Levelling Base for Panoramic Photography
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Levelling Base for Panoramic Photography

Some say Levelling, Others say leveling

Until I started to research this article I had no idea there was a debate around the actual word! We will use the english version – levelling except where the product is actually named using the american leveling version.

Which levelling base for panoramic photography?

We take a look at three products from Acratech, Nodal Ninja and Manfrotto and recommend the best use for each one.

Check out my guide to Panoramic Photography, part of the Ultimate Guides series.

Anyone who has been involved in panoramic photography will be familiar with the sinking feeling that occurs when the images are stitched and you realise you’ll have to crop the image simply because you shot handheld or the tripod was not level at the time the pictures were taken.

Hand Held Panorama showing the ‘Step Down’ effect

You realise you need a better solution than simply setting the tripod as best you can and rotating the head. So the question is which Levelling base is best for panoramic photography.

I’ve used three types of levelling base and realised that some products are good for some uses and others for different occasions. How can this be? We just want to level our tripod, surely its the same for every product?

Levelling Base for Panoramic Photography
Conchar Gorge Panorama

360° Panoramas vs Landscape Panoramas

I have experience in two distinct areas of panoramic photography. The first is 360° interior photography where you shoot interiors for inclusion in a virtual tour. This requires absolute precision and depending on the lens you use, a minimum of five images to create 100% coverage of the room you are photographing.

The second is landscape photography. Wide angle lenses come with their own characteristics, the most common of which is that objects that are in fact quite close can seem very far away and consequently lack detail.

The answer to this problem is to take multiple shots in a grid using a telephoto lens. This gives you the opportunity to stitch the grid together in the software of your choice, Lightroom, Photoshop or PTGui are the products I’ve used most frequently. The output, if it is stitched correctly will show way more detail than the single shot with a wide angle lens.

Detail From the Panorama
Detail from the Panorama

Challenges with Panoramas

The gotcha of course is that because you are using multiple images to create the panorama, lens characteristics that are insignificant or easily corrected in a single image, can become a real pain across multiple images. The obvious culprit here is the vignette (darkening towards the edges) that characterise so many wide angle lenses. In a single image it can be almost imperceptible, in multiple images stitched together it will be more than obvious.

There are two other issues that need to be solved to create a decent panoramic image.

  • Levelling the plane of rotation
  • Rotating around the nodal point of the camera/lens combination

The nodal point should be on the vertical line around which the camera rotates when creating a row in a panorama. You can see the problem very effectively by holding a finger up, in line with a distant vertical like a lamp post. Close one eye, line up the finger and lamp post and turn your head slowly. You’ll see the finger move in relation to the background, revealing more of the background on one side that was on the other side of your finger before you moved your head.

This is an exaggerated example. Your eyes don’t need to be aligned around a nodal point because you have two of them and the brain stitches the two slightly different images into a single one that makes sense. But it does demonstrate the issue.

The camera is a machine and cannot make that automatic adjustment the brain is so good at. The problem manifests as a stitching error – the line where two images intersect contains different details. Software can mitigate against this to an extent, but in a perfect world you’ll need a nodal rail to adjust the position of the camera. That’s the subject of a forthcoming post.

Levelling the plane of rotation can only really be done with a levelling base. Here’s two reasons why.

  • Some tripods have a spirit level to indicate when the base is level. This needs the legs to be adjusted and while it is possible to get it right quite quickly in cities where pavement is often close to level, it’s a pain in the neck when you’re hiking through woods on uneven ground.
  • Even if you get the tripod level, more often than not, once you add the camera in a position that you think is level, the weight will drag the whole thing out of true. You can use the levels on the back of the camera, or a spirit level in the hot shoe mount, but its a faff and if you’re not careful by the time you’ve got it right, the light will have changed.

A levelling base can be easily adjusted with the camera in place, so it’s quicker and easier to get the shot you need for a decent panoramic image.

Ok, I’m persuaded. Which Levelling base should I use?

Manfrotto 338 Levelling Head

The Manfrotto 338 levelling head is a heavy piece of kit at 0.6kg or 1.3 lb. Beautifully engineered in aluminium with brass screws, it consists of a circular tripod base and circular head base separated by three brass dials with locking rings enabling the user to make fine adjustments +/- 5°. There is a built in spirit level.

Pros

Very accurate, precision engineered, will support loads of up to 15kg or 33 lb.

Cons

Weight. I’m not going to hike over rough ground for miles in the baking sun with this thing weighing me down! Also, the movement of the levelling dials is very stiff. This is not a fingertip adjustment by any means. The height of the head means that once you add a panoramic head and a camera, you’re looking at a high centre of gravity and will require a very stable tripod. The spirit level is hard to see if you have a panoramic head mounted.

Price

£185 is a lot of money, but you are buying precision and load bearing capability.

Best Use

Urban 360° work. The location needs to be close to a road!

Nodal Ninja EZ II Leveler

The Nodal Ninja EZ II Leveler has been my go-to levelling head for interior work for around five years now. It’s designed around the same three screw principle as the Manfrotto.

Pros

Very accurate, precision engineered, will support loads of up to 10kg or 22 lb. Weight, at 200g, it’s a portable, accurate solution.

Cons

Load bearing. at 22 lb this will not maintain its accuracy with the heavier panoramic heads/cameras and lens combinations. The Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM for example weighs around 3.5lb, A Canon 5DS DSLR adds a further 2 lb. The Manfrotto 303 SPH Spherical Panorama head weighs 2430 g or 5.3 lb. Still within the manufacturers limits but feels more lightweight than the Manfrotto.

Price

£119.94 is reasonable. You are buying a base that is light, easy to operate and accurate. In five years I haven’t had any problem with it.

Best Use

360° work. The three dial action is a little fiddly for landscape panoramas.

Acratech Leveling Base

The Acratech Leveling Base different design and my new go-to levelling base for landscape photography. The leveling base sits between the tripod head and the panoramic head, like the others, but instead of the three screw adjustment, Acratech have used a ball and socket mechanism with a single locking screw.

Pros

Very easy to use, low profile lowers the centre of gravity compared to the others listed here. weighs just over half a pound or 258 grams. Slightly heavier than the Nodal Ninja Head but supports 25lb load. The spirit level projects outside of the base and can be rotated to the position of maximum visibility.

Cons

Difficult to say. It is beautifully engineered. My instinct is that it may be better for landscape work than 360° but that’s a very subjective view with no evidence to support it!

Price

£167 is a very reasonable price point. You are buying a piece of serious, quality engineering that has a considerable weight advantage over the Manfrotto.

Best Use

Landscape Panoramas. I could hike all day with this in my backpack. Its quick to assemble and by far the quickest of the three to find the level point.

Recommendation

The best levelling base for panoramic photography has to be the Acratech Levelling Base. It’s light, easy to set up and much quicker to use than the other two.

The best levelling base for 360° work is the Manfrotto. However, I own both this and the Nodal Ninja and opt to use the Nodal Ninja nine times out of ten. This is 100% down to the weight.

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