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The Hasselblad XPan - a very long term review

better late than never

in Hasselblad XPan , Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I acquired my first Hasselblad XPan in the spring of 2000. So maybe it’s about time to write a few words about it.

Drm 20180818 EM580047

My interest in so-called panoramic photography began in the mid-1990s, when I was professionally involved in the emerging multimedia world. In particular I adopted very early versions of Apple’s QuickTime VR technology to generate immersive walkthroughs of various scenes. As time was generally limited, initially I used an Apple QuickTake 200 camera to generate content (640Kpx images, approximately 30 per set of 4 very expensive lithium AA batteries), then experimented with Polaroid instant slide film. At some point I realised that it could be interesting to unwrap the 360 QTVR files to create widescreen stills. I used these in creating a couple of CD sleeves, which was a sideline of mine at the time, and in personal work. So when the Hasselblad XPan appeared on the scene in late 1998, I was fully primed.

Xpan ir2001 02

2000: Lago di Lugano, infrared.

It was another year or so before I could actually afford it, but by then end of 2000 I had the camera and all three lenses, and took them with me on a 5 week trek around New Zealand - which later turned out to be the spiritual home of the XPan :-).

The same kit travelled with me to Canada and the USA, to Spain, Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Italy, before finally setting off on a tour of Svalbard by yacht in 2010. A couple of days into the trip, when distracted from photography by a storm, I inadvertently left the camera in the inflatable dinghy lashed to the deck. Several hours later it was discovered submerged in a puddle of salt water. And that was game over for XPan number one.

Xpan nz rs10 006

2001: New Zealand

There was no way I was going to be without an XPan though, and I was lucky to find an unused XPan II for a reasonable price, in fact under $1’000 once I traded in my little used Fuji GS670. Fortunately this was before XPan prices passed ‘stupid’ level and reached ‘absurd’. The XPan II carried on where it’s predecessor left off, and has visited Iceland, Norway, Patagonia, Antarctica and various places around Europe. It had a bit of a rest in 2016, where it got a bit eclipsed by my Linhof 612 obsession, but this year it has regained favour.

So, that was a long intro, but it shows that I should be in a position to write a long term user review of both versions of the XPan.

Snhg ref 55

2002: Andalucia

Xpan ch2003 10 01

2003: Switzerland

First though let’s clear up a few things. The camera was fully designed and built by Fujifilm in Japan. For some reason Fuji felt that it was not commercially viable under their name alone, so they sought an international marketing partner. Reportedly it was first offered to Leica, who turned it down: just as well, otherwise the red dot tax would have made it unaffordable. Hasselblad said yes, and turned it into a marketing success. Far fewer people know what a “Fuji TX-1” is than recognise “Hasselblad XPan”. It is said that the lens designs were specified and quality controlled by Hasselblad, but this seems hard to believe. Fuji was, and remains, a top tier lens designer and manufacturer. Hasselblad has never built a lens in-house. In any case, Hasselblad XPans were delivered with quality control certificates from both Fuji and Hasselblad, and all of the system components were stamped “Made in Japan”. Possibly the TX cameras did not come with the esoteric and little used Hasselblad tripod plate. In any case, it was a successful partnership, which was later extended with the H-1 camera and lenses.

Xpan iceland25 04

2004: Iceland

Basic specifications are very well known, but let’s summarise them anyway. The XPan is a coupled rangefinder camera with a large, clear finder with framelines for 45mm and 90mm lenses. The body is made of aluminium with a magnesium skin, which is a bit prone to scuffing and paint flaking (it doesn’t matter). It has a fully electronic metal shutter with controlled speeds from (remarkably) 8 seconds to 1/1000th. Using the bulb setting exposures up to 30 seconds (early XPan I), 270 seconds (later and updated XPan I) or 540 seconds (XPan II) can be made. Note though that since the shutter is electronic, holding it open for long exposures is bad news for the batteries. It has an LCD panel on the back which displays exposure info, and provides access to several settings. On the top plate there is a small LCD panel which shows remaing frames and the mode (panoramic or normal). So far this applies to both version I and version II, but from now on there is some divergence.

