Provides: Support for camera on tripod for optimum panoramas
Developer: Nodal Ninja
Requirements: Camera and tripod
Retail Price: $199.95
You may have done this: you've see something that you wanted to take a photo of but couldn't move far enough back to get the whole image in your camera. So you stand there, take a photo, rotate a bit and take another photo, and repeat as often as necessary to get the whole image. After all, when you get back home you can "stitch" the images back together to get the whole thing in one photo. Alas, when you try to assemble the images, parts of the image align just great, but someone is cut in half and the bottom left of the photo is aligned while the top left is in different time zone. Oh, what to do? Well, it's too late for that image, but when you want to do panoramas like a professional, you need the right equipment. That starts with the proper support for your camera, and that means you could use a Nodal Ninja 3.
[Note: This is one part of a loose three-part review of Photomatix, Stitcher, and Nodal Ninja. Nodal Ninja is a device that holds your camera on a tripod at the entrance point, also known as the Nodal point. Photomatix lets you combine multiple exposures of the same shot to achieve a greater amount of dynamic range in the image. Nodal Ninja supports the camera on a tripod at the exposure point to obtain the best possible panorama. Stitcher can combine multiple images to create a panorama and can now create a panorama using HDR images from programs like Photomatix. These are three separate reviews but are related in kind.]
Take your finger, hold it out at arm's length and look past your finger at a distant view with one eye and then close that eye and open your other eye. Suddenly, the alignment of your finger and what was behind your finger is now shifted. This is called parallax and it's the cause for the poor alignment mentioned in the paragraph above. The good news is there is a position in the lens of your camera where if you rotate your camera around that point, there is no parallax. This point is typically called the "nodal point." Officially, this should not be called the nodal point but rather the "entrance pupil," but I'm not going to enter into that debate in this review.
Below is a sample of panning a camera by hand. In other words, my feet are the pivot points and the camera is in my hands as my body pivots. The top image below is my aiming the camera to the right of the square pole and the image on the bottom is my aiming the camera to the left of the blue pole.
Below is a close-up (at 100%) showing how the orange cone and the rear of the car shifts position in relation to the square pole as I pivot. If I had done the pivot around the entrance pupil of the camera, there would have been no movement of the items at all. This is what the Nodal Ninja is for. [Note: I also had the camera on "Automatic" mode that adjusts the aperture and shutter speed depending on light conditions of the subject. This is why you should always set the camera on Manual so that the aperture and shutter speed are controlled by you and do not change due to changes in the scene as you take your various shots.
Before I continue with this review, let me address one special point: the new Photoshop CS3. If you are hand-holding a camera and taking panorama shots and processing them through PS-CS3 you will be impressed. So why is there a need for the Nodal Ninja, or any other entrance pupil device? The answer to that can best be answered by the number of shots in the panorama, the nature of the scene you are trying to capture, and what you want to do with the images. In general, the more shots in your panorama:
- the more you are likely to need the NN3,
- the greater the complexity of your image (e.g., a lot of vertical objects at both near and far distances),
- the wider your completed panorama. (Hand-held panoramas tend to drift up or down as you rotate from one side to the other, which reduces the final height of your cropped image. A tripod helps prevent this, and the Nodal Ninja is meant to be used on the tripod.)
Simply put, if you can get your panorama in a couple of shots, Photoshop CS3 lets you get away with magic. But if you have the time to assemble your equipment, your final shot will be rewarded by the better support.
When you purchase the whole Nodal Ninja kit, you get the following (as seen below). The two black metal items on right are the two main pieces of the Nodal Ninja. On the far left are the two zipper bags provided to contain the two Nodal Ninja pieces. In the two pockets on the bottom zippered bag are two of the four extra brass detent plates. In the middle-center is the T-Adapter, and above that is the draw-string bag provided to contain the T-Adapter. Finally, on the upper right corner are extra springs, washers, and other spare parts. All of these pieces will be described in this review. [Update: Before this review was published, Nodal Ninja updated the package. A hard-shelled foam-lined case replaces the soft case, and it now includes a pair of new rail stops in addition to NN3, the t-adapter, and the detent rings as miscellaneous replacement parts.]
