Panoramic cameras: 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 6×12 through 6×17 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.

35mm Panoramic Cameras Out in the Wild

This is a bit of a lengthy post. So, grab your favorite hot or cold beverage and settle in.

First, I want to state up front that there is NOT a Hasselblad X-Pan in this test.

Why not?

As far as shooting 35mm panoramic images go, the first camera that comes to mind is the X-Pan, and it is THE camera that most other panoramic cameras are compared to. But to be honest, it is incredibly expensive for what it is, and there are other options out there.

When I was considering purchasing an X-Pan a few years ago, I decided on purchasing the larger medium format Fuji GX617 – because at the time I really only cared about the larger format and potential for greater image quality. Imagine essentially the same image ratio as the X-pan, but on steroids.

While I still own the GX617, I find myself using it less and less. I think that’s because its huge, expensive, not convenient to use, and is a bit of a one-trick pony. So eventually that has brought me full circle into using other alternative cameras if I am looking to shoot panoramas, but don’t want to lug around a kit that’s about the same size and weight as a toddler, that’s also worth more than the vehicle I am hauling it around in.

The three panoramic set-ups that I’ll be reviewing today are ones that I own and use fairly frequently.

Here’s a quick breakdown on them before we get into test details and results/thoughts. All of them are close to the X-Pan image ratio – approximately 65mm x 24mm or greater.

PressPan (Trastic conversion)

  • Current Price as tested:  $1045.00 USD  (Conversion/Hood/Donor Body/Shipping = $545, VGC Lens and Viewfinder on eBay = $500)

  • Lens Focal Length: 50mm Mamiya Press Lens (Approximate Field of View = 82 degrees)

  • Image size: 65mm x 24mm

  • Focus Type: Uncoupled viewfinder, Range Focus (not able to check focus)

  • Cable Release Capable: Yes

  • Double Exposure Protection: No

  • Dark Bag required to unload film: No

 

Mamiya RB67 Pro SD with 220back, 35mm adapters, custom viewfinder mask

  • Current Price as tested:  Approximately $1000. 00 USD (includes body/lens/back/WLVF + 35mm adapters) – note this price is based on current eBay prices for VGC gear – one could pay less if “fair” or “ugly” gear is purchased. Also, note that the earlier versions, the Pro and Pro S, are slightly cheaper, but carry with them their own set of problems due to age and light seals.

  • Lens Focal Length: 50mm Mamiya RB67 Lens (Approximate Field of View = 82 degrees)

  • Image size: 70x36mm with 35mm adapters in 220 back

  • Focus Type: Waist Level Viewfinder (able to check focus)

  • Cable Release Capable: Yes

  • Double Exposure Protection: Yes/No (depends on how you set it up)

  • Dark Bag required to unload film: YES – Medium Format cameras are not designed to re-roll film after use, so once done the back has to go into a dark bag or dark room to be removed

 

Lomography Sprocket Rocket

  • Current Price as tested:  $75. 00 USD New, plus shipping

  • Lens Focal Length: Approximately 30mm (Approximate Field of View = 108 degrees)

  • Image size: 72x33mm or 72x24mm (depending on whether included mask is used)

  • Focus Type: Uncoupled viewfinder, Zone Focus (not able to check focus)

  • Cable Release Capable: No

  • Double Exposure Protection: No

  • Dark Bag required to unload film: No

  • Misc: Fixed Shutter speeds of 1/100th or Bulb. 2 apertures = f/10.8 (Cloudy) or f/16 (Sunny) 

As far as testing goes, this is going to be fairly straight-forward.

Same roll of film in all three cameras – FujiColor 200 color film shot at box speed. This is a fairly cheap film that yields good results when exposed properly and is only $12.99 for a 3 pack at various retailers.

Same subjects shot for all three – First camera used is the RB67 on the tripod, then the PressPan, then the Sprocket Rocket. No change in tripod position or height.

Same Settings – Since the Sprocket Rocket is the limiting factor with its widest f/stop at @ f/11, all will be shot at the same f/11 setting and metered accordingly with the same Sekonic light meter.

Same Development – All three rolls developed at the same time in a 1000ML Paterson tank with fresh UniColor C41 chems.

Same Scanning Techniques – Epson V600 with 2 pieces of ANR glass with the negatives sandwiched between them. This allows for borders to be included in the scans. Scans to be done as true to color and exposure as possible, with light edits in Photoshop in regards to alignment, dust removal, etc.

