pocket view camera

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 panorama stitching 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 “view camera” images with this tiny Sony NEX-5N camera.  Its 16 megapixel 2/3 frame sensor captures most of the detail imaged by a good lens, such as this fine old Leitz Summicron f/2 35mm.   With that lens the field of view is roughly 20 x 30 degrees. I shoot on a grid spaced 15 x 25 degrees, with the camera in portrait orientation.  I use a sturdy tripod and a Nodal Ninja 3 panoramic head, or mount the camera on a telescoping surveyor’s prism pole, supported by a plastic clip on the tripod.  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 shoot raw of course, and develop the images using custom camera profiles for the NEX-5N. I stitch with PTGui, often 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 just like a real view camera’s (though with wider ranges) as well as a near-infinite 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 many of the same effects, though less conveniently, in PTGui, whose “vedutismo” projection is the same as the Panini projection; and I use PTGui’s compressed rectilinear projection to render some images that are not possible with Panini-Pro.

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 never have any trouble simulating traditional view camera perspective, even with a field of view of 130 degrees, which is well beyond what a glass lens can give you. 

The example below was captured from a height of 12 feet. At 109 degrees wide, it qualifies as a super-wide-angle photo. But it does not look so extreme, because it has been condensed with a mild Panini projection.

My House, Panini projection, 109 x 77 degrees

[originally posted in April 2012]

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