Panoramic Equipment

This is my personal panorama shooting setup. Most of it has changed pretty much over time, except for some old stubborn components that keep hanging around because they work good, like some old lenses. Do not be surprised by these old relics that I still use, this selection that I'm currently using delivers results similar to much more expensive new lenses, so I'm in no hurry to replace them. Slow manual controls are not critical for panorama shooting either.

Because of their superior performance in astrophotography, I exclusively use Canon DSLR bodies. Canon lens mount depth also permits me to use old M42 lenses with the appropriate adapter. Over time I owned an EOS 300D, EOS 10D, EOS 20D, EOS 5D, and currently I'm using an EOS 5D Mark II. All of these cameras have served me well, including EOS 350D and EOS 40D that I borrowed from my friends occasionally.

Panoramic Head and Tripod

Manfrotto 055 XPROBManfrotto 055 XPROBManfrotto tripod model 055 XPROB has proven to be an optimal choice between its own weight and stability during work. It also has a nice feature that you can tilt the main column at 90 degrees for some macro shooting or similar. Instead of the standard head I use a Manfrotto 488 RC2 ball head, mostly because it is slim, compact and doesn't have handles that would get in the way when shooting full spherical panoramas. Although I have that capability with my setup, I usually do not bother to shoot bottom (nadir) shot without the tripod.

Panoramic HeadPanoramic HeadPanoramic head has been designed to be as compact as possible, but sturdy, robust and fully capable of shooting full spherical panoramas. It is composed of Manfrotto 300 N panoramic rotator, and two Manfrotto 357 sliding plates. The rest of the head has been machined from aluminium on the lathe in a workshop.

Manfrotto 300 NPanoramic Head300 N rotator greatly speeds up the work as you can set clicking angle presets on it, for example you can set 12 shots for a full circle which is exactly what I need for a 17mm lens on a half-frame sensor camera like Canon EOS 20D. The only slight downside of this component is its considerable weight. Lower 357 slide plate adjusts for the perpendicular offset of the lens entrance pupil center from the 300 N's vertical rotational axis. This setting stays fixed for a particular camera body that I use.

Upper Manfrotto 357Panoramic HeadUpper 357 slide plate adjusts for longitudinal offset of the lens entrance pupil center from the 300 N's vertical rotational axis. Every lens has a different setting for this position, so a measuring scale with markings for each lens exist on it. It has been observed that wide angle lenses require sub-millimeter precision for this setting to deliver excellent results in deep field panoramas. Rotation in the vertical plane is done by the friction tightening screw, and the altitude angle is indicated on the wider disc.


Serious panoramic photography pushes lens performance to the limit, and it can be safely concluded that lenses are far more worth investing in than the camera body for this purpose. You must also know your lenses well in order to get maximum performance, as each lens has unique characteristics. This is a brief list of demands when it comes to lenses for high quality digital panoramic photography:

1. Uniform sharpness across the field to provide consistent resolution. Soft corners of the lens' image may fall anywhere inside the final panorama image and may be visible.
2. Correctable chromatic aberration to provide uniform quality. Lenses with poor correction in the blue end of the spectrum usually exhibit spherochromatism as well that is next to impossible to correct in corners and those should be avoided. Lenses corrected for blue spectrum may show red lateral color, but this is much easier to correct in software.
3. Absence of strong vignetting to provide uniform noise. Uncorrected vignetting of the lens will produce visible dark bands across the panorama. Vignetting correction can make up for this, but not for the lack of light in these underexposed corners. For vignetting amounts of more than 2EV, corner noise increase may be readily visible.
4. Good backlight performance, or good contrast. For wide outdoor panoramas, it is very likely that the Sun will be in its field of view. Poor antireflective coatings and lens element finish will deteriorate overall contrast in all images facing towards and around the Sun.
5. Resistance towards internal reflections. Similar to the previous case, Sun and other bright light sources can create unwanted lens flares, and you might end up with multiple flares in the final panorama. Reflections are dependent on both lens element coatings and lens design.
6. Mechanical stability. Lenses need to keep their focus setting stable while being used. Loose elements or parts of the lens may shift as you pivot the camera around, thus spoiling the image sharpness.

