I believe I have a good eye when it comes to composition and lighting, but I realize that I am not alone in that department.
So, as a photographer, I am always looking for ways to differentiate myself from the thousands of other photographers.
Whether shooting with an ultra-wide lens, a Lensbaby, experimenting with HDR photography, shooting at interesting angles,
dramatic lighting, panoramas, or using custom presets in Lightroom or actions in Photoshop, I am always looking for an edge.
When I first heard about the Gigapan Epic, a motorized device designed to automate the panorama process, I was very intrigued
as I love panorama photography. Unlike conventional methods of taking panoramas where the user might take upwards of sixteen
overlapping images at a wide lens setting, the Epic was actually designed to create huge Gigapixel (1000+ Megapixels) images
by capturing hundreds of tightly cropped images of a scene all shot at full zoom. Their custom software is then used to stitch all of the
images together to create a massive panorama that can be panned, zoomed and then zoomed in on some more. Because your camera is
capturing each telephoto portion of a scene at full resolution, users are able to zoom in to that same level while viewing the panorama.
It's possible that you have already seen a Gigapixel Panorama, thanks to David Bergman's
1.4 Gigapixel of President Barack Obama's Inaugural Address, which captured a sweeping 195 degree wide expanse of the U.S. Capital grounds during Obama's Inauguration.
This beautiful panorama was shot using a Canon Powershot G10, a consumer digital camera, and is made up of 220 images with a
final image size of 59,783 x 24,658. If you have not yet seen it click the link in this paragraph and then zoom in on any part of the panorama to examine people and faces in
The folks over at Gigapan agreed to send me a unit for a few weeks in order to test it and write this review. A hands on test provides invaluable experiences that
I can pass on to you -- both in review form as well as in tutorial form.
When I first saw the Epic 100 for the first time it reminded me of something my brother would have tried to build as a kid. Metal enclosure, motors, a metal shelf / tray, some screws,
and a basic two-line LCD display give it that home-built look. While the Epic 100 isn't tiny, it mounts easily on any tripod, and is easily toted when slid into
an extra camera bag. Your camera sits and attaches to a metal shelf that is located above the main housing. The shelf has a standard 1/4-20" stud for securing to the camera's tripod mount.
Built-in motors inside the Epic 100 control the automatic horizontal panning of the device as well as vertical movement of the camera shelf.
Overall, the Epic 100 feels and looks like a product that is made by hand and has a HUMVEE-like build quality. Built like a tank, and very utilitarian in design, the Epic 100 looks
like it will stand up well against the rigors of everyday use. I would say that the weakest link of the Epic 100 is the slide-in battery holder, whose power cable connects inside
the unit using a motherboard-style power connector with black & red wires. In the few weeks that I spent testing the unit I never had a problem removing and inserting the battery
tray, but I made sure to disconnect the battery connector cable using the connector itself and not by pulling the wires. Gigapan also sells
replacement parts for the Epic and at very
reasonable prices - for example, an extra / replacement battery holder is just $3.35.
Layout & Design
The Epic 100 is divided into three sections -- the main control unit, the motorized camera shelf, and the button pusher assembly. The control unit houses the motor that
rotates the entire device and features a bubble level, battery compartment, and six front-facing buttons to navigate the menu and control the start and end positions of the panorama.
A large metal door on the units side pops open to reveal a long narrow plastic battery tray that slides out and disconnects from the unit using
a a PC-like wired power connector. The battery tray holds six AA batteries and can accept standard alkaline, Lithium or NiMH rechargeable AA
batteries. When using fully charged 2600mAh batteries I had no problems capturing 3 panoramas (approx. 600-800 images in total) and still seemed
to have plenty of battery life to continue capturing more. The Epic allows you to check the battery status on the LCD. After capturing three panoramas the
battery status still showed "Good" and also showed the voltage output, which unfortunately I didn't write down and can't remember. I "think" it showed 7400v or
something very close to this number.
The motorized shelf features a standardized 1/4-20" tripod screw for connecting and holding your camera. A small alignment mark on the front of the tray lets you know where
to position your camera lens. During the panorama taking process this tray will pivot up/down as the device captures rows & columns of images.