I won’t show all of the images from the three rolls, because this is already getting too lengthy, but here are a select few for comparison.

First, a daylight image of a local monument, the Carillon Bell Tower.

As you can see, the Press Pan has the tower set slightly lower than the RB67 even though the tripod was not moved and the view thru the finder matched what the view was on the RB67. This has been one of my constant issues with the PressPan – the final image appears to suffer from Parallax even with the adjustable viewfinder set to infinity when shooting infinity. I haven’t found a good solution. Also, if you look at the left side of the PressPan image, you will see where there is extra plastic from the lens mount getting in the way of the frame. Also note the small bits of what look to be reflection issues in the corners, especially the top ones. The Sprocket Rocket image really shows its wider angle of view, and also how much things distort if it is slightly tilted up. Note the heavy vignetting. From a quality standpoint, the RB67 wins here.

Next up is an image of a local park, Deeds Point, at night.

The RB67 image is once again the better of the three, in my opinion. Same issues still exist with the PressPan, and its just a tad bit less sharp even at the same aperture. Here you can start to see the flaws and shortcomings of the plastic lens in the Sprocket Rocket. Flaring from the lights just behind and above is very evident. It was pouring rain for all three of these shots, and although I did my best to keep the cameras dry, they all got some water on the lens. The Sprocket Rocket didn’t handle this well at all, at least from an image standpoint.

Next up is another local landmark – the view of the Masonic Temple and Dayton Art Institute from the Great Miami River.

Once again, the RB67 looks the best. This was a 4 minute long exposure – while the Sprocket Rocket doesn’t have capability for a cable release, I was fortunate to have some rubber bands in my bag and a rubber band around the shutter lever with the other end looped around one of the tripod adjustment nobs worked great. Even though the Sprocket Rocket was focused at the infinity mark, the buildings in the background are really blurry. With a little dodging and burning, these turned out not too bad, with each having some gives and takes.

What are the cameras like to use?

Mamiya RB67 Pro SD

Out of the three, the RB creates the sharpest images. It’s the easiest to compose and allows for easier/better focus if you are shooting anything closer than infinity. And, I may be a bit biased here because I have been using RB’s for years – but there’s nothing like looking down into that viewfinder and seeing the scene before you, even with the panoramic mask. You know what you are going to get every time, as long as you nail the exposure correctly.

All that said, the RB is the heaviest of the three and definitely doesn’t hand-hold well unless you add even more weight with the left-hand grip and prism finder. I do shoot it hand-held on occasion, but primarily it spends most of its shooting time on a tripod. The other drawback is that you need a dark bag or a second 220 back if you plan on shooting more than 1 roll of 35mm in the field. See my prior blogpost on this here. For me its really a non-issue as it takes all of about 2 minutes to throw the back into a dark bag, pull the 35mm canister, and rewind the film back into it.

The other advantage the RB has over the other three is the fact that there are many lens choices. If I am out shooting 35mm panos with it, I will typically have the 90mm, 50mm, and 37mm in my bag to allow me to compose a scene the way I want – I understand the whole “zoom with your feet” thing but often panoramic landscape photography has compositional hurdles to overcome that simply moving back and forth won’t cure.

PressPan

Full disclosure here – this is the camera that I really wanted to love when I ordered it last year, almost 1 year ago in fact. I didn’t mind the long wait, the lack of communication from Trastic, and the fact that it arrived needing new seals (this wasn’t an option on the website at the time I ordered – it is there now). When it finally arrived in May of this year, I took it out and shot a bunch of rolls thru it. Between the light leaks (not from the back, maybe from the lens mount?), some parallax issues, and images just not being tack-sharp even at infinity, I grew to not enjoy using it. I’ve picked it up a few times in the Summer and early Fall, but was just left with a feeling of “meh”.

On the bright side, it is easy to hand-hold and carry around with you on a strap. However, the Mamiya Press viewfinder does not lock into the cold shoe provided on the PressPan, so use caution – it does work its way out of the mount and depending on how you carry it you could hear a thud when the expensive viewfinder hits the ground.

I think the PressPan is the best-looking option of the three cameras here, looking like an interesting steam-punkish mix of retro and new tech. I do get questions about it when I am walking around with it in public. The ability to also rewind and remove rolls without a dark bag is nice.