Again, the only two pieces that are critical are the two items on the bottom right in the image above. Below is a photo showing my Canon 30D being supported by those two pieces. The whole purpose of the Nodal Ninja 3 is to support the camera in such a way that the lens is aligned, centered, and can rotate around its entrance pupil (its Nodal Point). That is, as I rotate the camera on the Nodal Ninja 3 (not using the rotation axis of the tripod) the lens is always over the center axis of the Nodal Ninja 3 (this would be knob #1). The second issue is that the entrance pupil is centered over the rotational axis point. That is, the alignment of arrow #2. The distance between knob #2 and knob #3 varies between lenses and the focal length of that lens. If you are using a zoom lens, depending on the settings (focal length) of the zoom, the entrance pupil moves, requiring you to change the distance between #2 and #3.
I have one specific advantage with my 30D (an advantage certainly not unique with my camera) in that the tripod camera mounting hole is exactly aligned with the center axis of the lens. It is common with consumer cameras for the camera mounting to be offset from one side of the lens or the other. The T-Adapater also works with cameras with offsets (as mentioned), cameras to be mounted in landscape mode on the lower rail for single row panoramas (as mentioned), allows for the use of a third-party quick release plate, and acts as an extension to rail allowing for longer lenses. As seen below (where the lower rail is lying on the T-Adapter), you screw the T-Adapter into your camera (after setting the offset the appropriate amount) and screw knob #3 (above) into the T-Adapter.
It is also possible to screw your camera into the T-Adapter and place the T-Adapter directly onto the lower rail. This lets you support your camera in landscape mode as opposed to the portrait position seen above. The only reason to do this might be if your entrance pupil distance is so long as to require the extended length the T-Adapter could provide. The big disadvantage of this approach is that you cannot tilt the camera at all, meaning that any panorama created in this manner would only be as tall as the height of your photos in landscape position. This would be exacerbated if you didn't have the level properly set causing your image to be made in a downward step pattern so that, after cropping, the final image was significantly shorter than it could have been. One of the big reasons to take panorama shots with the camera in portrait position is that because you are planning on taking multiple shots left-to-right, you are covered in that direction. The portrait position provides excess height that always can be cropped off later.
In the image below, I'm using the T-Adapter to support the lower rail square to my camera. On that lower rail, on the right side, you can see the center-line mark aligned on the protractor guide where the NN3 rotates on the central pivot knob of the Nodal Ninja. You can see between the lower rail and the pivot knob a glint of brass. That's one of five double-sided brass detent plates provided with the full package. You can access the detent plate by unscrewing the top knurled knob from the knurled pivot knob.
Below is another view of the lower rail (shown upside-down) with its rotation knob in pieces to the right. The way the whole thing goes together is you flip the lower rail over so the brass detent plate is on the bottom and slips onto the screw of the pivot knob (to the direct right). Then, you place the two Teflon washers followed by the tightening screw on top. There is a set-screw in the center of the tightening screw to set the tension of the whole thing. An explanation of the detent plates is a bit lower in the review.
The most important issue with the Nodal Ninja 3 is how does one set the position for mounting your camera so that you do not have the parallax. The bad news is this is absolutely critical and does take a bit of setup and time to do properly. The good news is that this procedure is not really very difficult, and once it is done (and as long as you take notes), it does not need to be done again for that camera (and/or lens). One of the best tutorials I've seen on this can be found in this PDF here. The basics for this process essentially require you to have something vertical near you and far from you. Set yourself in a position where they are just offset from each other, and place the two objects in your viewer so they are on either the left or right side of your viewer. Then, rotate the camera in the NN3 side to side as you change the camera's position between knobs #2 & #3 until you stop seeing parallax. This whole thing is just like the pole and traffic cone seen in the first and second images in this review. For what it's worth, I used my son's old soccer practice backstop net as my grid (vertical object), and it worked great.
Once I was set up to calculate my entrance pupil on the NN3, I figured it out for several different focal lengths. For my camera with a 17-85mm lens I came up with:
|Focal Length||NN3 setting|
[Note: If you graph this, it is very close to a straight linejust in case you were curious.]
The location of the NN3 setting is arbitrary and can be defined by you. I decided to use the Serial Number plate on the bottom of my camera against the numbers on the NN3 support arm (see below). In addition, to make my life easy, I created a cheat-sheet and leave a copy in my camera bag so that when I set this up, after not having not done it in a bit of a time, I can refer to my settings. Note that I also created a small collection of "things to remember" so that I not only remember to set all of the various camera settings, I also remember to reverse all of these settings when I'm done. Call it a prevention of "senior moments." [Update: Nodal Ninja now includes a pair of rail stops with every NN3 sold (one for lower rail and one for upper rail). Once the camera is in position, you set and lock these positions, eliminating any "senior moments."]