Xpan eolie 210509 7

2005: Vulcano

A criticism of the XPan I was that did not show exposure information in the viewfinder. The only display was a set of LEDs showing under- or over-exposure. A particular complaint I had is that it did not show any indication that exposure compensation was set. This was fully addressed in the XPan II, but a high price was paid. Both versions support DX-encoding for setting ISO, but on the XPan I, a lockable dial on the front panel allows this to be over-ridden manually. A dial on the top plate, integrated with the on-off-mode switch, allows up to 2 stops of exposure compensation to be set. The XPan II loses all of this. The front dial disappears altogether, and the top plate loses the exposure compensation dial. It all looks rather bare - all that remains, apart from the exposure dial, is the switch with off, single shot, continuous shot (1 frame per second) and timer positions. The exposure compensation and ISO have to be set using the LCD panel and its very fiddly buttons, and this is really no fun even in good conditions. In the cold it is a nightmare. In exchange, you get a very clear film speed display in the viewfinder. And an extra $1000 or so on used prices. The only other difference is that the XPan II supports a custom electronic cable release, if you can find one. But you can also use a standard threaded mechanical cable, so, whatever.

Toscana06 12

2006: Tuscany

The exposure dial includes the setting for aperture priority. I have always found the upper-biased, center-weighted metering to be very accurate, and therefore aperture priority works well. Note that the metering seems to be biased towards landscape photography with slide film. With negative film it may be a good idea to dial in an extra stop, or to compensate using the ISO setting. The meter reads down to the 4EV, which I’ve always found to be a little restricting - a little more sensitivity would have been nice, especially given the up to 8 sec timed shutter release.

Xpan ticino01 08

2007: Switzerland

Returning to the back panel, there is a recessed button to rewind the film before it reaches the end, and a backlight to illuminate both LCDs. Settings include a rewind mode which leaves the film leader out, which is very useful for those doing their own development, or for changing film mid-roll (if you remember the frame count you can reload it and advance over exposed frames in manual mode with the lens cap on). Note, the very first batch of XPan Is, with long shutter speed restricted to 30 seconds, had an issue with fogging infrared film. The Xpan II was advertised as fixing this issue, but in fact the later batches of XPan Is did not show it either. Personally I only used IR film in the XPan in 2000-2001. I don’t remember getting any good shots, but I never had any issues with fogging.

Ice0803 sunlit mountain2

2008: Iceland

The XPan is very pleasant to handle. It is well balanced with all three lenses, and the shutter button has just the right half/full pressure resistance. The viewfinder is gorgeous and the rangefinder patch easy to see, although as often as not I preset focussing at hyperlocal distances. I’ve always had the impression that the 30mm viewfinder is polarised, but I guess at that angle of view it can’t be. Nevertheless, the world actually looks better through the 30mm viewfinder than in real life! The body viewfinder framelines change with lens, with mode /standard, panoramic), and adjust for parallax. The 30mm viewfinder is fixed, but it has frameline notches to indicate the standard frame size. The XPan II handling is slightly improved by the viewfinder display, but with the already discussed tradeoffs. The lens focus rings are silky smooth and nicely weighted, and the aperture rings are firm and precise. However only full stop steps are possible. Generally the XPan is a real “feel good” camera to use. It can get a bit heavy if you carry it around all day with a full set of lenses, it is solid metal after all, but nothing too dramatic.

Krossfjorden

2010: Svalbard

Many XPan owners have a preference for a particular lens, usually the 45mm or 30mm. I’m more equal opportunities - I find all 3 lenses to be excellent, and of the three I actually prefer the 90mm for landscape use, although I’ll admit that for street it is less adapted. I’ve owned two copies of the 30mm lens, and both have come down with so-called “Schneideritis” even though it is not a Schneider lens. Possibly there is a related Fujinonitis strain. My first one was replaced (somewhat reluctantly) by Hasselblad for this very reason. The replacement soon came down with the same symptoms. However, there is absolutely no impact on the optical behaviour of the lens, and it doesn’t seem too be contagious, so I just ignore it. Another blight to strike the 30mm lens, or rather its viewfinder, is the bubble level drying up. This is annoying, but it seems quite common. I have contacted the French Hasselblad specialists “Les Victor” about a repair, apparently they can fix it at a reasonable price.

