Since I started shooting panoramas nearly a decade ago, I’ve been on a continual quest for the best stitching software. There have been many contenders, but my current pick – PTgui is so much better than my previous favorite, The Panorama Factory, that I’m not sure how much better it can get. PTgui isn’t the most creative name – it stands for Graphical User Interface for Panorama Tools, but its capabilities far outshine its name.

The tool easily and automatically generates a single panorama from a collection of photos, or it can be used in batch mode for unattended stitching of multiple panoramas. It includes a full set of tools to tune the resulting image, including a range of projection techniques, complete with previews and interactive controls. It can even handle HDR (High Dynamic Range) panoramas.

But my favorite feature is its ability to handle practically any handheld panorama sequence (see photos) you throw at it and stitch it seamlessly. I know you’re supposed to shoot these photos from a tripod – preferably a leveled one – and I’ve even purchased a fairly expensive mount that adjusts for the nodal point of the lens and has wonderful spirit levels and calibrations to turn out a perfect panorama. The problem is that it’s never on hand when the circumstances are right and the light is perfect. For those situations it’s great having a software tool that lets me just shoot, knowing that it’ll pick up the pieces and stitch them together for me later.

Hugin is a free, open source compositing option that works well, though it’s not as smooth or quick as PTgui. While Adobe Photoshop CS3 and CS4 are said to include serious improvements to that software’s Photomerge stitching function, I haven’t tried either, and therefore can’t make the comparison. I have used Adobe’s Photoshop Elements, and its stitching function is quite a bit slower and offers far less control then PTgui.

Unlike other photo stitchers I’ve used, PTgui usually gets the merge right on the first try, even with handheld shots. But there are times when handheld shots are so far off that some hand-tuning of the merge is required. PTgui includes a clear and intuitive interface for this task that is far better than other software I’ve used. PTgui also eliminates “ghosting”; in the overlap area, a problem with other software when people in the overlap area move between frames. In addition, making corrections by trying different projections can often mean starting over with other stitching software, but with PTgui, projection previews offer interactive control of their geometry through dragging and sliders.

The following sequence was shot — handheld — in the courtyard of the Boston Public Library when the reflected sunlight lit up the opposite colonnade. I shot two sequences across the scene, one at ground level and the other slightly above to capture the buildings and roofline. Looking at the individual shots, you’d think they could never be successfully stitched. But PTgui turned out a very neat panorama. The photos here are reduced in size for this review, but I’ve included a close-up of the clock on the right-hand wall, so you can see the kind of detail that is available when you zoom in.

Original photos:

The finished panorama:

Detail of the clock on the wall:

The PTgui website has lots of fun samples to view, and they link to a panorama of Prague that claims to be the largest spherical panorama in the world. Weighing in at 18 gigapixels, it’s amazing not only for the view, but also for the incredible detail that is available when you zoom in on a feature. One of my personal favorites in their gallery is the Tandem Paragliding panorama.

PTgui comes from Rotterdam in the Netherlands and is available in standard ($111) and Pro (for batch mode and other features, $209) versions, supporting both Windows and Mac OSX. The website makes it simple to order, download, and unlock the software. Prices are set in Euros and I’ve noticed that the US Dollar prices do vary over time.

-- David Krathwohl  

PTgui panoramic stitching software
$111 (standard) and $209 (pro)

Designed by and available from PTgui



For years I used a PedCo Ultrapod II, which I bought at REI in San Francisco. At the time it was an REI-branded version; it survived years of being mounted on a motorcycle and many trips abroad until I gave it away to a good friend who fell in love with it. I recently went to replace my Ultrapod and looked at the previously reviewed Gorillapod extensively. Compared to my old Ultrapod, though, the Gorillapod seems fiddly, heavy and expensive. I re-ordered the Ultrapod II from Amazon (it was about $15), and am once again really pleased with it.

