Panoramic Photography: XPan vs Horizon – by C.S. Muncy

C.S. MuncyC.S. Muncy is a freelance photojournalist based out of New York City with a client list that includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, The New York Daily News and The Village Voice. As a freelancer, he’s covered such subjects as the BP Oil Spill, the fight for same-sex civil rights, the takeover of the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin and Occupy Wall Street. A graduate of the Defense Information School, he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2002 and is currently a photographer with the New York Air National Guard.
Panoramic Photography

Horizon Kompakt

It’s no secret that I’m an unapologetic fan of analogue photography. While digital images can be manipulated to emulate film stock, I don’t believe they perfectly recreate the effect. Likewise with slide film- there’s an intangible element to photographs created on film that I enjoy far more than digital. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking digital- film is just another tool I like to keep in my belt.

So whenever I cover a story, I try to keep a film camera on me in addition to my digital. Usually it’s my Nikon F5 or N90s (or when I want a camera that’ll stop a bullet, my F4s) but lately I’ve started carrying panoramic cameras. With so many news shooters out there I have to do my best to stand out from the rest of the pack.

Panoramic Photography

Horizon Kompakt

I have two panoramic cameras, each with its own characteristics and quirks. The first was a gift from my fiancé, the Russian-made Horizon Kompakt. A modified, simplified version of the Horizon 202, the Kompakt has a rotating 28mm lens with a fixed f8 aperture and two shutter speeds (1/60 and ½. of a second.) Like most Russian cameras, build quality varies from camera to camera. The Horizon Perfekt (a rebranded version of the Horizon 203) is a modernized, ergonomic version with variable aperture and shutter speeds.

Panoramic Photography

Horizon Kompakt

The thing I love about my Horizon is that it’s a simple, fun camera. Essentially, it’s a point and shoot. The viewfinder gives you a good idea of what you’re capturing and it’s light and easy to carry. The glass quality’s fantastic, and produces sharp, contrasty shots. The downside is that it’s not as tough as it could be. After a while my camera began developing some banding issues- streaks of dark and light on the negative where the rotating lens moved inconsistently. It’s at the far edge of the negative, and I can easily crop It out without losing anything; but I like printing full frame, so it’s a little annoying. With no light meter, you’re going to have to guess when you’ve got enough light to shoot (though with two shutter speeds, your options are pretty limited.) I find it produces the best images on overcast days. Another issue (though not necessarily a problem) is that the image can appear warped. This happens if you’re shooting a subject that’s too close, or if you’re camera isn’t perfectly leveled. Sometimes I find this to be a desirable effect, like when I’m shooting a protest. Other times, not so much.

A more recent acquisition is my Hasselblad XPan. This is a 35mm rangefinder, and it can shoot in a standard 24×36 format, or in a panoramic 24×65 format. Unlike the Horizon, this is a professional camera. It’s tough as hell, can mount a variety of lenses (90mm, 45mm, or 30mm) and has a perfect built-in meter. Think of it as a Leica on growth hormones. Similar to Leica’s lenses, the glass quality on the XPan is superb and the images are needle-sharp.

Panoramic Photography

Hasselblad XPan

Released in 1998 and built by Fuji, the XPan soon developed something of a cult status amongst photographers. I love it because it’s small, unobtrusive, and can take great photos in any lighting condition. Also unlike the Horizon, it’s easy enough to mount filters, and there’s no danger of banding issues since it fires with a standard curtain shutter. Because the lens doesn’t move, there’s not nearly so much warping of the image. The only serious issue I have with this camera is the lack of a high speed lens. Each lens starts at f4. So far this hasn’t presented me with any problems, though I do have some concern that it might be a problem when I shoot the DNC later this year.

Panoramic Photography

Hasselblad XPan

A big factor for photographers trying to decide between these two cameras is going to be the price. Hasselblad stopped selling the XPan under its own name(though it was rebranded and sold for a time as the Fuji TX-1 and TX-2) before eventually going out of production. Those still available on the market tend to sell from $1,500 and up. The Horizon series starts at $299 with the Kompakt, and $428 for the Perfekt. For anyone seeking a compromise between the two, you may want to consider the Widelux, a Japanese made panoramic camera similar to the Horizon. I’ve found Widelux cameras available for less than $1000 at Adorama. Because of the rotating lens and accompanying banding issues that can pop up, I opted to spend a little more on the XPan. That’s your call. If you take care of it, the Widelux is a fine, beautifully built camera.

Panoramic Photography

Hasselblad XPan

If you’re thinking of buying a panoramic for work, there’s one thing I’d recommend: know your audience. Because of the time involved in developing, processing and scanning your film, it’s all but useless for day-to-day spot news. Likewise, the image can be awkward to place due to its unusual size. Give your editors a heads up that you intend to shoot in this format.

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