Stromboli

2011: Stromboli

One of the first issues to hit XPan users is of course, how to actually deal with the output. In the early days, Hasselblad (I suppose) promoted the format to a network of labs which could print the panoramic format, and supplied sheets of special stickers in the camera box which could be fixed to the film canisters to indicate to the lab that they contained XPan frames. I know I had my first XPan roll lab printed, probably by Jessops pro shop in Oxford Street, London, where I bought it, and probably on the day I bought it. But from then on, pretty much it has been the hybrid route for me: lab developing, home scanning, home printing. I don’t think I’ve ever shot a roll of traditional black and white film in the XPan, only colour negative, colour positive and Scala. Maybe a few rolls of Polaroid instant film too.

Xpan breggia051212 006

2012: Switzerland

To start with, scanning XPan film at home was tricky. Unless you were basically a millionaire, there were no film scanners that could take anything other than standard 35mm frames, and flatbed scanners outside of the unattainable Linotype-Hell or Scitex were hopeless. So initially, using a Microtek 4000 scanner, I painstakingly scanned each frame in two halves, and merged them in Photoshop. Even with a high end Mac, this was tedious. So the barriers to entry were actually pretty high, and the XPan was very much considered a professional’s camera. Gradually things got easier. Just about affordable Medium Format desktop scanners emergec from companies such as Polaroid, Microtek, Nikon and Minolta, several of which specifically handled 35mm panoramic format, and I eventually settled on a Minolta MultiScan Pro which lasted me over 10 years. When after these years of service it started getting troublesome, I finally replaced it with a Plustek Opticfilm 120, which has been efficiently devouring both XPan and medium format film ever since. I thoroughly recommend this scanner, by the way.

Xpan antarctica06 06

2013: Antarctica

It’s been a long journey with this camera, and although the current valuation (based on eBay) sometimes makes be think of selling it and using the proceeds to buy a small island, I’m not done with it yet. After all, I’m still waiting for my rolls of Film Ferrania slide film, not to mention new Ektachrome, to put through it. As an aside, Ektachrome 100G was the film that really made the XPan sing for me. At present I have to use Provia 100F, not a great hardship, but back in the days when there was choice, it wasn’t always the film I reached for.

Xpan sardegna1409 02 09

2014: Sardinia

Xpan norway1506 2 07

2015: Norway

So, should you buy an XPan today? Frankly, at eBay prices, no. It’s not worth it. The camera has crossed the border from “working tool” to “sought-after collectible”. Get a Fuji GSW690 and crop. Or use a digital camera with suitable framing, such as the Sigma dp0 (my candidate for the “digital XPan”). So far, fingers crossed, unlike several other electronic film cameras, the XPan is not displaying any chronic failures that I know of, but they will come, and it will not be repairable. So paying crazy money like $6000 - $7000 for a so-called pristine model on eBay is very unadvisable in my opinion, not to mention well over $1000 for a non-working body. In particular the markup on XPan II bodies is absolutely not justified from any photographic point of view.

If you do find one which is more realistically priced because it isn’t collector-pristine, bear in mind that any XPan body actually used for photography will inevitably acquire scuff marks and paint chips, and this is not an indication of over-heavy use. Although note, the extreme beaters you sometimes see on eBay do surprise me. My camera is not mollycoddled at all, so to get it in the beaten up condition of some I’ve seen must take real dedication. Having said that, I do remember in 2004 seen an XPan belonging to US landscape photographer Steve Kossack practically stripped of paint, so I guess it is feasible.

Xpan variochrome2 06

2017: Switzerland

Up to a few years ago you could still buy good used models with a warranty through reputable second hand dealers, but that supply seems to have dried up. Who is going to trade in their camera to a dealer for maybe $1000 when $3000 on eBay is now considered “cheap”?