The Gorillapod is probably a bit better for mounting on the top of a pole (as pictured in the ads). But for mounting on the sides of poles, trees, chairs, as well as setting upright on rocks, tables, suitcases; for quick and accurate adjustments, and for supporting both light and heavy cameras securely (strapped to a motorcycle handlebar at high speed driving through the Bay Bridge tunnel between Oakland and San Fancisco–see photo), I like the Ultrapod best.


There’s a difference between the Ultrapod and the Ultrapod II, I think the former is lighter and smaller, but less robust. I’ve only ever owned the latter. I used my first Ultrapod II with a Canon Powershot digital camera, a medium-sized model that would be large by today’s standards. That’s the camera I mounted on my motorcycle handlebars.


The Ultrapod II has legs with triangular cross-sections for rigidity. In the collapsed positions, the tripod’s legs nicely cup a pole or handlebar. Using the (very securely built-in) Velcro strap, I was able to firmly attach the tripod to my handlebar grips. Because the tripod was mounted directly to the handlebar grip, my hand curled around both for added security while driving.

Now I use the Ultrapod II mostly with a Flip Mino HD, which is extremely small and light. I occasionally use it with a Nikon D40 digital SLR, which is bulky but still reasonably light. The Ultrapod II does an excellent job of holding both cameras in all kinds of settings (tree branches, rocks, chair legs, suitcases), and it’s also excellent as a table-top tripod. And it’s particularly on tabletop and other flat settings where I think the Ultrapod is really much more stable than the Gorillapod. When I was doing a lot of toy photography and animation, that stability on flat surfaces helped tremendously.

-- Ashish Ranpura  

Pedco Ultrapod II

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Pedco



As a photographer who borrowed money to pay for a formal, technical photo education, I can tell you that is a must-see for the modern photographer who wants to increase his/her lighting skills. Photographer-publisher David Hobby shares a wealth of information regarding alterations/adaptations, so photographers without huge budgets can create awesome lighting with small portable Canon/Nikon flash units.

Strobist’s approach and instruction changed my life. Among the techniques that I’ve learned from the site and applied:Drilling holes into my very expensive Cannon flashes, so that I could hotwire them to fire by remote. (I did, however, run two units too hard and ended up frying them); building a softbox out of cardboard; extending the range of some cheap Chinese remotes by soldering on a few inches of wire; making gobos (go-betweens; anything used to block light) out of cereal boxes and gaffers tape; making bounce cards out of Coroplast that effectively reflect light and are light to carry; using Velcro on my flash to easily add gels and other light modifiers; using cardboard rolls as snoots (to precisely aim lights).

Among the Strobist features I’ve found most valuable are the modifications and reviews of modifications that offer practical and inexpensive lighting solutions. The site also presents examples of techniques and modifications that stretch for miles on Flickr, as well as excellent reviews of some of the newest and most practical photo tools. Strobist’s descriptions of a vast range of photo techniques, including illustrative photographs in every post and often instructional video, too, are generally clear and easy to learn from. For starters, check the drop-down menus for the Lighting 101 Archive.

You may find photo sites that are as good as Strobist, but you will find none that are better. Hobby’s creativity is honestly jaw-dropping, and his site is an outstanding resource for photographers ready to take their flashes off their cameras and delve into more advanced lighting setups.

Members of the Strobist Group on flickr usually post detailed information about the photos they take and techniques used. It’s a great place to get ideas, reviews and information.

-- Dominic Duncombe  

Sample Excerpts:

Lighting 101: Balancing Flash and Ambient, Pt 1

More than maybe anything, the quality of light in a photo comes down to the lighting ratio. On one level, it creates the whole look of your photo. On another, your lighting ratio will likely be the key variable in determining whether your paper can reproduce the information in the shadows. It’s all about the shadow detail – either you want it or you don’t. And you want to make the call on what reproduces in the paper.

Balancing with ambient is the same process, whether you are lighting an interior portrait or fill flashing a headshot outside. Always think in terms of balance instead of fill. The concept is less limiting. And it will not predispose you to use the sun as your main light when the strobe might be the better choice in a given situation…


Lighting 101: Bare-Tube-Style Lighting

One of the limits of using a small, shoe-mount strobe is that all of the pieces are integrated into the flash. Power, capacitors, flash tube and reflector – all wrapped up in a package the size of a small Subway sandwich.