The button pusher assembly is a small motorized box that features a sliding plastic finger that is used to automatically press your camera's shutter button during the panorama
capture. You can adjust the height of the box as well as the length of the plastic finger to help it sit correctly over the shutter button of your camera.
Creating Panoramas with the Epic 100
Unlike traditional methods of creating a panorama where the user rotates the camera vertically, sets the camera to its widest-angle, and starts taking overlapping pictures across
a scene, the Epic 100 has been designed to take the panorama to a much larger and more detailed level. Instead of taking a single row or column of images at wide-angle,
the automation of the Epic 100 allows the photographer to set their camera to the maximum telephoto setting and the Epic 100 will automatically move the camera on both
its vertical and horizontal axis in order to create an ultra high-resolution panorama made from hundreds of multi-megapixel images. This grid method offers several advantages for
creating panoramas and a few disadvantages as well.
The advantages of shooting a panorama by combining hundreds of higher-resolution, full zoom images is that is allows the user to not only see an ultra-wide view of a scene, but also
to zoom-in to examine details. For landscape, event, arena, and architectural photography this is an amazing breakthrough as it allows panoramas that are GIGAPIXELS in size
that can be examined down to its megapixel core. What does this mean? Well, look at this panorama of
Yankee Stadium captured by Sports Illustrated. You not only have a beautiful wide panorama view of the stadium, but thanks to the Gigapixel resolution, you're able to zoom in to
see the faces of the individuals in the stands. That panorama was created using 154 snapshots from a Canon Powershot G9 digital camera and is 530MB in size.
Yes, that's only "half" of a gigapixel image, yet the detail is stunning.
This next side-by-side photo illustrates the level of detail that can be achieved using the Gigapan Epic 100 compared to creating a panorama using the traditional method of
shooting vertically at wide-angle. While both ways of creating a panorama work well for presenting a wider view, only those captured with the Gigapan Epic 100 shot at telephoto
will allow for close inspection of detail.
The magnified image on the right was taken from a traditional 11-frame stitched panorama shot at wide angle with a 10-megapixel camera. This crop represents a 400% magnified view.
The image on the left was taken from a panorama of the same scene, but this time the panorama was created using the Epic 100, which captured 126 zoomed-in frames that were then
stitched together using the Gigapan Stitcher software. This crop only represents a 66.7% magnified view. Because each of the 126 frames of the panorama were shot at full resolution
and at full zoom, you have the ability to dramatically zoom in on the image while retaining detail. This is what makes the Epic and Epic 100 device so exciting.
Shooting with the Epic 100
Despite its minimalist design the device looks like it might be complicated to figure out, but I can assure you that it's actually pretty simple to use and set up.
The Epic 100 is controlled by using the 4-way controller on the front of the device along with the OK and [X] buttons. When you turn on the Epic 100 for the first time (using
the "OK" button) the LCD display will step you through the initial setup.
Setting Up the Field of View (FOV)
When you first place the camera on the Epic 100 you'll need to set the device for the correct field of view (FOV). This tells the Epic 100 how far it will need to pivot the camera
after each shot. Setting up the FOV is as simple as showing the EPIC 100 where the top and bottom of the frame is - a task that is as easy as using the arrow keys to put the horizon
at the top edge of the frame, pressing "OK," then using the arrow keys to place the horizon at the bottom edge of the frame. When you now press the "OK" button the Field of View
(FOV) is set.
The only time you'll need to re-setup the FOV is if you change camera models or decide to use a different telephoto setting when shooting. Even then, setting the FOV takes no more than
Setting the Camera to Manual Mode
When shooting a panorama it is important to lock the exposure of your camera so that the different levels of brightness across the scene won't change the cameras exposure. If you
don't lock the exposure you'll end up with a panorama where the sky displays different levels of brightness (see Golf Course panorama below). The flip side is that a wide sweeping panorama or
a 360° panorama poses quite a challenge for a locked exposure since locking the exposure when aimed at the sun will force the darker parts of your scene to be much too dark or vice-versa.
In most situations, best practice is to lock the exposure while aiming your camera at a neutral part of your scene, one that isn't too bright or too dark.
