Taking in more with the Widelux
One of my fascinations with film cameras is their variety of formats and capture styles. Even within the panoramic format, there are examples of at least three methods - the Kodak Circut (rotating body), the Horizon 202 (the lens rotates), and the Hasselblad XPAN (wide lens on wide frame). It had been some time since I acquired a camera, and as my lust for gear was waning, I happened to come across the Widelux in my reading.
This camera’s unique features inspired me to obsess about it for months. I ended up buying a copy of Jeff Bridges’ book, “Pictures”, crawling through forums for information, and keeping an eye on the classifieds. One day, an F7 appeared with a surprisingly low price on Analog Photography Users’ Group (apug.org) so I pulled the trigger and bought it.
The camera itself is quite showy, with its array of chrome knobs on the top and the curious lettering and almost Art-Deco lines on the front. W I D E L U X. On my body, the spacing of the letters is uneven, suggesting that the casting was carved by hand. The original box was a velvety-red material with gold lettering, and the brown leather case had chromed trim and a red interior.
When you look through the fixed viewfinder, you’re presented with an unusually wide view. It’s not that its view is wider than your own vision, but in the resulting still image you can explore the image by panning your eye’s focus - something you can’t do while seeing directly with your eyes (without moving them). I think this is the subtle magic behind the panoramic image.
After shooting several rolls to study the camera, it became clear to me that this format has two main things to learn. The first is the camera’s relative angle to the horizon. If you’re not careful, the world will curl up around you if you’re off kilter. The second is the compression or expansion of objects that move during exposure, depending on their movement with respect to the lens movement. For example, if a person is moving in the opposite direction of the lens movement, they’ll be compressed horizontally. Another unique result from having a moving lens is its flare around light sources - you get a horizontal halo that looks like a lighthouse beam. Since the lens focus is fixed, you really only need to set the aperture and then ponder these two variables (or not!) before you press the shutter button. I find myself considering the framing first, then tilting the camera a bit more if I want to make the image more dramatic. If I’m shooting further subjects, then I tend to worry more about the camera angle first and then the framing
The aperture stops down to f/11, where I try to keep it to keep Sunny-16 calculations simple. There are three “speeds” on the F7, which are really lens turret rotational speeds. The 1/125 and 1/250 speeds are two positions on a single gear box. The 1/15 speed is a separate gear box, but very prone to skipping as the gear teeth wear down (causing vertical banding in the frame). It’s a shame, since that slow rotation produces the most unique look from the camera.
I would not call this a “carry around every day” sort of camera, but it has proven to be great for hikes, street fairs, and crowds - situations where the light is relatively stable. The aspect ratio gives a cinematic quality to some photos. I’ve taken shots where people stepped back to get out view, only to remain in the frame and look straight into the lens. Aside from framing the immediate subjects, the rest of the image is difficult to imagine or control. The challenge with a camera like this is to come up with images that have more going on than their obvious “Widelux look”. Its personality shines through too easily sometimes. To me, that’s one of the fun things about trying a new camera. Getting to know it, and learning to work together.
—Jason Schlachet, San Francisco.
***from top to bottom,
#1 Easter Sunday - Ilford Pan F+ 50, Rodinal 1+50.
#2 Holding Hands - Kodak Tri-X at 3200, Rodinal 1+50.
#3 Chinatown - Kodak Tri-X at 1600. Rodinal 1+50.
#4 Half Dome - Arista Premium 400 at 6400, Rodinal 1+50.
#5 Indian Wedding - Kodak Portra 160VC +1 1/2, lab developed
#6 BART - Kodak Ektar 100, f/15, lab developed