Now, back to the 5 detent plates. They provide set stops at varying rotation positions. Depending on which detent plate you have installed, as you rotate the NN3 around the pivot knob there is a stop position at set amounts. Without the detent plate, you need to carefully examine the compass on the pivot knob each time you rotate the NN3 so that you get the correct sweep of your camera for the panorama. With the detent plates, you simply rotate the pivot knob until it snaps into the next position. With the 5 double-sided plates, there are the following "stop" positions:
|Angle for each detent||# of Stops for each plate|
|0° (no detents)||(infinite)|
The image of the pivot knob shows a full compass display of degrees. While it's easy to see every 15 or 25 degrees, every 18 or 24 degrees is a bit more challenging. That's the reason for the detent plates.
The catch is which detent plate do you use? Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this. What you are trying to achieve is about 15-20% overlap for each image of a panorama. Keep in mind that for each focal length, this will vary. There is a website that has on-line calculation for figuring this out. [Note: At first glance, this seems like there is not enough information on the website for what to do to accomplish this. However, check out the Help button and follow the instructions; you'll find that this is actually very simple to follow and understand. Give yourself a few minutes, it really isn't all that complicated. The biggest catch is that if your camera is not listed in the "Film, CCD, and Lens Data" button, then you will have to find this data on your own.]
Alternatively to this site's calculation approach, one can do it the old fashioned way and set the focal length of your camera to what you want to use and rotate the camera on the NN3 and see how many degrees you move it on the markings on the pivot knob. If you look at the very first image in this review, you can see the type of overlap for which you are looking as you create your panorama. [By the way, if you determine that you need a (say) 36° rotation (for 10 stops), you use the 18°/20 stop detent plate and skip every other stop.]
Besides rotating your camera around on the NN3 to obtain your panorama, by resetting knob #2 as seen in the image earlier in this review, you can rotate the angle your camera is in the NN3 to obtain rows above and below your primary pan to obtain a much taller image than a single row can provide. With a little of the angling, one can get a complete sphere of images. Another advantage of the detent plates is that you are guaranteed that each row of images will be placed directly above and/or below each other row. Another advantage of the detent plates becomes apparent if you are creating an HDR panorama. Each shot will require at least three shots, and the detent plates help assure alignment for the multiple repeated shots required. [Note: if you are taking shots intended for HDR, some of those images may require a sufficiently slow exposure that any movement of the camera can cause an image to have some motion blur caused by the simple act of pressing the shutter button. This is not a mark against the NN3 or the tripod, it's simply an issue that it doesn't take much to cause an image to be blurred. You can either use your timer delay setting on your shutter (so your finger isn't on the camera when the shutter goes), or purchase an external shutter button if one is available for your camera.
Overall, the Nodal Ninja 3 is great. Set-up time is quick; about a minute once you've done it a couple of times. In fact, it takes me more time to set up my tripod and the camera adjustments than it does to set up the NN3. The NN3 is robust and can support about four pounds of camera and lens.
What is disappointing is that earlier versions of the Nodal Ninja had a very nice zippered container for the component pieces. This may be created for the NN3, but it isn't being supplied now. The zippered bags that are currently provided are okay at best, but certainly not as good as the past container. [Update: As mentioned above, Nodal Ninja is now providing hard cases that are even higher in quality.] There is a good manual that can be downloaded at the Nodal Ninja website along with some excellent videos on the same page. When you receive the NN3, there is a picture manual similar to what you get when you purchase a printer with simple photos showing you what to doit's kind of lame. I strongly suggest you pre-download the PDF and plan on being near your computer when you receive your NN3 to view the videos.
The good news is that the Nodal Ninja site has dozens of site links that explain how to do panoramas, and there are hundreds and hundreds of examples of panoramas that have been done all over the world. It is fun to see what people have done.
If you keep in mind that the Nodal Ninja 3 is smaller, lighter, and less expensive than every other entrance pupil device out there, if you have any interest in creating panoramas or QTVR's, you would be very wrong to not consider the Nodal Ninja 3.
___________ Gary Coyne has been a scientific glassblower for over 30 years. He's been using Macs since 1985 (his first was a fat Mac) and has been writing reviews of Mac software and hardware since 1995.
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