Building a Merlin or Orion Motorized Pano-head


I have been interested in making a motorized head for my panoramic photography since I first read about Cirkut cameras. The idea that you could set up an apparatus, push start, and generate a panorama was intriguing to me. I will admit however, that I am adverse to film, and prefer digital solutions. I looked into cameras made from old scanners, and even tried to make one, but ran into driver problems. I am also cheap. The Seitz Roundshot D3 is awesome, but at more than $30,000 it is way out of my league.

Finally I found an outlet for my interest. I have been keenly following a project on the AutopanoPro forums for about a year now. At first most of the information was in French, but soon enough the English speakers caught wind of it too. Orion, the American telescope company, has a motorized tracker that can be adapted for panoramic photography. The TeleTrack head, sold under the Merlin brand in Europe, costs around $250 USD. With some additional hardware, and a free program developed to control it, you can build an automated panoramic clicking machine. In this article I will describe how I built my unit, and hopefully provide some guidance and resources so you can, too.

HEADINGS LIST:
  1. The DIY Gigapan Alternative
  2. Project Outline
  3. Hacking the Orion
  4. Configuring the Nokia Tablet
  5. TeleTrack in Operation: Initial thoughts
I should say that though I feel it is a pretty simple project, I am assuming you will have (or can get) a basic understanding of panoramic photography, feel comfortable using command line instructions, are comfortable with basic soldering of electronic components, with using a ohm meter, and can adapt the information to your SLR and computer system.  ( I used a Nikon D80 and a Nokia 770, plus my Windows PC.) Myself, I had never used a Linux machine apart from logging into my web server. I had put together a theramin kit some years ago, so I had a some experience soldering onto a circuit board. Mostly I have read up on the internet, and put together a plan of action. I will try to provide some of those resources during and at the end of the article to fill in any gaps in my narrative.

In a nutshell, this project takes an off the shelf telescope mount, adds a bluetooth interface and a tablet controller, and downloadable software to create a motorized head that can take a series of photos automagically while you stand tens of feet way. Here we go:

1. The DIY Gigapan Alternative

Assembled Orion/Merlin motorized head

In September of 2007 there was an announcement in various internet forums about a new motorized panoramic head. It was a joint project between Charmed Labs and Carnegi Mellon University, with the aim to create a new way of exploring photography. By creating affordable hardware and stitching software, and a web portal, Gigapan hoped to create a strong user base creating gigapixel panoramas that could be explored by anyone. Many of us were intrigued, and signed up to be beta testers of the new device. I wasn’t chosen, but I followed along as the first images flowed into the website. By using a pyramidic image scheme like Zoomify or Silverlight, the Gigapan images are loaded into your browser in small enough chunks that the huge files are not unwieldy. The viewer on the site allows you to zoom in and in and in, with detail increasing as you drill down.

I have to admit that I have not been using my manual panoramic head much since I discovered AutopanoPro (APP). Usually I find myself out and about somewhere and see an image that could be a little wider, so I set things up and take a series of handheld shots. Most of the time it works. (See this article for some or our tips on shooting handheld panoramas.) Still, I have had a couple of occasions where an automated head would have been nice, like that time when I tried to take a panorama of the view of Nelson from the Grampians behind town. I needed to bracket, and ended up with 300 images which didn’t stitch well as the sky and ocean shots provided nothing for control point creation. I don’t have indents on my manual set up, so the columns were not exactly lined up either. Besides, a robotic head is cool. Its ROBOTIC! It amazes children and adults alike. You set up one of these things on a busy city street and while you won’t attract too many women, you will attract lots of other technophiles. (I am looking forward to meeting many such people as I use my new toy.)

Ok, so I was shut out of the Gigapan beta. Then I heard about the Orion/Merlin TeleTrack setup. And then I realized that the Gigapan was not ready for SLR use anyway. Here are some advantages of this alternative:
  • Electronic camera triggering (versus the mechanical trigger on the Gigapan)
  • Built for heavier cameras and telescopes
  • Wireless software control
  • Affordable (so is the Gigapan)
  • Community developed, you can influence the design
There are some disadvantages:
  • Not yet available as a turn key, out of the box solution
  • Slow moving
  • Heavier and larger than the Gigapan
  • Community developed, so there is less documentation and support

Comments

Building a Merlin or Orion Motorized Pano-head — 22 Comments

  1. Pingback: Cool Vid–I think this is what I’m looking for… « Cycling Experiences…

  2. I was thinking i would use my laptop be cause i want to use remote contorl software for the rebel xsi. would it work if i used a usb to ttl converter cable into a usb server on top of a 50′ pole with a usb router on the ground?

    usb server http://www.silexamerica.com/sx-2000wg.html

    usb to ttl cable http://www.makershed.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=TTL232R&Redirected=Y

    router http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=1065011&CatId=2667

    would appreciate your thoughts on this

    thanks,
    chris blake

  3. This is amazing! I have a question. If I used a fish eye lens with this setup wont the shots have a portion of the orion showing in it?

  4. Milo – I use a 10.5 mm fisheye and it doesn’t catch any more of the Orion than anything else, if you have it set up correctly. Any lens setup will show the bottom (nadir) if you shoot 360 degrees. People either crop it out or shoot a nadir shot by hand and stitch it in separately. Though you might suspect that the upright would show up when using a fisheye, it doesn’t, at least for the 10.5mm. There is an example with of a stitched panorama with the Orion showing here. I use a method where I take 6 shots around at -15 degrees and the zenith or top shot.

