overly aggressive brightening or contrast enhancements are done.
  2. Adobe Camera Raw: I use ACR when the noise is fairly low.  ACR does a suprisingly good job of removing noise if you bump the “Luminance” and “Color” Noise reduction sliders to the right and turn down the Luminance Detail and Color Detail sliders. How much depends on the image and how desperate you are to save it.  NOTE: Lightroom’s controls are the same as those in ACR except that you can selectively apply noise reduction which is preferable. Being too aggressive with the Color noise may eliminate your star colors, so beware!
  3. Use a Photoshop Plugin.  There are a kajillion ways to reduce noise within Photoshop – after ACR – including the “Despeckle”, “Dust and Scratches” and “Reduce Noise” filters (and more). But we find that in Photoshop all the built in ways are underwhelming.  I have tried several plugins including DFine (Nik Software), DeNoise (Topaz), and a few others.  The one that wins for me is TopazLabs DeNoise.  Below are samples of the original, and the DeNoised versions.  I think the result speaks for itself.  But note that I *intentionally* used an artificially high ISO to increase the noise.  A better ISO for the Canon 5D II would be about 1600 ISO – a little less than its 1815 rating by DxO Mark Sports score.

C_061861b_orig C_061861b_deband

Here is a closer crop of the areas most changed by the noise reduction:

The original image and two attempts at noise reduction. Notice that some areas (X) remain problematic

A good noise reduction strategy is to NOT denoise everything.  Duplicate the image to another layer in Photoshop. Apply noise reduction to that layer and then use a layer mask to reveal the noise reduction selectively. In the example above, masking off the Topaz Denoise on the tree would have left a sharper tree.

 

Median / Averaging To Reduce Noise

Yet another noise reduction method – useful for random noise is to do median (using Statistics in CS Advanced or Photoshop CC) or averaging of shots.

On the left is a single 25,600 ISO exposure. On the right, 15 shots averaged but with no other noise reduction attempted.

Hopefully you remember that there are many different kinds of noise. The techniques described above are used for controlling both random noise and stuck pixel noise. But stuck pixels can be managed by doing your own “dark frame subtraction“.

 

Resources:

 

Multi Row Panorama Rig

We have many articles on panoramas.

The point of this article is to describe the multi-row panorama apparatus I created with off-the-shelf, inexpensive parts from Amazon. The good news is assembly is pretty simple. When you are done you will have a gimbal style mount suitable for taking multi-row panoramas using a modestly sized camera/lens combination. It is important to point out that you need a sturdy tripod and head beneath as the extra top-heaviness will tax a wimpy head or spindly legged tripod. I use the Gitzo mountaineer series tripod – it is lightweight, stable and has served me well for many years. I also have an older (much heavier) aluminum-legged Manfrotto. I have Acratech ball heads on each tripod. Those Acratech heads are really light, and solid. I HIGHLY recommend them.

Multi-Row Panorama Gear in action at Asilomar State Beach, California

What is a Single-Row Panorama (or Vertorama)

A single row panorama is what you get when you take a series of photos left to right (or right to left) – usually in portrait mode to extend the field of view up to 360 degrees. A vertorama is the same idea, except you usually use landscape mode. In either case, the camera needs to be rotate around the “nodal point” or “no parallax” point. The no parallax point is usually found IN the lens, and is thus never where you attach the camera to a tripod.

What is a “Multi-Row” Panorama?

Imagine taking a single row panorama, then repointing up (or down) and taking another single row panorama. Now you have a multi-row shot.

Here is my parts list all purchased from Amazon.

  1.  $19.99 Neewer 200mm Rail Nodal, Quick Release Clamp  [1]
  2.  $28.99 Koolehaoda 360° Panoramic Head  [2] This unit was chosen because all the other possibilities had very long lead times.
  3.  $16.95 Desmond 200mm DLR-2002
  4.  $39.95 Desmond DVC-220 220mm Rail 90° Arca Compatible w Vertical Clamp instead of this 90 degree rail, you can also buy a regular rail (another #3) and a 90 degree clamp.

Total is about $125 USD and weighs just under 2 pounds.

NOTES:
[1] You can get shorter or longer rails. Might as well get the longer one. While it is heavier, you can use it with a longer lens.

