Searching for the Perfect Panoramic Camera

Searching for the Perfect Panoramic Camera

A few years back, I managed to find a beater of a Hasselblad XPan for a song. I've tried to find a shooting style that would help me stand out from the crowd, and the panoramic format appealed to me. I didn't realize it at the time, but this purchase sent me down a rather obsessive path, trying to find the best panoramic cameras for news and editorial work.

To be honest, it's been a bit of a trip down the rabbit hole. While the XPan is probably the most famous body (and rightly so), it's far from the only panoramic camera useful in this role. In fact, there are a few instances where it's less than ideal. 

XPans have a few things going for them that make them the best choice in most circumstances. First, the quality of the lenses is top notch. The optics rate up there with some of the highest quality lenses of the era: they're sharp, contrasty, and with almost no chromatic aberration or unwanted flare, even without a lens hood. Second, unlike other dedicated 35mm panoramic cameras, the XPan is a rangefinder body, which allows for far more precise focusing. Third, the camera allows for aperture priority shooting, which allows you to concentrate on composing your image rather than figuring out your exposure values. In a newsgathering environment, these are all extremely valuable features. You want to be able to work in a hurry, after all. 

Marine One landing on the South Lawn, shot on my X-Pan. 

So, where does the XPan not work out as well? And what cameras do I turn to for those times? 

Hasselblad and Fuji only released three lenses for the XPan body: a 30mm, a 45mm, and a 90mm. I own the last two, but the 30mm is rather expensive and outside my current budget. For wide angle work, I've turned to two different bodies: my Widelux FV and a handful of Horizon-series cameras. Both the Widelux and the Horizon feature lenses that rotate on a central axis, with an end result that is similar to an XPan, but also very different in a few key ways. First, the XPan exposes to a flat surface, whereas the Horizon and Widelux have a curved film plane. This makes for interesting wide-angle images, but it can also distort your image, particularly if you don't take the time to properly compose your shot or if you're too close to your subject. They also lack any sort of automation: no light meters, no automatic exposure. The Widelux has a far better lens, though the FP is an earlier model and can be difficult to service. The Horizon is far cheaper (and still available brand new!) but is a product of Soviet-era engineering. Most modern examples are fine, but the quality control for earlier models was all over the place. 

An impromptu presser, shot on my Widelux.

With rotating-lens cameras, you run the risk of banding issues. Banding is when you have uneven exposures as the camera rotates, leading to streaks on your image that cannot be easily repaired in post. They're delicate pieces of equipment, and there's no manual focus either: for anything closer than six feet your only option is to close your aperture down, which may not be ideal in certain settings. But the advantages are still there: for wide angle or creative shots, the rotating lens can do things the XPan just isn't capable of. I highly suggest reading some of Jeff Bridges' books. He's been shooting his Widelux on set for decades and has produced some truly remarkable work over the years. I would also suggest taking a look at the work of Teru Kuwayama, who brought his Widelux with him while embedded in Afghanistan.

I tend to bring the Widelux when there's not a physical danger to the camera itself and when I want to put an emphasis on image quality. As I said, the camera is 60-plus years old and is difficult to service. Bob Watkins at DAG Camera Repair has serviced mine over the years and does amazing work, but he's part of a rapidly shrinking group of technicians capable of repairing or CLAing these bodies. If there's a chance of physical damage (while covering, for example, protests or anything else where there's a chance for physical impacts or environmental damage), I'll bring one of my Horizon cameras. They're relatively rugged, and it's more cost-effective to replace them if things go pear shaped. 

Training with the Dragon X capsule, shot on my Horizon. 

There are other options I've explored as well. Noblex makes a series of rotating lens cameras, both in 35mm and medium format which are supposed to be amazing. Lomography released a panoramic Holga a few years back, which is surprisingly impressive and which I'll bring out with me every now and then when the mood strikes me. If you shoot large format, there's a number of 6x12 through 6x17 adapters, but these are bulky and aren't generally suited to the kind of work I do. You can also find any number of panoramic 35mm adapters for medium format cameras, but they run into the same issues as the large format ones: they're difficult to change out in the field or when you're in a rush. They're great for landscape or certain editorial work where you have plenty of time to fiddle with them, but if you're in the middle of a press briefing, big protest, or you're hanging out the back of an aircraft in flight, they're just too much work for me.

NYC Pride, shot on my Horizon.

Lastly, there's a number of point and shoots and SLRs that have panoramic functions, but it's important to note that these are not the same as true panoramic cameras like the ones mentioned above. For the most part, these simply crop down a standard 35mm frame to panoramic dimensions: in other words, you're losing a ton of detail. That said, I have had some really great results with the Nikon N70QD. Combined with a sharp lens like the 105mm f/1.4 or an 18mm f/2.8, and you can make some interesting and unique shots. To my knowledge, there's no dedicated "true" panoramic 35mm SLR, though I have seen some interesting homemade bodies over the years.

To say that news and editorial work is difficult would be a massive understatement. It's deeply competitive, and there's a lot of underemployed shooters out there. You have to keep looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. My panoramic work will never replace my digital cameras for day-to-day shooting, but there's always going to be at least one in my camera bag at all times. You never know when it will be useful.

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4 Comments
Peter Wachter's picture

I just finished reading CS Muncy's article on wide format photography. Wide format as opposed to panorama prints have always been an interest of mine. I've found that an extended photographic prints produces much more of an interesting view of the subject. Since you need multiple images to produce a "stitch" panorama, I find the approach is only applicable to situations that do not have much movement. What I fine fascinating about Jeff Bridges photos is the background activity. I can’t produce that using a “stitched” panorama. Consequently, due to the limitation of equipment and film products, I have not gone down that path. What I found is high resolution digital cameras can produce very good cropped images. I’ve produced high resolution full frame images printed 13X38, 6X24 and custom sizes with amazing quality. The challenge is framing. Through the view finder it is very difficult to accurately compose a wide format image. I’ve always wondered why the camera manufactures don’t provide framing marks beyond 9X16. I would think is may only be a software change but, it would provide a wider range of framing functionality a significantly increase in creative flexibility.

Carl Kruse's picture

Great shots by the way with the X-Pan!

Christian Lainesse's picture

Mamiya 7 with panoramic adapter doesn't seem too difficult to use https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=om9_mNIkbAc

CS Muncy's picture

The Mamiya is an excellent choice, but sadly one I haven't had the chance to play with. I do have a panoramic kit for my Pentax 67, but haven't had a chance to bring it on assignment yet. I've also played with custom laser-cut masks for some of my medium format cameras, but the effort hasn't been worth the results, yet.