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Which features should I look for in a swing-lens panoramic camera (also called short rotation or rotating lens cameras). Which features should I avoid?

There are so many options, I found the following so far:

I plan to buy a working camera from a reputable seller. There are 3d-printed adapters to use 120 film in the Kodak cameras designed to use obsolete roll film formats.

I'm interested in using this type of film camera rather than digital pano stitching because process is important to me. I prefer to make pictures with a camera rather than a computer as much as I can. I've been working in B&W, so film is less absurd. Because it limits the number of pictures it makes less work for me later.

There are not digital camera alternatives that provide a cylindrical film/sensor plane.

Two photographers whose panoramic work interests me are Boris Michailov (Horizon) and Josef Sudek (Panoram). Jeff Bridges' work (Widelux) is also interesting…that covers all three of the cameras I mentioned.

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    When I search for "rotating lens camera" I don't find much... Are you referring to panorama camera's? Apr 14 at 17:34
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    @SaaruLindestøkke, looking up those camera model names, it looks like the OP is asking about swing-lens panoramic cameras. The Horizon is the only currently-in-production model (Russian). The Kodak Panoram is ca. 1899-1928, the Widelux 1958-2000. As someone who used to do the vintage fountain pen thing, I'd say the age on the Panoram makes finding a good working copy with an intact 105 take-up spool unlikely and only something for a vintage camera collector/restorer to attempt.
    – inkista
    Apr 14 at 21:44
  • @inkista 3D printed adapters are available for 120 film use in the sizes used by the old models because they used roll film. Apr 14 at 23:38
  • There's also the Spinner 360. I'd get a newer camera (Spinner 360 or Horizont) because they're more likely to work and cost less.
    – xiota
    Apr 15 at 0:43
  • @xiota I plan to buy a working camera from a reputable seller. Some of the larger US sellers provide a warranty on their used cameras. Apr 15 at 2:00
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I wanted a rotating-lens panoramic camera about 20 years ago. I wanted one that used 35mm film. At the time there were three options – Widelux, Horizon or Noblex.

I ignored Widelux cameras because they were out of production and seemed hard to obtain. I believe they were made in Japan. I know that Neil Leifer used one from time to time on assignment for Sports Illustrated. I ignored Horizon/Horizont cameras because reviews (20 years ago) said that they were not very reliable. I think they were made in Ukraine or Russia. I believe these cameras don't use any batteries, and rely on "clockwork-type" mechanics to spin the lens drum. I read that the electronically-controlled Noblexes were much more exact, and as they were in production and easy to buy new, that's what I went for. I bought a Noblex 135 S and loved it and continue to use it. The slightly-higher-spec 135 U didn't offer any additional features that were important to me – I think it has slower shutter speed options than the 135 S, but since you need a tripod for such exposure durations, you can achieve the same result with the 135 S using its multiple exposure feature.

Noblex cameras were manufactured in Germany by Kamera Werk Dresden. They are no longer in business, but it's well worth a look at the archived version of their website. Here's a comparison of different models for example. They also had a page on user advice and potential problems, but it was only available in German.

As I mentioned, I wanted a 35mm camera, but Noblex also had models using 120 film – the 6/150 models produced images measuring 50 x 120 mm (see the archived Kamera Werk Dresden website for the specific differences in specs), and the 175 UX produced images measuring 50 x 170 mm. In addition, the Widelux 1500, introduced around 1988, also used 120 film.
Edit to add: I recently became aware of a couple of other medium format options... There is also a Chinese camera called WIDEPAN PRO-2 140, and another option from German industrial camera manufacturer KST called Eyescan 624. I saw these on an old panoramic camera listing from panorama-gallery.com.

The Lomographic Society seems to have bought/licenced the Horizon camera – you can still buy these new I think. Last time I checked, there were two models. I'm not sure what the difference is between them, but I think one has a fixed aperture and fewer shutter speed options. Again, I think these work without batteries. If buying a new camera, and having the reassurance of a warranty, etc, is important, I'd check these out. They have a microsite here: https://microsites.lomography.com/horizon

By the way, I talk about "shutter speeds" as that's the accepted term in photography, but these cameras do not have a shutter. They use a lens sitting inside a drum, that rotates about its own vertical axis, and has a narrow vertical slit. When you take a photo, the drum rotates, exposing the slit to the light, which passes through the lens to the film. The "shutter speed" setting determines the duration for which light is hitting any portion of the film.

And actually, that might be the crux of the answer – with "normal" photography, people obsess over distortion and sharpness towards the edge of the image circle, but with a rotating-lens camera, only the centre of the lens projects light onto the film. What is much more important with these cameras is evenness of rotation of the lens drum. That was one of the big selling points of Noblex cameras – they are electronically controlled, and by the time the slit starts admitting light to the lens/film, the drum has already done a half-rotation, shaken off any inertia and is rotating smoothly at all "shutter speeds" – avoiding banding in the exposed image. Take a look at the Camera-wiki.org article on the Widelux for an example of this banding.

