Musing about panoramic image formats

A few years back, I heard UK-based photographer, Nick Meers speak in general terms about landscape photography saying that in order to capture that special image you need to be passionate – and you can’t come back tomorrow! If you don’t make that image now, then you don’t have the passion… even if you do want to get to supper and don’t want to get the tripod out again!

Unfortunately, I find it hard to reconcile that passion with the demands of a young family, so my photography takes a back seat these days and it seems to me that much of the images I create are distinctly mediocre. Some of that mediocrity can be enhanced post-capture but that’s a time consuming process – and anyway, it’s much better to get it right first time.

But is digital editing is really that bad? After all, with traditional (non-digital) methods, photographers have always used filters and darkroom techniques to enhance their images.

Even the viewfinder acts as a censor, selecting just the part of the overall scene that the photographer wants to appear in the final image. The trouble is that I find that the 3:2 aspect ratio used for 35mm film and by many digital cameras often doesn’t seem “right”. Some photographers (e.g. Charlie Waite) specialise in square images whilst others go for a letterbox format – something that I’ve always been attracted to – largely under the influence of one of my favourite photographers, Australia’s Peter Lik. It’s a pleasing format for the eye because it’s how people see. Consequently it is often used for wide-angle landscapes (and so works well in places with a wide field of view) but it not exclusively a wide angle format and can work well for compressed images with a telephoto lens.

Lik (alond with other notable landscape photographers like David Noton uses expensive 6×17 panoramic format cameras with swing lenses but until recently there was an (almost) affordable way to take panoramic images using multiple frames on standard 35mm film – Hassleblad’s X System. Unfortunately Hassleblad withdrew their excellent XPan II camera from sale last year. I’d wanted one for a while but could never justify the expense (at least not once I purchased a digital camera).

In the end, it was digital photography that killed off the XPan – I’d love for Hassleblad to make a digital XPan but the reality is that image sensors come in a particular size and there would be technical hurdles to overcome that would make the product too expensive. Anyway, single images can be stiched together post-capture and now that the quality of digital image sensors has caught up with (and even surpased) film, it’s hard to deride the convenience and low cost of digital photography.

I’m torn – should I save up for a second-hand XPan, buy a digital body with a higher-quality image sensor (so I can crop a decent quality panoramic photo from a single frame), or take separate images and stitch them together?

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