Choose Panorama Type
Another simple choice as there are just three options: New Panorama; New 360° Panorama; or Last Panorama. It's that easy.
Selecting the Start and End Positions
New Panorama - When choosing this option you'll use the arrows on front of the unit to move the Epic 100 to where you want the panorama to start. This will be
the upper left position of the Panorama. After pressing "OK" to lock in that position, you'll use the arrow keys to move the unit to the position that you want the Panorama to end, also
known as the lower right hand section of the Panorama. Press "OK" and the positions are set. At this point you can have the Epic 100 go through a "dry run" showing you the four corners
of your panorama (upper left, bottom left, upper right, bottom right) or you can save battery life and time by skipping this option. Until you get comfortable with the Epic 100 I would
definitely recommend not skipping this "dry run." After a few panoramas are under your belt, you'll know when to skip this option.
360° Panorama - If you have more time and want to capture a full 360-degree view then this is the setting to choose. When creating a 360° panorama the device
only needs to know the top starting position and the bottom ending position. There are no "corners" to worry about since the Panorama will start and end in the same location.
Last Panorama - If you want to redo a Panorama then selecting this option will allow you to quickly start without having to reset the start and end positions.
Gigapan Stitcher Software
After capturing a panorama you'll load the images into the Gigapan Stitcher software which will quickly show you a thumbnail view of your images. When the thumbnails first load you'll
have to tell the software how many rows there were in the panorama. If you don't remember it's no problem, just use the up/down arrow keys to change the row count until the layout
looks correct. The image below is an example of how the panorama will look on your computer monitor before moving onto the next step - stitching.
I have highlighted the upper left and lower right corners of the panorama to illustrate the starting and ending positions. These are the points that you set the Epic 100 to when setting
up the panorama.
When you click the button the software will begin stitching the individual frames together to create your final panorama. This process typically takes 1-2 hours for most
180-degree panoramas. A 360-degree panorama will most likely double the time it takes. A progress bar will keep you informed of the software's progress, but I found that
the software reaches 83% or 84% fairly quickly (20 minutes or so) then halts until the panorama is complete, which still could be another hour. So use this progress bar just as a rough
estimate of remaining time.
Once the Panorama is complete you have the option of uploading the image to the Gigapan.org website as well as saving the finished panorama on your computer either in .TIF or Photoshop RAW
format. The advantage of displaying the images on the Gigapan.org website is the interface. Not only can visitors view, pan, and zoom around your panorama they can also make miniature
snapshots of interesting things found in the image. By uploading your panorama to Gigapan.org website you'll also be able to embed your panoramas onto your own web site for easy viewing.
When saving the finished panorama to your hard drive you should use the TIF format unless you own Adobe Photoshop. The RAW format that Gigapan supports is only compatible with Photoshop.
If you do own Photoshop then saving in this format is recommended as I found that Photoshop CS4 handled the RAW files much better than the TIF files, mainly due to the smaller RAW file size.
Below is the final panorama after uploading it to the Gigapan.org website. You can use the zoom and navigation buttons or just place your mouse over the panorama and use the scroll wheel
on the mouse to zoom in and out. Click, hold, and drag the mouse to move around the panorama.
In this golf course panorama I mistakenly placed the camera in aperture priority mode instead of manual mode, which is why the sky has different shades of gray in it.
When creating a panorama it is important to lock the exposure either by using the exposure lock or putting the camera to manual mode and setting the f-stop and shutter speed
manually to obtain proper exposure. You will also notice that the two golfers in the foreground are out of focus. This is due to the fact that I had focused on a distant object
before switching to manual focus. This caused any foreground subject to be out of focus. This was my attempt using the Epic 100 and while the results were "ok" I did learn a lot
about what not to do and why.
Tips and Tricks
It's not fun driving to a destination to take a panorama only to find out back home that the exposure wasn't locked or the AF should have been set to manual rather
than auto (or vice-versa). Gigapan Systems has intelligently built an alert system into the Epic 100 that will remind you to lock the exposure, set focus and white balance manually,
and to make sure the unit is on a tripod or sturdy surface prior to starting the capture, but I have also discovered a few things that might help you get even better results
in some circumstances.
