BLOG 09 - THE DIGITAL XPAN
HOW TO CREATE DIGITAL XPAN IMAGES
Quite a controversial title for an article. There will be a lot of Xpan owners and traditionalists who will be already warming up their key boards to send me emails complaining about associating the word ‘digital’ with the Xpan. Please stop typing and hear me out.
The Xpan was, and still is, an amazing camera which allows both normal 4:3 and panoramic images 3:1 to be taken on 35mm film. The camera is slightly larger than a normal rangefinder but is easy to use and you see through the viewfinder in panoramic format. One of the downsides of the camera is its weight, it is not the lightest at 950g. The Xpan has become quite a trendy and a collectable camera especially for street and documentary genres and therefore the prices in the second hand market continues to rise. If you want to progress into panoramic photography and you don’t have a spare £2.5k to hand, are there any cheaper alternatives?
Yes, there are but be careful who you tell! The first obvious answer is the digital panoramic stitch which is made a lot easier nowadays with the many software packages available. These are great for landscape or ‘still’ images where nothing is moving that will affect the image. You set the camera up on a stable level tripod and take a number of overlapping images. These stitched images can be very large and require more computer processing power and storage. However, stitching images is not an option if you are capturing ‘moments’ on the street for example.
The Xpan frame is 65mm by 24mm and this equates to a crop ratio of 2.7:1 i.e. the horizontal frame length is 2.7 times longer than the vertical. The frame size is not 16:9 (widescreen) which is 1.7:1 nor is it the commonly referenced 3:1 ratio.
The only option remaining is to capture the image with the ‘normal’ camera aspect ratio, typically at 3:2 ratio or 4:3 for medium format, and then crop in the post processing. Modern sensors provide more than enough resolution and dynamic range for this crop to still look reasonable. The downside is unless you have a very well-trained eye you are not really able to ‘see’ the image in the panoramic format at the decisive moment.
Digital cameras do have crop options in the menu system which allows the image to be cropped in camera but nearly all cameras do not include the 2.7:1 ratio. The Hasselblad X1D and the Fujifilm GFX50S & R cameras do have the option to crop to 1:2.7 in camera but these cameras with a lens will still cost more than two xpans! (or an xpan and a scanner). Fujifilm cameras also have an option to create a sweep panoramic image. I have only tried this once and it was not that successful, user error as the shutter speed was too low. This is definitely something I would like to try further for static images as creating the panoramic in camera saves a lot of post processing time.
Therefore, the solution to creating a digital xpan where you can see the image is to have a look in the camera menu options. Most digital cameras have the option to add a grid system to the screen display, whether this is on the back screen or in the viewfinder. The Fujifilm cameras there are a number of grid configurations:
Grid 9 (standard) – Splits the viewfinder into thirds. The central band gives a crop factor of 1:4.5, see image below
Grid 24 – Splits the viewfinder into 4x6 grid. The central two bands give a crop factor of 1:3, see image below.
By using the grid 24 option, the two central zones provide guide lines on a 3:1 ratio so I can ‘see’ the panoramic image in the viewfinder. Sometime the grid lines are not that easy to see, depending on the subject matter, but they are there for guidance and as there is no cropping in camera the crop can be adjusted in Lightroom afterwards. Here is an example of the view finder if you ignore the upper and lower grid cells to create the panoramic crop.
The two images below provide a working example of taking an image full frame using the 24 grid option to create a panoramic image. This is a street image taken near Liverpool Cathedral with this lady sitting between the two blue doors. As a 'normal' image it does not work as there is no balance due to the grass, handrail and alot of pavement. But I framed this image using the central grid with the two blue doors at either end of the pano crop. Whilst it is not a competition winner the image is more balanced and works.
If you are a Nikon camera owner, another option is to mark up the Nikon plastic screen protector with panoramic frames. I have done this previously just using a sharpie pen on the inside (so it doesn’t rub off as easily) or using black insulating tape as a black out. This method is really only useful if you are shooting in live view or for chimping images after they are taken.
Cropping in Lightroom or other software packages in normally straight forward with custom setting at 1:2.7 being saved for future use. I have often found I have needed to straighten images so make sure your horizons are horizontal and your verticals are vertical. The crop will accentuate any misalignment especially when you print and frame.
Whilst using the words ‘digital’ and xpan in the same sentence is controversial, it is a solution to producing pano images without the expense of the xpan, film, processing, scanning etc. Panoramic images are great fun to produce and can be addictive.
See more examples of the digital xpan in the Gallery - Project Xpan Digital