Sprocket Rocket

The Sprocket Rocket is the lightest of the three by far, and is super easy to carry around. The lack of strap mounts is a little annoying but something that I can live with. Composing is a bit of a guess, as the viewfinder only approximates the image and you have to get used to it being a little off, and also the image having more in it than you thought when composing.

Its definitely not “sharp” by any means, and having such a wide angle of view, if you don’t have it perfectly level it shows in the image with some serious distortion. It also has a lot of vignetting in the corners.

Its super light hungry as well. Even on the cloudy setting which is around f/11, you usually want to give an extra stop or two more than what your light meters says.

It is a fun camera to shoot, but over time I fear that it can be a bit “gimmicky” and grow old on folks.

Here another shot – the newly rebuilt bike/pedestrian bridge to Dayton at Deeds Point.

Once again the RB67 image stands out as the best. Note how little distortion there is – especially compared to the Sprocket Rocket image. The PressPan image is less sharp, and also doesn’t have a lot of distortion apparent on the bridge railing uprights. The glaring problem though, is the frame overlap on the right side. You see, on top of all of the other problems I have had with this camera, it was during this test that the old donor body decided that the film advance wasn’t going to work well. Even though I did the full two cocks of the advance to move it to the next double frame, it started randomly missing and partially overlapping frames. So frustrating.

Conclusions

OK, so by not you can tell that the PressPan has not fared well in this test, and hasn’t been great since I received it earlier this year. So I can’t really recommend it to anyone at this time.

And to be honest, the Sprocket Rocket is a toy at best. I know that will upset folks but I’m talking quality here. Yes it is immensely fun to shoot and sometimes the results can be surprisingly good. But its not consistent, and that’s what I really want/need.

If you are looking for a panoramic 35mm camera, I have two recommendations.

  1. If you already have an RB67, the easiest thing to do is follow my lead and shoot panoramic images with 35mm film in a 220 back with adapters and a viewfinder mask. The image quality is great, and you know what you are going to get as long as you nail the exposure.

  2. If you don’t have an RB, or think that its too big and cumbersome to haul around, then consider just spending the money on an X-Pan. Yes, I said it.

From a financial standpoint, spending the money for one up front versus throwing good money after bad makes the most sense. Why drop over $1K on everything you need to build a PressPan when that money gets you part of the way there already for an X-Pan. The X-Pan will continue to hold its value, or maybe even go up in value, while the PressPan will probably be worth less than you paid for it over time. The X-Pan also has the great functionality of a rangefinder, and by flipping a switch, can also shoot normal 24×36 images.

For me, I don’t desire an X-Pan as I am perfectly happy with the RB if I need to shoot 35mm panos. Or if I really have the pano itch to scratch, I can grab the GX617.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out if you have any questions.

Jeremy

1/1/2023 UPDATE: I’ve had a few folks lately email me about the PressPan. Please note that I sold the PressPan last year at a 50% loss to a new owner, with the full disclosure that I just couldn’t make this camera work up to my standards. I’m not saying that all PressPans are bad, but my experience with purchasing it, using it, and the results I got with it were bad. I can’t recommend this camera to anyone. There may be great examples out there – but mine wasn’t one of them.

Wisenet panoramic 4-sensor outdoor cameras with built-in artificial intelligence

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    PNM-C9 Dome Cameras Added to Wisenet Lineup022RV, which are designed for outdoor video monitoring and form a seamless panoramic image with a resolution of 8 MP based on four identical sensors. The new 4-sensor outdoor panoramic cameras use the power of artificial intelligence to analyze the situation on the site, identifying people and various vehicles in the video stream, as well as improve the quality of the video signal using AI-based technologies – WiseStream III and WiseNR II. In addition, they provide high light sensitivity, use adaptive IR for night-time video surveillance, and can be powered by PoE+ (24.5W) or 12V DC (22W). This was reported to CNews by representatives of the ARMO-systems company.

    The design feature of the PNM-C9022RV is the use of a video module consisting of four identical 1/2.8-inch sensors with fixed 2.8 mm optics, thanks to which the dome camera forms a panoramic image with a total resolution of 8 MP, gluing it directly “on board “. Due to this, the outdoor panoramic camera provides a high information content of the image from edge to edge of the frame without optical distortion, typical of models with extra wide-angle lenses. For outdoor use PNM-C9The 022RV features a rugged aluminum housing (IP66, IK10, NEMA 250 type 4X), scratch-resistant dome glass, and can operate in temperatures from -40°C to +55°C.