Passion

2018: Calabria

The XPan has acquired mythological status. Personally, to a great extent, it defines me as a photographer, but that’s because of circumstances. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, with adequate cash, to get in at the ground floor. But it is only a camera. Today, there are other paths to follow, and plenty of other ways to pursue “widescreen” photography. If you happen to come across an XPan in fair condition with no bits missing for under $2000, then go for it. Otherwise, be sure you know what you’re getting into!

Drm 20180818 EM580048

More of my XPan photography:

More XPan reading:

 

Chromatic abberations

vario, panned

in Photography , Monday, September 25, 2017

A few posts ago, I wrote a rather dismissive impression of the new Rollei Variochrom film. Unfortunately, I’d bought 4 rolls of the stuff, so I felt I should do something with it. Having discovered what it actually does, which is to transport one back to the Good Olde Days of wildly inaccurate colour and grain you could eat for breakfast, it occurred to me that the part of the world I’m constrained to wander during the working week might actually benefit from this treatment. Well, it would be hard to make it look more dull than it actually is - although Dog knows I’ve tried over the years.

I’m pretty much at odds with todays retro film community, which seems only interested in the flaws and weaknesses of film. There are certainly people doing fabulous work today with film, for example Bruce Percy, but the film camera hipsters don’t actually seem to be interested in photographing much else than their cameras. 

Oh dear, have I got off track again ? Where was I ? Oh, yes ... Variochrome.

When used forewarned and with intent, I have to admit it can be quite interesting.  I quite like the following sample, although its not really my thing.  In the right context Variochrome is interesting, but I still pretty much stand by my earlier comments.

xpan-variochrome2-03.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-06.jpg
xpan-variochrome2-18.jpg
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xpan-variochrome2-20.jpg

The canister light leak I encountered on the first roll repeated itself, by the way, despite my taking special care in loading, unloading and handling the film.

Oh well, only another 2 rolls to go.

 

The Great Pano Bake-off

mirror mirror on the wall…

in Scanning , Monday, July 31, 2017

Having now added a Linhof 612 to my arsenal of wide-screen photographic tools, the time has come for a showdown. Which, if any, is the best? 

The candidates are, then:

  • Linhof 612 Medium Format film camera
  • Hasselblad XPan 35mm film camera
  • Sigma dp0 Quattro digital camera with Foveon sensor, 21:9 frame ratio

Now, you may say that I could substitute any digital camera for the dp0, and “just crop”. Well, you could, but I can’t, because accurate composition through the viewfinder is important to me. The dp0 comes close to the XPan with its wider lenses, but as far as I know all Sigma Quattro cameras, so dp0, dp1, dp2, dp3, sd and sd-H offer a 21:9 crop. I don’t know of any other cameras which do.

I’ve compared the dp0 with the XPan in the past, and concluded that the Sigma is certainly a valid contender for the title of “digital XPan”. Indeed, it replaced the XPan in my camera bag on my last trips to Iceland and Antarctica. But the Linhof, surely, with its huge frame size, should come out of top ?

For the film cameras of course we have another factor in the equation: the scanner. I’m pretty sure that the OpticFilm 120 at 5300dpi extracts at least 90% of the potential resolution from the exposed film, but I’m not fully convinced that it reaches 100%. Possibly a drum scanner or a Hasselblad Flextight could do marginally better, but if it takes a €15000+ scanner to outdo a €900 Sigma camera, then we’d be be getting into the realms of insanity.

Of course, the relative file sizes are a bit scary.  But I’ve got lots of disk space.

  • Linhof: 24533 x 11245 pixels, 1.5Gb
  • XPan: 13516 x 4986 pixels, 395Mb
  • Sigma: 5424 x 2328 pixels, 73Mb

For the test, I trudged up (and down) to a local valley stream, set up the tripod, and shot frames from each camera. The scene was initially framed using the Linhof. The Linhof was loaded with Fuji Provia 100F, and had the 65mm lens mounted. The XPan, sadly, was loaded with Rollei Variochrome, set at ISO 200, in a parallel test described previously. I shot XPan frames with both the 45mm and 30mm lenses.  The Sigma of course had its fixed 14mm lens, which is roughly equivalent to 21mm for so-called “full frame”.

