The first universal panning head for video and time lapse: ShooTools AutoPan

The AutoPan — Designed and made in Italy — is a universal panning head that allows you to create panoramas as well as focused slides of an object and more. The innovative AutoPan works with sliders and dollies and has multiple usage settings, including one where you use the head as a base for a rotating display. That way, you can also use the AutoPan to create 3D scans of an object.

There aren’t many universally usable rotating heads for video and time lapse. ShooTools is by far the only one to offer the AutoPan, a head that works with any brand or type of slider or dolly. It can be remote-controlled with a smartphone app.

The AutoPan can keep your camera focused on one point while moving the camera past the subject. It can also create panoramas and rotate freely. The AutoPan has a 360 degrees range and it’s battery powered. It has been designed to work in a horizontal plane, but if you were to tilt your slider to a 15 degree angle, it would probably still work — I didn’t test it to find out for sure, though as the user guide clearly states the unit is only guaranteed to work in a horizontal position. The AutoPan comes in a tightly fitting HPRC carry case — the same type and brand case as the one which Atomos uses for its Shogun Flame and Inferno monitor/recorders.

Before I received the test unit, I viewed every video ShooTools has made of the device so far. In one of those, the guy who’s explaining the features takes the unit out of the case holding it by its top mounting screw. That is the easiest way to get it out, but certainly not the best. The unit in my opinion is too heavy to pull it out of its case by the screw. Instead, I just turned the case on its head with my hand protecting the unit from falling. Once the unit was free, I could charge its battery and start testing it with my Rhino EVO 24in (61cm) and 42in (106cm) sliders. You can go up to 9.8ft (3m) with the AutoPan.

Mounting the unit

The unit has a very user-friendly design. Three ports sit at the side of the unit: a DC power port to charge the battery, an external sensor port and a shutter release port. Operating buttons are at the opposite end of the spring-loaded cable that makes the head move in sync with the motion of the camera. The 3m thin cable is made of a very smooth synthetic material. You’re supposed to attach the cable to either end of the slider (or if you’re using a dolly, either end of the motion path).

I mounted the unit on top of the slider’s carriage, making sure I didn’t over tighten as that might damage the internal electronics. This resulted in the cable revealing itself at a 90 degree angle with the attachment point. Fortunately, there is a release button at the bottom of the unit that allows you to release and rotate the head manually. This allows you to position the head in 45 degree increments to as close a lined up position as possible.

If you don’t have a lined up cable out port with your attachment location, the cable touches the sides of the out port. I suspect this might cause damage from chafing in the long run, but up to an angle of 45 degrees the cable runs free.

Setting up the AutoPan takes a bit attention to detail, but between unpacking the unit and making it ready for use I needed less than five minutes.

How the AutoPan works

The AutoPan has a built-in motor running off a battery that makes the head rotate. With two buttons on the unit, you can rotate the head clockwise or counterclockwise to put it in a starting / in-between / end position. There are 10 positions — keyframes — for you to set. Each keyframe you add is designated by an additional blink of a LED light. The ability to create 10 keyframes enables you to use head moves other panning heads simply don’t support.

As soon as you’re finished creating keyframes, you press the End Keyframe button and you’re set to move the camera along its motion path — either manually or motorised. The cable winds itself up and down automatically and ensures the motion from one keyframe to another happens at the very locations you held when setting the keyframes. It can’t be made any easier than this.

The AutoPan has more tricks up its sleeve, though. ShooTools is about to release a smartphone app that will allow you to control the unit via WiFi. You will be able to move the head as you wish, control a dSLR for time lapse photography, etc. You will also be able to control the AutoPan in tandem with external sensors and control your camera’s shutter with an optional shutter release cable.

However, those are features to come soon. I was more interested in how the AutoPan performs now, so I tested it on my Rhino sliders. Using the release button I managed to point the cable out port at the point of attachment at a 20 degree angle. The panning motion was buttery smooth. I also tested it without making an effort to point the cable out port to the point of attachment. With 90 degree angles very slow sliding motion started to become choppy as I got closer to the attachment point. This seems to be due to friction and can be easily avoided by setting the head to a closer aligned position.

At all times, however, the AutoPan was able to stay in sync with the keyframes I set. Before my tests, I reckoned the synchronisation would drift as I had the unit make multiple slides back and forth, but there was no drifting at all.

I also noted that the AutoPan concept is of such a flexible design that you can attach the cable wherever you want at whatever point of attachment and it will work.

Conclusion

The AutoPan is a brilliant, user friendly device with plenty of uses beyond simple panning and timelapse photography. It works with sliders, dollies, cranes and even as the base for a rotating tray. It will soon have a remote control app that will unlock all of its features.

The AutoPan costs some €699 and given its creative potential, it’s worth every cent.

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