Sunday, 30 October 2011

Wide Angles and Panoramas

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We sometimes ask ourselves why, apart from sheer extravagance, we buy and hump around so much heavy and expensive equipment.  We keep hearing that photography should be simple.  But we've never managed to make it so.

We've always had problems finding satisfactory wide angle lenses.  Almost all our lenses are Canon L series and we bought Canon in the first place in order to be able to use their first class perspective control lenses.  At the time we were shooting industry and architecture for clients and we have never liked converging verticals unless their is a creative reason for them.  It just doesn't look right, especially after about 25 years of shooting with technical cameras.

In the 1980's we were shooting a lot of off-shore work for oil companies, especially from helicopters and workboats.  35mm was then barely acceptable for that sort of commercial work so we looked for a medium format solution to dramatic wide angle/panoramic views with a hand-holdable, even from a helicopter, camera.  We bought Linhof Technoramas;  first the 6x17cm and then the 6x12cm and with the 6x12cm we found that, with its 135mm lens, it would give us the advantages of wide angle coverage without losing the scale of the subject.  Our clients loved the results from the Technorama.

One of our first helicopter shots with the Technorama, in this case the 6x17mm.  We found the 6x12cm even better.

The digital age has changed all that, not always for the best.  The early Canon PC lenses were not a bad substitute as a technical solution for the problem of converging verticals and we used them almost to destruction.  But we have never been able to find a satisfactory wide angle zoom lens.  We have bought and tried and then sold almost all the Canon wide angle zoom lenses on offer.  We are left with only a 24mm-105mm which is astonishingly temperamental and varies in quality from day to day and hour to hour, from excellent to mediocre.  But it's a great range of focal lengths. 

A couple of years ago we went to Dubai and intended, amongst other subjects, to shoot the Burj Khalifa.  We knew that our old 24mm PC would not do the job and were searching for better quality.  We went to see Klaus Bothe at Isarfoto near Munich ( and came away with a quite sophisticated and rather chunky Novoflex Panning head.  It's a bit of a contraption to put together and quite a lot to carry, but it works and the quality of a well-stitched panorama compares well to a half plate or a 10x8, without the optical shortcomings.  It's not just a question of quality.  But again we had found a way to produce 'wide-angles with long lens perspective'.

 The panning head is awkward to carry and requires a sturdy tripod.  Canon's fixed focus wide angle lenses suddenly improved.  The new 14mm f2.8 is a fabulous lens and we love the wide angle effect.  Level, there is almost no distortion.  But of course a mountain in the background loses all drama.  Horses for courses.  

Two examples of the 14mm's performance taken on the Vercors Plateau.

Still no really satisfactory wide angle zoom but there are two new Canon PC lenses without almost all of the traditional drawbacks of previous 35mm systems or, indeed, any lens systems.  The 17mm PC sometimes produces more satisfactory results than we have been able to get with the panning head and, of course, the panning head is not so useful with scudding clouds or people moving about.

An ideal subject for the 17mm PC lens.
 Apparently, the new 24mm PC lens is even better than the 17mm  -  but not for us just yet.  

A short while ago we were looking for suitable shots of Glandasse, partly to illustrate our recent blog article on our camping trip in September onto the Vercors High Plateau.  Glandasse is a most impressive massif but, with a lens wide enough to encompass it, it fails to impress.  We took the panning head out again and were pleased with the results  -  conventional but satisfactory.

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