An XXL sized, motorized DIY pan-tilt-head for large-sized lenses

There are a lot of panning heads out there, ranging from cheap and light all the way to uber-expensive and heavy duty. None did a decent job with a D800 mounted with a Nikon 400mm f2.8 beast. This is the story about a building a dedicated motorized Pan-Tilt-Head, used for automated panoramic shooting, if you’re not sure what those are check out our world biggest Where is Waldo project.


It clean up time and we need to tidy up the studio. While going over our countless shelves, I found this piece. It is the home built panoramic head we used for our “Where is Waldo” project last year. Before I started to taking this amazing thing apart, I took some pictures and then I thought: this might be quite interesting for some people. Probably not a step-by-step instruction for a 1:1 copy, but there are some parts that will probably help you with your own projects.

We couldn’t find a panoramic head which meet our requirements:

  • usable for about 6 kg of weight (D800 + 400mm f2.8)
  • repeating accuracy < 0.25°
  • manual control for each axis

At first we planned to use a Ditogear Omnihead, but the first test with a D800, a X2 converter and the 70-200 was aborted because of that safety warning signal we got that indicates motor overheating. No way it was going to last a 10 hours shoot. The hunt for a proper head was on. After a while it was obvious: we had to build it ourselves.

Because of a very tight timeframe of about 3 weeks, I started thinking about some standard parts and ended up with 20-80 aluminum profiles. These profiles are great, you can build whatever you want, they are cheap and have a lot of different parts available. To minimize the option of errors, I did a quick and dirty 3D sketch with Google SketchUp. Luckily, a lot of stuff was already available in the Google Warehouse, so there was no need to create everything from sketch.


The base of the units was a “T” shape design. The top part of the T was simply clicked in a window frame, while the bottom one was placed on a tripod. Just to make sure it is leveled in both directions and on the same height every time. This was a good idea, turned out great.

For the pan-axis I used some laser cut parts. I created some files with Adobe Illustrator and send the dxf files directly to a company that does laser cutting. A few days later and I happily picked up the parts. Well – I am not very familiar with different materials, so I asked for something “a little more heavy and solid”. What I know now is that 5mm steel is quite heavy, it’s really hard to work with it and it is rock solid.


The complete bottom part is made of laser-cut steel, 2 axial bearings and a toothed belt pulley. A large screw was placed in the middle. That’s basically it. The belt is a standard length – it was not so important, because I planned to use some sliding mechanism (actually just two long holes) for the stepper motor.

The Tilt-Axis is made of those 20-80 aluminum bars, it’s quite large because the lens is also large. Quite a bummer :). To minimize the required motor power, everything is made with roller bearings and counter weights. The motors are from Nanotec Munic.  The torque is 110 ncm each.

Here is what’s we’ve learned to be a fun thing (but also quite a pain): Working with bolted aluminum panels means that just about everything is a movable part, providing some degree of freedom. The camera was movable up and down, sideways & could rotate in 3 axis. It took nearly 6 hours to adjust and calibrate everything, for this we used a combination of water level bubble, laser pointers and visual guides in the camera.

The electronics are very straight forward: 2 stepper amplifiers of a CNC milling machine, an Arduino and a joystick-shield from adafruit were used. (Un)fortunately we had to use some gaffa tape to fix all the parts into place. Some may say it was due to time constrains, some may say it was to keep the project with the heart in the right place. The DIY Pan-Tilt-Head was finished on Friday night, Saturday morning was the last test and Sunday 4am we started working with it…

Here are some major building tips, illustrations, parts list and the relevant sketchup file. I will follow the discussion here, if you have specific questions I will try to get more in the details.






The bottom part with smaller motors as it was planned at first:



The most challenging part was the tilt-axis. You can see it better in the 3D drawing.


… in context with the profiles:


Used parts:

  • custom made steel bottom
  • 2 axial bearings
  • aluminum profiles (30x30mm) in 100mm, 200mm, 300mm and 500mm length
  • 2 steel axis (tilt)
  • bearings from roller skater (tilt)
  • 2 custom aluminum parts for the bearings
  • 2 toothed belts (300-3M-10) with toothed pulleys (3M-10)
  • 2 NanoTec steppers 110 Ncm, 0.9°
  • 2 stepper-controller from a CNC milling machine
  • Arduino Uno
  • Sparkfun Joystick Shield (DEV-09760)

If you want to have some closer look, you can use the Google Sketchup viewer. Be warned, the 3D file is quite messy, I never thought about publishing it: Sketch up diagram, and the Arduino code.