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The XPan succession dilema

in Film , Thursday, March 29, 2012

Following the announced demise of Ektachrome, and the general, renewed sense of doom hanging over film photograpy, at least on the colour positive side, my thoughts have been turning to possible alternatives to XPan photography.


End of the roll ?

First, I think it’s important to try to define what is unique about this camera, and why it is so addictive to me. A major point is the what-you-see-is-what-you-get viewfinder. It may be stating the obvious, but actually having a panoramic aspect ratio viewfinder is extremely helpful if you, like me, find framing at the time of capture to be important. It’s very subjective, but to me, cropping and reframing after the event is pretty unsatisfactory. It feels like some kind of a failure, and personally one of the great pleasures of photography is succesfully achieving a good composition through the view finder. Of course, seeing potential for cropping, remembering it, and doing it afterwards works for some people, and I’ve got no issue with that. But it seems I’m not wired that way. Or maybe I’m lazy and unimaginative.

Next up has to be image quality. A well framed, exposed, focussed and scanned XPan Ektachrome or Velvia slide is pretty amazing. Ok, it’s quite a challenge to get all those ducks in a perfect row, for me at least, but when it all clicks, well, it really clicks. I’m not going to get into megapixel comparisons, but a 4800 dpi scan from my Minolta film scanner can be printed at sizes greater than my Epson 3800 can manage. The three XPan lenses give corner to corner sharpness from wide open (admittedly f/4 isn’t that wide) onwards, covering the same width as 6x9 film but on 35mm stock. I’m not sure what digital camera can match this, but I imagine it will be expensive.

I’ve already mentioned the lenses. They’re fabulous, and the 30mm is widely acknowledged as a masterpiece of optical engineering. Fuji at their very best, although some claim that the Hasselblad-branded copies have a different coating. Possibly, but I can’t imagine why. Hasselblad never made their own lenses anyway, as far as I know.

The camera is built like a tank and is very reliable, unless you do something very stupid with it. The XPan I, which is far cheaper on the secondhand market, in my opinion has considerably better handling than the XPan II, at least for tripod use. For handheld possibly the II is slightly better. But the II is not worth the absurd prices it goes for, unless you’re a collector. There’s no difference at all to the output.

By the way, if anybody in Switzerland is reading this and wants an XPan II, there’s currently one in the secondhand section at Ganz in Rennweg, Z├╝rich, complete with 45mm lens, boxed and apparently in extremely good condition, for the remarkably low price of CHF 1950.  That’s about half the usual rate!  Even more remarkable since Ganz’s pricing is usually insane in the other direction.

So what about downsides? Well some might consider film itself to fit in that category. Being tied to single, low ISOs is perhaps the most significant thing that digital has liberated us from. Especially considering the XPan’s slow lenses, and the fact that the meter gives up pretty quickly when light levels start dropping. Still, the fact that it has a TTL meter at all is pretty good. No other panoramic camera includes one. The lenses, especially the 30mm and 45mm, would really, really benefit from a shift adaptor. Shift is so important to panoramic photography that the so-desirable Linhof 612 has permanent shift built in to its lenses.

So what I’m looking for, ideally, is a digital camera with viewfinder AND RAW file masking in roughly a 2.5:1 ratio (and 2:1 would be nice as well), corner to corner sharpness, wide angle (16mm equivalent minimum) and availability of wide to ultra-wide tilt shift lenses. And it has to cost roughly the trade-in price for my XPan with all accessories (optimistically $5000). Oh, and it’s got to be able to take a few knocks without complaining.

That rules out all CSCs, Pentax, Sony & Olympus DSLRs, and anything upmarket of a DSLR. So what’s left ? Canon & Nikon, neither of which fill me with enthusiasm. I forgot to mention that I’d prefer to keep things lightweight.  The Fuji X-Pro looks possibly interesting, especially as it shares DNA with the XPan, but it would not have the flexibility of a DSLR.

Xpan iceland2012 5 11

What’s coming down the pipe ?

I did see a Nikon D800 in a shop window the other day…