Panoramic 617 System joins the team


A few weeks ago I received the monster nikon D3x. A camera full of bells and whistles really at the cutting edge of today’s technology in 35 mm (with qualities borrowed from medium format i would add). A week later, I have received a camera placed at the other side of the spectrum: a 617 camera with its Schneider 90 XL, rodenstock 180 and fuji 300 lenses. A big hollow brick of aluminium with no trace of batteries, sensors, wires or captors. Just a hollow box, and some three large format chunks of glass to be placed at the right distance of the film by means of a rigid cone. The objective: being able to produce more than 2 meters wide panoramic 1×3 format images with just one click of the cable release. Why?

If you have taken a look at my gallery, you might have seen that the panoramic format is something I really like (you talk about panoramic when the ratio is kind of 1:2 or longer). I always found this format especially appealing for landscape photography, but more interestingly I have found that this appeal might be natural on most humans. There are some different explanations for that.

One which I find very interesting is that panoramic format activates the left side of your brain. Ok, let me explain. When you take a look at a photograph, bold color or imagery will attract the right side of your brain. This side of the brain is the sensorial one, and is activated by colors, balance, memories, feelings and aesthetic qualities. However, the right side of your brain is more attracted to the reasoning, and needs some extra effort to be activated when you expose it to a picture. In order to do so, you can use different techniques. One of them is embedding into the picture a kind of riddle or ambiguous content. An abstract image of bark texture or an upside down photo of a child hanging from a rope will “disturb” the viewer and push his left side of the brain to try to put “order” and get the meaning of the photograph, getting a logical explanation of what is there in the picture. The other way of activating this left side of the brain is by means of a panoramic image. The eye is not able to see the whole picture all of a sudden, and scans the image from left to right, engaging the left side of the brain to digest the information that is being given away in the same manner a story is told. 

Another reason is that panoramic photography triggers in us the same feelings and reactions that normally we have when contemplating real landscape scenes, drawing us into the picture. The explanations might be that in reality we are very much accustomed to the horizontal landscape format, as we have both eyes “designed” to cover a horizontal field of view. Therefore, normally we are exposed to places with horizontal horizons (and this is also an explanation about why vertical panoramic images are not normally so successful). In addition to this, when you take a look at a big panoramic photograph you might need to scan bit by bit the image (normally from left to right in Western countries) in order to get the whole idea of it, and this also mimics the process that takes place when viewing a real landscape.

Of course, I did not start doing panoramic photography because I was aware of all these more scientific explanations. I just liked it very much, suited very well my photographic “view” and I was really impressed when viewing big prints of panoramic photographs made by other photographers. Put yourself in front of a big 2 m wide panoramic image and you will quickly understand what I am talking about.

Till now, I have been doing extensive panoramic photography by means of digital stitching, obtaining files big enough to be printed at lengths of a couple of meters. I have been using a panoramic head (multirow Really Right Stuff head) on my tripod in order to spin the camera around its nodal point, and dedicated software for panoramic stitching.

 There are some good and bad things about this technique. The pros are that with the digital technology you can see what you are taking; you can adapt the ISO, work quickly and cheaply, and use a very wide range of lenses and focal lengths. Therefore, you can take low weight equipment into the mountains and do well all kind of photography. However, some serious cons exist. Sometimes the stitching process will be unable to give you a perfect print (things moving in the frame like waves, vegetation or clouds or uneven light levels in the different expositions due lo long exposure times). Most of times composition will be done in a more approximate manner (no general view through a panoramic viewfinder or ground glass) and time and resources will be spent stitching in front of the computer instead of by the tripod (and this is getting more serious, with the huge files produced by cameras like the nikon D3x). Another limitation is when taking wide angle panoramic images. Wide angle large format lenses working on a dedicated panoramic camera will give you nice distortion-free images, while stitching will normally throw curved lines into the image. But the biggest disadvantage of digital stitching is that, no matter how quickly you make the row of different photos, you will also handle several images taken at different moments…and so the photograph will be as much a product of the camera as a product of your computer. In the end, photography is all about capturing A moment, not a series of them, isnt it?