    Thanks to the PNM-C9022RV’s high light sensitivity of 0.1 lx color and 0.01 lx black and white (F2.0, 1/30 sec), as well as the built-in WiseIR IR illuminator with a range of 20 meters with four separate zones with auto/manual level adjustment, outdoor panoramic camera provides high-quality round-the-clock video monitoring. Improving the quality of the panoramic image in PNM-C9022RV features hardware WDR (120dB), Backlight Compensation (BLC) and Contrast Enhancement (SSDR), as well as AI algorithms including WiseStream III for lossless image compression in H.265 or H.264 quality and WiseNR II to eliminate noise.

    Support for AI-based analytics events allows the PNM-C9022RV to detect and classify objects quickly and accurately, identifying people and vehicles in the video stream. In addition, the outdoor panoramic camera uses AI-based video detectors (object detection, loitering, movement direction, virtual line, zone entry / exit), as well as abandoned and stolen objects, external influence and defocus detectors. It is worth noting that the outdoor camera also supports audio analytics with the recognition of a shot, glass breaking, explosion and loud screaming.

    10 Easy Steps to Reduce Employee Travel and Save 30% on Your Corporate Vehicle Fleet Budget

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    The new outdoor panoramic cameras Wisenet PNM-C9022RV are already on sale.

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    Panoramic security cameras – FISHEYE

    Panoramic security cameras – FISHEYE

    This short article describes the purpose, design features, and advantages of panoramic CCTV cameras that use a fisheye (fisheye) lens.

    Description of panoramic CCTV cameras – FISHEYE (fisheye)

    When using video surveillance systems, there is a serious problem associated with the presence of blind spots in the protected area. Even an increase in the number of working video cameras does not allow to completely get rid of them.

    Panoramic cameras have been used to solve this problem. They are also informally called “fish eye”. A feature of such video cameras is a circular view, which excludes the possibility of remaining unnoticed within the range of the device.

    Purpose and design features of panoramic cameras

    Cameras of this type use the possibilities of Internet technologies under the control of modern specialized programs. The transmission of information from them comes continuously, without delay and with a sufficiently high quality. The picture is always clear, because the device remains completely motionless during operation.

    For the implementation of such video cameras, dome housings are perfectly suited, which are regularly mounted under the ceiling or on the wall. They easily cope with providing a circular view. It is rational to use them in open areas without buildings and high vegetation. They are in demand at stadiums and concert venues, in spacious trading floors and production shops.

    Under normal operating conditions, one digital panoramic video camera is capable of operating instead of 16 standard analog models. At the same time, experts note the ease of installation and cost-effectiveness of use.

    The disadvantages of these cameras include a low degree of image detail. For many of them, it is about 140 pixels per meter. At least 250 pixels per meter are required to unambiguously recognize a human face. In this regard, in most cases, developers of security and video control systems use panoramic cameras in combination with analog ones, which are installed at the entrance to the premises, near cash desks and narrow aisles. Panoramic cameras are not suitable for night surveillance, as they are characterized by poor light sensitivity.

    Pros and cons of fisheye video surveillance

    We list the main positive qualities of panoramic cameras that determined the interest of specialists in them:

    1. Stable 360 ​​degree visibility.
    2. Reducing capital costs for the purchase and installation of equipment. Instead of 10-30 conventional cameras, one panoramic camera can now be used.
    3. When purchasing software, a single license is required for operation.
    4. The scheme of cable routes is simplified, the process of installing equipment is accelerated.
    5. Blind zones disappear, inaccessible for recording objects located there.

    The disadvantages of panoramic video cameras include the relatively high cost of each model and the inability to work in low light conditions. It makes sense to use such video devices only in large and open areas. But here it is difficult to come up with a full-fledged alternative for them.

    External view of panoramic cameras and variants of surveillance images


    Look at our CCTV catalog – you will find a large number of panoramic cameras with a fisheye lens (fisheye) and accessories for them.

    For advice or questions regarding the acquisition of video cameras, you can contact us by phone: +7-499-130-58-80 or by mail: z@nemal.