I was interested in two aspects: the different frame coverage, and the comparative resolution of each system. Colour was not really relevant in this particular exercise, although the differences are interesting.  But anyway I haven’t even attempted to try to match colour.

So, here are the “results”.  First, the comparative frame coverage.

panocompare_fullwidth

Clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm, XPan 30mm.

It’s difficult, but please ignore the horrendous colour of the XPan frames. The scans are all “flat” from Silverfast - I have not attempted any kind of colour correction. The first thing that jumps out for me is how close the Sigma and Linhof are. I could get even closer by shooting a 2:3 frame on the Sigma and cropping it. The Linhof is just a touch wider. The XPan 30mm is the widest of all, and its vertical coverage is very similar to the Linhof. The XPan 45mm, in this company, and for this scene, is a bit neither here nor there.

Note, any attempt at choosing a “favourite” shot here is rather pointless. As I said above, the shot was framed for the Linhof, with the tripod remaining fixed for the other three, so I would expect (and indeed hope) to prefer the Linhof composition.

Working with the Linhof over the past month or so has confirmed my attachment to the (almost) 2:1 ratio. The Sigma ratio is actually closer than I expected, because the actual size of the exposed film on the Linhof is 12 x 5.5, so somewhat wider than a nominal 2:1. The Linhof has just one trick up its sleeve, but its a good one: the 8mm shift is hugely useful for this kind of shot. Note the difference between the Linhof and XPan 30mm frames: thanks to the shift (negative in this case), I’m able to put the extra vertical coverage to better use, without tilting up or down and hence distorting the perspective.  This limitation has always frustrated me with the XPan.

Now for resolution. Remember, with the Sigma, it being a digital camera with a Foveon 3 layer sensor, we can magnify up to 100% and expect sharp results.  With the film cameras it is way more complicated.  We need to factor in focussing (hyperfocal in this case), film flatness, film curl when scanning, scanner lens quality, scanner depth of field, and all the general characteristics of an analog to digital conversion.  Suffice it to say, film looks best on the light table, and goes downhill from then onwards. All we can do is damage limitation.

Having said all that, let’s look at a 100% section of each shot:

panocompare_100

100%: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

In terms of numeric resolution, the Linhof clearly wins, but the level of actual information is debatable. There has been no sharpening applied here, so for the film shots what you see is what you get out of the scanner. What does appear to be the case is that the XPan lenses are actually sharper than the Schneider 65mm lens on the Linhof. One thing I’m finding with the Linhof is that objects at infinity seem to be quite soft, regardless of the focussing. I have no idea why this should be, but since focussing is by scale only, it isn’t straightforward to verify. Again, there are a lot of variables in the system.

Another way to compare is to try to adjust zoom to get roughly the same field of view, as follows.  Since the Sigma has the lowest nominal resolution, it defines the baseline.

panocompare_match

Matched view: clockwise from top left: Sigma dp0, XPan 30mm, Linhof 612 65mm, XPan 45mm

Now there’s not so much in it. The XPan with 45mm trails slightly, at least in this example, but otherwise the level of detail is close. Probably if the XPan had been loaded with Provia 100F then the difference would be smaller. With the Sigma there is a higher level of micro-contrast and acuity, but appropriate processing of the film images can close the gap.

Note, when printing these images at the maximum size I can achieve on my A2 printer, in all cases there is quite sufficient resolution, so this exercise in pixel peeping should be taken with several grains of salt.

However, the clear conclusion is so far that the Sigma dp0, which is more practical, lighter, considerably less expensive and offers immediate feedback, is pretty much a match for either of the film cameras on a technical level. To be honest it is probably the best of the three, in purely technical terms, and in the right conditions.

Let’s briefly compare the dp0 just with the Linhof:

panocompare_dp0_linhof

Top: Sigma dp0, Bottom: Linhof 612 65mm

The Sigma definitely seems to give slightly more real resolution, although there is a hint of some variation across the frame from the Linhof. But in the best case scenario, the Linhof / Plustek OpticFilm 120 combination is a match for the Sigma dp0 in terms of effective resolution - no more.

