Mastering Swing-lens Panoramic Photography: Tips for Using the Noblex and Widelux Cameras

I first stumbled upon Swing-lens Panoramic Photography through the work of Finnish photographer Pentti Sammallahti. His stunning images of snow-covered Russian landscapes and stray dogs caught my eye 20 years ago at the Mois de la Photo in Montreal. Although I admired his work, I didn’t think much about the camera he used until years later when I experimented with the panoramic mode on my first iPhone.

Swing-lens Panoramic Photography Techniques

Pentti Sammallahti

While traveling in Nepal, I used my iPhone’s panoramic mode for the entire trip and was instantly hooked. When I got back home, I wanted a film equivalent and after some research, I got the Noblex 150UX, a medium format rotating turret camera. This camera uses 120 roll film and features a super sharp 50mm Zeiss Tessar lens. However, buying one used requires some caution. The motor that rotates the turret has a rubber-covered gear, which can dry out over time and cause uneven rotation, leading to annoying banding. Service Camera Pro in Quebec City is one of the few reliable places for repairs nowadays.

The main challenge with swing lens cameras like the Noblex or Widelux is that many people don’t know how to use them properly, resulting in images with exaggerated curved fields of view. This happens because the rotating lens curves horizontal lines, which can make the images look strange and is why some people see these cameras as novelty items rather than serious tools. Even some experienced photographers and brand ambassadors struggle with them.

Capturing Landscapes with Swing-lens Panoramic Photography

Dreaded field curvature from rotating lenses

So, how do you use a Noblex properly? Ironically the trick is not to treat it like a traditional panoramic camera. You can’t photograph a straight landscape without getting a curved horizon. Instead, you need to compose your shots differently. With a wide-angle lens, you avoid distortion by careful composition. Similarly, with a rotating lens, you need to understand how it draws images and compose accordingly.

Swing-lens Panoramic Photography in Nature

Jeff Bridges however can put the curves to pretty good use – so it isn’t ALWAYS a problem

Swing-lens Panoramic Photography Equipment

The technique itself is simple and can be practiced with a modern cell phone. Since you’ll always get a curved image from a straight composition, you need to create a composition with a reversed curve so that the camera straightens it out for you. There aren’t many natural reversed curves, so the best way is to use two subjects at about 90 degrees from each other. This might feel unnatural at first and won’t work with a traditional camera, but with practice it becomes second nature.

One way to visualize this is to think of the swing path of the lens turret, ensuring each element is photographed head-on at some point during the rotation. For instance, place your first subject at a 45-degree angle on the left and rotate the camera 90 degrees to capture a second subject on the right. The Noblex covers 146 degrees, but 90 degrees between subjects usually works well.

In my Northern Exile series, the image “Home by the Sea” shows this technique. It looks like the house, saucer, and ocean ice are directly in front of me, but in reality, I was standing at the water’s edge with the house 50 degrees to my left and the ice 45 degrees to my right. By composing this way, each element was captured head-on during the lens rotation, resulting in a natural-looking image.

Using Swing-lens Cameras for Panoramic Photography

Salluit – Home by the Sea

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.

Swing-lens Panoramic Photography Tips

Perpedicular composition elements

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.

Mastering Swing-lens Panoramic Photography

Salluit – Inukshuk I

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.

Stunning Swing-lens Panoramic Photography Shots

Salluit – Junkyard II

Mastering rotating panoramic photography with a Noblex 150UX or Widelux involves understanding the unique characteristics of the camera and composing your shots to work with its rotating lens. By practicing with your camera and learning to create compositions that counteract the lens’s natural curvature, you can capture stunning panoramic images without the dreaded curved horizon.

If you have any additional questions, want to share your pictures, or discuss techniques, feel free to add a comment below or contact me through the contact page. I’m always happy to help and see the amazing shots you create with your Noblex 150UX!

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