RAILFANNING in PANORAMIC MODE
(This article originally ran in the April, 2013 Camera Bag column in Railfan & Railroad Magazine.
It has been updated for presentation here.)


A BNSF coal load southbound on the Joint Line at Palmer Lake, Colorado.
Panoramic composition cropped from a full frame of a 10 MP Nikon D200.


Panoramic cameras have traditionally been best suited mainly for scenic landscape photography. But trains tending to be rather long subjects, the panoramic format is a good way to add interesting variety to a digital slide show, or for framing to display on your den or office wall. A typical panoramic image is two to three times wider than traditional print sizes. For example, 8x20 or 8x30 instead of 8x10; 11x28 or 11x42 instead of 11x14, etc. Being creative and going even longer also is effective at times.

There are several ways to take a panoramic photo, and several types of dedicated panoramic cameras. But cameras like the Widelux, Noblex and Horizon use a revolving lens swiveling around past a slit opening to expose a wide section of film, a function that works best on stationary subjects, not moving trains. The 35mm Hasselblad X-Pan, and the Linhof Technorama and Horseman 612 and 617 medium format cameras, take a panoramic image on a double length (two normal frames) of film, allowing high quality, very large panoramic prints. Another advantage of these cameras is they function like a regular camera with a single exposure using a full range of shutter speeds and apertures, as well as interchangeable lenses, from medium wide angle to small telephoto. However, these "wide format" cameras and lenses are quite pricey. The X-Pan is no longer made but will cost $1500 and up for a used camera with 45mm lens, and the Linhof and Horseman cameras start at around $8,000 and up. Additional lenses are similarly very high priced.

Given these high prices, plus the probability the average photographer will never need the ability to produce super large panoramic prints (measuring many feet, not in inches), probably the best way to achieve a railfan panoramic image is to use a camera you already own.


UP 8444 and 3985 at Hermosa siding in Wyoming, doubleheading in April, 1981 to the 10th anniversary celebration of the California State RR Museum in Sacramento. (The high wind has completely obscured 3985!) Panoramic format image cropped from a full frame of a medium format Pentax 6x7 negative.

Composing for the Panoramic Image
This is accomplished by composing so the intended panoramic image is in about a 1/2 to 1/3 vertical section of the horizontal frame, and ideally this will be the center section of the frame to take advantage of the central portion of the lens, which is always sharpest near the center. A DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera, even with the small "DX" APS film sized sensor, will have more than sufficient quality to create a panoramic print of about 13x36 inches or 16x40 inches by cropping out the middle horizontal portion of the image. Ditto for medium format film frames, which when cropped will leave a section of film equal to two 35mm film frames end to end, the same as the Hasselblad X-Pan. And if you shoot 4x5, you get a full medium format size film strip with this cropping process.

35mm slide shooters can use one of the cameras that switch to panoramic mode in-camera using a switch to cover up the top and bottom portion of the film frame, cropping a panoramic format from the 35mm film frame. Or with a camera without this feature, you can compose a panoramic image on just a horizontal half of each 35mm frame. But to project a panoramic image the top and bottom of each slide mount will have to be masked off with opaque tape.

Making the Panoramic Print
If working digitally, for panoramics with a height of more than eight inches, a 13 inch "wide format" or 16 inch "large format" printer that uses roll paper to print long lengths will be needed. With one of these printers, printing virtually any length desired is easy. However, a major problem with large panoramic prints is the size. You do not easily carry a 16x42 inch print around without danger of having it get creased, and these extra large sizes take expensive custom made frames and mats. But the effort can be worth it to obtain an occasional super nice, eye-catching train image for framing.

You can also print and cut out two smaller panoramics from one sheet of standard format paper. Sizing each panoramic image to allow some white border, an 8x10 sheet will yield two 3 1/2 x 9 inch panoramics; a 13x19 sheet will yield two 6x12 or 6x18 inch panoramics; and a 16x20 sheet will yield two 7 1/2 x 19 inch prints.

Darkroom printing of panoramic images is straight forward. You will have to cut down the extra paper after printing the panoramic through the center of the paper; or to avoid that paper waste, print two panoramics side by side on a sheet of paper and cut apart.


UP northbound on the Joint Line at Greenland, Colorado. Hasselblad X-Pan panoramic camera.

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