Full Telephoto? Not Always!
The product manual and online video tutorials over at Gigapan.org will make you assume that you need to set your camera's lens at its strongest (longest) focal length
for the Epic 100 to work correctly. Not only is this not true but there will be plenty of instances where using a bigger zoom ratio will actually make things worse.
Yes, it's true that using a big zoom allows for more images to be captured, which in turn increases the overall size of the panorama, but it also makes it virtually
impossible to take a panorama of a scene when moving subjects are in close proximity to the camera. A powerful zoom lens aimed at a moving subject that is fairly close
to the camera will inevitably only capture a portion of the subject. By the time the camera moves to the next block / position the subject(s) has already moved. In your final
panorama these people will show up with parts of their body missing (most often missing legs or head). Look at this photo on the right, notice that the tennis player only has legs.
When the Epic moved the camera to that small zoomed-in segment of the scene the subject wasn't yet in the frame, but by the time the camera had moved down to capture the
next segment of the scene she was.
Here is another example from an actual panorama that was uploaded to Gigapan.org. This panorama, titled "Golden Gate Bridge" was uploaded by Randy Sargent. When you
zoom in on the panorama you'll find missing sections of cars and the trolley (See below). By using a slightly wider zoom ratio, the odds will be greater than the camera
would have been able to capture more, if not all, of the vehicles. An even better way of making sure that you don't have missing sections is to use the multiple shutter
option of the Epic 100. By having the Epic shoot 2 or 3 shots in each location, you'll end up with extra tiles that you can use to replace ones that includes partial
images. Despite these flaws please click through to view the entire panorama, it's very beautiful, especially the left section (not shown here) that includes the Golden Gate Bridge.
Zoom in and look at the amount of detail there is in this image.
A way to help reduce or avoid this would be to back off the zoom when creating panoramas of scene's that are close to the camera. In this example, the camera was set up about 3 feet
from the fence, the tennis player only about 80-100 ft away. I took the panorama at max. zoom knowing there would be problems, but I wanted to see how the Epic 100 software would
Setting the Appropriate Focus Mode
For most wide vista's,where the subjects (mountains, buildings, crowds) are quite a distance away, auto focus should be turned off. However, when shooting a scene where there are
objects both near and far that you want to remain sharp, you'll want to keep auto focus turned on. A telephoto lens reduces the depth-of-field (the front-to-back part of the
scene that is in focus) in a scene. If the scene you are trying to capture has objects both in the foreground and far off in the distance, you'll find that manual focus
only allows one part of the scene to be in sharp focus - either close or far, depending on the point you focused on before setting the focus to manual. I had great success
creating a panorama of the Nubble Lighthouse (see Panorama below) with the auto focus left in the ON position, but there are a few important things you'll want to know
before doing this.
When creating a panorama using auto focus you'll need to keep an eye on your camera to make sure that it's able to find a focus point each time before the automatic 'finger'
presses the shutter button. If it doesn't, the Epic 100 will still automatically move to the next position and you'll end up with missing frames in
your panorama, rendering it useless. A camera's auto focus can easily be fooled by clear skies and reflections off water - leaving the lens to hunt around trying to find some
contrast to lock onto.
You also want to make sure that there are no obstructions between the camera and your scene that could fool the AF (fences, light posts, people walking by, cars driving by, etc.).
If there is you could end up with individual frames where the camera focuses on a nearby lamp post, while in the next frame it focuses on the distant landscape or subject.
If you're perched up on a hill and the landscape you'll be capturing is beyond the infinity setting of your lens then definitely manually focus and lock it in. However, if
the landscape you want to capture is fairly close to you (see Nubble Lighthouse Panorama below) you may find that keeping the focus set to automatic might work better.
