Critical for the successful panorama shooting workflow is the bracket between the camera and the base rotator. It’s function is to align the position of the lens’ no-parallax point (NPP) to the rotation axis of the rotator. This overview will help you select the bracket that is right for you.
Flexible vs. Single-Purpose
Flexible brackets are adjustable to fit many camera/lens combinations. They require careful calibration and could accidentally get uncalibrated during transport or shooting.
Single-purpose brackets don’t need adjustment. They are ready to work out of the box with the specific camera/lens combination for which they were designed. But they become obsolete when the camera/lens is changed.
For versatility, go flexible. For speed and simplicity, go single-purpose.
Single-Row vs. Multi-Row
Single-row brackets like my heavily modified Agnos MrotatorCP are simpler to set up and operate. They positions the NPP vertically above the axis of rotation. For web-quality, including full screen spherical panoramas, single-row with a fisheye lens is good enough.
Multi-row brackets like the Nodal Ninja 5 or MrotatorU have an additional rotator, usually smaller, with an axis of rotation perpendicular to the first axis of rotation. The bracket positions the NPP at the intersection of the two axes. For higher resolution and better quality multi-row with a lens narrower than a fisheye is a good choice.
Benefits To Look For
The precision of a panorama head (and thus of a bracket) is paramount. There is a lot of misconception about what precision exactly is and what it is for. The critical feature you don’t want to miss is the ability of the bracket to align precisely and consistently the lens’ NPP with the physical axis of rotation of the pano head. Look for sturdiness. Any straying away from the NPP is paid for with a difficult stitch often requiring hours of manual retouching.
The misconception is that precision equals repeatabilty; that after a full 360° turn the camera is still millimetrically positioned in the same place, looking in the exact same direction. This is supposed to be critical for batch-stitching – the ability to stitch, unattended, a large batch of panoramas taken with the same setup. This is not true. Modern software, including hugin (with Bruno Postle’s Perl Panotools-Scripts) and proprietary Autopano Pro will crunch through batches of panoramas without the constraint of repeatability.
Form Factor 1: Mobility
Panoramas shooting often involves moving the equipment to the location of the photo shoot. The weight and volume occupied by the pano head in the luggage does make a difference. This is the reason why I set out to modify the original Agnos MrotatorCP. The bracket was a heavy and bulky piece of steel which I redesigned in lightweight aluminum that makes the overall pano head sturdier, lighter and smaller. The Manfrotto 303 QTVR might be one of the first and most versatile designs, but I would not want to lug it around.
Form Factor 2: Camera/Lens
Some of the lower-end brackets are not large enough to accommodate the larger, professional cameras and their heavy lenses. Check the manufacturer’s compatibility list, or even better, get to your local reseller and see how sturdy the bracket is with your camera/lens combination.
Particularly for those brackets that require calibration, having the tool to do that is always handy. Even better: brackets that do not require any particular tool, e.g. the PinnacleVR I tested last year. It can be calibrated with a coin and the calibration is millimetrically precise and guaranteed to stick. If your setup require tools, make sure they are always in your bag.
A properly calibrated panorama bracket should be as easy to operate as in turn, click, repeat. Even the completely newbie to panorama that knows how to press the button on the camera should be able to simply move the camera to the next position and push the button. If the turn, click, repeat cylce is too difficult, it may also eat away from the time of the seasoned professional. When shooting you want to deal with the scene, not with the gear.
There are plenty of other features that might or might not be relevant to you, depending on the shooting conditions (metal is very conducive to heat and in cold temperature uncomfortable to handle compared to carbon fiber, PVC, or other composite materials. There are great pano heads made out of wood. If you shoot pole panoramas, you want to have locking mechanisms. And you don’t need to have deep pockets to afford a motorized pano head. The designs on the market have made a lot of progress in the past few years, and while panorama making (and particularly full spherical panoramas) is still a niche speciality, there is a growing industry catering for our needs.
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