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Navigation BarBe Here Portal 1 panoramic lens 05/22/98

by Michael D. Murie

A panoramic lens that takes a 360 degree image in a single picture

Pros: Takes a panorama in a single image; saves time in photographing and stitching scenes, and costs in developing. Attention getting.

Cons: Initially expensive. No way of seeing what the final panorama will look like. Lower resolution than possible with stitching solutions. Lighting may be more difficult to correct in difficult situations. Attention getting.


While reviewing Immersive Imaging software for New Media I was fortunate enough to get a loan of the Be Here Portal 1 lens. This lens is primarily a parabolic mirror that takes a single image that covers 360 degrees (around) and has an FOV of 100 degrees vertically (equivalent to a 15 mm lens.) The image captured on film resembles a donut, and must be run through their special software which takes the image and flattens it out to create a panoramic image. The following short article covers my experiences with this lens. The lens uses the standard Nikon bayonet mount.

The lens arrived in a large, heavy, black plastic box that looked like it contained a missile launcher. Opening it up revealed that the lens comes in three parts; the parabolic mirror, the top reflector, and the lens base. Assembling the lens is best done in the field because you don't want to transport the lens unprotected. The parabolic lens is first rested upside down on a small plastic cap on it's top while you screw the base into the lens. Then you turn the lens over, pull off the plastic cap and attach the top reflector to the lens. The camera is then attached to lens. It's probably best to attach the lens base to a tripod before doing this. The lens base actually releases to swing the lens 90 degrees to the right, making it much easier to attach the lens (though you want to be careful while doing this, even on a solid tripod the weight of the lens can make this a slightly dangerous proposition.)

The lens is heavier than most lens/camera combinations (it's about 10 lb.), but I found it luggable. My tripod is fairly light and I had no trouble walking about with the two; if your tripod is heavy, you might find the combination too much for long distances.

Assembly and disassembly actually proved to be very easy; but the cost of the lens did give me some pause when nervously assembling it the first time, and even after a few days I remained a little nervous when working with it. I considered trying to take a panorama inside a car as a test, but in the end decided that it would require some serious rigging work for me to feel safe about setting the camera up in a vehicle, putting the camera on self timer, and getting out before the picture was taken! I also considered shooting a test at the same time using a regular lens and stitching software to compare results. Lack of time and resources nixed that idea.

Once the camera is attached it's time to shoot your panoramas. The "lens" has an adjustable f/stop setting, though Be Here recommends using f 22, which is what I did. The camera I used was a manual Nikon FM2 camera. For exposures I took light readings using a second camera and a gray card!

In use, all you have to do is set the tripod up, level the lens (there's no level indicator on the lens itself) and either hide under the lens while taking the picture or use a timer. For external shots I crouched under the tripod and only had a couple of pictures were I could see a bit of my head because I didn't get down far enough.

For outdoor shoots I set the lens on a tripod at about 5 feet. However, I found that for indoor use, I really needed to drop the lens down to about 3 feet because the lens captured too little floor and too much ceiling.

Sample processed panorama. Click to see enlargement of part of the image.

The real joy of this lens is the speed with which you can take multiple panoramas in rapid succession. I took about 30 pictures of a park in under an hour; literally I would walk, set up the tripod, click, and set off again. The lens attracted a lot of attention; New Beetle and prospective iMac owners will find this lens appealing. I heard one person speculate that the lens was used for surveying! The lens would also make it possible to create animated panoramas; though there is currently no software that I know of that supports such a feature.

The pictures I took were developed to PhotoCD and I used the largest resolution to create the final panoramas. The software application provided (there's both a Mac and Windows version, I used the Mac one) is very simple. It let's you manually find the center of the image and then adjust the inner and outer area of the image (see screen shot) by clicking.The Decode function then creates a panoramic image. This image can be saved in either BMP or TIFF format. Though the program imports PICT files, it will not import PICT files saved with JPG compression. The program also needs at least 32MB free space minimum. The company will be releasing a new version written in Java sometime in the near future.

The results, though not as sharp or detailed as panoramas created using a fixed lens camera and multiple images, I'd judge acceptable for QuickTime VR and related technologies. A sample panorama is included below. This picture was sharpened and the color adjusted before creating the final QuickTime VR file.

I was particularly glad that I had a couple of days to test the lens and get an idea of the best height to use the lens. The biggest disadvantage, I think, is that you don't really know what the lens is seeing until you get your final pictures back. All of the pictures I took were usable, but sometimes they weren't exactly how I might have framed them had I been able to look through a viewfinder and visualize the final image. Exposure was nearly always fine; even when the sun was shining directly on the lens. Panoramic and fisheye lens solutions have an advantage that they reduce the number of pictures that you have to take. However, if you are shooting in doors in a poorly lit room lighting with a panoramic lens poses unique challenges (but so does shooting multiple pictures with a wide-angle lens, the wide angle just gives you more opportunities to light parts of your scene.)

If you need to take lots of panoramas then this lens will pay for itself both in time and developing costs. For developing alone, if you take panoramas and develop them to PhotoCD and it costs $1.20 an image then using the Portal 1 vs. a 15 mm lens (and 12 shots per panorama) the lens would pay for itself after 750 scenes.

Be Here's website says that they are evaluating whether to offer support for a medium format camera, and there is also talk of a digital solution. Based on my experience with digital cameras, only one of the more expensive cameras will provide anything approaching acceptable resolution, and I wonder whether exposure latitude will be a problem. I think I'd stick with a film camera.

(Cinepac 75)
from a 2496 x 768 file

(343K file)
opens in a separate window
Requires QuickTime 3

(Cinepac 75)
from a 1248 x 384 file

(125K file)
opens in a separate window
Requires QuickTime 3
Example movie created using original size file, and a half size file both were compressed using QTVR Authoring Studio using standard settings,


Portal 1 lens

As it comes in it's case.


Attaching the base
to the lens.


The lens attached to the tripod.

The lens rotated to insert the lens.


Demonstrating how to hide under the lens while taking a picture.


The resulting image before being processed by the software

BeHere software application


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