So why use the Linhof, and why use film at all? Well, all is not rosy in the Sigma world. Although it is not too apparent in this frame, it transitions to over-exposures in a very harsh and unpleasant way. With scenes featuring flowing water, for example, you need to be extremely careful with exposure.  And since the Sigma’s output is nowhere near as malleable as that of almost all other modern digital cameras, you have to very careful indeed. Actually it is this poor handling of highlights which makes more hesitate about investing in the Sigma sd Quattro system.

Of course, you also have to be careful with slide film, but even slide film with its aversion to highlight overexposure handles transition to burn-out much more naturally.  The Linhof also features one of the absolute best viewfinders ever made. If in-the-field composition is important to you, as opposed to fix-it-in-Photoshop, then this is a big deal.  And finally, the killer feature, the “permanent shift” lens, which avoids the Achilles’ Heel of panoramic photography, vertical entering of compositions.

And what about the poor old XPan? Well, it too has its advantages. First, the 30mm lens gives a wider field of view than either of the other two (although a Linhof 612PCII with 58mm lens would be wider).  The XPan also has a rangefinder, making manual focus very simple, and very reliable auto exposure.  And it is a quarter of the size of the Linhof 612. I’ve been using it for 17 years, and it’s not for sale. Yet.

And finally colour - although I like the colour output of the Sigma, it can be a little weird. Actually in the example here I used a custom colour profile in Lightroom. The rendition of Provia 100F, once the blue shadow cast is removed, is to my eyes more natural.  There is also something ever so slightly sterile about the Sigma output.

But finally, all three are great cameras which give me a lot of satisfaction.  If I was pushed to produce something on a tight deadline, if the subject permitted it I’d probably use the Sigma.  If I wanted the best control of composition I’d use the Linhof, with Provia 100F for landscape or Portrait 400 for urban work.  For maximum flexibility and discretion, the XPan.  In all three cases, I’d be able to print as large as I am able to with no compromises.

But I would love to see a drum scan of a Linhof 612 shot…

 

 

A roll of CineStill

still more film

in Film , Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I'm quite impressed with my first experience with CineStill 50 film. As promised, it is very fine grained, and allows for very sharp results, provided of course that operator issues such as focussing and scanning are carried out correctly. The exposure latitude also seems very good, probably quite similar to Portra 400. The character of the photos is interesting. More saturated than Portra, certainly, but not excessively so like Ektar.

xpan_cinestill1_14.jpg


Of course, at 50 ISO, even over-exposing by two stops, considering that the fastest XPan lenses only open up to f/4, hand-held it is strictly a bright daylight film.

This first roll is really pretty much throw away, just trying it out, and I had it developed by a 1 hour lab which does ok, but has no packaging for uncut film, so it ends up scratched and dirty.

And my somewhat interrupted love/hate relationship with Silverfast, and indeed Silverfast's makers, has resumed. Silverfast has had some more half-baked or oddball features added, but major issues remain (for example, why does it not cache iSDR results ? Why recalculate and reapply every single time, even if I just change the display type from "Corrected" to "Original" ? Why can I not add extra frames for batch scanning on my scanner ? And why, for heaven's sake, is their idea of a forum so unbelievably user-hostile ? I don't suppose we will ever know.

Anyway, here's a few more CineStill 50 shots. Up until now I'm using Negafix standard settings and correcting grey balance in Silverfast - one of the things it does exceptionally well. This grey balancing might be actually masking some special attribute of CineStill 50, but I'll think about that later.

xpan_cinestill1_07.jpg


xpan_cinestill1_08.jpg


xpan_cinestill1_02.jpg


xpan_cinestill1_16.hdr.jpg

 

The Digital XPan, by Sigma

Well, close enough

in Sigma , Wednesday, March 09, 2016

I bought my first Hasselblad XPan in 2000, and in the following 15+ years, I’ve accumulated a large shelf full of binders of negatives and (mainly) slides. I bought it because I liked the widescreen format, and I still do. Although a niche camera, the XPan was pretty popular, initially principally with landscape photographers, many of whom used one alongside an SLR. For me, it was the other way around - the SLR was the “second camera”. The XPan started to fade from view with the advent of DSLRs, and Hasselblad/Fuji stopped producing it in 2006, citing some story about a circuit board not being compliant with some convenient European regulations on lead content.