This long list proves one well known fact about the lenses - you have to try them yourself to see if they fit your purpose. Among dozens of lenses that I have tested, this group has remained in use for my panoramas:

Canon 17-40mm f/4LCanon EF 17-40mm f/4L, my most frequently used lens. At 17mm I take 3 rows of 8 shots to create a full spherical panorama using a full-frame sensor camera. Canon's "L" series lens is managing good: pretty sharp with corner problems only on full-frame sensor, visible but mostly correctable lateral chromatic aberrations, vignetting problems only on full-frame sensor, excellent backlight performance and reflection resistance due to the low element count and excellent mechanical build.

Canon 70-200mm f/4L ISCanon EF 70-200mm f/4L IS, the "long" end of my portable set. Working with the older non-IS version left positive impressions, and the new image stabilizer feature helps when shooting from hand in low light conditions. It is noticeably sharper than the old version, despite the increased element count from 16 to 20. Sharpness is exactly what I need from this lens, as I mostly use it to shoot distant mountains and objects with small details. Reflection resistance to stray light is not a strong point of this lens (both the old and the new version), it can get nasty sometimes.

Tamron 28mm f/2.5Ugly little bugger, ain't it? Tamron 28mm f/2.5 is an old M42 screw type manual lens that I mount on my DSLR with a "Canon EOS to M42 adapter". This lens has been rated as "mediocre wide angle lens" on some reviews that I had read, but I find it to be a nice, sharp, high quality optical device suitable for panoramas. From f/5.6 onward, it has excellent uniform sharpness across the field, very well controlled chromatic aberration, negligible vignetting and good build quality. The only downside is rather poor combination of internal reflections and backlight performance, although the contrast itself is good.

MC Volna-9 50mm f/2.8 MacroMC Volna-9 50mm f/2.8 Macro (M42 manual) is a big heavy robust Russian style lens. Sharpness is high and uniform across the field, one of the sharpest 50mm lenses at f/5.6 and f/8 that I have tested. Has a 6-blade star shaped aperture diaphragm that gives nice looking spikes around bright light sources. A little soft when wide open, other characteristics are good, not to mention that it's built like a tank.

Pentax SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8Pentax SMC Takumar 55mm f/1.8 (M42 manual) is one of the best lenses in its time that really excels in all fields. Retains sharpness on wide aperture openings and has really good reflection and backlight performance for such an old lens. Has some minor longitudinal chromatic aberration issues that create aperture dependent focal shift. In a tight race with Volna for my favorite 50mm.

Carl Zeiss Jena MC Biometar 120mm f/2.8Carl Zeiss Jena MC Biometar 120mm f/2.8 (Pentacon Six manual). This old relic was quite a surprise, as these old lenses for medium format film rarely reach sharpness levels required for modern small pixel digital sensors. Instead they provide large visual field required for 60mm format film, but this lens is an exception. It is rather soft wide open, but at f/5.6 it delivers razor sharp image from corner to corner on a full-frame (24x36mm) sensor, amazing. It has some aperture dependent focal shift, noticeable up to f/4, I haven't performed other tests on it yet.

Pentax SMC Takumar 200mm f/4Pentax SMC Takumar 200mm f/4 (M42 manual). As an exception among old telephoto lenses, this one has excellent correction in blue end of the color spectrum. Not exceptional, but good uniform sharpness even on a full-frame sensor. On the other hand, it suffers from longitudinal chromatic aberration that creates noticeable aperture dependent focal shift. This is quite visible on f/4, image then gets pretty sharp at f/5.6 with traces of red-green color bleeding, and gets negligible at f/8. All in all a nice lens, but it has a strongly colored bokeh due to the mentioned longitudinal chromatism.

Some important gadgets

One should not even think about serious photography without the quick release cable, or any other means of remotely triggering your camera. Quick release together with a tripod is what makes the difference between a snapshot and a photograph. On todays' high resolution digital sensors, exposure as fast as 1/250s on a 50mm lens shows the difference between hand held and stable camera when it comes to motion blur. Not to mention how faster it is to rotate the panoramic head with one hand and release the shutter with other.

Various GadgetsLibelle (bubble leveler) is the next important tool necessary to level the panoramic head in order to avoid wavy horizon. This can be corrected in software later, but leads to vertical clipping for cylindrical panoramas that should be avoided. Libelle is best to be fixed on the head itself, and that's what I'll do when I find one that is small enough.
Viewfinder magnifier is only necessary when working with manual lenses, as the matte viewfinder screens of DSLR cameras are not optimized for manual focusing. More expensive models offer the possibility to change the matte screen to a traditional one with focusing aid pattern in the center.