Immersive Photography – The Nodal Ninja Our Choice for Panoramic Photos

December 6, 2011 - Several years ago we got a call from BJ Services who was in the market for a virtual tour of The Blue Dolphin, the largest production ship in the world. They sent us a link to a model home tour from a local real estate company and asked if we could create something like that for their ship. The interactive tour played on a small section of the screen, did not allow for full up and down viewing, and the only hot spots were links to other rooms in the house.

This tour was typical of the other 360 degree tours we have seen over the years, and needless to say, we were not very excited or impressed. We asked the client if they were married to this look, and asked if we could offer other ideas. They agreed, and we began our search to see what was new in the area of panoramic photography. It did not take long before we began to find pano samples that simply blew us away. A visit to will demonstrate this first hand. But first, a word of warning – get ready to spend many hours of time on these sites. Hi-res, full screen imagery taken by the world's best pano photographers and be addicting.

We provided our client with examples of what was possible, and said we would deliver a virtual tour that was light years from what they had requested. The said to go for it, but reminded us the boat would only be in Houston for three days before it would be deployed offshore for months. The topsides were scheduled for painting on days 1&2, and on day 3, they would open the boat in the late afternoon for a (selected client) tour. We could scout the boat on day one, and had to return and get all our shots by 3:00pm on day 3. Cue up the Mission Impossible music.

So prior to the shoot we spent quite a bit of time researching and testing photographic equipment, gear, and the software we would need to put it all together. One critical item we had no experience with was the proper panoramic head to choose for the shoot. Ted Washington (a local photographer) had a Manfrotto 303 panoramic head, and he agreed to come over and let us take it for a test spin. He did not have much experience with it, and we spent the better part of a day trying to get it produce the perfectly stitched pano. We had no such luck. Next, we turned to the internet and started browsing the forums. We found sites with instructions on how to build a panoramic head for under $10, but we were not going to show up to a commercial shoot with something we built in the garage out of wood scraps.

We found some low cost products such as the Panosaurus - but we were not convinced it had the precision or build quality we were looking for. There were lots of positive comments about a product by Fanotec called the Nodal Ninja 5 and their RD-16 Rotator mount. Photographers liked that it was lightweight but had a precision build. We were planning to use it with a Nikon D300 and 10.5mm Nikkor fisheye lens. The panoramic samples we found with this combination looked great.

We placed an order directly with the company and a few days later our gear arrived. The Nodal Ninja 5 and RD-16 Rotator mount come in a hard shell zippered case with some allen wrenches, mounting plates and even a small bottle of grease. Set up was quick and simple. We found some very helpful videos on YouTube that showed how to set up the RD-16 Rotator  and mounting our camera to the NN 5 . We the found a video that helped us to find our no-parallax point - and set our camera accordingly. We did several test panos outside (and inside) our studio and felt confident we were ready to go aboard the ship and shoot the 5 rooms and 4 deck panoramas the script called for.

We arrived at the dockside at 6:30am the day of the shoot, and got onboard as the sun came up. Our first pano was from the wheelhouse with a point of view from the captain’s chair with the sun breaking through the clouds. In addition to the photographer, we had a grip, and a graphic designer. Since there were no second chances, after each room was shot, the grip ran the memory card to the lounge where the graphic designer had his computer set up. He would unload the card, check that we got all the shots, and begin the stitching process. Since much of the ship had been painted the day before, it looked great.

Our panos would be different from most others because we had planned to put anywhere from 3 to 10 interactive elements in each one of them. Click on a brochure on the table, and it would pop-up so you could read it. Click on the TV and watch a safety video. Click on the diesel engines and hear them roar. Room, by room, we shot our panos and got the job done with just a few minutes to spare before the client tour was to begin.

We returned to our studio and over the next two weeks stitched the photos together, and added the interactive elements. We were then ready to show our work to the client. We did not get the reaction we had hoped for. When they viewed the virtual tour, they quickly realized that the 360 panoramic photos contained all kinds of proprietary information about their onboard systems and equipment. This tour would never be used for general consumption. All that work for nothing (well, we got paid, but we were planning to blog about and use this tour as a portfolio sample to land additional work).

We have been able to land a number of additional virtual tours, and we continue to use the Fanotec equipment along with our trusty Nikon gear to capture and create really could immersive photography. Click here to check out an example of the engine room of the Blue Dolphin


Category: Photography,