Searching for the Perfect Panoramic Camera

A few years ago I managed to find a drummer from a Hasselblad XPan for a song. I tried to find a shooting style that would help me stand out, and the widescreen 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 cases where it’s less than ideal.

XPans have a few strengths that make them the best choice in most circumstances. First of all, the quality of the lenses is excellent. The optics rank up there with some of the highest quality lenses of the era: they’re sharp, high contrast and with almost no chromatic aberration or unwanted flare, even without a lens hood. Second, unlike other dedicated 35mm panorama cameras, the XPan is a rangefinder body, which allows for much more precise focusing. Third, the camera enables aperture priority shooting, allowing you to focus on composing your image rather than determining your exposure values. In a newsgathering environment, these are all extremely valuable features. You want to be able to work quickly, after all.

So where does the XPan not perform as well? And which cameras should I turn to for those moments?

Hasselblad and Fuji only released three lenses for the XPan body: a 30mm, a 45mm and a 90mm. I own the latter two, but 30mm is rather expensive and out of my current budget. For wide-angle work, I 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 similar to an XPan, but also quite different in some ways. First, the XPan exposes to a flat surface, while the Horizon and Widelux have a curved film plane. This makes for interesting wide-angle images, but it can also distort your image, especially if you don’t take the time to compose your shot well or if you’re too close to your subject. They also lack any sort of automation: no light meters, no auto exposure. The Widelux has a much better lens, although the FP is an earlier model and can be difficult to maintain. The Horizon is much cheaper (and still available brand new!) but is a product of Soviet-era engineering. Most modern examples are good, but the quality control of earlier models was all over the place.

With rotating lens cameras, you run the risk of banding problems. Banding occurs when you have uneven exposures as the camera rotates, resulting in streaks in your image that cannot be easily repaired later. It’s tricky gear, and there’s no manual focus either: for anything within six feet, your only option is to close your aperture, which may not be ideal in some settings. But the benefits are still there: for wide-angle or creative shots, the rotating lens can do things the XPan just can’t. I strongly 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 when he embarked in Afghanistan.

I tend to use the Widelux when there is no physical danger to the camera itself and when I want to emphasize image quality. As I said, the camera is over 60 years old and difficult to maintain. Bob Watkins of DAG Camera Repair has serviced mine over the years and does an amazing job, but he’s one of a rapidly dwindling group of techs who can repair or repair these bodies. If there is a risk of physical damage (while covering, for example, protests or anything else where there is a risk of physical impacts or environmental damage), I will bring one of my Horizon cameras. They’re relatively sturdy, and it’s more cost-effective to replace them if things go pear-shaped.

There are other options that I have also explored. Noblex makes a series of rotary lens cameras, both 35mm and medium format, that are supposed to be amazing. Lomography released a panoramic Holga a few years ago, which is surprisingly impressive and which I will take out with me from time to time when the mood takes me. If you’re shooting large format, there are a number of 6×12 to 6×17 adapters available, but these are bulky and generally not suitable for the type of work I do. You can also find a number of 35mm panorama adapters for medium format cameras, but they suffer from the same problems as large formats: they are difficult to change in the field or when you are in a hurry. They’re great for landscape or some editorial work where you have plenty of time to fiddle with them, but if you’re in the middle of a press briefing, a big protest, or hanging out in the back of an airplane in flight they are just too much work for me.

Finally, there are a number of point and shoot 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 shrink a standard 35mm frame to widescreen dimensions: in other words, you lose a ton of detail. That said, I had very good results with the Nikon N70QD. Combined with a sharp lens like the 105mm f/1.4 or an 18mm f/2.8, you can take interesting and unique photos. To my knowledge, there is no “true” dedicated 35mm widescreen SLR, although I have seen some interesting homemade bodies over the years.

To say that news and editorial work is difficult would be a huge understatement. It’s very competitive and there are a lot of underemployed shooters. You need to keep looking for ways to stand out from the crowd. My panoramic work will never replace my digital cameras for daily shots, but there will always be at least one in my camera bag at all times. You never know when it will come in handy.

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