The Panocam

Alfred's Camera Page

This page is no longer actively maintained. (Pardon?)

After I got my AF Nikkor 24mm f/2.8 D in October 1997, I soon realized that the "superwideness" of the thing was a bit of a euphemism in the light of what I was actually looking for: a real, full-fledged, no-holds-barred panoramic camera. Even though at the time I'd never made a panorama in my life, I just knew the wide sweep was right for me. Unfortunately, as a fifteen year old, my budget was just enough to buy a bottle of Rodinal once every three months, plus some film and the occasional photo paper – so a Widelux or Horizon were practically out of the question. (Of course I could have gotten a job and made some money and perhaps bought a Horizon or the like, but at age fifteen I didn't feel much like selling out to the Man. Enough time for that later.) So I did the only thing possible – and designed and built my own!

Or better put, I designed it and my dad built it. I'm condemned to a permanent state of bi-left-handedness.

The first stage was making sketches to work out the mechanism. Because I didn't have a budget and wanted to make the Panocam as cheaply as possible, I settled for a manually driven rotation. (Photographically speaking not a very smart move, because the irregular movement makes for a lot of banding; financially speaking a master plan.)

Going from there, I figured out the following. As the camera body rotates, you want the film to rotate in the opposite direction at a certain different speed. (The relative speed of the camera and the film is the speed with which the film passes behind the slit.) Because I wanted to power the whole mechanism with one rotational moment as input, that gave me two problems to solve: the different directions and the different speeds of the two moments.

The solution to the counter-opposed moments was to add the little pin (see the diagram) that changes the direction of the film, and as such also the direction of the transport. As you can see on the diagram, if you rotate the camera body one way, the large drum rotates in the opposite direction. (Actually the drum is attached to a tripod and as such doesn't rotate at all, but its relative rotation towards the body transports the film regardless.)

The solution to the different-sized moments was to use some sort of cog. In this case I used an oversized take-up drum to regulate the film's speed of transport (see the diagram).

I calculated the size of the drum in the following way. I was using a 29mm lens, and I knew a 28mm had a diagonal angle of view of 74 degrees. Knowing that the diagonal is that of a 24×36mm frame, you get – via Pythagoras – a horizontal angle of view of 61,5 degrees. So in essence you can say that, given a 28mm lens, 61,5 degrees is equivalent to 36mm. Using that equation, you can find that 360 degrees is equal to 210mm. But it also happens that one rotation of the large drum is equal to both 360 degrees and its circumference! In other words, its circumference for a 28mm lens should be 210mm to cover 360 degrees in one rotation (which is also 360 degrees). Dividing that by π, you get an ultimate diameter of 67mm.

Combine the two solutions and you get the elegant mechanism below!

The axis of rotation is the center of the large drum. The drum is attached to a tripod, and the rest of the camera rotates around it.

Construction principle

Having sorted out all the theory and having a set of drawings I could do something with, my dad and I set out to build the thing. For construction material we used white lacquered bumped metal plate, for lack of blank steel. For the lens I used an old Pentacon 29mm f/2.8 in M42 mount that I bought a year earlier for €13. (It was actually a very good lens, but when its aperture broke and I tried to repair it, I couldn't get it back together and scrapped it.) We made the body by folding a box from plate metal and puncturing holes in it for the lens and for the axis. We puttied the seams to avoid light leaks. We made a lid from the same material, also with a hole for the axis.

The drum was made from a set of wooden rings that we glued on top of each other and sanded off to the right diameter. On the top and the bottom we stuck thick bands of painter's tape to keep the film in place. The axis was a metal rod with a lot of rings and nuts and stuff to make it sort of light tight. Because this was just a weekend project, we didn't use any ball bearings or stuff.

The area where the film goes and the area with the slit were made from wood. The small pin was made from a smooth metal rod. (I wanted to use a sprocket, but couldn't harvest one from a point-and-shoot.) The "apertures" in front of the wooden slit were two pieces of cardboard. They served to fine-tune the slit width.

In the end what we got was a very shoddy contraption with a huge amount of play and enormous light leaks. To make it somewhat useable I wrapped it in multiple layers of black plastic bin bags. To load it I had to crawl in the attic under a couple of blankets, turn off all the lights, and go through all the moves in the dark. They involved sticking the advance stroke to the tape-up drum, placing the cartridge, feeding the film, et cetera.

The first trial was outside my house, across the street. I took off the well-sealing lens cap, immediately yanked the camera through an agonizing, screeching 210 degrees, and then hastily put the lens cap back in place. Then I ran upstairs to the attic and rescued the film. Then, after an hour's developing in anxious anticipation, I got the first results! (See the first picture.) I was delighted! The stupid contraption worked! Okay, so the picture was pretty crappy, and apparently I got way more pavement than I counted on, but 210 degrees... Way out of reach for any Horizon!

In the weeks thereafter, the Panocam was my best friend. I think I shot another two or three rolls before I scrapped it out of frustration. The problem was that although it was a really cool camera, it was totally impractical with its dark loading, its multilayered black plastic and its lens cap shutter. Furthermore, it leaked light like there was no tomorrow. So after some time, there actually wasn't for the Panocam. I put it in a good place and never touched it since.

Only while scanning these pictures and writing these articles am I reconsidering perhaps building a Panocam-2 from an old Praktica body... Pipe dreams...

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Click to enlarge the thumbnails. As you can see, I made a bit of a mistake with the alignment of the lens. It was all just guesswork, so I ended up fitting my poor camera with something of a downward shifted lens, that made for excellent pavement panoramas, if not much of anything else.

The last image shows what happens when your Panocam isn't lubed enough.

I should mention that these scans were made with a Minolta Dîmage Scan Dual II film scanner in the same way I did the Horizon-202 scans.

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