In the world of film cameras, very few pieces of kit have weathered the perfect storm of factors that has made the Hasselblad X Pan one of the priciest classic cameras. The panoramic frame size of 24x65mm is unique, it has high quality glass, and there’s a certain expectation that comes with the Hasselblad name (even though the X Pan was made by Fujifilm). This makes it desireable. Prohibitively high cost of repair has lead to a dwindling finite supply. This makes it expensive. This is not to say that the X Pan is an overrated one. It’s simply surrounded by an incredible amount of hype.
In response there has popped up a veritable cottage industry of X Pan alternatives. Some are just other panoramic cameras that aren’t quite as advanced or expensive as the X Pan, like the swinging Widelux or the Lomo Sprocket Rocket. Some are DIY efforts, like Freeman Lin’s Presspan or Cameradactyl’s Broncopan. The now immense price of the X Pan has created a genuine market opportunity for creators to invest in systems that justify a still not inexpensive price and a certain degree of kludgeiness in order to get some decent glass in front of a panoramic frame.
A Digital XPan
Creating a digital X Pan has had its own challenges. Virtually all modern camera sensors come in a 3:2 or 4:3 aspect ratio. Most digital cameras will let you crop this down in-body down to 16:9, but this leaves a lot of megapixels on the table without really coming close to the X Pan’s 2.7:1 aspect ratio. To crop down to the X Pan’s aspect ratio, a typical 24 megapixel sensor will only make panoramic images equivalent to about 13 megapixels.
There have been a few digital camera bodies that are a little more suited to panoramas along the X Pan lines. Andrew, of the YouTube channel Andrew & Danae, has been digging into a few of these and has some great videos on thed subject. Two of his recommendations are the Sigma SD Quattro H and Fujifilm GFX line, both of which let you shoot in-body with a 21:9 and 65:24 aspect ratio, respectively. These still have the issue of losing resolution with in-body cropping, but at least these cameras have the megapixels to spare, so we still get usable files.
However, even the cheapest Fujifilm GFX 50R is going to set us back around $2,500 dollars before we even get any glass to mount to it. The Quattro H is cheaper, but isn’t quite the sleeper camera it was a few years ago, also starting north of $1,000 for just a body.
My quest was to find something that could give me a truly high quality panoramic sized image for a little less money.
The Anamorphic Answer
After some researching, I hit upon the idea of trying out anamorphic lenses. Anamorphic lenses are used in video work to achieve wide aspect ratios, effectively squeezing a wider horizontal angle onto a film or image sensor, which is then “desqueezed” either in post-processing or in projection. I don’t pretend to really know how the physics of it works, but it works.
I think the reason this hasn’t been done much before was because these lenses have traditionally been rather pricey and large. Hey, if you’re shooting a big budget movie, budget is a minor detail. But I recently found out that the company Sirui has developed series of anamorphic primes for APS-C cameras that were relatively affordable and not completely chonky, so I decided to try one out.
Sirui offers a wide range of fairly affordable and fast anamorphic lenses for both full-frame and APS-C cameras. My main camera is a Fujifilm X-T2, so in X-mount my options were a 24mm f2.8, 50mm f1.8 or 75mm f1.8. I went with the 50mm as it’s the lightest and smallest option, as well as being significantly less expensive than the others. It’s worth noting that in other mounts, Sirui also makes a 35mm f1.8. Just as I finished writing this piece Venus Optics announced a crowdfunding campaign for the Laowa Nanomorph line of anamorphic lenses, which are significantly smaller and lighter, although more expensive.
So Wait, How Do Anamorphic Lenses Work?
The basic idea is that an anamorphic lens compresses the horizontal view of your lens to let you get a wider field of view onto an otherwise fairly square sensor. This squeezing is measured in a squeeze ratio, kind of like the crop factor of a digital sensor. The Sirui APS-C lineup squeezes your image at 1.33x horizontally. This is a fairly mild squeeze ratio (anamorphic lenses can go up to 2x or more). After shooting, I generally use an iOS app called Desqueeze to process the images. I’m a weirdo who mostly processes RAW files in-camera and then send those RAW shots to my phone for edits. It works for me.
Shooting with an Anamorphic Lens
Shooting with the Sirui 50mm has been an interesting experience. I don’t want to nitpick the lens too badly. Afterall, it’s meant to be a video lens first and foremost. It seems unfair to be too critical about it when shooting stills, given that it was never designed with that purpose in mind. But here’s what to expect if you want to do the same.