Larger flashes tend to have a more “component” type of layout, with separate power packs, flash heads, tubes and reflectors. While this generally adds more weight and size, the fact that the reflectors are usually removable gives the big-flash guys the ability to shoot “bare-tube.”

Bare-tube (or maybe you have heard the more old-school term, “bare-bulb,”) means nothing more than having your flash tube sitting out there in open space pushing its light out into (nearly) a 360-degree sphere of coverage. I say nearly because there has to be some wire carrying power and triggering the flash. And that blocks some of the light in one direction….

Why is this cool? There are a couple of reasons.

First, you can light a room with one head, effectively spewing light in all directions. Two bare-tube heads, high and at 45-degree angles, will light one very crisp-looking group shot. (Just drop one of the heads down a stop or so to get a nice ratio.)

Adobe Lightroom


Adobe Lightroom is an imaging software that’s excellent for keeping track of large numbers of photos, and also provides an extensive range of processing and manipulation functions. I’m working on version 2.3 as I write this; the 3.0 beta was just released. The program’s broken into five intuitively designed modules: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, Web.

Making web galleries is ridiculously easy, and printing is much more intuitive in Lightroom than Photoshop (at least CS2, my current version). Now that there are graduated filters and advanced cloning/spot removal in Lightroom, I only do really serious retouching in Photoshop. I’m not sure if it’s as useful for processing jpegs as it is RAW files (I don’t shoot jpegs), but the RAW converter is comprehensive and a pleasure to use. The keywording and metadata functions are great for retrieval, and you also have the option of duplicating everything you import from your CF/SD cards onto a second drive for instant backup. It also converts RAW files directly to DNG (best for long-term storage) upon import, if you choose.

Lightroom’s one of my all-time favorite pieces of software. I don’t enjoy the pixel pushing aspect of photography a fraction as much as I enjoy taking pictures, but it’s less painful with Lightroom. I haven’t used its main competitor, Aperture, but have been told by friends who’ve used both that Aperture doesn’t offer image manipulation capabilities on par with Lightroom.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Adobe Lightroom 4

Available from Amazon

Made by Adobe



This is the simplest, least expensive tool for reproducing accurate color in digital photography. I insert one of these 6-inch-long cards into a scene that I’m photographing as a reference with an absolute value. Back in front of my monitor, with the click of an eyedropper tool I’m able to indicate to Adobe Lightroom (my favorite imaging software) that the gray on this card is a neutral gray. In Lightroom, as with any worthy photo program, a “gray balance”; click on the card tells the software to identify this gray as neutral; the software then calculates the color temperature of the light hitting the card, adjusts the values accordingly, and the overall color of the scene falls into place.

In situations where there are multiple light sources with different color temperatures (say tungsten indoor lighting and daylight entering a window), I’d take two or more separate exposures with the QPcard positioned to catch each source.

I haven’t tried DataColor’s SpyderCube Calibration Tool, which performs a similar function, as it’s considerably more expensive, and offers much more than I need, which is really just a little touch of neutral gray. The SpyderCube does have two separate gray surfaces, but they’re at fixed angles relative to one another and won’t necessarily catch different light sources in a single exposure, anyway.


The minimal QPcard is inexpensive because it’s just a flimsy adhesive-backed piece of paper. I’ve been able to keep a card alive for a long time by sticking it onto a piece of sturdy cardboard and stowing it securely in my Domke bag.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

QPcard 101 v2 (3 pack)
Available from Calumet Photo

Manufactured by QPcard AB


One way to keep fingerprints off of a quality lens is to keep a filter on the lens at all times. If you prefer not to, or get a print on a lens while changing filters, this small tool will come in handy. The Lenspen offers two cleaning options. On one end, there’s a retractable dust brush. I just extend the brush, and sweep away any visible dust particles. I also use the brush every time I replace the lens. Dust particles almost always appear around the area where the lens and camera body meet. I make sure to clean up this area before removing and changing lenses, thus reducing the chance of getting dust on the sensor.

