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In The Last Day

Really Right Stuff and Hejnar Photo Panoramic Setup.

If you are interested in multi row Panoramic Photography, you’ll know the high-end setups are very expensive. We recently reviewed the Fanotec Nodal Ninja, which for $610 (that price includes the leveling base) is a very good setup, but it is not Arca compatible (you can add an Arca clamp of your own for an additional $60+). Its other disadvantage, is unless you are doing panoramic photography exclusively, you have to switch back and forth between the Pano head and your ball head or other tripod head.

The high-end multi-row panoramic solution currently is the Really Right Stuff Ultimate-Pro Omni-Pivot Package for $795 (they also have a slightly larger ‘LONG’ version for $860). This price does not include a leveling base, so add another $100-$200 for that, or if you want to use your ball head as the leveling base, add $30 for a dovetail adaptor.

We figured there had to be a better, more cost-effective way, without sacrificing strength, stability or functionality. It can indeed be done, and for potentially hundreds of dollars less than the alternative. Here is what we came up with:

Panoramic Head

Before we get into the specifics of the solution, first lets look at what a Multi Row Panoramic Head needs to do. The bottom line is you need to be able to rotate the lens/camera combination about the nodal point of the lens in both the horizontal and vertical planes. To break it down even further:

  1. It needs to include a leveling base. If you don’t start with a level platform, a 360 panorama is going to end up with a horizon that looks like a big wave, higher in some points of the stitched image than the others. Strictly speaking, if you have masochistic tendencies you can level the tripod itself, but it is much easier with a leveling base of some description.
  2. You need a horizontal panning base for horizontal panning.
  3. You need to be able to offset the head left or right, so that the center line of the lens is directly above the center of the horizontal panning base.
  4. You need a vertical panning base to control vertical rotation (i.e. the "rows"), and a method of supporting the vertical panning base.
  5. You need a nodal rail (or "arm") that can be slid back and forth relative to the vertical panning base, to help you find the nodal point of the lens.
For our needs, all this needs to be able to support a pro-grade camera and lens setup, while allowing a full 360° rotation both horizontally and vertically (to allow for full spherical panoramas).

Solving (1) & (2) above is easy, since several heads introduced in the past couple of years can act a leveling/panning bases. Three we’ve tested are the Acratech GP (shown above), the Photo Clam Pro Gold II Easy PQR and if you don’t want a ball head, the Photo Clam Multiflex Geared Head. All of these heads are easily strong enough to support the pano head with a gripped Nikon D700 with a 70-200mm VR II lens attached.

Since all three of these heads feature Arca clamps, using a horizontal Arca rail that can slide through these clamps to perform (3) above (aligning the center of the lens with the center of the horizontal panning base) makes life simple, as you can see in the picture below (which features the Photo Clam Ball Head).

Panoramic Head

The Horizontal Rail we used in this instance is a Hejnar PHOTO G-004D-80 Rail with a threaded hole in one end (this is important, more on that shortly). The vertical rail is an older G-004 Hejnar Rail, joined together by a Hejnar 90° block.

Panoramic Head

The first thing to note here, is the newer G-004D-080 rail will not work as the vertical rail – to allow for the threaded hole in the end, the slot in the middle of the rail isn’t as long, so you cannot slide the 90° block all the way to the end (so if you are considering a similar setup, check how far the slot is from the end of the rail you use carefully).

The second the second point to note, is the Hejnar PHOTO 90° block only has one screw hole, so there is a potential for this to twist loose (a newer version is planned that resolves this). Looking at the picture above, you’ll note the Vertical Rail butts up against the Horizontal rail, and that alone will prevent it twisting loose (in the same way as a ridged camera or lens plate won’t twist off). However with sufficient force (and it does take a lot of force), the horizontal rail can be twisted off. The solution to that is simple – an 18 cent ¼" by 1 ¼" Fender Washer from a local hardware store screwed into the end of the horizontal rail. This solves this problem completely by acting as an anti-twist plate (shown below).