On my X-T2, it’s not overly heavy. It’s fairly long for a not-that-fast prime lens, but it balances well on the body. In a lot of ways, its similar to shooting any vintage glass on a mirrorless system. There are no contacts between the lens and the camera, so you lose out on metadata.
The biggest difference from shooting traditional still lenses is found in the Sirui’s aperture ring. It’s clickless, which isn’t entirely unusual in the era of third-party lenses whose designer’s know that many of us are also shooting video these days. Chinese lens makers like Viltrox and 7Artisans have used clickless apertures on their lenses before. But what’s weird with the Sirui is that the aperture uses non-uniform f-stops. A typical lens’ aperture ring has roughly the same distance between f-stops, with the change in exposure being mostly identical between each clip of the ring. On the Sirui lens the distance between stops varies. The span between f/1.8 and f/2.8 is huge, the majority of the aperture ring’s action is found between just these stops. The distances between subsequent diminishing stops get shorter in between, so that the slowest stops at the end are barely differentiated. It’s not bad, just weird. At least the aperture ring on my copy isn’t loose, so it stays in place. The focus throw is also a bit long, but again, for video shooters, probably a good thing.
Composing with an anamorphic is interesting. I’ve shot with a lot of 50mm vintage lenses on my X-T2 before and it’s always a weird focal length with the crop factor. It’s just into the telephoto range but not so bad that you’re backing up too much indoors. On an anamorphic, you get a lot more horizontal real estate to work with. I did a little test chart, and horizontally, you get almost as much field of view as my Zeiss 32mm f1.8. But it’s somewhat challenging to work with.
My main frustration is the minimum focus distance of 0.85 meters. For a lot of still shots, it ends up that I’m just a little farther away than I want to be to get dramatic depth of field. Admittedly in the anamorphic world this minimum focus distance is pretty impressive, but for stills we’re doing worse than a Leica rangefinder, which ain’t great. The other issue is the nature of the panoramic framing makes it a little tough to compose portraits, which stinks when using a lens with a field of view otherwise well suited to portraits. With familiarity it’s possible to work around these limitations, but I won’t pretend they aren’t frustrating at times. If it wasn’t for the added weight and expense, I think the 28mm might be a better choice.
What did really impress me was the image quality. I had seen good reviews on the Sirui 50mm from a couple of different sources. But still, this is a fairly expensive lens from a company best known for making tripods. I wasn’t sure if it was getting graded on a curve.
It’s not an incredibly sharp lens, in some ways the rendering reminds me of my Pentax-M 50mm 1.7. But when in going for a digital X Pan, I feel most people won’t want clinical sharpness anyway. It’s plenty usable, even wide open. And shooting wide open is great, because I really love how it shifts from in-focus to out-of-focus areas. Maybe it’s just the wider aspect ratio, but it really seems to handle this transition gracefully. At 50mm, there is some nice background separation even when stopped down a bit, something much trickier to achieve on the slower lenses of the actual X Pan.
Shooting a squeezed image on my X-T2 wasn’t that bad. I probably wouldn’t want to go much more squeezed than the 1.33x ratio (those Venus Optical lenses go for 1.5x). I find that I really need to use my grid lines on the EVF when composing si that I put my subject proportionately in the frame where I want. On landscapes the squeeze isn’t that hard to mentally overcome, but with people shots it can be a little distracting. The biggest challenge is that focusing is a bit more mentally taxing. Even with focus peaking on, I have to zoom in much more than I usually do to check focus, The squeeze makes it a harder to just glance and check focus – another reason I think any further squeeze would be challenging.
Is it worth it?
Shooting with anamorphic lenses isn’t exactly effortless. There’s still a bit of a learning curve while shooting and processing the files. But it does provide one of the few ways to compose a true panoramic single shot image with a digital body.
As far as my own shooting, I’ve gone hot and cold with anamorphic lenses. After keeping this one on my camera for a while, I inevitably got a little tired of the added weight and quirky ergonomics. But whenever I put the lens back on, the unique format always gives me a new creative spark. It’s not like the X Pan itself is an everyday kind of camera, so I’m happy to use this lens in much the same way – as a creative spark.
Plus, if I ever want to pretend to be a filmmaker I have the perfect lens for some make-believe. If anything, I hope the continuing price escalation on the real X Pan keeps driving people to these lenses as an alternative, if only for the remote chance that the increased excitement for anamorphic lenses urges someone to make one that’s better-suited for stills.
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