Not Just for Point & Shoot Cameras
The Epic 100 has been tested with a growing list of camera models, but most of these are point & shoot models
that don't have the resolving power of a digital SLR. There are also quite a few DSLR models that have been tested for use with the Epic 100. They include the following models:
Canon EOS 300D
Canon EOS Rebel XT
Canon EOS Rebel XTi
Olympus EVOLT 300
Olympus 520 IS
Sony Alpha DSLR-A100
Sony Alpha DSLR-A200
Sony Alpha DSLR-A300
Sony Alpha DSLR-A350
You can actually use many other different DSLR's as long as they're not too front heavy (use a light lens). Even if the EPIC's shutter "finger" isn't positioned to work with
your DSLR, you can always use the Epic 100 in "Manual Shutter" mode (Under 'Expert Options' menu). In this mode you'll still follow most of the steps to setup your panorama, and the Epic 100
will still pivot and rotate the correct amount between each frame - but instead of the plastic finger pressing the shutter, you'll be prompted to do it yourself and then press
the unit's "OK" button. This lets the Epic 100 know when to move to the next position.
Using a lightweight 28-200mm lens along with the manual shutter mode I was able to use the Canon EOS 5D Mark II with the Epic 100.
The Canon EF 24-105mm lens that I normally shoot with on the 5DMKII was too front heavy for the Epic 100 motor; the camera's shutter release slopes downward in front of the camera,
causing the automatic shutter "finger" of the Epic 100 to slide off. However, you CAN use the 5DMKII with it if you use the Epic 100's manual mode. Using the Epic 100 in manual
shutter mode adds only a little time to the overall panorama but it forces you to pay attention to each and every frame - not a bad thing if you want to make sure your panorama
comes out the way you intended . For example, if a car or person is passing through the camera's field of view, you can wait until they're gone before pressing the shutter release. Something you would have missed if you weren't paying close attention.
I also tested the Epic 100 using the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ3, a compact point & shoot camera with 10x zoom lens. The camera is not on the tested & approved list and for good reason, it lacks
any way to manually focus or lock the exposure. Despite this fact, I wanted to find out what the results would be like. It ends up that the shutter release on the DMC-TZ3 is located
perfectly for the Epic 100's shutter finger, so things were looking up. Unfortunately, the lack of a manual exposure control helped to turn what could have been an interesting
panorama into a mess. Due to the lack of exposure lock, the camera would readjust its exposure for the scene every time the camera changed to a new position. The results? Well,
look at the panorama thumbnail below - the area between the trees and sky are all over the map when it comes to exposure.
Multiple Exposures Can Fix Problems.
When shooting a scene that's fairly close to your camera, try using the multiple exposure capture to help insure you capture a frame that is free from obstructions (car, people walking by, etc.).
If the camera is aimed at the building across the street and at the moment the shutter is pressed a person walks directly in front of the lens, you'll have a bad frame - but if you set the Epic 100
to capture multiple frames at each position, you'll have a good chance of capturing at least one clean frame that you can then use to replace the other frame when it comes time to put together your
Nubble Lighthouse Panorama
Here is a panorama of the Nubble Lighthouse that I shot on May 13th using the Epic 100. The wind was blowing about 40mph so I mounted the Epic 100 on a heavy-duty Bogen aluminum tripod
with a Canon Rebel XTi with the 28-200mm lens attached -- shot at approx. 135mm (216mm equivalent). The Epic 100 was set to manual mode, allowing me to manually trigger the shutter
release at each position. This gave me the ability to make sure the camera wasn't vibrating from the wind before each exposure. I also left the camera on auto focus since I wanted the
rocks that I was standing on as well as the lighthouse and island all to be in focus. In total, this Panorama is made of 122 images, which allows you to zoom in to see incredible
detail. You can also click on a thumbnail below the panorama and the Gigapan flash viewer will take you right to that location within the panorama.
The Gigapan Epic 100 is a great tool for those who want to make BIG panorama prints or detailed presentations online of buildings, events, cityscapes, and incredible sweeping vista's.
What it does it does very well as long as you stay within its limitations. If you try to capture a panorama of a scene that's close by (middle of town, local baseball field, etc.) - with cars going by and people walking through
the scene - you won't be happy with the results unless back off on the zoom strength and trigger the camera manually rather than using the automatic shutter finger.
By manually controlling the shutter of the camera, you'll be able to make sure that any people or cars that are in the frame are FULLY in the frame. If not, you can delay
pressing the shutter button until they're no longer in the frame. As you get to know the Epic 100 more intimately, you'll discover a variety of ways to capture what normally would
be a difficult scene for the Gigapan System.
