Sigma DP1 DIY Electronic Shutter Release

After many months of tinkering I finally have a panorama-head robot that creates panoramas with my Sigma DP1.  If you don’t know about Sigmas, they are cameras that will drive you mad, especially if you’re used to the polished software/firmware of a Canon or Nikon.  For example, the DP1 won’t turn on unless you remove the lens-cap.  When you do take a photo, it seems to take 45 minutes to save it and get ready for the next.  When it comes to auto-focus it sometimes gets confused.  However, Sigmas have a unique sensor, called a Foveon, that supposedly takes better images than other cameras.  No one believes this but the owners of Sigma cameras.  What can I say?  I won’t part with it.

Obviously, such a camera is not going to have a remote shutter release like my Canon G10 (though their DSLRs, like the SD14 and SD15 do).  So I needed to build a custom shutter release. Here’s a photo:

The shutter release is built into a block of balsa wood.  Indeed, much of my panoheads use balsa or basswood.  Balsa is very light.  It’s also easy to cut.  The block of balsa you see above weighs as much as a similar block of Styrofoam, to give you an idea of weight.  The black motor is a small servo.  I think I got that one from Sparkfun for about $8. 

There are similar DIY servo-actuated shutter releases on the Internet.  My addition, I think, is using push rods instead of the arm of a servo horn.  I used a Sullivan Push Rod.  In these kits is an assembly that allows you to attach hard plastic (yellow in the one above) onto a servo arm, and put that through a plastic sleeve.  You can’t see it well, but the yellow plastic is threaded so you can change it’s length, relative to the servo horn, by turning it.

I cut the hard yellow insert to about 2 inches, then the sleeve (it’s red) to about an inch and a half, then attached it to the servo.  When the servo turns it presses the push rod onto the shutter.  Since the insert is nylon, it doesn’t scratch the shutter button and it isn’t so brittle that it wouldn’t bend before doing damage.

By varying the servo command, I can have the servo press the shutter button hard enough to focus, then after a second, harder so that it fires the shutter.

Into the balsa block I Gorilla glued a 1/4-inch coupler.  I recommend threading a screw through it first so the glue doesn’t seep inside.  A 5/16th drill bit (which unfortunately doesn’t come standard in many drill bit kits) seems to be a good size to drill.  I then bought a bunch of hot-shoe attachments from China off Ebay.  1/4″-20 Tripod Screw to Flash Hot Shoe Mount Adapter.  Less than $2 each. You might need two to make one attachment because you need one nut to tighten to the camera and the other to the balsa block.

Here is the whole setup that I used for the co-op panorama.

So far, the servo shutter release has worked better than I expected.

Here is the coop panorama

Thanks for visiting!

DIY Robotic Panorama Head

The most well-known robotic panorama head is the GigaPan.  At the time I started building my own, they were selling for under $300.  For what they do, that was (is) very cheap.  But I didn’t like the fact that I couldn’t modify the Gigapan or control it from my PC.  I also didn’t want a panohead that had weight limitations.  So I set out to build a robotic panorama head that could be controlled by a PC (for maximum flexibility) and could hold any size camera.

From my experience building a thermal imaging time lapse robot, I knew how to program an Arduino and work with servo motors.  My first goal was to see if I could move a heavy camera around with 5-volt motors (servos).  Naturally, most robotic panorama heads don’t even try because they attach the camera to motors directly.

In most panoheads, a motor sits at the bottom (usually a stepper motor) and pans the camera back and forth.  A second motor is attached to a bracket that moves the camera up and down.  Using this approach you can achieve great levels of precision (due to the nature of a stepper motor), but you may need lots of power because the camera weight puts pressure on (torques) the motor shaft.

Although I’d end up with a larger mechanism, I knew that if I put the camera on bearings (perhaps with counter-weights) I’d take weight out of the equation.  Assuming good bearings, I would be able to push it with only a few volts.

My first successful attempt used LPs and servo motors with a DSLR.  I discovered that I could indeed move a heavy camera around with a servo using only the phantom 6-volt power from my laptop’s USB jack.  The trick is to make sure the full weight of the camera is friction-free. Here is that experiment

To pan the camera, I used a continuous rotation servo with a rubber wheel.  In the above contraption I used cheap key-chain ball-strings for bearings between the platters.  I now use very small skateboard-type bearings attached to a ring between each platter.  By the way, I would have kept using LPs as parts for my panohead but cutting them created too much smelly plastic.  I switched to wood.

I built some more advanced versions of the device above but two problems wouldn’t go away.  The first was the wheel-method of moving the camera.  It either slipped, or I had to apply enough pressure that it raised the panning platter.

You can see that problem here

I knew I’d have to use some sort of gearing mechanism which would eliminate most downward force.  I couldn’t find any cheap gear mechanism (that would be light and inexpensive) so I tried a pulley idea.

Like the wheel, it either pulled too hard, or it slipped.  Another problem is the motor got in the way of the pictures.  However, I did find that by using nylon strapping (which you’ll find in sewing), and nailing tacks into the wood wheel for grip, you can create a reasonable low-cost, light-weight pulley mechanism.  You pull the nylon ribbon round both wheels and safety-pin clip it together. 

There were many obstacles with building a device using gears, the first being that every time I tried to learn about gears my brain ground to a halt.  I didn’t want to get custom made parts.  So how to make my own gears?  I moped around the house for a few days stuck on that one.  Fortunately, I found WoodGears, a site run by Matthias Wandel.  THANK YOU Matthias!  He created software exactly for what I needed.  There’s a free version on-line, but I found I needed the $26 downloadable software.  Worth every penny!  (If you’re into robotics either buy that software now or write “Woodgears.ca” on your forehead so you don’t forget).

I put the size of my platter into the software and printed a diagram of my gears.  I then pasted that to my wood and cut out the gears using my scroll saw with a 360-degree blade.  It cuts through balsa wood easily and I found it not as time-consuming as I thought it would be.  (A good source of this wood is National Balsa) My first version used thumb-tacks as my servo wheel (I put in 4mm as the pin size).  That works very well.  A nice trick to know for fast prototyping.

I also found that the same gear size for the panning platter could be used for the tilting arm.  They are both 7 inch gears moved by 8-teeth wheels powered by servos.  The panning motor uses a Parallax (Futaba) continuous rotation servo; the tilt gear is run by a GTS 360-degree servo.

Here is the latest panohead (I have built and torn apart more than a dozen at this point).  The PC sends commands through PowerShell to the Arduino board.  It in turn sends commands to the pan and tilt servos.

You can view the panorama here: Orozco Room panorama

These are the points I think you need to build your own robotic panohead

  • Keep your camera movements friction-free
  • Use bearings in your design (see USA Bearings and Belts)
  • Mount the platters through a round tube to snake your wires to the camera and servos.  You can run the wires on the outside but your risk for tangling are greater.
  • Use an Arduino or other microcontroller.  Another option I plan to try later is a direct from PC servo controller.  See (Pololu USB Servo Controller)
  • Use Microsoft’s free ICE software to assemble your panoramas (ICE: Image Compositing Editor)
  • Try Microsoft’s free Photosynth.net
  • Use washers between the inner and outer-ring of a bearing for your tilt arm.

If you would like this device in kit form, I can be reached at max at htgrp . com.