[2] If you have an old tripod head, it may have a panning clamp and/or leveling base that you can re-purpose.

Other Items to Consider

  • $430.00 Acratech GPs-s Ballhead with Clamp Ball Head with Arca Clamp. This one is not required, but it’s really good and has the advantage of being usable without a leveling base by using it “upside down”. And yes, it is designed to be used that way, notice how the markings are repeated so that they are visible right side up, and up side down.
  • ($60-$200) L-Bracket (arca swiss) for your particular camera
  • Leveling base.
  • At minimum you will need a bubble level somewhere on the horizontal surface or a means to align the unit perpendicular to the ground.

Assembly and Alignment

Assembly is straight forward. The only tricky part may be securely mounting the Panoramic clamp to the vertical rail. All the rest go together with the built-on clamps.

What If I Do NOT Have My Ball Head Upside Down?

As we show in the video, we have mounted our Acratech GP-s head “upside down”. This allows us to level what was the base using the ball head and then use the rotation of the base as a horizontal panning clamp.  There are several ways you can proceed if you do not, or cannot use your tripod in this way:

  1. If you already have a panning clamp on the top deck of your ball head, level the deck and use the existing panning clamp.
  2. If your ball head has a panning base, you can carefully align the tripod so that the head mount (the deck where your ball head attaches) is level. Then align the clamp so that it is level as well. You can use the panning  base of your ball head. Note this is not easy to get right, but a slight misalignment is usually easy to correct in the stitched photos.
    NOTE: Be sure to check for level-ness through a complete rotation!  Our Acratech Nomad ball head, for example, is not designed to be easily mounted upside down, and this method is what we use.
  3. If your ball head does NOT have a panning base, then you can buy a second panning clamp and attach that to your ball head clamp (or replace your existing clamp with a panning clamp).  WARNING: Not all panning clamps are easily attached to arbitrary ball heads as there is little standardization

 

Taking and “Stitching” Panoramic Photos

Since we have plenty of material on how to  do this, we will refer you to our prior articles (see the top of this page).


Alternative Hardware

If assembling a multi-row panoramic head from parts is not exciting, there are several pre-built options.

ProMaster GH25K Gimbal Pan Kit

ProMaster GH25K Gimbal Pan Kit

At about  $300 USD, it seems pretty well built. The flaws in the design are:

  • It does not have  a leveling base,
  • While the bottom head (vertical axis) has handy detent stops, the horizontal axis does not.
  • There is no bubble level on the base.

I have not used one, but found and played with one in a local camera store, and saw that is also available online. Like the system we laid out above, do not expect this rig to hold up your 20 pound camera/lens combination. Total weight is about 2 pounds and rated capacity about 7 pounds.

 

Really Right Stuff Multi-Row Pano Package – PG-01 or PG-02 (the Big One)

There are two units. The PG-01 which is similar to what we custom-built above at a price of $285 USD (at B&H). The other option is a beast. And at $795 USD (from B&H) is not cheap, nor complete. You may still need a leveling base. There are many options available, too, including a gimbal cradle. Check out the possible configurations at the Really Right Stuff website (though when we last checked the units were on back-order).

PG-01 for smaller cameras (non telephoto lenses)

You will also need a nodal rail to pair with the above. There are no detent stops for this, and as with others, you’ll need to level your base to use this.  (There is also an option that includes a leveling base for about $290). One reviewer reported that he had trouble keeping his moderately heavy camera from slouching down on the vertical arm. There does not appear to be a bubble level on the horizontal bar as there is on the larger model.  The version with the built-in leveling base clearly does have a bubble level. There are no detents to set up fixed rotational amounts. Note that the vertical rotational axis clamp is located under where your camera would be and might be inconveniently located.Total weight is about 1.3 pounds with the two pieces plus a nodal rail.

 

The Really Right Stuff PG-02 Panorama Kit (from B&H)

 

As with all Really Right Stuff gear, there is some seriously thoughtful design and overbuilding here. It is beefy with big easy to find knobs, great clamps and little touches like the target on the center of the rotational axis. Why is that a good idea? If you align the bulls-eye target in the center of your image (see our video), you have the correct location for multi-row panoramas (provided the set back is correct). You may still need a leveling base (though might be able to use the bubble level at the right edge). You can replace your current head with this unit and have full mobility, otherwise you’ll need a plate to mount the unit to your ball head.  All that great design costs money though: about $795 and up. Weight is about 3.3 pounds.

