Panoramic Cameras; Gear To Help You Get The WIDE View

In accordance with my predictions that medium format will move increasingly toward the specialist or niche market, there are no fewer than eight new panoramic rollfilm cameras since last year: one of the most active sectors in traditional silver-halide photography. In reverse alphabetical order, they are Walker/Canham, Shenhao (two models), Noblex, Gilde, and Fotoman (three models). Linhof introduced a new range of lenses for their well established 6x12cm Technorama, 58mm, 80mm, 120mm, 150mm, and 180mm. In addition, there are Shenhao 6x12cm and 6x17cm rollfilm backs and the Kang Tai 6x17cm back for 4x5" rollfilm cameras, and Keith Canham's long-awaited 6x17cm back for 5x7" cameras is now on the market.

St. Petersburg. This shows the odd perspective of a swing-lens camera (Horizon): the main part of the palace appears to bulge toward the camera, while the wings curve away from it. Also, the (handheld) camera was not dead level in this shot so the wings also appear to lean outward. This is 24x57mm cropped to 16x57mm, for a ratio of 1:3.65, similar to 6x20cm. The film was Scotch 1000D of fond memory.
All Photos © 2005, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

Quite apart from all this there are 35mm panoramic cameras from Hasselblad, Horizon, and Noblex, though only Noblex has brought a new model to market. The Hasselblad is a wide-format camera, the latter two swing-lens (see below). Then there are the specialist large formats such as 4x10", 7x17", and 8x20", to say nothing of the possibility of using a "split" dark slide to record two 2x5" images on a single sheet of 4x5" film. There are however no panoramic introductions this year in either 35mm or large format.

Certainly, some of the medium format models--especially the magisterial German-built Gilde--will sell in tiny numbers, and even the more successful manufacturers will be happy to sell in hundreds rather than dozens. Also, panoramic photography is something of a minority sport: even those who admire panoramic images often have difficulty in making good ones. Furthermore, it is at least arguable that you can get equally good results from cropped 6x9cm (typically 56x84mm, 9-on-120) as from 6x12 (6x9 cropped to 37x84mm) or even 6x17 (6x9 cropped to 28x34mm): the film is held much flatter, and a lens to cover a smaller area can be sharper, quite apart from the advantage that you don't have to reload as often. After all, a double-page spread in Shutterbug is only about 161/2" wide, which is about a 5x enlargement off 6x9cm as compared with about 3.8x off 6x12 and about 2.5x off 8x17cm. If you want the full height of the page, however, you'll have to shoot 6x9cm anyway.

Snow, Northern California. This somewhat breaks the rule that there should be multiple centers of interest. Rather, there are multiple centers of no interest. You scan the beautiful but bleak and empty landscape and realize what Lewis and Clark must have known: it would be all too easy to die here. (Longfellow, 90mm f/8 Schneider Super Angulon, Kodak Ektachrome 200.)

Then again, a lot depends on your personal artistic vision, and besides, there is nothing to compete with seeing that huge piece of film on the light box. A 6x12cm transparency is good; 6x17cm is better; and 6x24cm is close to unbelievable. Even a 24x60mm transparency has more impact than you might think likely.

The height of a panoramic image on 120 film is set by the film width: about 56mm maximum, after allowing for a rebate at the edges. Beyond the traditional 6x9cm 8-on-120 format (actually about 80-84mm wide) there are also 6x12cm (110-120mm, 6-on-120), 6x17cm (170mm, 4-on-120), and 6x23 or 6x24 (230-240mm, 3-on-120).

Many people find 6x12 (aspect ratio 1:2) too stubby, and not quite panoramic enough, with 6x17cm (aspect ratio 1:3) too long and thin; relatively few people are happy with 6x23 or 24cm. The ideal is probably 6x14cm (140mm, 5-on-120, aspect ratio 1:2.5 or 2:5) but the only current camera which may offer this option is the Gilde: most Gildes are multi-format and this may be an option. "May be" because Gildes are pretty much bespoke cameras, though there is another camera in the planning stage--I can say no more--which will offer this as one of the options in multi-format sizing.

