Using panoramic cameras

This article provides an overview into the world of panoramic photography, focusing mainly on those areas that differ from other forms of photography.

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Words & pictures Foto Fleetwood

The following is based on what l call true panoramic photography using cameras designed as panoramic cameras such as the Linhof Technorama 617, Fuji G617 and Art Panoramic 617, although other conventional and large format equipment can achieve similar results through cropping, masking and through the use of different film backs. The following is not intended to be exhaustive and reflects only the views of the author.

I am a British freelance photographer living in the heart of Switzerland and the proud owner of an Art Panoramic 6x17 camera fitted with a Schneider Super Angulon 90mm f/8 lens. This camera represents exceptional value for money, producing four massive 6x17cm, (1:2.8 aspect ratio) positives / negatives from a 120 roll film, or six 6x12cm images with the use of masks.
   Although the camera is boxy and pointy at the edges, the combination offers a comprehensive working range of aperture and shutter speeds, f/8 to f/64 and 1/500 to 1second, including B, T and flash sync for around 1300. Positioned on the front of the camera and visible through the top mounted viewfinder, is a spirit level to aid horizontal alignment. Focusing is achieved via a graduated front panel focusing control, rack and bellows arrangement together with the aid of ground glass plate inserted into the back of the camera. Critical focusing must be carried out before a film is loaded.

Mounted on the top of the Art Panoramic camera is the manual film advance control, two flash shoes and the viewfinder, which provides approximately 95% of the visible scene. Positioned on the camera back is a frame counter window, additionally the camera back provides storage for the ground glass focusing plate. The Art Panoramic is fully manual, solid and weighs 2.3kg. You love it or hate it.

What's different about panoramic photography?
It's not just the elongated format and wider angle of view, typically 100deg, that makes panoramic photography different. The cameras used are also different, they are often big and heavy, predominantly of view type with no built in metering, have little or no electronics to make those critical decision for you, and are largely supplied without a wide array of practical `in the field` interchangeable lens.
   So why be a panoramic photographer? I, many photographers, am impressed by extensive views and the way the elements play with its beauty. Mastering the techniques to capture all but slices of it, then sharing it with those who see it, is reason enough.

The panoramic format captures all the beauty in a slice
'Beauty is invisible to those who can't see it'
Foto Fleetwood - Switzerland 2002

Panoramic viewpoint
Clearly there are physical differences between panoramic and conventional photography, but the panoramic format dictates that we also have to think and visualise things differently. Let's clear our minds of conventional shaped photography the 'rule of thirds' and immerse ourselves in the wider scene.
   Panoramic photographers must train their minds to think and visualise things differently, essentially because we have a wider/narrower format to fill and little means to isolate specific subjects, i.e. we can't walk through the city awash with movement or into the tranquillity of the countryside raise the camera up and start taking a rapid series or isolate photographs.
   Instead one must pause, step back and train ones eyes on a potential scene, sweep ones head from side to side scanning the scene to the bounds of our panoramic format/angle of view. As we scan a potential scene we must visually and mentally take note of the broad range of individual or groups of entities within our angle of view, the vast fore and background elements and determine if somehow we can unify these together to produce a powerful and unified vista. Most importantly, we must decide if our scene as a whole is sympathetic with our panoramic format. Clearly, it is not easy to isolate entities that may disrupt our vista, but of course it's possible.
   Some scenes lend themselves to the panoramic format almost instantly, e.g. open landscapes with lakes and mountainous horizons.

l enlarged this to 0.7x1.5 meters and framed it for an exhibition later this year, you can almost jump into it.

Other scenes of course may require more consideration. That consideration might simply mean we must move around and view our scene from a different angle, by doing so it might be possible to obscure entities that appear to disrupt the unity of the scene, and reveal others, albeit from another angle, that assist the power and unity of our vista. 

Considered viewpoint four different views of this scene were taken - the customer preferred and purchased this one.

I spend a good deal of my time walking around surveying scenes from different angles even if l have visually select a good view / scene. There always seems to be another better view because naturally the sun, clouds, shadows and the undulating landscapes, all have an effect, and therefore our results.
   The result of this, self imposed visual training is what l like to refer to as the 'Panoramic viewpoint', (training oneself to the format). With practice what may seem to take hours can be carried out within moments. One should actively practice surveying scenes to fit to ones panoramic format regardless of if we out to take photographs or not.
   To assist with this visual training and to block entities outside our panoramic format we have two main possibilities, the cut out, (widely overlooked) and/or a spare camera viewfinder. The cut out, typically a piece of cardboard or plastic with a hole in it, cut to the size of our panoramic format and positioned in front of our eyes to reflect what we see through the cameras view finder. This simple aid can save valuable time and effort in our constantly changing environment. A spare viewfinder needs no introduction.

A card 'cut out' mask can be used to help you view and assess a scene before taking it

Possibly the most important aspect of using such visual aids is to aid the arrangement of our subject (s), fore and background elements to produce a balanced, unified and powerful vista that has a sense of depth, and which is sympathetic with our format, i.e. Composition and Framing.

Composition and framing
Before we can compose and frame our scene to produce a balanced, unified and powerful vista we must first examine an established guideline, the 'rule of thirds' the panoramic 'rule of thirds' not surprisingly it is different, as the diagram below shows.