The Lenspen’s other end, has “a special non-liquid cleaning element” that can be used for more aggressive cleaning. Wipe it over the lens and magically watch fingerprints disappear. The manufacturer explains that there’s a carbon compound under the cap that cleans lenses much like the ink in newspaper works to clean glass. It does work. It can be used many times over, as long as every time you put the cap back on and rotate it, to clean and recharge the pad.

This has become my most used cleaning tool, second only to the Giottos Rocket Blaster. And the two complement each other: while the Lenspen works to clean the glass surfaces of the lens and the camera’s lens mount, I use the Rocket to remove dust from the sensor.

-- Anthony Marty  

[Some users may be more familiar with Nikon’s Lens Pen, which is the same product under a different name. Note the difference in Amazon customer reviews between the Lenspen and Nikon’s rebadged identical twin. –es]


Available from Amazon

Really Right Stuff Ballhead

What got me started on the Really Right Stuff products was just the idea of committing to a system that would work with everything. Their tripod head consists of three components: an L-bracket custom made for your camera model; a standardized Arca-Swiss-style quick-release clamping plate; and the ballhead base, itself. Committing to this system is a big expense. The fact that each new piece continually adds more value makes it easier to justify. This system’s advantages over something such as a simpler Manfrotto ballhead with a quick-release plate are increased stability and quicker changes from portrait to landscape mode.

RRS is big on system synergy. They are top-notch, beautifully made, perfect products. I have a BH-40 Ballhead on a Gitzo tripod as my main rig and a BH-25 on a Gitzo Traveler for an ultralight rig, perfect for backpacking. Each of my cameras — Nikon D200 and Canon G9 — has an RRS L-plate, which makes for a quick and solid connection atop both tripods, either in landscape or portrait mode.

Of the two ballheads, the BH-25 is my favorite for its super compactness. When I’m traveling or backpacking, I need a lightweight, minimal setup. The BH-25 paired with Gitzo’s Traveler is it.

I’ve been using the RRS products for about five years now, and I have to admit that part of the appeal is simply the joy of using perfectly made gear. Sometimes the tools can inspire us.

-- John Breitinger  

Really Right Stuff BH-25 Pro
Available from Really Right Stuff

L-Plate for Nikon D200 w/ grip
Really Right Stuff (discontinued)

B2-40 LR clamp with 1/4-20 screw
Really Right Stuff

This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Creative Labs Vado HD

The Vado HD by Creative Labs is an incredible gadget to have. With dimensions similar to an iPhone, the Vado’s an HD camcorder that is easy to slip into a pocket and take anywhere, always ready to take high-res videos wherever I go. I do carry an iPhone, too, though I rarely use it for video, as the quality is decidedly less than stellar. The Vado records twice the amount of video as its main competitor, the Flip MinoHD, for about the same price. And the Vado’s screen is 2 inches where the Flip’s is only 1.5.

With a slightly rubberized plastic housing the Vado feels grippy. It’s light, but the build is solid. Upon pressing the power switch, it’s ready to record video in less than a second and a half. The interface is simple, too. After powering the unit on, just press the button in the center of the control pad to start recording, and once again to stop.

The unit comes with 8GB of on-board flash memory, storing approximately 2 hours of 720p footage. Grabbing videos off the Vado is a breeze, too: just pop out the built-in USB dongle concealed in the bottom of the unit, plug it into a PC or Mac, and drag the files across. Video is recorded in H.264, and there is software preloaded on the unit itself that you can run directly off the camcorder when it is plugged into your computer to view, edit and create movies.

Creative Labs also offers some decent accessories, such as a waterproof pouch that will let you record up to 15 feet underwater, spare batteries and an external battery charger. They also include a silicon sleeve, which gives a little extra grip for the hands or some extra bounce if it’s dropped.

