Price: From £525 (ex VAT), dependent on camera and lens combination
Contact: 360Precision 01869 34 7272 + www.360precision.com
Needs: Tripod + Compatible camera
Pros: The ideal professional VR panorama head + Very strong and light + Beautifully engineered
Cons: Priced beyond casual hobbyist use
QuickTime VR panoramas can be stunning, but they're only be as good as the photos used to make them. The panorama tripod head is key to this, and the 360Precision VR head is the latest on the market.
Right from the start, it's clear this is a serious product. It was originally created for the designer's own use, and the company claims it has been specifically 'over-engineered' in order to do the job as well as possible. It's made from hard-anodised machined aluminium and has a solid brass detent ring. Despite this, it's the lightest serious panoramic head we've seen, weighing just 2.1kg. It was, we're told, conceived through frustration with other panoramic heads. With this, the thorny old problem of flex, where the weight of the camera and lens make a panoramic head sag, is simply nonexistent, even with heavy DSLR cameras. The brass detent ring controls the number of click-stops you get in a full 360° sweep. It can have different indent counts on each side, and the location of the adjustable spring-loaded plunger can be adjusted in case of wear. If you want to shoot different numbers of images in a sweep, just fit a different detent ring.
Unlike other panoramic head products, which are relatively generic and must be set up and adjusted for the camera each time they're used, the user buys a 360Precision head created for their specific camera and lens combination. The first time you use it, you set up a pair of spacers on the arm, and from then on your camera slots into place perfectly every time with the lens nodal point over the head's centre of rotation. Unlike its competitors, there are no sliders to adjust when attaching the camera.
If you change cameras or lenses, you'll need to use a different setup, but you can buy a new camera-specific elbow joint or lens-specific camera arm for the new camera/lens combination instead of getting a whole new 360Precision head. Swapping these over takes less than a minute, and everything still snaps into place ready for use without further adjustment.
We tested the 360Precision head with a Nikon D70 DSLR fitted with a 12mm Nikon wide-angle lens. In the time we'd expect to take making sure everything was right with a different head, we'd already set up and taken half a dozen of our panorama shots. When we put the results through RealViz Stitcher Express, the precision part of the 360Precison's name showed; each shot was perfectly positioned, the stitching process was as fuss-free as we could imagine, and the resulting panorama was pixel-perfect. If you set up a calibration template for your VR software, you can throw in image sets from all your panorama shoots and get the results you want straight back. Post-production editing is normally where the most time is spent in VR panorama production, so this should make a big difference to your deadlines.
So now we come to the nitty-gritty: the price. The 360Precison isn't cheap; it starts at £525 and rises to £595, depending on your particular camera and lens. If you have a camera and lens combination that's not on the 360Precision list, there's a surcharge for creating a custom head, but there are already models for virtually anything worth using for panorama shoots. At this price, shooting panoramas will have to be more than just a hobby. Add this to the price of a decent wide-angle lens and you'll have gone well past the £1000 mark. However, if you're serious about QuickTime VR panorama production, there's no sensible alternative: this is the one to get.