Panoramic 'rule of thirds'

The guideline
It is generally excepted that to compose a balanced, unified and powerful panoramic vista that has a sense of depth, you should concentrate on the middle third of the format, i.e. arrange your subject at the cross points or thereabouts, and extend supporting entities or natural features centrally long and parallel to the longest length of the format. Concentrating, arranging your main subject/s about the middle third is referred to as, centre dominance.
   Arranging selective entities in the foreground and/or around the edges will provide a sense of depth/scale and frame your scene. Background entities placed appropriately in the top third of the format will contribute to the sense of depth, scale, balance and unify the vista. The power of panoramic vistas comes from the aspect ratio.

Panoramic lake view of St Moritz

A balanced and unified vista
Like most photographers l actively follow establish or personal variations of guidelines when composing and framing scenes, personally l believe the elongated format naturally dictates how you should arrange your vista  compared to conventional formats. Of course, we don't have to compose all our scenes as per the guideline, after all photography would be boring if we always followed convention.

This composition leads you in and around the scene

Let's not forget, we can turn the camera through 90degs as well

Now we have considered the various visual aspects of panoramic photography let's look at some of the more physical aspects, which, without question, influence our results.

Stability and leveling
Panoramic cameras designed to produce 6x17cm positives/negatives tend to be large and not usually handheld although they are fully capable of it. Additionally, panoramic photographers typical prefer their vistas to be sharp from fore to background with naturally occurring and/or composed horizontal and vertical lines reproduced appropriately in their vistas.

A good solid tripod, preferably one with rubber feet and erected so each extension is equally extended in length and angle, will greatly aid stability and improve your results. My personal choice is the Gitzo G1326 MK2.

As for the contributing factors to sharpness panoramic photographers typically prefer to work at f/22 upwards for scenes that are essentially static, naturally, this is scene dependent. For scenes that contain elements of movement, l, typically begin at f/16 and work down to f/8. My choices of film, includes, Fuji Velvia 50, Provia 100 and Ilford Pan F-50 for black & white work.

Vertical lines
The narrow elongated format of panoramic cameras and the associated wide-angle lens can cause the panoramic photographer additional problems with vertical lines in their vistas, that is they converge. This problem is associated with line convergence, which in turn is associated with lens design and evident in all forms of photography, but sometimes exaggerated in panoramic photography.
   Part of the problem is that there is a temptation to tilt the camera up or down to compose/position the desired scene within the bounds of the format causing the film plane to be at an angle to the scene, the distance of camera to subject also is a contributing factor. The reason being it is sometimes difficult to find a location where the camera/film plane will be naturally parallel to the scene with the desired scene fully in the bounds of the format. Apart from the obvious, the problem can be reduced by ensuring that the camera/film plane is parallel to the subject. With the use of a spirit level placed parallel to the film plane, the camera angle can be adjusted accordingly to minimize line convergence.

This illustrates what happens to lines when a photograph is taken at a different angle

Horizontal lines - Leveling
The horizontal alignment of the panoramic camera is such an important factor in panoramic photography, e.g. for composing, framing, ensuring that natural and/or composed horizontals are reproduced as intended that the designers typically include horizontal spirit levels into the design of the camera. The position of these devices normally allows them to be viewed through the cameras viewfinder. The use of such devices need not be explained.

Special Filter
A combination of the wide format, use of wide-angle lenses and small apertures associated with panoramic photography, results in a fall off of light towards the bounds of the format causing uneven exposure or darker regions at the bounds of the vista. To counteract this, panoramic photographers have available a Neutral Density Centre Filter. The transparency of these filters gradually increases from the centre to full transparency at the edges. When using these filters it is necessary give consideration to your exposure and aperture setting. The best advice would be to consult your supplier or the lens manufacture.
   Personally l have had good results using them and without them. In deciding when to use these filters l pay particular attention to the spread of light across my scene, especially towards the boundaries of my format as l look through the viewfinder or cut out.

A good quality handheld meter is an essential aid for cameras without any form of internal metering. My choice is the Minolta Flash Meter V complete with a supplied Spherical ND diffuser and optional 10degs Viewfinder attachment. This allows me to take reflected light spot measurements.
   Due to the wider angle of view and consequently the potential wider light variations across the scene l always go through the following procedure, which gets me the right exposure 95% of the time.
   With the meter set to aperture-priority and fitted with the supplied Spherical ND diffuser l take an initial reading and set the camera to the displayed results. Secondly, I take around four, 10deg spot readings from the scene, with the meter set to shutter-priority and fitted with the Viewfinder 10deg attachment. I store each reading in the meters memory, l then find the average and compare the results with my initial reading. Finally, l adjust the camera combination accordingly, giving due consideration to my desired aperture and the desired balance of exposure, across the scene.

By taking meter readings from around the view you can usually obtain a better exposure

Focusing the Art Panoramic camera using the supplied ground glass plate and a loupe can be a challenge and as l do not currently own the non supplied ground glass mounting attachment l have adopted a different method which is suitable in most conditions. Set the front panel graduated focusing control to infinity and, with the aid of the depth-of-field and Hyper focal distance table from my lens manufacture, Schneider optics, position my camera accordingly. 

Ready to fire
Apart from manually advancing the film, checking the shutter-release cable is secure, removing the lens / filter cover, and checking for dust l think we are ready to take a picture now, oh, must just check the spirit level, and have one more quick look at my scene to ensure my set up is still appropriate. Did l forget to say, panoramic photography is rather a sedate form of photography, oops! enjoy.

l would welcome any feedback and/or serious enquires to supply images 'to order' of Switzerland and/or of the boarding countries. Email:

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