Also worth mentioning – which is not particular to any model – but it's a good idea to avoid full sun in your photos with this kind of rotating-lens camera design. There is often too much variation in brightness across the full ~140° of the scene, and you can get weird flare effects, because of the lens rotating past the sun. You can kind of see the effect in this Lomography Horizon sample photo.

There's a lovely book by Nick Meers called 'Stretch: The Art of Panoramic Photography' – I recommend having a look if you can (perhaps your local library can source a copy) – it's a nice overview of panoramic gear options and is profusely illustrated with inspiring sample photos.

To add to your list of photographers working with this type of camera, I would suggest also checking out Macduff Everton who often used a medium format Noblex camera – personally, I think he has created some wonderful photos that really can't be replicated very easily with other gear. Small titbit of info... I read somewhere that he (exclusively?) shot with ISO 800 colour negative film from Fujifilm. I have his book 'The Western Horizon' – also worth checking out.

Anton Corbijn also used a Horizon camera during photoshoots with the band U2 in preparation for the 1987 release of The Joshua Tree album. The vinyl release opened to reveal this photo. Corbijn said, "I'd never shot with it before, so I took a risk. On the shoot for the gatefold sleeve I had no idea how to focus it properly. I focused on the background and the band are slightly out of focus. Fortunately there was a lot of light. You also see my case on the ground – I had no idea it was in the shot." Something to keep in mind when you are using one of these cameras.

Curious elephant extending his trunk towards camera Elephant Rides, Thailand, 2004

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[revised with additional details added at end]

To add to Osulic's excellent answer:

I purchased a working export version of the original Horizont (Horizon) used from a reputable seller with a ninety day warranty. The export models use Latin rather than Cyrillic for the model name. Serial number indicates it was manufactured in 1968.

Aside from availability, the reasons I chose it over the alternative models include:

  1. All mechanical operation. No batteries to corrode. No electronics to die from age. Clockwork mechanisms have been around for several centuries.
  2. Detachable viewfinder. This makes composition possible without the camera body obscuring portions of the viewfinder. It also means the rest of the camera doesn't have to come out of the bag, so it can be a bit more discreet. 3.Robust construction. Everything is metal except the handle which is bakalite and the optics which are glass.
  3. If it lasted more than fifty years already, it will probably last a few more.

Some additional things to consider with this camera and similar cameras:

The focus is fixed at the hyperfocal distance for an F16 aperture. This means at wider apertures, all of the depth of field reduction occurs at the front. Only nearest focus can be reduced. At F16 depth of field is from 1 meter to infinity. Near depth of field moves away from the camera in "stops" as the aperture widens, 1.4 meters to infinity at F11, 2 meters to infinity at F8 and so on down to 5.6 meters to infinity at F2.8.

Basically this means optimum performance in low light is mostly dependent on shutter speed and ISO in most ordinary situations.

The original Horizont has a slowest shutter speed of 1/30 second. So indoors in typical spaces requires high speed film. You can about get to EV 7 with ISO 3200 film at F16.

The newer plastic Horizon cameras have slow speed escapement that allows 1" exposure or 1/2" exposure depending on model. At these speeds it is more practical to make sharp pictures in normal sized indoor spaces with less specialized films.

Tips after a few rolls:

  1. Use the handle grip, it gets your left hand out of the picture and provides a secure support. The secure support allows the right hand palm to sit on the back of the camera rather than clutching the end. This keeps your right hand out of the picture. If you grip the camera on the end, you run a good chance of photographing your fingers.
  2. Watch out for the end of the roll. The teeth on the film sprocket gear were (in true Soviet style) apparently inspired by the drive sprocket of a heavy tank. I found it made tearing out the film sprockets at the end of a roll quite easy. If it happens, it may be hard to rewind the film. Use a changing/dark bag.

Some remarks

The book Stretch is highly recommended, Osulic is spot on. I found a used copy.

The old metal Horizont is a pretty simple camera and that makes it more repairable. The only part I read about breaking is the viewfinder's built in level due to a drop. There are some basic repair videos on Youtube including one for the light seals should it be needed.

[revision 1]

  1. The warranty came in handy. The old Horizon developed spacing issues. The seller chose refunding over repair.
  2. Because the swing lens makes pictures that can't be made otherwise, I replaced the returned camera with a new-old-stock Horizon S3Pro.
  3. The S3Pro feels solid. The outer shell is ABS, but the frame is metal. The integrated viewfinder is less fiddly than the detachable viewfinder on the original Soviet Era version.
  4. The S3 Pro covers EV15(full sun) to EV7 average indoors with ISO 200 film at f16 (maximum depth of field from 1m to infinity). This makes the camera much more versatile. There is also an S3Pro 500 version which will do the same with ISO 400 film.

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