Thursday, February 22, 2007

Wallet Wide Shut ...

It is known in certain circles that I have become a dab hand at taking panoramic photographs - from monster flat images to 360º moving pictures. I have only been doing them seriously for the last 4 months and it's a fascinating hobby. However, I can see that in a few more months I should have sufficient experience to offer this medium as a commercial commodity to estate agents etc.

In October of last year, I came across a Hollywood film actor who runs a company which supplies panoramic imagery for just that. His pictures of West Coast property and scenery are quite superb - it got me thinking; "have a crack at it yourself, Stu". Sheepishly, I wrote to him and explained that I was fascinated by this type of photography and where could I learn more? I was stunned when he penned a long-winded reply listing who, where and what I needed to know. Since then, we have continued to exchange emails, thoughts and ideas. He has been of great encouragement and is always very patient to explain where I have gone wrong or what I need to 'tweek' in order to get results. He put me onto an internet group who exchange ideas, help newcomers and critique their work. After 3 weeks of trying to join, they eventually accepted my application, citing the weeding out of loonies and nutters (you mean I'm not a loony? News to me ...).

To begin with, you need a camera, a tripod, a fisheye lens, a stitching programme and bags of patience as the learning curve is as steep as a lighthouse staircase. A majority of the folk in this internet club suggest that I plough through pages of technical drivel, diagrams of oscillating sinewaves, temperature scales, mathematical theory and calculations involving the letter 'x'. Excuse me? When I bought the stitching programme, it simply said "with this, you can do THIS!" and nothing about gaining a degree in calculus. So, €70 later, I installed the stitching programme on my Apple Mac and started to climb the lighthouse.

I began with flat images, initially taking 4 or 5 separate photographs, then stitching them together. When it finally worked, I was stunned. Weeks of playing with 'Gigeresque' looking pictures and pressing buttons had paid off. But, naturally, I wanted more - I wanted to make moving 360s. The online community were a little hesitant to cough up the inside info and I was beginning to think that I didn't possess the right handshake or had rolled up the wrong trouser leg. Finally, someone took me under their wing and explained that I needed yet more software and more camera kit to get perfect results. Sadly, I am not in a position to do either and I'm buggered if any more cash is going to be invested. I have the basics, so let's see what I can do with them.

The more experienced members of the group said "Oh, if you have a Canon 5D, the you should get yourself a Nikkor 10.5mm lens, it's THE ideal combo". Well, I have an 8 and a 14mm so let's get working with those. "Oh", the group continued, "then you'll need this gadget and then this piece of software ..." But the stitching software said "with this, you can do THIS!" and showed a fisheye lens on camera, mounted on a tripod - and that's exactly what I have and all I'm going to use. To make moving images I got hold of a programme that does the conversion through a friend. So, back to the lens ...

The Nikkor 10.5mm costs around €700 but the fun doesn't start there, oh no. In order to get this 'ideal combo' working you should also invest in a hacksaw and a 5mm spark plug gauge. Eh? Apparently, after shelling out nearly a months rent, the Nikkor should be carefully placed in a vice and using the spark plug gauge as a ... err, gauge, saw off the sunshield around the business end of the lens. Then you need to buy the adapter ring that fixes the Nikkor to a Canon. What? "But the results will be fantastic!", the group insisted. But what if I dragged a hacksaw blade over the polished glass of a brand new lens? Guarantee shot to bollocks and €700 down the tubes ... so I started asking around about the 8 and 14mm lenses that I already have. A very helpful chap from Ireland came back saying "Not a problem, I do it all the time". He explained that it simply a matter of doubling the amount of images that you take initially. So much so, he asked that I send him 17 images (ok, you might need a pen and paper for this) with the 14mm lens. With the camera pointing -20º down from horizontal, take 8 images around the circle, then a further 8 images at +20º and a final shot at 90º upwards, the top shot. By the end of play that day, I received a Quicktime movie with the workflow explained with a running voice commentary. Heaven's above, and I've never even met this chap! I watched the little film, followed his every instruction and managed to replicate the result.

A huge weight appears to have been taken off my shoulders, the smoke and mirrors removed and I'm cracking on with a constant thirst for knowledge, taking the lighthouse steps two at a time. What next? I'm off to invade Poland ...



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