Panoramic Head

While perhaps not the most elegant solution, it works, it’s cheap, and it also helps you line up the rails when attaching them together.

At the top of the Horizontal Rail we have a Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning Clamp (exactly the same unit that the RRS Ultimate Pro Package uses). This attaches with two screws – you can use one of the screws provided with the rails for the hole in the center of the clamp, but the second hole requires a slightly shorter screw. For this second screw, we took one from a Hejnar PHOTO Camera Plate, but you may be able to get a shorter screw from Hejnar PHOTO for a small fee.

Panoramic Head

That is (4) in our requirement list above solved.

Then to solve (5), you need a nodal rail with clamp. Again Hejnar PHOTO comes through, with their very cost effective 8" E-032 rail with Mini Clamp, which can be oriented both ways to accommodate either camera plates, or mount directly to a lens foot as shown below.

Panoramic Head Panoramic Head

Just to show the versatility of this setup, below is a gripped D300 with a Nikon 200-400mm f4 lens on a longer 12" Hejnar Rail. Due to the weight of the setup, we opted for the Photo Clam Multiflex geared head to use as a leveling/panning base. Unfortunately with such an extreme setup, the weak point in our setup above is actually the Really Right Stuff panning clamp – although rated for 17lbs, it just can’t support the weight on such a long nodal rail. Obviously the RRS Ultimate Pro package will have the same limitation since it relies on the same component to do the same job. The rest of the components are more than up to the weight shown below.

Panoramic Head

So the two important questions become how does it perform, and what does it cost?

Starting with performance, perfectly is the answer. The setup meets all the requirements we set out earlier, and is very stable (while we haven’t been able to do side by side tests, it certainly feels more stable than the Nodal Ninja we tested). Strength and performance wise, it should be similar to the Really Right Stuff package. The RRS package does have one minor advantage, that is you can break it down for transport without using a hex key, and the fender washer we used as an anti-twist plate isn’t the prettiest solution. However it is still no bigger than transporting a full gimbal head, and if you really want to be able ot break it down for transport, for another $60 you can simply add another clamp:

Panoramic Head

Note, introducing this second clamp eliminates the fender washer, but also reintroduces the potential for the vertical rail to twist off the clamp since it is held in with a single screw. Twisting it off takes a lot of force.

So what does it cost? Assuming you have a tripod head that can be used as a leveling/panning base, you need the following items:

  1. Really Right Stuff PCL-1 Panning Clamp: $235
  2. Hejnar PHOTO 90° Block: $19.99
  3. Hejnar PHOTO G-004D Rail (horizontal rail): $44.99
  4. Hejnar PHOTO G-004 Rail (vertical rail): $39.99
  5. Hejnar PHOTO E-032 Rail and Mini Clamp ($44.99 for the clamp, $49.99 for the rail, less 15% for buying both together): $80.73
  6. ¼" x 1 ¼" Fender Washer: $0.18
All together, that comes to $420.88 – cheaper than the Nodal Ninja, and almost half the price of the RRS solution. Of course this assumes you have a suitable ball head – if you don’t you can add a second PCL-1 for another $235, bring your total to a little over $650, which still represents a significant saving over the RRS package, and is still less than you’d spend on the Nodal Ninja we reviewed by the time you’ve put an Arca clamp on it.

Overall, this setup works, and works very well. With lenses up to the Nikon 24-70mm or 105mm f2.8, full spherical panoramas are possible free of parallax errors. Even with bigger lenses like the Nikon 70-200mm VR II, multi row panoramas are simple, and this setup is more than strong enough to provide a stable shooting platform.

The Hejnar PHOTO items are available directly via the , and the RRS items can be bought directly from Really Right Stuff. In the interests of full disclosure, several items mentioned in this review, including the Acratech and Photo Clam tripod heads and some of the Hejnar PHOTO items, were either supplied or loaned to us directly by the respective manufacturer.

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