35mm Full Frame vs 45mm Panoramic in Group Shots
How is it that panoramic cameras aren’t a thing… anymore? I get it that a panoramic aspect ratio might be unnecessary for most documentary need. But shouldn’t camera manufacturers consider the possibility of offering a panoramic option to their customers - even at the very least as a halo product to get some buzz? And it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Hasselblad (or rather Fuji) did it before. It’s just a matter of making one camera body with two to three lenses.
Of course what’s the point of panoramic cameras, if the consensus subscribes to the mainstream idea that panoramic cameras are only good for landscape photography. I mean, if someone really wants a panoramic image, one could just as well stitch together a series of pictures… or better yet… just crop a wide angle photo to a panoramic image. Given the availability of options, does it really make sense for camera manufacturers to make panoramic cameras?
Having said that, photographers know that stitching and cropping isn’t a proper solution when a panoramic image is needed. And it’s not just the inaccurate framing experience, given that taking a photo at conventional aspect ratios requires a certain amount of guesswork in composition or after-the-fact creative license in editing. What photographers realize about panoramic cameras is the relationship between aspect ratio and a lens’s focal length.
In layman’s term, this might not seem obvious. I mean speaking colloquially, a panoramic camera is made to shoot panoramic images. Immediately coming to mind are landscapes. However, that superficial understanding discounts the true calling of what they’re really made to do. Panoramic cameras are made to take pictures with more horizontal coverage at tighter angles of view on photo opportunities that normally require wider focal lengths under conventional aspect ratios.
In other words, panoramic cameras are especially well suited for taking group photos - especially when closer up. Anecdotally, you’d think that be obvious. But in practice, most panoramic photos are generally landscapes and environmental portraitures, as already stated. One only needs to do a Google search to verify this. Less common are group photos, especially those taken from closer shooting distances, typical of images taken at wider focal lengths.
To demonstrate what I believe panoramic cameras are really made to do, I decided to conduct an impromptu shootout comparing the panoramic aspect ratio at a more normal focal length against the conventional 35mm full frame aspect ratio at a wider focal length. To do that, I selected the Hasselblad XPan II + Hasselblad 45mm f/4 and the Leica M10-P + Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron-M Version IV for this head to head.
In choosing which focal lengths to compare, I selected the 35mm over the 24mm and the 50mm angle of view for the Leica M10-P. In terms of the horizontal reach, a 24mm lens would've offered a similar spread as the 45mm panoramic angle of view. But from experience, I know any angle of view wider than 28mm would encounter unsightly distortion at the edges and corners. As for the 50mm focal length, it would’ve been too tight to offer me the same horizontal reach up close.
Also from an anecdotal perspective, the 35mm focal length is the best compromise (or inasmuch a conventional aspect ratio can offer) in reproducing a similar look to that of the 45mm focal length at panoramic aspect ratios. That said, the 35mm focal length just made sense, since it is the optimal focal length for group documentation at conventional aspect ratios, with regards to distortions at closer shooting distances.
Having decided on which focal length to use for this shootout, locating a third willing participant was next on the agenda. With only a pair on hand, I was still shy of a three-of-a-kind for a group shootout. But as luck would have it, a third became available. Rather unexpectedly, Judit returned back to Hong Kong - or at least for the interim. With all the pieces in place, it only made sense to take advantage of fortune and proceed swiftly with this comparison.
Immediately noticeable, getting increased horizontal coverage of a group at normal focal lengths, when shooting up close with the XPan, is much easier than on the Leica at wider focal lengths. No surprises here. But more-so notable with the XPan is how much better it deals with corner and edge distortions at closer shooting distances, given a tighter angle of view. It’s like taking pictures with a 50mm lens to get the horizontal coverage of a 24mm lens.
In a manner of speaking, it can be argued that this increase in horizontal coverage comes at the expense of vertical coverage. But seriously, is all that vertical coverage really necessary? Often times, much of the vertical detail of a wide angle image is just redundant in both the narrative and compositional sense. It’s a surplus of unnecessary visual detail which invariably detracts from the impact of the overall image.
By comparison, a panoramic image can provide increased focus, since it naturally crops away the unnecessary bits above and below the subject. I mean really, how often does one typically look up or down, when what needs to be seen is directly in front. In that way, I believe a panoramic image offers a more natural viewing experience, in that it allows the eyes to scan normally in the same way a person scans a room or the vastness on the horizon.
Unfortunately, panoramic images are not optimized for conventional screen viewing - whether on a computer or smart device. Because of that, I suspect there is very little motivation for camera manufacturers to consider developing a panoramic option, or interest for recreational enthusiasts to consider panoramic photography. Personally, I believe that is unfortunate, because it is ideally suited for larger format printing, given how expansive it is in presentation.
Still, that doesn’t mean having more horizontal coverage is always better. There are times when the XPan’s panoramic spread can seem visually indulgent. This can be seen in the sample images of this post, when the subjects are all bunched together in the middle of the frame. Having more horizontal coverage, albeit providing increased environmental context, doesn’t always add to the image capture - especially if the same narrative can be conveyed at conventional aspect ratios.
That being said, it doesn’t mean the door should be closed on panoramic photography. When optimized in usage, panoramic cameras, like the Hasselblad XPan, offer a distinct look which can’t be replicated by cropping away vertical redundancy or stitching after the fact. Beyond the relationship between focal length and aspect ratio, a panoramic camera just makes sense. Having options in documentary aspect ratios is a variable that can optimize creative expression.
So the next time you think a little cropping or stitching is all you need to make a panoramic image, think again. That said, I suppose a little distortion at the edges and corners is acceptable, if one is only shooting landscapes. But if you’re actually shooting a panoramic camera for what its intended to do, there will be too much distortions at closer shooting distances, and there will be too much movement in the foreground for stitching to work.
If you’re a camera manufacturer, do us all the colloquial solid and offer us a modern version. Prices of the Hasselblad XPan would suggest the full extent of demand for a panoramic camera. Think of the buzz!
All images have been optimized in Adobe Lightroom. Some digital images have been cropped slightly for composition. All film images have been cropped in the digitizing process on the Pakon F135.