The Ten Stages of a Panoramic Photographer

By Alan Kafton

Reprinted from a previous issue

STAGE 1: Ignorance

I was a panoramic photographer and didn’t even know it! For years I took hand-held swept-sequential snapshots of wide areas, mostly on vacation, and pasted them in my photo album. Nothing fancy. Nothing professional. No consideration of using a tripod to keep the camera level. But many of them were nice none the less! It wasn’t until I saw images made on a #10 Cirkut at a camera show that I said “wow, I too am a panoramic photographer,” but I also knew I was very much a novice. Fortunately, one of other folks hanging around the booth told me about the IAPP. A week later I received a sample copy of “PANORAMA” in the mail, and since January ’96, I’ve been a member.

This is a story of how I joined the ranks of addicted panoramic photographers, and the stages we go through as we grow.

STAGE 2: Enlightenment

In that very first issue I read about a panoramic class in Hayward, California . What a great class! In two days we got theory and hands-on experience with straight back (V-Pan, Fuji 617), swing lens (Widelux, Noblex 35, Noblex Pro 150), and rotational (Roundshot 35) cameras! I was hooked. But what kind did I want to buy? There were a number of options to sort out, and face it, most of these puppies aren’t cheap!

STAGE 3: Confusion

To help sort out my confusion I talked to dozens of people, but in some ways that was a mistake! I found panoramic photographers to be a damned opinionated lot, and getting “objective” advice was difficult. I heard comments like “real panoramic cameras…” or “don’t listen to…” or “…is a piece of junk.” I became even more confused.

Actually, I quickly decided I wanted either a swing lens or rotational camera — but which one? After months of indecision, I realized the answer was in my photo album all along. I saw that many of my paste-together shots were greater than 130 degrees, so that eliminated a swing lens camera. After looking at size, price and reliability, I quickly settled on a Roundshot 35/35S.

STAGE 4: Excitement

I ordered my camera and was told to expect it in three days. Anticipation breeds excitement, but it also provided time for reflection. Was mine the correct choice? Would I enjoy my new hobby? Would I be any good at it? No matter, I was committed — and then it arrived! But now I had to move quickly because in three weeks I was leaving for a three-week vacation to China and wanted to test out my new toy and gain a little experience. How many times has this last-minute get-the-equipment-quick scenario happened to you? Isn’t that when things usually go wrong?

If I was excited about receiving my camera, the excitement was doubled waiting for the return of my first test images. When I received them, reality set in — they were not perfect…

STAGE 5: Frustration

Two defects were apparent on the first rolls: all exposures had a thin dark horizontal line across the top part of the image that was particularly noticeable against a blue sky, and several shots taken at the “slow” speed were compressed as if the film were slipping. Tick tock, tick tock, the clock was running and I was leaving for China in less than a week! Quick phone calls followed: the cause of the streak was identified but the compression was not. Oh well, it was just at slow speed so that shouldn’t stop my shooting in China and I can worry about that later.

As it turns out, the film-slipping phenomenon necessitated returning the camera to the manufacturer for repair. Fortunately they returned the camera quickly, and so far with limited testing, appears to have fixed the problem.

STAGE 6: Discovery

Through my testing process, China trip, and subsequent experimentation, it’s became apparent that “our” type of camera has unique quirks — some generic, and some accompany specific makes and models. These may not be documented in the user manual, yet they must be well understood to optimally use the equipment. The best way to discover them is experience. Shoot and learn. So what have I learned about my Roundshot that has resulted in improved images?

  1. That thin horizontal line across the test photos described earlier was a 1mm piece of dust stuck in the rear slit. The manual didn’t warn about dust in the slit, but that makes perfectly good sense! Now I check the slit before loading every roll and remove any with a small piece of adhesive tape.
  2. The Roundshot 35/35S has a fixed up shift of about 2.5–3.0mm. That gives images with more sky and less foreground, which is ideal when shooting up at mountains from a valley floor. But what should be done when shooting from the top of a mountain? That’s easy, turn the camera upside down and you’ve got downshift!
  3. There are two adjustments on the top of the Roundshot: one labeled with aperture values that varies the horizontal opening between lens elements, and one labeled shutter speed that varies the vertical opening. I assumed (wrongly) that the vertical adjustment was just like a rear-slit adjustment since it was labeled shutter speed. On my initial handheld shots, I took great care to ensure the “shutter speed” was set as fast as possible, consistent with setting the aperture for adequate depth of field.The manual states “Bear in mind that both f-number and exposure time settings are really apertures.” Now I realize that the vertical adjustment was labeled shutter speed for lack of anything else to call a second, independent aperture setting. In reality the Roundshot 35/35S has just two exposure times: approximately 1/100 and 1 second, although that is never explicitly called out in the manual.
STAGE 7: Dangerous

This is my current level — one in which I know enough to write an article, but not much else! I do, however, think I can envision the next stages to grow into:

STAGE 8: Taking consistently good images
STAGE 9: Becoming an artist
STAGE 10: Able to make panoramic photography pay

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