What first drew me to the panoramic format was that it's the way we naturally see. Sure, you can't really compare a camera's lens to the abilities of two (or even one) human eyes. But nevertheless, we are a horizontally-oriented species -- we live, work, and see along a horizontal plane. And so, after a bit of research, I dove in to get the Fuji GX617. Why not Hasselblad's XPAN? Why not the Linhof or Horseman variants? And how on Earth do you use these things? Let's find out...
To get the decision-making portion out of the way, I'll quickly explain myself:
The Horseman and Linhof cameras are simply too expensive. I'm sure they're fantastic (and maybe worth it, if you have the money). But $500-1000 for a center filter, over $10,000 for a decent kit with a body and lens? No, thanks.
"But Hasselblad has the much more reasonable XPAN!" Yes, but bigger is better. I like to print big. And while you "can" do it with 35mm, it doesn't even compare to the large format size of the 617 panoramic image. So that's that. The XPAN is great as a panoramic Leica (I have the original and the XPAN II, though I'm likely to sell one). But it's just not the same. Besides, you can get a Fuji GX617 for just over $2000 with a lens, used on eBay (like I did). Mine has a small crack in it, but it doesn't effect any functionality.
So on to the real stuff:
Yes, by surface area the 617 image is just about as large as the 4x5 negative. On one axis, even, it's quite a bit longer. And that means you can get a tack sharp print as long as you are tall, which is nice, needless to say. But there are some considerations when deciding to shoot with such a large camera in an irregular format. Luckily, Fuji has done everything possible to make it as easy as possible, but we'll go through some of the 'pros' and 'cons' as we get further in.
In short, here are a few features of the camera:
- 120/220 formats (for 4 or 8 photos per roll)
- 90mm, 105mm (tested here), 180mm, and 300mm lens options
- 2-stop center filters for vignette control/"evening" (make sure yours includes this...they're hard to find/expensive alone)
- Built-in bubble level (important -- you don't want any tilt with these)
- Hand-holdable (it's not easy, but it's very possible)
- Vibration-free leaf shutter in the lens (cable-release needed, needs to be cocked before every shot)
- Separate lens-specific viewfinder, non-TTL (I actually love this because I can take it off and treat it like a director's loupe to search for great shots without carrying the camera around)
Loading medium format film is easy once you figure it out, but it's not as easy as 35mm film, no doubt. The nice thing is that I really find it easier to load this camera than to load my Hasselblad 6x6 cameras. The film lays flat, as for all intents and purposes, it's like any film SLR. You close the back once you have the START portion of the film lined up with the 120 or 220 line, and there you go. Click, wind film four times or so, and you're ready to shoot. Likewise, the film door (the back of the camera) stays on the camera and flips down to load it. This doesn't seem like a huge deal at first. But in reality, it saves you from having to hold or set down an entire piece of metal that you really don't want to get dirty every time you load film. Some other cameras of this size don't have this feature, so look out.
If you loaded the film (or looked at the photos), you probably realized there is no mirror or any kind of separation between the area inside the lens and where you load your film. That's because, of course, this isn't really an SLR. That mirror would be HUGE! So you do have to be careful about not getting dust anywhere, because it will get everywhere -- inside the lens, in the back of the camera where you load the film -- if you let it....
You can use 120 film for four shots per roll or 220 film for eight shots (recommended). Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to find the best films in 220, so I've found myself settling for 120 and getting that much better at changing the film. A simple turn of a dial and you can switch between 120 and 220 -- no complications past that.
For obvious reasons, this part is important -- and it's a bit odd. Like an SLR, there's a "release button" on top of the camera with a winding crank. This is NOT a shutter release button. It is a FILM release button that unlocks the film so you can wind it FOUR -- ! -- times to get to your next frame. It will automatically stop and wait until you re-release this button so you won't wind more than necessary. But that's all it does. To trigger the shutter, you need a cable release screwed into the lens as with any large-format photography (it is, after all, a large format lens).
At the widest, you get f/8, which is pushing it if you want your image to be sharp all the way through. Remember, the large format is going to decrease your depth of field dramatically. Because of this, a tripod is recommended for most shooting, especially with slower films. I want to experiment with some "street" photography with this camera, but have yet to do so. You can be sure I'll be using ISO 800 film and at least 1/320 on that shutter, just to be safe. I'll look ridiculous, but tell me that all you want when you see the images.
If you're on a tripod anyway, you may as well stop down to at least f/16. There's no reason not to. Admittedly, I haven't gone past f/11 for my current project because I'm diffraction-phobic. But I'm sure you'd be fine stopping down a bit more.
So to be clear, here's the order of shooting:
1.) Load film (start winding slightly before you close the back to make sure it catches)
2.) Wind film into position after loading (so there's a "1" in the film counter)
3.) Frame shot (remember to keep it level)
4.) Focus shot (you can't do this visually without ground glass, which I find a waste of time. Just eye-ball it or use a laser distance-meter, like I do, and guess accordingly)
5.) Set desired aperture and shutter speed on the lens (Remember, shoot +2 stops if you have the center filter in. I vary it half a stop depending on whether I'm using slide or negative film)
6.) Cock shutter
7.) Double-check framing
8.) Trigger CABLE release
9.) Trigger FILM release
10.) Wind film lever 4 times (or until it stops) and repeat steps 3-10 until film is out.
This seems like a lot to get used to, but honestly, it becomes second-nature after a while -- like driving a stick. You just get used to it. Aside from constantly having to reload the film, it's not much slower for me to shoot with this than with my Hasselbald. Of course, if the latter could magically shoot 617, that would be ideal. But let's not spend time on frivolous dreams of inevitable impossibilities.
After the shot:
I'm currently using this camera to shoot my senior show, so I've learned a bit about the costs of ownership. Needless to say, film is expensive. But if you can get over that -- no, scanning is still expensive. But if you can get over that -- no, printing is expensive. Okay, you get the idea. If you're going to go from what you see before you to a print, you're going to pay a little. But it's nothing in the end compared to buying someone else's work. And framing is somewhat more affordable than I thought it'd be.
If you don't care about having choices, for an 18"x54" print, you can get a plain black or white, metal or wood frame, with laminate or basic glass, with your image mounted edge-to-edge on semi-archival foam core or Gator board for around $140-250 from places that offer wholesale pricing (shout out to The Framing House Design in downtown LA and Curve Line Space in Glendale). I still haven't decided who to go with, but certain places have even offered me better deals based on my student status in addition to the quantity requested (32). In all, that's not bad. So don't be too overwhelmed with the options or cost.
In the end:
I love my Fuji GX617. I love the 617 format. And I love the camera itself. There's nothing quite like seeing that massive print come out of the printer. Honestly, consider asking if you can stand there while it prints at your lab. You just get this giddy feeling inside (or am I just more like a girl than I think? I mean that in the least sexist way possible, Mom. You know me.).
In any case, if you get the chance or think you might want to get into the panoramic gig, check it out. Get one on eBay. It might take some time, but if you get it used anyway, you can resell it for just about what you buy it for.
Have you guys had experiences with this or other panoramic cameras? What did you think?