Freeways, Los Angeles. It's not easy to fill a 617 frame, but it can be done... Even then, the lower right-hand corner could do with a bit more interest. One could cheat and drop in a red Porsche or something similar on the lower right, using Adobe Photoshop. This was shot with a Longfellow and a 90mm f/8 Schneider Super Angulon on Kodak Ektachrome 200.

The trouble with 5-on-120 is that it cannot use the primitive red-window frame counters that are de rigeur among so many panoramic manufacturers: 2-4-6-8-10-12 for 6-on-120, 3-6-9-12 for 4-on-120, and 4-8-12 for 3-on-120. Instead you need either a geared counter or (an increasingly popular solution, pioneered by Dr. Gilde and Keith Canham) a stepper motor: this is actually cheaper and more reliable than a geared counter with manual wind.

With 35mm, the short side is the usual 24mm and the long side is either 56/57mm or 65mm, ratios of 1:2.3 and 1:2.7 respectively; in other words, in between the 1:2 of 6x12 and the 1:3 of 6x17.

Film advance is either mechanical, fixed format (e.g., Horizon) or via stepper motor (e.g., Hasselblad).

Temple, Khajuraho. Purists speak scathingly of "wide-format" photography as opposed to "true panoramic" but all that matters is getting the effect you want. Here, the image is cropped to 32x72mm from Linhof 56x72mm "6x7cm," a ratio of about 1:2.5 which many find more pleasant than either 1:2 or 1:3. (Technika 70, 100mm f/2.8 Planar, Kodak Ektachrome 64.)

Enlarging And Scanning
For 24x56mm you need a 6x6cm enlarger; for 24x65mm, a 6x7cm; for 6x12cm, a 4x5"; for 6x17cm, a 5x7"; and for 6x24cm, an 8x10". If you decide to take the "dry" (digital) route you should look closely at what is available with the scanner(s) you own or contemplate purchasing. Quite a few flat-bed scanners offer holders for as much as 6x17cm but you may also find yourself limited to 6x9cm or less--or you can scan on the glass, without using a carrier (remember to reset the focus). With the 35mm panoramic formats, distressingly many high-resolution film scanners are limited to 24x36mm. For panoramic formats you will therefore need to scan one half and then the other half, and then quite possibly the bit in between before stitching them all together.

On the bright side, a 5400dpi scan of a 24x65mm original can be blown up in print at 300dpi to a picture 1.17 meters long, close to 4 ft, and 432mm high, about 17". Drop to the 200dpi, often regarded as suitable for inkjet printing, and you can go to 648x1755mm, around 25x69".

Swing-Lens And Rotating Cameras
Some panoramic purists maintain that the only true panoramic cameras are those where the lens, or even the whole camera, swings or rotates.

A rotating camera such as the Seitz Roundshot effectively has no limit to the horizontal angle of coverage and indeed can cover more than 360Þ simply by rotating more than once: the vertical coverage is limited by the choice of lens, but could in theory be as much as 120Þ. Equally, the horizontal angle can be set to any smaller rotation: 270, 180, 90, or less, or anything in between.

Swing-lens cameras such as the Noblex series or the Horizons from the former Soviet Union are however limited to about 145Þ horizontally; this is the angle of all Noblexes, though others have been as low as 120Þ. Obviously the limits are set by the (stationary) body of the camera.

Both rotating-lens and swing-lens cameras produce a very unfamiliar perspective, especially when used to shoot buildings and other rectilinear objects: the center of the image appears to bulge toward the viewer, because, or course, it is closer to the camera and is therefore reproduced larger. With the right subject this effect can be ameliorated, or even made to disappear, by printing a huge, wraparound image and hanging it in a round room with the viewer at the center, in effectively the same relationship to the picture as the camera was to the subject. This might be taken as the hyper-purist argument, and rather shows up how feeble the purists' argument is against wide-format images.

Old railway cutting, Scotland. Vertical panoramic compositions are entirely feasible but are usually easier with 6x12cm as used here. This was a Horseman 6x12 back on a Linhof Technikardan but a Horseman 612 camera would have been equally feasible. The lens was a 150mm f/4.5 Voigtländer APO Lanthar; the film, Kodak Ektachrome 64.

