A few years ago, in the last days of the common film era (CFA) and the beginning of the Age of Digital (AD), point and shoot film cameras were common items. Even as the digital writing was on the virtual wall (for those who cared to look) the camera industry introduced an entire new format, the Advanced Photo System or APS. The system used a self-contained, more or less idiot-proof cartridge designed to address various perceived problems with 35mm film. It used a somewhat smaller negative (30.2mm x 16.7mm as opposed to 36mm by 24mm) (think APS-C sized sensors as opposed to “full-frame” sensors), had no film leader and, among other features, nearly every APS camera could be easily switched between several aspect ratios. These were simply crop modes but they were briefly quite popular, so much so that many 35mm point and shoot models followed suit and added a panoramic mode.
Back then I was opposed to all of this on general philosophical grounds. APS cameras were too little too late and really their only reason for being was the amazing Canon ELPH, a camera smaller and more elegant than pretty much anything in the 35mm world. It took the smaller film and made a smaller machine to use it. Other than this one camera, however, why bother with a new system and a smaller negative? I still believe this. Anyway, APS is long gone while 35mm film is still around and promises to be so for a long time.
As for the “panoramic” mode, be it APS or 35mm, I was also vehemently opposed. On this, however, I have modified my thinking. My opposition was because this wasn’t, in my view, a “true’ panoramic mode. It was simply a crop achieved by masking the film in the case of 35mm or simply tagging the negative to be printed that way in APS. I reasoned, correctly, that if one wanted this effect one could choose to crop that way later in the darkroom or make a big print and cut it any way you wanted. But here is where I have changed my thinking. There is no APS anymore and if you mask off the 35mm negative you are choosing, in fact, a different format. No, you don’t have as much negative as you do with a “true” panoramic camera such as the 35mm Hasseblad X-Pan let alone a medium format Linhof Technorama 617 III. In the end, however, this doesn’t matter if you know what you are getting into and chose to use that format. Arguing about whether or not it is “true” is somewhat akin to arguing over the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin: an interesting exercise, perhaps, but not one that should impact faith and action. In my mind it is a true panoramic camera, much like an X-Pan with a non-rotating lens, just with a smaller negative. The X-Pan, in panoramic mode, shoots a 24mm by 65mm negative using more of the 35mm film (it also shoots normal 24mm by 36mm negatives). A point and shoot in panoramic mode shoots a negative of roughly 13mm x 36mm, varying slightly from camera model to camera model, using less of the film.
It is a smaller negative and yes, you can just crop later, but I believe that cropping to other aspect ratios after the fact almost always results in odd looking photos. The way you physically use a camera, the way the viewfinder looks, what you see through it, and even the way the camera fits in your hand have more than a minor effect on the final image. I see this quite often in photos cropped to a square. I feel it almost always shows in the final image when the image was not initially framed as a square. There is nearly always something off-putting about these images, a certain compositional incompleteness that shows through. I do not see these same problems on images framed with a camera in square mode even if the sensor or film frame is rectangular. The same goes for panoramic images. The photographer simply makes different aesthetic and framing choices because of the viewfinder option chosen and the accompanying mindset. Of course the truth is that most, if not all of these point and shoot cameras have inexact viewfinders but any camera can be adapted to and allowances made for.
After pondering this chain of camera-philosophy I decided to act upon it. I shoot mostly digital but have made a point of taking some film camera on nearly all my travels. I believe it important that there are at least some negatives making a true and more permanent record of how the world was. I did find, however, that I was generally unhappy using the same format as my digital cameras. I had decided to put my best work into the 24mm by 36mm frame, using among the best full-frame digital cameras available, and thus it not only made little sense to do the same thing on film, it detracted from my work by repetition and by taking me out of the moment. Film needed to offer something truly different, something extra than the recording medium, and so I began working more seriously with medium format. Many of my projects don’t lend themselves to carrying too much gear, however. The panoramic point and shoot became a solution for me while working in India and afterwards.
I found a Minolta Panorama Zoom 5 on E-Bay. The camera came from Japan and has a Japanese sticker on it and I am pretty sure this camera was called the Minolta Freedom Action Zoom 38-60 in the USA but I could be wrong. I carried it from one end of The Subcontinent to the other, only taking it out of panoramic mode on a couple occasions just to see the result (which were fine, if unremarkable). This model has a modest 38-60mm lens, built in flash and the standard features of a point and shoot of its time. The camera did decent work though, in truth, I would like to find something better, something more elegant. It’s main flaws are that it seems to have a relatively slow maximum shutter speed that produced a lot of overexposed negatives in the bright Indian sun on 400 ISO film and a pretty inaccurate viewfinder. The solution, of course, is to use slower film — this isn’t a camera I use for low light work anyway. Still, to my eye, the experiment worked. I like many of the images I made with it and for a consumer-grade camera more than two decades old it seems to be chugging along quite nicely. I would love to take the images into a darkroom and I will, if ever I am in a place to have one again. I suspect that the scans I had made in Mumbai don’t do the images justice and that real black and white prints might well be lovely.
I will continue loading it up and taking it out, making sure to expose some film, to burn light and time into emulsion. Lately, I am shooting mostly black and white — digitally on a Leica M9 Monochrome and a Fuji X100f in ACROS mode with no RAW backup. I recently bought 10 rolls of Kodak Ultramax 400 (perhaps I need some 200): consumer film to go with consumer cameras. I plan to continue this experiment in new places and in new ways. I like the panoramic frame of seeing the world and for now, anyway, my panoramic is a point and shoot. FP
All photos shot with the Minolta in the article shot on Ilford HP5, developed and scanned by a lab in Mumbai. Photography © Andrew Tonn