So, does that mean that digital stitching sucks? No. In fact, I will keep on doing digital stitching for some of my panoramic images, mainly when weight is an issue or when i wont be dealing with a masterpiece composition. When it works, it works and the results you can get from it are very good indeed. However, when I will set my mind in “serious” panoramic mode, there will a place over the tripod for the panoramic camera. Still in today’s digital world, a big piece of velvia slide of 6×17 cm will give you a tiff file when drum scanned big enough to produce a 2 m long print with the gorgeous colours and tonal gradation that make of Fuji Velvia a dream for landscape photographers. And all that with just one hit of the shutter cable release. If you are serious about panoramic photography, than means serious equipment to fulfill your vision.

I will talk more about this format in later posts, where I will be tackling the details of its use in the field…and what is more important, showing its results. In the end, gear is just a pile of metal and glass and not photography at all. Stay tuned and keep shooting.

categories: Gear, Reviews, Technique
tags: Gear, Reviews, Technique.


  1. Peter says:

    Good reading. Thanks.

    Have you had any experience with the Noblex cameras? I have one, and I’m eager to learn more about how to use it, but it seems that so little has been written about shooting panos with film.


    – Peter

    • Hi Peter. Thanks for reading. You are totally right. The panoramic photography is a kind of niche. Even nowadays when looking for info about digital stitching panoramic photos you will get tons of kilometric images where compositionally nothing has been done in order to create a proper image in that format.
      I have never used a Noblex kind of camera myself. I found some information about the Noblex in the book from Lee Frost “Panoramic Photography”, but it is a kind of introduction. If you have the camera already you might know more than it is covered in that book. Maybe in the book written by Arnaud Frich “Panoramic Photography” there is more info about the Noblex. He is a french photographer who if I remember well used for a long time a Noblex camera. I hope this might help you out a little… If not, as with the 617 format, the only key is trial and error! (and money!:), as film is not as free as pixels :) ).

  2. Alireza says:

    That’s a great stuff! But I have a question for you. Do you plan to scan the film afterwards and work on it in photoshop, or you prefer to print it directly? If you scan them, do you lose the dynamic range by scanning? I mean, can you get data as much as raw format from a scan?
    And by the way, where do you process your films and scan them? I live in Lausanne too.

  3. Hi Alireza. I will scan the slides later on. If you want maximal quality, you need to do so in drum scans (Flextight for instance). You can scan in 16 bits, and maintain the highest range of data for optimizing the image (if needed). I process the films in Lausanne, but I will scan them in the UK (way cheaper, as in Switzerland you might pay almost 100.- per scan!!).
    Thanks for reading, by the way :)

  4. Alireza says:

    Thanks Rafael. I got another question. Definitely you have considered shift lenses for panoramic photography, but why did you prefer to go with MF? What is the disadvantage of a shift lens for panoramic photography?
    Thanks again for the answer.

  5. Alireza says:

    I got my answer myself. You need 5×17 and no less, and you can’t do it with shift lenses.

  6. Sorry Alireza, i was not quick enough! :) Yes, you are right. A possibility for panoramic photography is going with 5×7 large format and putting a film roll back to it. In that case you can use all movements large format provide (tilt, shift, rise,…). The problem is that 5×7 format is nowadays difficult to cater with film and get it developped when used with sheet film. Another possibility is using a 612 back to a more conventional 4×5 view camera. This is much more convenient, but i personally prefer most of times the panoramic format 617 to the 612. And the last option, is using a panoramic 617 view camera that cannot be used but in this format (there is just one company which produces such a camera). Anyway, the basic difference between view cameras and dedicated panoramic ones is the fact that when using a dedicated panoramic 617 camera, you can focus by means of a helicoidal focusing mount, so that there is no need to look through the ground glass…and flexibility (imagine doing panoramic aerial photography, for instance). However, the view cameras will give you movements (even if the panoramic format normally excludes very close objects in the foreground and so does not need so large dof). I hope this helps! Take care Alireza.

  7. Gergely Nagy says:

    Thank you Rafael for this post! I am thinking to use panorama cameras, but I am thinking to buy a hasselblad xpan. Because of its agility. Do you think is it a good option, or if i think it serious i should invest to 6×17? Thank you!

    • Hello Gergely!
      Well, I would say that both cameras you mention produce panoramic images and can be used for great composition in that format. That being said, a 617 provides much higher quality, at the expense of using 120 film, being more costly and heavy. It all depends on your final needs in terms of resolution…Good luck! ;-)

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