Composition And Focal Length
With either moving-lens or wide-format panoramas, it is usually desirable to have multiple points of interest distributed along the image: at least two, and quite possibly more. Otherwise, the picture merely looks like a normal photograph with extraneous material at the edges.

With wide-format cameras particularly, there may be less need than you think for extreme wide angles. With 617cm, for example, a 72mm lens covers a horizontal angle of almost 100Þ, but it also covers 42Þ vertically. This can be quite a long way, especially with landscapes: unless you are careful and choose a strong foreground, the important part of the picture may be very thin indeed, as little as a quarter of the overall height of the picture. With a lens as long as 135mm you have around 64Þ horizontally, but with only 23Þ vertically. This can make composition easier.

For comparison, a 15mm lens on 35mm covers just over 100Þ horizontally, 77Þ vertically; 21mm on 35mm, 81Þ and 59Þ; 35mm on 35mm, 54Þ and 38Þ.

With any panoramic camera, leveling is normally extremely important, and the wider the lens, the more important it is. With wide-format cameras, converging verticals are all too easy; with swing-lens or rotating cameras, convex horizons (camera pointing upward) or concave horizons (camera pointing downward) are the risk. With rotating cameras you can even create sinusoidal horizons (up-down-up-down) which are curiously productive of seasickness. Some swing-lens cameras offer a rising front to make life easier.

Ultra-wide angle lenses inevitably illuminate the center of the image more brightly than the edges, leading to (relatively) dark corners. There are several ways to ameliorate this. The lens designer can use the Slussarev principle or reverse-telephoto design; you can use a center-grad filter (these are frighteningly expensive); you can burn at the printing stage in a wet darkroom or (with slightly more difficulty) in a digital darkroom; or there is software that can sort it out, though commercial availability of the last is uncertain.

Or, of course, you can simply live with it: many pictures are arguably improved by slightly darkened corners, and plenty of panoramic camera users never worry about the effect. None of the accompanying illustrations was made with a center filter.

Panoramic Rollfilm Backs
A panoramic rollfilm back on a 4x5" or 5x7" camera can be a viable alternative to a purpose-built panoramic camera. The ensemble is likely to be bigger and heavier, and will normally (though not always) have to be used on a tripod; but on the other hand, it is cheaper than buying a complete new camera and you normally have camera movements (swings, tilts, shifts).

There are several 6x12cm panoramic backs for 4x5" (Cambo, Horseman, Shenhao, Sinar) and one 6x17cm back for 5x7" (Canham), though some 5x7" cameras may require modification before the 6x17cm back can be used as the ground glass is usually non-detachable.

There are also two 6x17cm backs for 4x5", from Shenhao and Kang Tai. Given that 17cm is considerably longer than 5", this is a good trick. It is achieved by using a "cone" at the back of the camera, flaring out at the sides. With long lenses the sides of the camera cut off the edges (mechanical vignetting) but with wider lenses--usually 90mm minimum, 135mm or maybe 180mm maximum, depending on the camera design--the lens is far enough back that there is an uninterrupted light path to the edge of the film. If you don't think of 180mm as a wide angle, remember that it covers 50Þ horizontally on 617, only a little less than the horizontal coverage of 35mm on 35mm.

Walker/Canham 617. Based on the Canham motorized 6x17cm back, this is essentially a cone, focusing mount, and viewfinder integrated with the most sophisticated 617 back on the market. As well as getting information from the importers, Bromwell Marketing, see also

Shenhao or Shen Hao. There are two complete cameras, 6x12 and 6x17cm, but these do not seem to be available in the US. This is no surprise, as the prices quoted for Shanghai at photokina were, to be kind, optimistic. The rollfilm backs on which they are based are another matter. The SH612-BC can also be used for 6x9cm and even 645, and the 617 Art Panorama for 612; masks, and counting via red windows, allow this. Both are brought in by Badger Graphic Sales.

SH 612

SH 617

Noblex. The new 6x12 Noblex is derived from the earlier (and in some cases, concurrent) 6x12cm rotating-lens camera, and like them is imported by RTS Inc. There are also 35mm and 617 models in the line-up.