I discovered rotating panoramic photography unknowingly when I first came across Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti’s images 20 years ago at le Mois de la Photo in Montreal.
Sammallahti’s wide open snow-covered Russian landscapes and photographs of stray dogs are some of my favorites; but I had never considered what camera he used. I knew it must have been some sort of panoramic camera but it wasn’t until I started playing with my first iPhone years later that I finally figured out his technique.
When I eventually travelled to Nepal, I shot my entire trip using my iPhone’s panoramic mode and was hooked; and when I returned home I had to have a film equivalent! After much research I decided to get the fantastic medium format Noblex 150UX. It’s one of the better rotating turret cameras; first of all, it uses 120 roll film. But even better it uses an EXTREMELY SHARP 50mm Zeiss Tessar lens. You do have to watch for a few things when buying a used one. The motor that rotates the turret uses a rubber covered “gear” and the o-ring will eventually dry out. This causes the drum to slip and rotate unevenly and creates some really annoying banding. People used to send them to one of the original Noblex engineers in Canada but he no longer repairs them. Precision Camera Works used to be reputable but is now a nightmare and they no longer repair them. The only other place I can recommend is Service Camera Pro in Quebec City Canada. A fantastic repair shop.
The main problem with these cameras is that most people just don’t know how to shoot with them. If you google sample images from these cameras, most of them suffer from a dreaded curved field of view as this example clearly demonstrates :
This is because the lens is a rotating turret – so any horizontal lines will end up curved. This is probably why many people consider these cameras as novelties rather than professional photographic tools. One of my favorite YouTubers Nick Carver tried one for a while but gave up on it, and even the brand ambassadors for Seitz seem to struggle with it.
Jeff Bridges however can put the curves to pretty good use – so it isn’t ALWAYS a problem :
So what’s the trick to using one of these cameras ? Well, there are a few concepts that really need to be understood.
Ironically, a Noblex should NOT be used as a panoramic camera because you simply can’t photograph a rectilinear landscape without getting that horrible curved horizon. The camera has to be used differently to a traditional rectilinear lens. With a traditional wide angle lens, if you don’t compose carefully you’ll end up with a lot of distortion from close-up subjects, stretched geometric shapes on the sides, and converging verticals, so we compose accordingly based on the of the limitations of the lens. But since almost every camera made uses this type of lens, we take it for granted. The same is true for a rotating lens, one has to learn how these cameras draw their images and specifically compose an image knowing the limitations of the rotating lens.
In Practice, the technique itself is pretty simple – and luckily, it is VERY EASY to practice with a modern cell phone.
You’ll always get a curved image from a linear composition, so the idea is to take a picture that contains a composition with a REVERSED curve – and have the camera straighten it back out for you. There really aren’t many reversed curves like that in nature, so the best way to generate one is by creating a composition using 2 separate subjects at roughly 90 degrees from one another. These types of compositions won’t feel natural at first, and they won’t work with a traditional camera, so it takes a little practice be able to see this way.
One visualization technique that can help is to divide these “perpendicular compositions” along the swing path of the lens turret; so that for every point along the curve, each individual compositional element is photographed head on.
The basic technique then is to have your first subject on the left side of the frame at roughly 45 degrees from center and visually head-on, then have the camera rotate 90 degrees to the right and also ending on the subject to the right, head on. The Noblex covers a field of view of 146 degrees, but typically 90 degrees is a good estimate of the angle between the subjects when taking left and right space into consideration.
Here are a few examples from some images I took in Canada’s far north that I’ll try to explain.
Home by the Sea is from my Northern Exile series that I shot entirely on my Noblex 150UX. In this image there is very little apparent curvature and the image appears to be taken head on with the house, saucer and ocean ice all directly in front of me. In reality I was standing at the edge of the water while the home was a full 50 degrees to my left, and the submerged ice 45 degrees to my right. I made sure every element in the composition would be taken head on during the rotation of the lens
Here is a crude sketch I made to explain the concept of the picture taken above. The key is to make sure you place the camera so that every compositional element is facing the camera head-on throughout the rotation of the lens. Head-on is the key here, any object at an angle will end up getting a curve.
Sometimes the curvature effect can be used to enhance the image as in this photograph of the Inuksuk from the Inuit village of Salluit in northern Quebec. The rocks and snow take on a sweeping curve that adds motion to the composition, while the actual inuksuk was facing the lens head-on during the rotation of the lens and remained un-curved.
In this photograph of the junkyard, the school bus and minivan were at 90 degrees to one another, yet the resulting composition appears completely linear.