Magazine Article


Wide-Open Vistas
Creating panoramas

Camera Setup
Tom Watson

Tom Watson

Tom Watson

Photographing architecture and landscapes with a view camera and sheet film requires meticulous preparation and patience. It takes years to acquire a skill set that balances success with frustration. One must be comfortable with complexity, be highly organized, and calmly make the correct decisions as the light changes.

Who knew that 40 years ago, when I started my career, that view camera/film-based work methods would serve as a firm platform for becoming a digital photographer. With a digital workflow, we have the normal and expected rectangular images, but more exciting (to me at least) are the panoramic possibilities.

I use two terms to describe panoramas: rectilinear and curvilinear. A rectilinear image is a left and right image taken from an image circle and stitched together in software. The advantage of this type of image is that only the image plane is shifted, so the stitch is perfect.

This is particularly useful in architectural imaging where multiple lines and patterns need to align. By using a view camera, I retain control of the horizon and the plane of focus. Because a view camera is rigid, once it's level and plumb, the stitching software has no trouble making a seamless image. Since the image is composed without moving the lens, no distortion is induced. Architects prefer this method.

Curvilinear panoramas depend on mounting the camera on a step motor, which is a highly accurate motor that communicates between the computer, digital back, and software. Since the camera lens moves through an arc as rows of pixels are registered by the software, the image has a curvilinear aspect to it. In landscape images, this curve is hardly noticeable. When the subject is architecture, the curve is evident.

My principal digital tools in creating panoramas are the Better Light scanning back and the Phase One instant-capture back. I use each when the circumstances are appropriate. I can create a rectilinear panorama with either imaging device. A curvilinear panorama is produced with the Better Light Pano/WideView adapter.

We photographers are the beneficiaries of the work of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and programmers who have given us the best imaging tools in the history of photography. To maximize the decision-making power a photographer has over these tools, I always work tethered to a laptop. The majority of my final images are composited from multiple exposures. The info displayed on the laptop allows me to make critical judgments as I work. And the organized collection of images makes post-production go more smoothly.

The camera that I most frequently use is the S.K. Grimes custom 4x5. It is ideal for architectural images because the lens plane and the film plane are perfectly parallel. In place of the bellows, it has a machined aluminum tube. For most architectural applications, focus is only required on the surface perpendicular to the image plane. As soon as I twist the helical focus mount and see a sharp image on the ground glass, I can insert the digital back and not disturb the focus. The camera is bolted onto the Pano/WideView adapter for curvilinear panoramas. For rectilinear panoramas, the Phase One FlexAdaptor is fixed to the back of the camera.

When the situation requires manipulating the image plane, I use a Sinar f2. For studio work, the Sinar p2 is ideal because of its geared rise, fall, and shift. The Horseman L is my favorite field camera, as it breaks down into a small package for backpacking and is more rigid and more precise than any field camera I've ever seen. The Hasselblad is the camera of choice when the tempo is very fast and panoramas are not expected.

Recommended reading:
Photographing Buildings Inside and Out by Norman McGrath

Tom Watson ( has been a professional photographer for almost four decades, much of that time spent freelancing. He went digital five years ago and isn't looking back.