When I first began working with panoramas, I was a relatively new photographer and had yet to really get a handle on how to see things through a lens. I had borrowed a Widelux in the early 70’s to shoot the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, but then the FAF was only a week or so long, and the Widelux left far too early.
At the time I was working in photojournalism with Nikons and Leicas although I also had a bag of Canon’s courtesy of the local Canon rep. About that time a designer had me buy an eye-level medium format camera to shoot ads, so I bought a Pentax 6×7. It got added to my small camera collection, including an Arca-Swiss 4×5 which had belonged to Ansel Adams. It came with two lenses, a 90mm S/A which I still own and a 165 Angulon which AA should have been embarrassed to own as it was very soft.
But whatever cameras I was using could not ready me for working with a camera with no through the lens or bright frame capabilities. Its framing left a lot to be desired, as the Wdielux viewfinder was more of an educated guess as to what would be in a shot. In hindsight, it was similar to the Noblex viewfinder of which I have become so fond.
The Widelux is a rotary lens 35mm camera made in Japan from 1948 onwards, and was of rather simple construction. It had a spring motor and only three shutter speeds of a 15th, 125th, and 250th of a second. There were many times when a chosen exposure in open shade suddenly became a shot at 1/15th. It was equally exciting and frustrating to use. It distorted subjects near it despite what its manufacturer said, although now that I have about 20 years of use with one of its competitors, the distortion is apparent but not disturbing. But it had an unnaturally wide angle of view which gave the user the possibility to showing an entire room by putting the camera in a corner. Focus was fixed so being able to use a decent f-stop was imperative, and there was no double exposure capability either. Apparently Jeff Bridges loves his, although were I him I would take award look at the Noblex 135U, as it is far more workable. Widelux claims to have a greater field of view, yet the Noblex has a longer image, plus shutter speeds down to one second. The Noblex is an infinitely more flexible camera.
My grandfather was the librarian for Tufts College and by the time I got to his study unattended I was seven. One of the oddities he displayed was a panorama photograph of Maori warriors lined up shoulder to shoulder with their women seated in front of them. The women sat primly albeit partially naked in the front row. The print was hung low on the wall, and thus I spent some time in front of it marveling at how these 50+ warriors and women could be lined up in such a perfectly straight row. Only later when I actually saw a Cirkut camera, did I realize that they sat in a circle around the camera. My fascination with long wide photos was set in stone, but it would be some time before I could make my own.
Fast forward to 1974, when I received an NEA stipend to judge a photo contest. One of the contestants entered a panorama shot made with a Widelux at its slowest shutter speed. The combination of the slowly moving drum and a bus pulling away from a stop created a shot which stretched out the bus and made it appear that the rear wheels had yet to leave, while the front was beginning to rocket away. It was a great shot and is in my collection today.
I was able to borrow the Widelux for a few weeks and I shot events and some portraits with it. It was simple, didn’t have any bells and whistles and that meant three shutter speeds, no focus, and nothing electronic. I don’t think I ever put it on a tripod more than once and that was to shoot a self-portrait. It fit into a pocket and so I carried it around to tennis lessons, weddings, parties, etc. With so few controls, with a bit of practice I could guess the right exposure. I had a love-hate relationship with the camera. Yes, it made cool looking panoramas, but it was not a precise tool and was relatively slow to use. Loading film was fairly painful.
I spent a long time dreaming of the ideal panorama camera while manufacturers and camera designers produced cameras which did not thrill me. The Cambo Wide DS2 is a flat field camera which used available wide lenses to produce images on a 6x12cm piece of roll film, while the Linhof, Fuji, Horseman, Shen Hao, Widepan and other 6x17cm cameras produced their flat field images with a limited range of lenses. Flat field cameras are panoramic too, but very predictable.