The only minor complaints I have are that the rocker buttons in the main keypad are a tad too sensitive, and the lack of optical zoom is disappointing. I’ve always messed around with helmet cams and such for filming road biking, mountain biking and snowboarding, and the Vado HD has me very excited about the upcoming snow season.

-- Josh Cain  

Creative Labs Vado HD 720p Pocket Video Camcorder

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Creative Labs

Fuji Instax

If you recall Polaroid’s One Step cameras, Fuji’s Instax will be familiar. It’s the only game in town for consumer instant undigital photography now that Polaroid is defunct. There is Zink, which is digital, and which I haven’t yet tried. If you have, let us know.

If you like instant pictures, you’ll like the Instax. The format is a pleasing 3 7/8” wide, 2 3/8” high image, a more horizontal configuration than the SX70 (or Polaroid’s 600, for that matter) was. The Fuji Instax film’s dynamic range is broader than what I recall of Polaroid’s comparable offerings. Super-simple Lighter-Normal-Darker settings allow for fine-tuning the exposure, though unless the scene is backlit or very contrasty, the auto exposure is right on. Avoid dark situations for best results, as flash coverage is limited, and ambient light will always look better. Daylight photos look great.

I embraced digital photography more than a decade ago, but that doesn’t diminish the appeal of this kind of camera. The opposite is true. It’s great for bringing to a party and leaving pictures as a gift. At about $1 per image for the film, it’s not cheap to use, but the handful of family photos I take with it are more likely to be kept and enjoyed — seen — than are the thousands I have taking up space on hard drives. Those of us used to the scale of compact digital cameras or iPhones will find the Instax bulky. I haven’t found its size to be a bother, but it’s not small enough to carry around without noticing. Convenince isn’t the thing with this camera. To me taking, and giving, instant photos has been worth the trouble.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Fuji Instax 200

Available from Amazon

Manufactured by Fuji

This tool has been UNRECOMMENDED and is now in the DEAD TOOLS category. See the FAQ for more info.

Canon G10

I haven’t enjoyed using a camera this much in years, and I take pictures for a living. Smaller than a digital SLR but larger than an ultracompact point and shoot, Canon’s G10 is portable yet substantial enough to hold steady. I’ve had other point and shoots in the past, but this is the first that’s given me the right combination of intuitive exposure control and ease of use, so that I actually make the effort to grab it and use it every day. The big bright LCD allows me to forgo the optical viewfinder entirely (something I never imagined I’d do), and the exposure-indicating display is similar enough to those found on the analog cameras I used years ago, with the bonus of its histogram preview. Setting shutter speed and aperture manually makes sense as it would on a full-size DSLR. With the G10 I don’t have to be bothered to choose a lens to mount on the front of the camera before stepping out of the house, so I do step out of the house with it, daily. And yet when I’m pushing pixels later on, I’m not disappointed by files that are sub-par.

Traditional camera lovers tend to enjoy the subtly classic design of the G10, reminiscent of the Contax G2 35mm rangefinder, and those same photographers might also enjoy the Panasonic LX3, with its wide Leica lens and sleek body, which is more compact than the G10 and a close competitor. l prefer the G10, partly because its greater telephoto capabilities allow me to take snapshots of unfamiliar birds while out hiking, so that I can identify them later. And it is $200 cheaper than the LX3.


Image quality from its 14.7 Megapixel CCD sensor is impressive, particularly in daylight settings. Movie quality is very good (640×480 px. @ 30 fps), though zooming capability while shooting would be a welcome enhancement. The macro feature is outstanding. Full manual controls are available, as are RAW files, necessary for getting the most out of any digital camera. The G10’s predecessor, the G9, is also a worthwhile buy (check eBay, since the G9’s no longer on the market), though the pending doom of obsolescence is one step nearer.

-- Elon Schoenholz  

Canon Powershot G10
$450 (used, via Amazon)

Manufactured by Canon

Available from Amazon

Or $500 new via Google Shopping Note: The G11 has since replaced the G10, so supplies of the G10 are limited.