In recent years it has seen something of a revival, and secondhand prices for good copies have risen higher than the original retail. It seems to be riding a lot on the “back to film” movement, and the accompanying mystique. But there do not seem to be many people around who, like me, bought one back near the release date and never stopped using it.  And even fewer people who shoot slide film (still). It seems to be quite popular nowadays for “street” photography, where the unusual frame gives a novelty effect that compensates for many a shortcoming in the photograph. However, with the lenses having a maximum aperture of f/4, and rangefinder focusing, I’m not personally convinced it is that ideal for street. But I’m no authority on the matter.

For me the biggest frustration with the XPan has nothing directly to do with the camera, but with the rapidly shrinking availability of slide film.  My favourites, Kodak E100G and Fuji Velvia 100F (nothing like the infamous Velvia 50 by the way) have long since departed, Fuji Provia 400X is more or less gone, and the only serious choice left is Fuji Provia 100F, which I never much liked. The revival of Ferrania Film is, so far, inconclusive - initial batches of new film are close to a year overdue. Of course the choices in negative film are a little wider. I like Kodak Porta 400, but it only really suits brightly lit urban scenes. Kodak Ektar 100 is ghastly. And I’m a colour photographer by instinct, not black & white. On top of all of this, the bottom has fallen out of both semi-pro E6 processing, and of the semi-pro film scanner market.  So not only is the writing on the wall, but it’s on every wall in every direction.

So, there’s been a lot of calls, directed mainly at Fuji and Hasselblad, to produce a “Digital XPan”. There’s a snag there, though, because a digital sensor covering the full 65x24 XPan format - two “full frame” sensors side by side -  would be horrendously expensive, even though this seems to be what people want. So the question arises, what do we actually mean by “Digital XPan” ? What are the key features ? Would everybody agree? The answer to the last question is obviously a resounding “no”.

The key features of the XPan, technical and otherwise, are:

  • Native “panoramic” double-frame format
  • On-the-fly selectable standard 35mm frame format
  • Rangefinder manual focussing
  • TTL electronic metering
  • Offbeat, unusual camera
  • Built like a tank
  • Interchangeable lenses
  • Very high quality - and expensive - glass
  • Oh yeah… film

Personally, the key feature is the first: a camera which records what-you-see-is-what-you-get panoramic format with a dedicated panoramic viewfinder. In-camera composition is very important to my way of doing and enjoying photography, and for me cropping in Photoshop as some kind of afterthought rarely produces a strong, satisfying image. I emphasise, for me: clearly other people have different opinions. As for film, I’ll fall back again on a quote from one of my heroes of panoramic photography, Stuart Klipper, who when asked why he (still) uses film, replied “because that’s what the Linhof takes”.

So, yes, you can certainly obtain a panoramic frame from any digital camera through post-processing. Many compact cameras also have a 16:9 framing option which you can squint at while holding the camera at arms length in front of your face. But this is simply not the “XPan experience” for me. It doesn’t inspire me, and it doesn’t give me the thrill that seeing the world through the XPan rangefinder does.

And that’s a good time to introduce you to the other camera on the stage here, the Sigma DP0.

P3091492

Sigma DP0 with viewfinder, and Hasselblad XPan

I’ve been using Sigma cameras with their unique Foveon sensor since the 50mm-equivalent DP2 Merrill. As I, and many others have written, when these cameras get their ducks in a row, they are truly fabulous. The rest of the time they’re a disaster area. A while back, Sigma introduced a new lineup, using the revised Quattro sensor. They also introduced what would be politely described as an unusual body design. A lot of people were aghast at this. I thought it was fantastic. But I didn’t buy one at the time, as the DP2M & DP3M I already owned were quite enough.  But then came the announcement of the DP0 ultra wide (21mm equivalent), and buried deep down in the specification, the 21:9 framing option. It seemed that somebody in Japan was thinking along the same lines as me.

