3D Photography by Brian Greenstone, Austin TX

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HOW TO: Lightweight Backpack Panhead Rig

When I first got into panoramic photography I would use my simple monopod rig whenever I would go on hikes or to places where a big, heavy panhead just wasn't practical. The monopod rig works, and I was able to create lots of excellent panoramas with it, however, there were several problems with using a monopod:

1. There's no precision at all, so the parallax errors are huge. Trying to stitch these shots together was often a major chore requiring much airbrushing in Photoshop to fix the seams. What I lost in gear weight I gained in stitching time later.

2. Monopods are no good for dark scenes requiring a long exposure, or for exposure bracketed shots for creating HDR panoramas.

3. I could never be in my own panoramas because I had to hold the monopod.

So, I decided it was time to build myself a compact and lightweight panhead that could fit in a backpack for hiking trips, or to just be easily carried around in places that my heavy rig would make my arms fall off. This is what I came up with: a compact rig that weighs only 6.5lbs including the camera, yet is fully functional as a spherical panhead!

Canon 350D (Rebel XT) with Sigma 8mm Fisheye Lens

The first thing I did to lighten the load was to buy a new camera. The Canon 350D is a very light DSLR camera at about 1.1lbs. The Sigma 8mm is a fairly heavy lens, but it's still lighter than my Raynox conversion lens that I used to use, and it weighs another 0.88lbs. The image quality from this camera/lens combo is vastly superior to what I got with the Powershot Pro 1 and the Raynox conversion lens. The images are so clear around the edges that often I don't even need a separate zenith and nadir shot to patch the top and bottom.

Modified Panosaurus Panhead w/ RC2 Quick Release

There are several low-end panheads out there, but the Panosaurus was the lightest one that would still allow me to do full spherical panos. I would never recommend using this panhead for professional use, however. It's very flimsy and imprecise. There's no click-stop mechanism, so you have to rotate by hand using the rotators tick marks as reference. That being said, it's a great choice for a backpacking panhead. It does what it's supposed to do, and it's still a million times better than any monopod.

Unfortunately, I wasn't happy with one aspect of the Panosaurus, so I had to make some modifications. The Panosaurus comes with an inexplicably large camera mounting plate. It's too big to keep permanently attached to the camera, and it's too difficult to unmount the camera from it to make it useful for backpacking situations where speed of setting up is as important as weight and size. I decided to completely remove the large camera mounting plate and replace it with a Bogen / Manfrotto RC2 Quick Release base. This base has a design flaw: the hinge for the release lever is below the bottom of the base itself. That means that you can only attach this base when the hinge can hang over an edge. There was no way to do that on the Panosaurus, so I had to cut a few inches off of the end of the Panosaurus' swing arm. It looks like this:

I didn't feel too bad about mutilating my brand new Panosaurus panhead. Heck, it only cost $85 and that extra PVC that I chopped off just reduced the weight that much more! The Panosaurus normally weighs 1.9lbs, but after removing the large camera mount, chopping off some PVC, and adding that RC2 base I figure my final weight was 2.0lbs.

One thing worth mentioning is that the RC2 base doesn't grip the smooth PVC of the swing arm too well, so, between the swing arm and the RC2 base I put a very thin square of black rubber padding that I got at the hobby store. Now the RC2 base is quite solidly attached to the swing-arm. Similarly, the standard RC2 plate that connects to the camera also has a problem with slipping at times, no matter how tight I twist the bolt. To resolve this, I bought a special version of the RC2 plate called the "Anti-Twist Quick Release Plate", sometimes called an "RC2 Architectural plate". This thing has a lip on it which grips the back of the camera, so there's no way it can twist. Good investment for $20!

Bogen / Manfrotto 484RC2 Mini Ballhead

The Panosaurus then is connected to a Manfrotto 484RC2 Mini Ballhead. This ballhead is a little heavier than I would have liked at 0.7lbs, but it was a necessity since smaller ballheads are too unreliable, and I still needed a quick release system. I try to stick with the Manfrotto RC2 system since it's small, accurate, and has a lock on it to prevent things from getting loose and crashing to the floor.

Velbon MAX i 343E Tripod

This part took me the most time to figure out. I needed a tripod small enough to fit into a backpack, yet expandable enough to reach eye level while still being stable and capable of supporting the panhead and camera. I found many tripods that were good candidates, and the price ranged from $40 to $250. I ended up with the Velbon 343E for about $58.

This tripod comes with it's own removable, extremely lightweight ballhead which was pretty impressive for the price, but the ballhead was just barely able to reliably support the panhead and camera. It could do it, but I had to tighten the locking level pretty darn tight, and if I didn't do it tight enough it would sometimes slip which scared me. Better safe than sorry, so I replaced it with the 484RC2 which added a few ounces in weight, but it's worth it.

The 343E normally weighs just 1.9lbs. Without that ballhead, I probably trimmed another 2-3oz. off of that. When folded (and the ball head removed) it's just 15" long.

Packing the Rig

Here's how all the parts break down when folded:

As you can see, it easily fits into a standard backpack. The camera is in a thin, lightweight neoprene camera case (the grey blob you see in the middle) to keep anything from scratching it. The Panosaurus breaks down so small that it sits at the bottom of the backpack and you can hardly see it in the photo. Everything fits easily, and there's still plenty of room for all the snacks, water, and/or other camera gear that you may want to take on your hike.

Minus the camera, this panhead cost around $200 to build. Hell of a bargain! You could probably build an even lighter and more compact panhead by removing the quick release plates and such, but my goal was to have a "good" panhead that was quick to setup and tear down, and I don't think I could have built this one any differently and gotten better results. One item worth mentioning, however, is the KingPano panhead. This is another lightweight and fairly compact panhead. It costs about 2x as much as the Panosaurus, it weighs a little bit more and is a little bulkier, but from what I've read about it, it is a much sturdier panhead, and it has click-stops and a leveling base. Something worth looking into next time I'm in a "gear mood".

Shortly after constructing this lightweight panhead I took it on a trip to Panama and made some really excellent panos with it. If I were going on any really long, vertical hikes up mountains, I'd probably settle for my monopod, but for short hikes this setup worked incredibly well! I was able to setup and break down in seconds, and the panos were so much easier to stitch together than any monopod shots I've ever taken. Click below to see these Panama shots:

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©2005-2009 Brian Greenstone