Right at the beginning of this year, I decided to mix up my photography with the addition of a new and rather unusual type of camera. This decision took me many months to make as I usually try to avoid the desire for new equipment and get a great deal of pleasure out the fact that I have been using the same camera and lenses for many years.
I think the seed for a panoramic camera was planted in my head a while back, during a trip to White Sands last year. I was traveling with my friend Bobby who was using a roll film back on his 4x5 camera, and he kept talking about the panoramic compositions he was seeing. I've always used my 4x5 for panoramas (it even has guides for it on the ground glass) and just cropped the image in half afterwards. But since Bobby kept talking about those panos I was paying attention to the guides and noticed how many more scenes really begged for a panoramic composition. I've always enjoyed panoramic images from aspen forests and the plains, I feel like in some instances they can really bring you into the scene the way your eyes do. It's like scanning the horizon of an endless open view, or standing in a forest and looking around to see how surrounded you are by nature.
I kept on cropping my 4x5 sheets as I usually do, but at some point I decided I wanted a dedicated camera to use for panoramas. Not just a roll film back for my 4x5, but something that actually has a panoramic viewfinder that helps you compose quickly in that manner. The goal was also something that could be used relatively quickly and not require all the movements of a 4x5 to set up. This would also help for those times where setting up and using movements might mean missing the sunset. Enter the Fuji G617.
I decided to go with this camera for several reasons: it's the least expensive panoramic camera due to its age, it's very well built, and for now I wanted the simplicity of only have one lens choice. The original G617, which was made from the early 80's through the early 90's, comes with a built-in 105mm f8 lens. The newer GX617 allows for interchangeable lenses, though each lens is quite large (they are built together with the roll cage and cone) and costs more than the entire G617 does on the used market. First off, this camera is a monster. The size of the film negative is nearly 7 inches long, resulting in a camera body that is nearly a foot in length! It comes with a roll cage around the lens that includes a bubble level and a notch for lining up the viewfinder. I've never quite understood why panoramic cameras come with a roll cage, but I assume that it's because they are somewhat heavy along with a very odd shape and a fall would mean certain doom to the lens. Or the manufacturers assumed that landscape photographers are a clumsy bunch, which would not be far from the truth. Either way, a drop will do more damage to your toe than the camera.
Surprisingly enough, the camera actually feels quite natural in your hands. It could even be handheld if you were using it in enough light, though I'm always shooting at f22 or f32 to ensure that everything is in focus on such a large negative so hand holding is out for most of my uses. Focusing is done by guessing distance and using the focus scale on the lens. You're not actually looking through the lens on this camera, so make sure to take off the darn cap before shooting!
The viewfinder is both awesome and terrible. Awesome because I can finally see what a panoramic image will look like really quickly, terrible because it's not very accurate at all. I searched all over the internet and couldn't find any images whatsoever of the viewfinder in operation, so I didn't really know what I was getting into there. You're supposed to line up your eye so that the small notch in the viewfinder is aligned with the bubble level on the roll cage. See the image above for an example in a Utah slot canyon, which is possibly the only image of a G617 viewfinder out there. You sort of have to move your eye around in the viewfinder to get the entire horizontal view, and I feel that the final image includes more to the bottom and less of the top. You also have to smash your eye really close against the camera to get the right view, so you're not going to be happy using this thing if you wear glasses.
As I mentioned earlier, you don't look through the lens with this camera. This creates a major problem when trying to properly place graduated ND filters on the horizon. If the scene allows for a soft edged filter, you can get away with guessing how far down to put the filter. If the scene requires a hard edged filter you're in a a bit of trouble. I use GND filters for a large majority of my scenes so I wanted to come up with a solution. The much higher priced GX617 comes with an available ground glass attachment so you can look through the lens like you would on a view camera. This still can only be done between rolls because you can't open up the back of the camera without exposing the film to light, unless you have the Linhof panorama camera which costs as much as a reasonably priced car. My solution for now was to take a piece of vellum paper from a local crafts store and tape it to two empty spools of 120 film. If you're between rolls of film and need to place a GND precisely you can load this roll of vellum paper into the camera and use it just like a ground glass, see the image above. Stop the lens down, open it with a shutter cable in bulb mode and place your GND filter just like you would on a 4x5 camera. A tiny portable ground glass for your camera? Not bad at all! I'm not sure I'd use this trick for critical focusing because the paper isn't perfectly flat, but it's a good help for filter placement. It's also quite often that you'll be between rolls of film because this camera absolutely eats film, getting only four shots on a 120 roll.
It's not often that I would talk about a piece of equipment for this long, but these really are a rare and unusual breed of camera so I wanted to share my thoughts with you all. If you're used to shooting film and metering your exposures on your own, then these cameras are a complete breeze to use and completely fun! The set up is very quick, focus is super fast and done by guessing, and the lens is no different than any large format lens aside from the removal of the switch that holds the lens open for focusing on a ground glass. Just make sure to bring a ton of film rolls with you because you'd be amazed how fast you blast through them.
Don't worry, this camera certainly will not be a replacement for my 4x5 at all. It's just another tool to use in the right situations. I see myself using it for locations that really beg for wide panoramic images or trips where I'm not too terribly far from the car and can bring both the 4x5 and this camera. It's impractical to carry both and for the majority of mountain backpacking and hiking I think the 4x5 will be my go-to choice due to the versatility and shape of the landscape. Other than that, I look forward to the panoramic images I can create with this camera! I'm especially excited for this autumn when the aspen turn brilliant gold hues and I get to spend days wandering through the forest looking for new compositions.
Here's some more image examples of what I've captured using this new camera over the last three months, you can also see my entire collection of panoramic images by clicking here. Enjoy!
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