Big Ben's Panorama Tutorials

Tripod Heads and Camera Supports

 It is possible to create good panoramas in situations where a tripod is not practical and with enormous parallax errors. In practise, however, it is much more practical to use some means of accurately rotating the camera around the nodal point of the lens. Things get a whole lot easier.

There are many commercial panorama heads available, and don't get me wrong, they probably work very well, but a lot of people want to make something that suits the way they work. Which method you use depends largely on the way you work and what you want to be able to achieve.  My own approach involves a degree of manual stitching so while extreme accuracy is handy, it is not essential.


With an 8mm lens it is possible to shoot a panorama handheld with no tripod support at all, although it will most likely involve a fair amount of manual retouching. To rotate approximately around the lens' nodal point, pick a spot on the ground and stand so that it is between your big toes.  When you turn your body, move so that the point on the ground is still between your big toes. This will produce a better result than just trying to turn on the spot.

Photo of spirit levelA spirit level is a useful addition. I use one that mounts into the hotshoe of my camera. Some people prefer a single bubble but I find this one easier to see

Pros Cons
  • No extra equipment required
  • Can require extensive retouching
  • Potentially difficult alignment
  • Difficulty increases with number of images required

The "Philopod"

As a bare minimum though, you really need to have the camera rotated reasonably accurately around he lens' nodal point. One method, first described by Philippe Hurbain  <>, requires nothing more complicated than a weight and a piece of string. A spirit level is also extremely handy but not essential.  I've made and tested an "adjustable" version of this and it works superbly.


Photo of components
  • a rubber band
  • a curtain hook
  • a piece of string
  • a weight (fishing sinker shown)
  • a spirit level
I use it with a circular fisheye lens so the nodal point is pretty much at the front element. I can't place it at exactly the right spot but it's close enough to produce quite accurate panoramas.

By placing loops at regular intervals in the string you have an easy height adjustment. 

Just pick a point on the ground and position the camera so that the weight is suspended just above that point. Check the spirit level to make sure the camera is level and fire away. It take a little practise to get used to it but it works extremely well. 

Diagram showing attachment to camera.
Pros Cons
  • Lightweight
  • Compact
  • Much less retouching of nadir
  • Handy in situations where a tripod is not practical e.g. up a tree, on a fence etc...
  • Can be tricky on windy days
  • Requires shorter exposures

The Panorama Head

Where there's hype, there's bound to be high prices. While you can buy panorama heads off the shelf there is some merit to making your own. Apart from the financial benefit, you can modify your design until you end up with something that suits they way you want to work.  Then you know exactly what you need should you come around to buying a commercial product. I first bought a focussing rail with the aim of shooting panoramas with my Hasselblad SWC. Since buying an 8mm lens for my 35mm camera I've added on bits and pieces to produce my own "panorama head". From the bottom up:

Figure 1.

  1. Ball and socket tripod head.
    Quick levelling of the tripod head checked via a camera mounted spirit level. .
  2. Focusing rail
    Secondhand, medium format focussing rail cost me bugger all.  A square film format or a circular image don't require rotation so you only need to move the camera in one direction to position the lens' nodal point correctly.
  3. A couple of spigots
    Since the correct position of the lens will include the focusing rail and tripod in the photo I added a few spigots to decrease the amount of image lost. (See Figure 2.) Insist on solid metal spigots. The first one I tried was crap and snapped off as I tightened the tripod plate onto it.
  4. Manfrotto tripod plate adapter
    I had initially used just a tripod plate but this gives a lot more support
  5. Camera and lens
  6. Spirit level.
    A two way spirit level is invaluable in levelling the camera. Spirit levels on the tripod can alway be out especially if something is bent (like the bottom of a camera)

What it's all for

The whole purpose of the panorama head is to position the nodal point of the lens over the centre of rotation of the tripod. Rather than rotate the camera I actually remove the focusing rail from the tripod, turn it around and place it back onto the tripod, using the hexagonal tripod plate to get accurate 120 intervals between shots. 

The diagram below outlines some key points of the panorama head.

Figure 2.

The blue line and shading show the lens' field of view. The nodal point of the lens, like most 8mm lenses, is close to the front element. There is no rear nodal point. The purple shading shows the position of the focusing rail without the spigots and the effective image cut off this creates, requiring a larger patch image. With my tripod fully extended the tripod head cuts off an area about 1m square on the ground which is easily patched from a vertical hand held shot.

Pros Cons
  • Accurate rotation around lens' nodal point
  • Provides even yaw angles in increments of 60
  • Quick Tripod setup
  • Quick release of camera for normal photography
  • Relatively economical (if you can get a second hand focusing rail)
  • Requires the upper portion of the head to be removed and rotated between shots. This can cause some movement of the tripod.
  •  0.5 - 1m of ground is obscured by tripod, requiring an additional patch image.
  • You have to be very careful not to bump the tripod between shots.

The Panorama Head MkII

Photo of the MkIIOK so I finally bit the bullet and bought an off the shelf optional extra for my tripod head in the form of a Manfrotto panorama head.  I got sick of removing the focusing rail all the time between shots.  

The panorama head slots in between the ball and socket head and the focussing rail. The ball and socket head still provides the same function of simply levelling the whole setup while the panorama head provides the horizontal rotation (with click stops for fixed intervals).

Pros Cons
  • Quicker to shoot a panorama.
  • Reduces possibility of bumping tripod out of position.
  • Adds an extra 600g to the setup so it will probably never come hiking with me.
  • This single component costs as much as the tripod and all of the spare parts used for the rest of the setup.

The Tilted "Philopod"

Photo of tilted philopodI haven't actually tested this out since I don't have the appropriate lens (yet) but here's my idea for using a tilted full frame fisheye handheld. It uses the same components as the basic philopod with the addition of a swivelling tripod adapter.

The camera is first aligned on a tripod, tilting the camera until a vertical line (e.g. a doorway) runs from one corner of the frame to the opposite corner. The hotshoe adapter is then swivelled until the spirit level is once again level and you're ready for action.

This could also be used for handheld panoramas with the camera in portrait mode.


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This page, its contents and style, are the responsibility of the author and do not represent the views, policies or opinions of The University of Melbourne. All photographs Ben Kreunen 2000

Ben Kreunen <>
Department of Pathology
Last modified: February 24, 2003