Shooting Spherical Panoramas in the Outer Hebrides

Through a strange set of circumstances I am spending the best part of 3 months this summer (the time between submitting my PhD thesis & having the viva exam) living & working in the Outer Hebrides, specifically the isle of North Uist. I am working with Taigh Chearsabhagh, a museum/arts centre in Lochmaddy (the largest settlement on North Uist) to first of all produce spherical panoramas of archaeological sites around the island for part of an exhibition next year.


Capturing a spherical panorama involves taking enough photographs to cover the whole 360×180° around the camera (or at least as close to that as possible) whilst keeping the entrance pupil of the lens (which is normally in the vicinity of the front element) as close to stationary as possible. If you simply mount the camera to a tripod & rotate around the camera’s tripod socket, the panorama will suffer from the parallax introduced because the entrance pupil will move several inches between each position. So you need to mount the camera to the tripod in such a fashion that you can pan (& maybe tilt) the camera around the entrance pupil, rather than around the camera’s tripod socket.

Of course you can buy proper panoramic heads that allow you to do this properly, but I was on a rather more limited budget. By using an 8mm lens in portrait, I would get 150° of vertical FoV (on a crop sensor camera) which is enough for most scenes; the missing 15° at the top is usually just going to be empty sky while the 15° at the bottom will just be the tripod itself. This meant that I only needed to be able to pan the camera (horizontal/side-to-side), I didn’t have to worry about being able to tilt (vertical/up-&-down), which made the setup simpler & cheaper. The whole setup was bought in a bit of a rush via Amazon Prime a few days before I left for the Outer Hebrides, but now that I’m here it seems to be doing an okay job.

The tripod is a Giottos ‘Silk Road’ GYTL9353 (nothing to do with the darknet drug marketplace!). I looked at some Manfrotto tripods in the same price range but I preferred the simpler design of the Giottos. Plus for the same price the Giottos came with a pivot adapter that lets the central column rotate a full 180 degrees for close ups.

The head is just a cheap ball head, but it seems pretty solid for the price. On top of the head is an Arca-Swiss compatible panning clamp. Mine was ‘Andoer’ branded, but you can buy exactly the same unit under a variety of different names & prices, so I just opted for the cheapest. It’s important to be able to pan what is on the tripod head, rather than panning the tripod head itself, because if you are on unlevel ground & use the head to level the camera, when you pan it there will be a change in pitch & you will have to re-level the head at each position.

Into the panning clamp goes a 200mm Arca-Swiss plate to allow the camera to be set back far enough that the entrance pupil of the lens is above the point of rotation. To account for the sideways alignment I bolted the short Arca-Swiss plate that came with the panning clamp onto the 200mm plate at 90°. Onto that shorter plate is a back-to-back Arca-Swiss clamp I found on eBay. Again it looked like you could get it under a variety of different names, but the ‘Heather’ one was cheapest with guaranteed delivery in time.

Onto the other side of the back-to-back clamps goes the camera, in an Arca-Swiss L-bracket. You can buy generic L-brackets that will fit any camera, but supposedly there is less chance of the camera gradually slipping if you can find one that specifically fits your camera. The camera is my new Sony a6000, which replaces my trusty NEX-5n that served me well for a number of years. The lens is the Samyang 8mm. The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that it is the SLR version of the lens, rather than the mirrorless version – this is simply because the lens is on loan from somebody who bought it for his Pentax DSLR. Why he bought the cine version of the lens, with the toothed focus/aperture rings, I do not know.

Beneath is an example of a spherical panorama captured by this setup, stitched together using PTGui, which you can click & drag to look around. This particular panorama was shot inside the ruins of an Iron Age ‘wheelhouse’ (so called because the dividing walls between its rooms resemble the spokes of a wheel) on the Udal peninsula, North of Sollas (where the only sizeable shop on the island is located). The full image is 87.5 megapixels at 14406×6073 & covers 360×151°. The version uploaded to Google Views was half this size & I don’t know what Google do when they ‘process’ the image, but it seems to be the easiest & most accessible way to share spherical panoramas. If you click the ‘View on Google Maps’ link in the top left corner, you can view it in a larger window & if you’re on an Android device you will even be able to use the accelerometer/gyroscope to look around.

Update – Google have currently broken many aspects of Maps photospheres as part of the migration from Views to just Maps.

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