The other thing to keep in mind is that if you use a camera that features a strong zoom lens (10x, 15x, 18x, 24x) you'll have to contend with very shallow depth-of-field
at those settings. A very shallow depth of field can hurt a panorama if the entire scene isn't beyond the camera's infinity focus point. Objects that are closer will end up appearing out of focus.
When trying to figure out if the Epic 100 is suited for your needs you'll need to take in account its overall size compared to doing it handheld using your camera. Shooting a
standard 'handheld' panorama works very well for the intended purpose, which is to capture a sweeping view of a scene. A 'handheld' panorama is also effective at capturing big scenes that are
rather close to where you're standing. You also don't have to carry around any extra gear, making it a breeze to capture a panorama whenever you desire. However, creating a panorama by hand
limits the vertical or horizontal resolution of your finished product (depending on whether you are overlapping left/right for landscapes or up/down to capture a tall building).
Even if you capture a 5,10, or 16-frame wide-panorama using a 12-megapixel camera, the vertical resolution of this single height panorama is still only 2,848 pixels - which in turn will
limit the physical print size of your output to about 15" in height. This could be a big limitation for those who hope to provide a detailed view of the scene online or to
make very large, detailed prints.
The Epic 100 is like many photography tools - you may not use it all the time, but it's a great tool to have in your bag. I have two lenses that are like that - I love having the Lensbaby for those
times when I need to see more creatively and a powerful telephoto lens for when I want to capture wildlife or sports, but my most often used lens is the 24-105mm. Using the Epic 100 will also get
you to plan your shoots ahead of time, thinking about what time the sun rises or sets, where you can position yourself for the best view, and where the final panorama will be displayed. It fits nicely into
a medium size photo bag and since it takes AA batteries you can easily find power for it even if you forgot to charge your NiMH's ahead of time.
In the two short weeks that I had the Epic 100 in my hands I started to think of all the places that I could use it to capture panoramas - many of them places that I had become bored
with before the Gigapan showed up. Take for example, the Nubble Lighthouse panorama (above). I have been there so many times and had grown tired of it, but driving home from Boston
one evening I was looking at the clouds thinking that this could turn into a beautiful sunset in a couple of hours. I decided to stop off at home, grab the Epic 100, and continue
driving to the Nubble Lighthouse in southern Maine. A storm had just passed and the winds were howling, the temperature was only in the 50's, but the sky was beautiful. I set up
the Epic 100 on a Bogen tripod and captured a beautiful 122-image panorama while waiting for the sun to set. I had planned on making an even larger (wider) panorama, but after the 122nd
frame my foot hit one of the legs of the tripod and totally threw the alignment off mark. Luckily, the panorama had made it to a point where I felt I could without starting it over.
All in all I am very impressed with the Epic 100. Keep in mind that the Gigapan Epic is best suited to larger scale events and landscapes where you can position
the Epic 100 back quite a distance from the scene. It is incredibly precise and is a breeze to setup and use. Once I had a couple of panoramas under my belt, I was
able to set up the Epic 100 on my tripod, place and position the camera on it's camera plate, set the FOV (field of view) and give it the starting and ending positions
of the panorama all in less than 5 minutes.
There are two versions of the Epic; the Epic and the Epic 100. Both do the same thing however the Epic 100 features an extendable
metal camera base to accommodate larger cameras, a bit more elevation of the camera plate over the main unit to allow for a greater camera tilt,
the tilt gear offers more torque, allowing it to offer more precise movements and greater holding strength when pivoted, features an illuminated LCD
display for night time shooting, a start delay (timer), and offers multiple shutter ability (up to 9 per position) to allow for greater flexibility when
combining images or to bracket shots to create an HDR panorama.
Gigapan is also working on a model of the Epic designed specifically for Digital SLR's. Since the Epic 100 works with many of them already I have to assume the new
DSLR version will be designed to hold heavier camera & lens combinations.
If you want to set your photography apart from everyone else's you might want to consider adding huge panorama prints as another service you offer.
Once you have shot a Gigapixel panorama and have made a mural size print, you and your customers will be hooked. I only wish I had more time to
spend with it, I was just starting to get to know it.
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