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The DP0 21:9 aspect ratio

So eventually, after a lot of indecision, I got one, along with the hood viewfinder attachment which allows eye-level composition, which as I have said is a must-have for me, and has the additional benefit of making an already strange looking device look downright weird. It’s certainly a conversation starter.

The 21:9 aspect ratio is a bit deeper than the XPan. It is about halfway between the standard 6x12 and 6x17 ratios - the XPan is slightly taller than 6x17. This is actually fine by me. I often found the XPan format a smidgen too wide, and I’ve always pined for a 612 camera. The resolution of the 21:9 DP0 image (5424 x 2324) is approximately half that of an XPan frame scanned at 4000dpi (around 12200 x 4700), but of course the two are not directly comparable. The actual information content is very similar. Of course, the DP0 has a fixed lens, whereas the XPan has three native lenses to choose from (as well as some other fairly dodgy choices via adaptor). The DP0’s 21mm equivalent lens gives a field of view roughly equivalent to the XPan 45mm lens. And they’re both f/4. And both extremely good quality lenses.

Anyway, that’s an awful lot of babble before getting on to the core of the matter: how do they actually compare ? Well, I don’t do “tests” as such, I really cannot be bothered. But recently I took the DP0 to make a few photos in the nearby Golle della Breggia, in a location I remembered shooting with the XPan a few years back.

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XPan, 45mm lens, Kodak E100G, scanned on Minolta Dimage Scan Multi Pro

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Sigma DP0, processed in Sigma Photo Pro v6.3.2

Of course, these photos are taken at different times of the year, different times of the day, and with different framing, never mind with completely different technology. The only common factor was the photographer. Given that, to my eyes at least they have a quite remarkably similar rendering of colour and tonality. The Minolta scanner, which I have now replaced, also developed a tendency to exaggerate red in the midtowns, which I clearly did not sufficiently correct here. I could certainly get the two photos to look very close in rendition with a few minutes work, but that isn’t the point: what I’m looking to decide is if the DP0 can assume the role of the XPan for me, and I’m tending to believe it can, so far.

It is also interesting to compare resolution. Here again, there is a degree of subjectivity, as the scan is not necessarily optimum, and here no sharpening has been applied (although Sigma Photo Pro allegedly always applies some sharpening). I’ve tried to match two roughly similar areas of the photos, with the DP0 crop at 1:1, and the XPan reduced more or less to match.

DP0

Sigma DP0

XPAN

XPan

So, very, very subjective, but it does look like the Sigma’s Quattro sensor is a match for 4000dpi scanned 35mm Kodak E100G. Not actually a big surprise, although it is probable that with a bit of work I could extract a little more detail from the film.

The XPan still has at least two advantages - the 30mm and 90mm lenses. But in terms of overall end to end user experience, there is a remarkable similarity between the two cameras. Indeed, it can be as time consuming to extract a processed file from Sigma Photo Pro as it is to make a good film scan…

One are where the DP0 wins outright, however, is low light photography. You can do long exposures on film, but dealing with reciprocity failure is painful, especially with slide film. The DP0, on the other hand, will cheerfully make an exposure up to 30 seconds (but no more, let’s not carried away here).  Also, I really like the way the Foveon sensors (both Merrill and Quattro) render tungsten lighting. So to wrap up here are a few shots from my first major outing with the DP0 in Venice.

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It is tempting to draw a conclusion from the fact that since I’ve owned the DP0, the XPan has sat on the shelf. But it is early days yet, and there haven’t really been many opportunities to use it recently. I certainly wasn’t going to take it to Colombia. There are also some situations in which I don’t really trust the Sigmas, in particular snow and ice.  And although the Quattro has much better battery life than the Merrill, it’s still pushing it to reach 100 shots.  Then again, processing 100 shots in Sigma Photo Pro takes roughly a decade, so perhaps it’s just as well.

But I’ll repeat what I’ve said before: the Sigma DP0, with the LCD viewfinder, set at 21:9, is the closest digital camera I’ve found so far in terms of handling and user experience to the Hasselblad XPan. And it’s a great camera in its own right, fun to use and with devastatingly high quality output.

 

 

 

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