  5. Chris – I like the pole setup idea. My main concern is Papywizard being able to resolve the Orion through the complexities of the hardware and the control software possibly conflicting. Some users are direct wiring a laptop to the orion, while others are using a bluetooth antenna to boost range, so those are also possibilities. I think you should go to the source for answers, as Papywizard v2 may have camera control, or at least picture acquisition features. Head over to the Merlin/Orion forum on Autopano.net. There are more folks over there thinking about this stuff. Also check out this thread discussing the version 2. Panning time lapse panography is another potential feature.

  6. Excellent review!

    Your trigger cable is not defective, mine is also non-conductive in the left signal section. It’s made especially for Canons though.

    I am beginning an experiment with a “Wi-Fly” wireless to serial adapter component, which will (hopefully) allow control of the Merlin over a standard WiFi network. What’s nice about the Wi-Fly is that it contains a voltage regulator on-board, so no need for power supply electronics. Together with an Eye-Fi memory card I would be able to drive the Merlin from across the street and see all photos the moment they are shot.

    Now that would be geeky, don’t you think?

  7. The cable is not defective, just a PITA. I need to have it shorted for use with the Merlin, but stereo for use as a “normal” remote. I am trying a stereo to mono 2.5mm adapter at the moment, and it seems to work. Otherwise I was going to add a switch.

    I love the “Wi Fly” possibilities! The new Papywizard has some tethered shooting functions best utilized with a PC. The only issue is that it is still focused on bluetooth. I am not a huge fan of the Eye Fi cards, since last time I looked they transmitted images to your computer via their server, which means you need internet access, not just your local network for it to work.

    I’d love to hear what you come up with.

  8. Thanks DrSlony for the Autopano link note- while I had the right link in the Resources list, I have now corrected the link in the article.

  9. Hi,

    great review and thanks for sharing.

    I am interested in how you have attached your camera, and if you indeed, managed to use your Arca-Swiss mounts (I use RRS gear as well). I am thinking of using a slightly larger camera, either Canon 1D or Nikon D3. Do you think this will pose a problem with NPP?

    thanks

    Henrik
    A Dane Down Under

  10. Thanks for the feedback. I used my RSS MPR-192 and some mini clamps for a while, but ultimately went back to using the bracket that came with the unit. In future I will need to get something machined. (A crown that I can bolt a miniclamp to and a thinner rail perhaps.) The orion/merlin has enough clearance for a D80, but getting a good NPP set up for larger cameras is impossible without major modification of the crown. If you are doing gigapans with a telephoto you can mount the camera in landscape orientation and have better luck, but you will still have issues with clearance. Anything with a vertical grip would be a headache. My recommendation would be to find a used consumer body to use for this project. Less to carry and less headaches trying to set it up.

  11. Amazing! I have been doing pano work for a couple of years and learning it all alone! so good to hear the experience of others.
    I have a Milapse head and also a mechanical pano head (Panosaurus) I waant to go robotic though because I want to do some stop motion and other things like that.

  12. It has been very interesting to watch the growth of interest in these motorised heads. While the Orion/Merlin is a good value – I have several friends who are looking into building their own machine for better accuracy and function. I think they have more fun making the contraption than taking the pictures.

  13. Hi, this is great,
    Thanks BeeZed and everybody.
    Could please please someone help me regarding the Merlin?
    I’m new to this and would like to try to remotely control the Merlin mount, on a first instance via Ethernet, then with the bluetooth.
    Can I use a simple RJ11 cable connectors and put a RJ45 to one end?
    Which connectors/colored-wires should I connect on the Ethernet plug?
    Thanks

  14. Bruno – I have no experience conrtolling the mount beyond using papywizard. AS long as you can generate serial commands, you can probably get it to work.

  15. The best information is on the Autopano forum devoted to this head, listed in the post. The commands are summarized on the Papywizard wiki. The whole point of the project is to remotely control the robot head. With a little extra hardware connection you can control the camera as well.

  16. I’m putting together one of these units, and I’ve been checking all over the place, but I haven’t been able to find out what value resistors I should use, and where they are connected on the BlueSmirf board. I know that the TX/RX pins are tied together on one side (I can see that on your picture), but are the resistors connected to the board at another point near the other end (a ground)? I sure could use a better picture!

    Thanks for all the other information. I was ready to pull the trigger on a GiggaPan and try to work around the problems. This is a much better solution (and it lets me find a use for the N810 sitting in the closet).

  17. One resistor is soldered to the RX-0 pad on the blue smirf, and the other to the TX-0 pad. They are only bent to run parallel to the board because of size constraints in my project box, so that is a little confusing. This picture does show the connection to the board (click to enlarge). The resistors are 220 ohm as listed on page 2. I hope that helps.

  18. Does anybody have a list of all the MERLIN Commands ?
    Looking for this desperatly !
    Havend found them in the Papywiki.

    Thx neix

  19. Hi, i scanned the web for a cheaper telescope head and i find this seller:

    MERLIN Panoramakopf mit Motorsteuerung

    that sell this prodoct at 159 euro.

    So i conctaced them to ask some information about it. This the reply:

    “Yes, we have Merlin for 159€ (only head, without tripod and without L-Shape).
    It is the NON-GOTO Version, you can move with 3 differently speeds, but you can not make automatically object-position.
    It is optimal as panorama-head for panoramaphotography and works together with papywithard software and BLTm-Modul. ”

    Inconclusion i would like to know if this product can be used like a teletrack orion.

    Will

    p.s. what’s it mean “non goto version”? is it compatible with this modify?

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