I remember having to do a panorama in a high school photography class. Mine was of a tree line across a lake shot with a 50mm lens on my old Pentax ME Super. It looked ok. Most things lined up.
For fun, I tried another one. On the second one, the subject was much closer. When I started to line up the images, I realized it just wasn’t going to happen. Nothing lined up. At the time, I didn’t know why. Now I do.
Two words. Nodal point. Essentially, this is the point where the image inverts in the lens.
When doing a panorama, many people will try to put their camera on a tripod using the threaded mount on the bottom of the camera body. Unfortunately, that is not under the nodal point and will cause distortion between images and not allow perfect alignment. Perfect alignment comes from the camera’s rotational point happening directly below the nodal point of the lens.
For example, I used the mount on the bottom of my camera months ago while doing a panorama inside of a church. Most things lined up but some of the pew backs did not. It is especially noticeable on the back few pews on the left.
What the camera companies would like is for you to buy one of their multi-hundred dollar panoramic tripod heads. But if you’re like me and know what lens you will be using and want to save a ton of money, it is pretty easy to build one on the super cheap.
I started out by getting a piece of 1/8″ aluminum. I had this already but you can find it at any hardware store. A long rail of it is about $10. I did buy a few bolts and nuts to tighten things down (total of less than $1.50). I made sure every piece of hardware was 1/4″-20, the same thread as a standard camera mount.
I centered and drilled a 1/4″ hole at one end of the aluminum plate. Then I mounted my camera to it with one of the bolts I bought.
There are plenty of tests online to find your nodal point. I did pretty much the same thing as everyone else. I set up two objects in a direct line about a meter apart. The camera is straight in line with them as well. As you pan, the items will stay in line if the nodal point is correct. If not, the objects wont appear to be aligned unless you are looking straight on. This website has visuals of how it looks when the slide is correct, too far forward and too far backwards.
**UPDATE** I’ve been asked how I had the plate attached to the tripod to find the nodal point before I had any holes drilled for attachment. I simply used a spring clamp similar to this one. I would slide the plate and clamp it in place and do the panning test. I then would adjust and re-clamp and the do it again and again until I got it just right.
When I found the right point, I made a mark on the plate and drilled a hole there.
I put the tripod screw through that hole and used a hex nut to lock it down. Then, used a bolt and attached the camera.
I was building this for my Canon 1D Mark II with the 24-70 f/2.8 L lens zoomed at 24mm. If you’re trying to make this for the same setup, the center of the two holes on the slide are about 5.5″ apart.
Now, if you have a drill press or other fancy tools, you could actually make this a “slide” so you could adjust it on the fly for other focal lengths. If I wanted to do another focal length, I’d have to do the alignment test again and drill a new hole.
Here is what my camera looks like on the rig.
Having the urge to do an immediate test, I ran outside of my apartment and took a quick panorama of the building.
Notice how all of the lines in the sidewalk and building line up perfectly. Also notice my lovely shadow.
If you try this on your own, keep in mind that these panoramas are cropped to cut out the dead space. Dead space happens around the edges on all panoramas in the gaps where you don’t photograph. Here is the above panorama of my apartment with the dead space left in.
After determining that my nodal slide was a success, I headed out to Memorial Park in New Castle, IN to make some more scenic panoramas.
One I did while out there was of my car. It has many things that have to line up. I figured that would be another good test to make sure everything lined up.
All of the lines matched up perfectly. It lined up so perfectly that you can’t really tell how close I was to the car while shooting. I couldn’t fit the entire car in a single frame with a 24mm lens. Just keep in mind that it took 18 images to compose the entire scene.
I then turned to the large pond. I walked down into a muddy area where it appeared the water had receded. To put this to the true test, I did a 360 degree panorama. Composed from 55 separate images, the full resolution of this image is unreal.
With the same set of images, I decided to see if I could form it into what is commonly known as a “wee planet” through a process called stereographic projection. Here is how it turned out.
I’d say $1.50 well spent and good use of some scrap metal.