I often dream of an easy way to create panoramas, light and quick in the field, and quick again back at home on my computer. This morning I spent quite a bit of time exploring an interesting new panoramic camera from a company named Panono. Their idea is very clever – a lightweight sphere, weighing only about a pound, that contains 36 cameras that shoot simultaneously. You can even simply throw the ball up into the air, and it will automatically use a motion sensor to shoot the panorama at the moment it is at the apex of its flight path. Very clever, very light, and very fast. They claim that the size of the final panorama will be 108 megapixels, which should be plenty big enough for good quality – by comparison the standard size of the final panoramas I create are about 52 megapixels.
Ah but then the hard questions begin. What about dynamic range? Since the lighting conditions often vary dramatically within a panoramic scene, how well are all the 36 cameras going to handle it? I go to great length to deal with dynamic range in the field. I currently use a Nikon D700 camera with a full frame sensor that handles a wide dynamic range extremely well, and even with that I very often will shoot a scene two or more times at different exposures to handle divergent lighting conditions in different parts of the scene. I also work in Adobe Lightroom to tweak the dynamic range of the individual raw images before assembling the panorama. The Panono, however, shoots the scene a single time, with all of its cameras firing at the same exposure setting. Hard to believe that it can handle a wide dynamic range within a scene very well.
And what about the sun? When I shoot, I will shield the camera as much as possible (often by literally sticking my hand out to block the sun in all but one image) to eliminate glare as much as possible, removing my hand from the images later on in Photoshop within my workflow. No chance of doing anything like that with the way the Panono works.
So I searched the Panono website for a panorama that had to deal with such conditions, and here is what I found. Not good. This is a portion panorama they themselves chose to post. Glare from the sun in the upper left pretty much washes out the sky. In the lower right, an area in shadow on the slopes below has pretty much faded to black with nearly all detail lost.
Ah, Larry, you’re not being fair, you cry, certainly you are picking out the worst part of scene, pointing right into the sun! Alas not so. Here’s a part of the scene directly opposite the sun. The sky, as you would expect, is much better, but the shadow areas down below remain nearly completely dark.
If you are determined, like me, to create high quality panoramas from images shot on a backpacking trip, life is not easy, either on the trail or back at home on your computer. On the trail I lug camera gear capable of capturing high quality images. For me that means bringing a camera with a sensor able to shoot large images with a high dynamic range, which at least for now means a digital SLR camera with a full frame sensor and a decent panoramic mount. Throw in the camera bag, a monopod, extra batteries, and extra CF flash cards and I’m up to a trail panoramic photography weight of about 7 pounds. 7 pounds may not sound like a lot, but that is enough to increase my typical starting pack weight for a long hike into the Grand Canyon from around 45 pounds without camera gear to somewhere over 50 pounds. 50 pounds is a critical point for me where things start feeling really heavy.
I figure I could reduce, with a Panono, my field camera gear weight from around 7 pounds to 2. Five pounds is a lot, and would allow me to keep my start hike weight under the that critical 50 pound threshold. But alas, the quality I demand is not there, at least not yet. If you are packing 36 separate cameras, and 36 individual sensors, into a device, including high quality, high dynamic range sensors would make the device prohibitively expensive. I shelled out around $3000 for my D700 camera to get a single high quality sensor – put 36 sensors of that quality into the Panono and it would cost over $100,000 instead of the $600 they are listing it for.
But technology does march on, and version 1.0 of the Panono has yet to be released. Perhaps a few more years of advance in sensor technology will make it possible to cram an array of inexpensive yet high quality sensors into a clever device like the Panono. When they do I’m a buyer, but not yet.