Lickety Stitcher in Lightroom + Panoramas IN Lightroom

Pointyland Redux

A conventional panorama stitched with Microsoft Image Composite Editor from 3 images.

Maybe we should start by explaining Lickety Split. Lickety Split is US English slang for fast so “Lickety Stitcher” is our contrived slang for a fast image stitcher. Image stitching is what you do to create a large image out of several smaller, overlapping images.

We’ve reported how much we like the FREE Microsoft Image Composite Editor (aka ICE) for stitching images because it is faster and more accurate than Photoshop’s Photomerge or Lightroom’s new, but sometimes anemic Photomerge. Here is a simple “quick panorama” method of creating a panorama from about 3 clicks. How? Configure Lightroom to run ICE as an export step. After creating the export step (described below) you do the following:

  1. Select photos,
  2. right click “Export -> ICE Quick Stitch”
  3. Click through the ICE Menus to Stitch, crop and Save.

Sadly, there is no Image Composite Editor for Mac computers. If someone knows of an equally easy to use, fast version for the Mac, let us know in the comments!

How To Set Up Lickety Stitcher

To use Microsoft ICE (or PT GUI, or other external tool), you create an Export setting for it. Click a photo (any photo), then “Export” and Add new settings as shown below. The only tricky part is finding the program you want Lightroom to run. In Windows it has to be the actual path, not a shortcut.

Microsoft ICE Panoramas from Lightroom

You don’t have to settle for only a “quick stitch” (which is best done with JPGs), you can also export full sized TIFF files and stitch those.  ICE can save documents in Photoshop .psd format and others. And if you have another image stitcher you really like, e.g. PT GUI, you can probably use this same trick to make that software work on demand.

What About Lightroom for Stitching?

We were happy to discover that Lightroom and Photoshop image stitching (panorama) creation has improved quite a lot since our first disasters trying to do vertoramas and panoramas. Indeed, I think we would be happy to use the new tools and skip using ICE in many circumstances. Here is how you use the Panorama creation feature of Lightroom.

First, pick your images. They should overlap by at least 1/3 from frame to frame. And you can pre-process them with noise removal and such. Highly recommend you do at least two things to images before you try to stitch them:

  • Use vignette correction appropriate for your lens.
  • Consider using Distortion correction before creating your panorama – not always necessary.

Then right click and find “Photo Merge -> Panorama”.

Lightroom did a quite respectable job. We were able to to create the image below entirely in Lightroom. We did see some problems, however:

  1. We got a message about “unable to save metadata”
  2. Lightroom insists on creating the image as a .dng file and uses the name of one of the files you picked (we’d like it to be a mash of first-through-last.
  3. Lightroom didn’t seem to be as smart as ICE in how it stitched the images. ICE joined the images without the airplane and satellite trails, or maybe it was just better at blending them out. We had to do that work by hand on the image Lightroom created. It was not difficult, though. It is not the first time we have seen ICE handle an image better than Photoshop PhotoMerge

In ICE we manually  bent the slightly arching shot back into vertical form and did manual cropping. In Lightroom we used the Boundary Warp option at the end to make the images fill the frame nicely. Here is what we got from those 11 images:

10 Image Panorama using Only Lightroom Photomerge

You can compare the above to the same images used via Microsoft ICE and finished in Photoshop.

Overarching Majesty

Stitched in ICE, Finished in Photoshop

Multi-Row Panorama

Here is a more ambitious 22 photo, multi-row panorama stitched with Microsoft ICE. There was a stitching problem due to cloud movement… maybe you’ve spotted it.

Asylum at the Sea

 

Stitching Software Alternatives to Photoshop, Lightroom and ICE

  • Hugin (FREE: mac, PC, Linux). Don’t much like this one even though it is free.
  • PTGUI (mac, PC). A little clunky, but does much more than stitching including HDR and can be automated. This is the one tool you need when you need to convince an image to stitch that just won’t do it. It can’t do miracles, but with work, it can get the job done.
  • Others… that we don’t have familiarity with, though we have heard good things about Kolor Autopano