A panoramic head and a regular camera can produce beautiful, high-end 360 images, but the head needs to be set up correctly. Learn to do this with any panoramic head and camera.
Read Time: 5 Minutes
Using a dedicated 360 camera such as those from Insta360, QooCam, Ricoh, Labpano and others is the simplest way to capture a complete 360 photographic image. However, the sensors and lenses used in DSLRs and equivalent cameras are significantly larger than those found in almost every 360 camera. The very best image resolution and quality comes from using a regular DSLR or mirrorless camera and a specialist panoramic head and stitching multiple shots together in software such as PTGui. This allows the final image to be sharper and have a greater dynamic range, even in really challenging low light conditions. The result will have zero parallax issues, something not quite possible with multi-lens 360 cameras.
The downside of using a regular camera and a panoramic head is having to take multiple shots, turning the pano head between each one in order to cover the complete spherical 360 space. These shots then need to be processed and then finally stitched together into the composite equirectangular image. This technique also doesn’t work for 360 video, as that absolutely requires the full 360 space to be captured all at once rather than with a ‘shoot, turn, shoot, turn’ process.
The decision of whether to shoot a 360 photo in this way or with a 360 camera involves multiple factors, but having this option available means having more choices when faced with different projects.
A panorama head holds the camera in the correct position so that it turns around the optical center of the lens, known as the ‘no parallax point’ or NPP for short, rather than the traditional rotation point of ordinary tripod mounts. This ensures that where one shot overlaps with another for stitching, there will be no problem with things in the foreground appearing to shift relative to those in the background.
Almost every panoramic head can work with many different cameras and lenses (lens ring heads are the only exception), so they need to be adjusted so they hold your particular camera and lens in the correct position. They also need to turn enough to provide the preferred 25 to 30% or so of overlap between shots so stitching and blending can work smoothly.
Use a proper 360 panoramic head that positions the camera so that it rotates around the lens’s NPP, not around the camera’s tripod mounting socket. Not all equipment sold as ‘panoramic’ is meant for this specific kind of work. Panorama heads from Nodal Ninja, Precision360, Manfrotto and some other manufacturers are suitable for professional 360 work, but always double check that something is really meant for 360 photography, not just wide landscape photos.
Use the widest angle lens you can. A fisheye lens from 8 to 16mm is generally best, with the 8-11mm range being most suitable for cameras with cropped (APS-C, DX) rather than full-size sensors. Rectilinear lenses can be used, but even very wide lenses require significantly more shots to cover a full 360 scene so those are better when you have some experience with this work.
Using the sturdiest tripod available, mount the camera and lens on the panoramic head. Any flex in the tripod legs will affect the precision of this process. A normal panoramic head will have two rails or arms that can be adjusted to move the camera about relative to the center of rotation. Both the lower and upper rails will need to be adjusted; the lower to suit the camera body and the upper to suit the particular lens you’re using. Once the lower rail position has been set it won’t need changing unless a different camera body is used, but the upper rail must be adjusted for any different lens that’s used.
Turn on Live View; this makes the following steps easier than peering through the viewfinder. If you are able to tether the camera to a computer and see Live View on the larger screen that will help even more, but it isn’t essential.
The lower rail is simple to adjust. First, remove the lens from the camera and measure from the base of the camera to the center of the lens mount. That measurement is used for the panoramic head's lower rail.
With the lens back on the camera and the camera on the panoramic head, rotate the upper rail so the camera is pointing straight down. Adjust the lower rail to the measurement just recorded, tighten it back down to prevent shifts, and confirm that the lens is centered over the point of rotation; when the panoramic head is turned, the center of the head should remain in approximately the same place within the frame.
(Rotating the camera while pointing down can help evaluate this part of the process, but be aware that slight offsets in the sensor's position in the camera make this a ‘good-but-imperfect’ way to fine-tune the position. Instead, prioritize adjusting the lower rail to the distance from the camera base to the center of the lens mount.)
Find a clear view of an object just a few feet away and something else in the distance. Anything with a clear edge that won't move will do. Place the tripod and turn the panoramic head so these objects are lined up together in the left of the frame.
Turn the camera and the panoramic head to the left so the objects are now visible in the right side of the viewfinder. If the object nearest you has moved further right than the object in the background, the camera must be moved forwards on the panoramic head’s upper rail. If the nearby object has moved the opposite way, in other words it has moved more to the left than the background object has, move the camera backwards on the upper rail.
The head is correctly adjusted when there is no perceptible shift between these objects as the head and camera turns from side to side. Be critical, and when you’re fine-tuning this be prepared to adjust the camera position a millimetre at a time.
When the adjustments are done to your satisfaction make a note of the measurements for both rails, including which lens the upper rail settings are for. If you switch lenses at some point this will make it very easy to reconfigure the panoramic head back to the optimum setting for this lens.
For a detailed explanation and step-by-step walkthrough of shooting and processing a 360 panoramic image in this way see Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera to shoot and stitch a 360 photo.
Mixing video and photography together
It is possible to shoot video clips as well as the photos needed to create a 360 image and to merge those together to produce a crisp, high-resolution 360 photo with seamlessly embedded video ‘patches,’ but there are some tricks to achieving a smooth workflow.
First of all, shoot the video content with a normal rectilinear lens. Fisheye lenses are the norm when shooting 360 images with a camera and pano head. This is because they have a much greater angle of view, so fewer shots are needed to cover the full scene. However, video in fisheye form is difficult to fit properly into a stitched equirect (especially in virtual tour production software), so switch lenses before capturing this media.
Shoot the video from the exact same position. Where possible, do this with the camera on the panorama head after the still shots are captured.
Combining video clips and a stitched equirectangular image can be done either in specialist virtual tour production software or in a video editor. Virtual tour software will generate a web-ready interactive 360 scene with video ‘hotspots’ that can be triggered with clicks, rollovers and so on. Video editors will produce a video file composed of the image, stretched to fill the sequence duration, with the video clips themselves positioned and merged into the final movie. Which route is best depends on the intended use: as an interactive virtual tour, or as part of a larger immersive video production.