This Is A View Camera

Not so long ago, the ultimate tool of a real photographer was a large view camera, that let him (or rarely, her)  take big, high resolution pictures with adjustable perspective.  Now, thanks to panoramic software, you can do the same with any camera. You simply take that big picture in smaller pieces, stitch them together and adjust the perspective afterward.

I make lots of “view camera” images with this little Sony NEX-5N camera.  Its 16 Mpixel 2/3 frame sensor can capture most of the detail imaged by a good lens, such as the fine old Leitz Summicron f/2 35mm in the picture above.   With that lens the field of view is roughly 20 x 30 degrees, so I shoot on a grid spaced 15 x 25 degrees, with the camera in “portrait” orientation.  I use a sturdy tripod with the camera mounted on either a Nodal Ninja 3 panoramic head, or more often on the telescoping surveyor’s prism pole shown below.  The big advantage of the pole is that it lets me raise the camera as much as 15 feet for a better point of view.  Try that with a view camera!

I convert raw images with Photoshop, using camera profiles specific to the NEX-5N, and stitch with PTGui.  Often this involves fusing several exposures to increase the dynamic range.  Then I polish tone and color in Photoshop.

For adjusting perspective, the hallmark of “view camera” photography, I mainly use my own Panini-Pro software.  It has swing, tilt and shift adjustments that work just like a real view camera’s (though with wider ranges) as well as a huge zoom range and of course the Panini projection, which can make extreme horizontal fields of view look merely wide, and wide angle images look as if they were taken with a portrait lens.  It is possible to get some of the same effects, though less conveniently, with PTGui, whose “vedutismo” projection is the same as the Panini projection.  And PTGui offers several useful projections  that Panini-Pro does not, such as cylindrical, Mercator and compressed rectilinear.

With all this software power, it is easy to bend pictures into outlandish shapes; and sometimes that is the goal.  But usually I try to make the image as believable as I can,  with nice straight verticals, good perspective planes and a pleasing balance of apparent sizes. I have never had any trouble getting a nice perspective with fields of view up to 130 degrees, and 150 degrees or more is often feasible.  For comparison, extreme “super-wide-angle” lenses have fields of view between 110 and 120 degrees.

At 109 x 77 degrees, this example qualifies as a “super-wide-angle” photo, but does not look extreme because it is in a mild Panini projection. Click to enlarge to 1200 x 800 pixels (the original is 7300 x 4900 pixels).

The Crain surveyor’s prism pole I use is made of aluminum, can extend to 15 feet high, and has a large accurate bubble level built in.  It came with a steel ground point, but I substituted a ball jointed swiveling foot made from an old shower head and an electrical box cover.  A Crain “Stedi-Rest” clip attached to the tripod holds the pole vertical and lets it turn freely around its length.  I can set horizontal angles accurately enough by lining up parts of the clip with marks I made every 30 degrees around the bubble level housing.  The camera bracket uses the two upper arms of a Nodal Ninja 3 to set the vertical angle of view.  I had to wire out the NEX-5N’s shutter switch to make it work with a small Yong Nuo radio remote shutter release.  Click on the pictures below to see the details.


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