How I improved a faux panoramic film camera with 3D printing

Mar 17, 2023

Nicholas Morganti

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

How I improved a faux panoramic film camera with 3D printing

Mar 17, 2023

Nicholas Morganti

John Aldred is a photographer with over 20 years of experience in the portrait and commercial worlds. He is based in Scotland and has been an early adopter – and occasional beta tester – of almost every digital imaging technology in that time. As well as his creative visual work, John uses 3D printing, electronics and programming to create his own photography and filmmaking tools and consults for a number of brands across the industry.

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Panoramas: a great format for (in my opinion) most photography. Dramatic landscape? Make it panoramic. Artsy architectural photo? Panoramic. Wanna make that softball game look a little more like Ben-Hur? Panoramic, of course. Weddings? Well… never mind. So as a panoramic enthusiast, and someone who enjoys shooting film, I’ve had my eye on several panoramic film cameras. Unfortunately, a true, full panorama camera can be very costly, like the Hasselblad XPan (>$3,000) or the Fuji GX617 (>$2,000).

There are also swing lens cameras, which use a mechanical method of capturing a panorama. The lens of the camera pivots or “swings” in a horizontal arc, exposing the film to the panorama as it moves. This mechanical motion can add distortion to photos which may be a desirable effect for some. A handful of companies produced these cameras, like the Widelux F7 (<$1000) used notably by Jeff Bridges behind the scenes of his films, or the more affordable Horizon Kompkt (<$200).

Regardless, what makes these cameras all true panorama cameras is their ability to expose the entire panoramic photo onto film. For example, a standard 35mm film camera exposes an area of 24 x 35mm. Meanwhile, something like the Hasselblad XPan exposes 65 x 35mm. This uses more film but results in a larger, more detailed image and a true panorama. However, there exists a type of camera which “fakes” the panorama.

The “Faux” Panoramic Camera

There are many film cameras that emulate the effect of a true panoramic camera by reducing the area of film exposed to the dimensions of a panoramic photo, cropping it rather than expanding it. The Ansco Pix Panorama (<$10) is a camera that does just that, exposing a minuscule 35 x 13mm compared to a standard 35mm camera at 35x 24mm or the Hasselblad XPan at 65 x 24mm. It is also incredibly simple, having a static shutter speed of 1/125, a 28mm fixed focus lens, an aperture of f11 and no light meter to speak of.

The camera is completely mechanical, the film is advanced, and the shutter is charged by winding a knurled plastic disk. So, with its tiny frame size and nonexistent settings, this little plastic box is truly a point-and-shoot, hardly a Hasselblad. A few simple modifications to the Pix Panorama would go a long way to improve it.

Tripod Mount

Yes, this camera even lacks a tripod mount. Something as simple as using a tripod alters how I take photos with any camera, as I spend more time framing and adjusting shots. Now, since the shutter speed of the Pix is 1/125, handheld daylit photos should be just fine but having the option of using a tripod is better than not having it, so I made a mount. The design for it is very simple, in Autodesk Inventor, I made a trapezoid with a hole in it. This hole is a little smaller in diameter than a ¼” brass nutsert.

I 3D printed this mount on an FDM printer using PLA filament with 100% infill. When the mount was finished printing and removed from the print bed, I moved it to my bench and used some forceps to hold the nutsert over the hole. I heated the nutsert using my soldering iron, applying a small amount of pressure. As the nutsert heated, it melted the PLA and buried its way in and when it was flush, I removed the soldering iron and let it cool.

With the mount complete, I then adhered it to the bottom left side of the camera using double-sided tape. Glue or epoxy would work too but I wanted something less permanent, as I may alter the design in the future. Although simple, this worked quite well.

Filter Holder

Filters may not be the first thing to come to mind when modifying such a basic camera. However, since this camera lacks any kind of exposure control, using an ND filter would never be more appropriate. In addition, using color filters when shooting black and white film can enhance aspects of a photo. Using filters would be a beneficial addition, whether it be a red filter to boost contrast or a yellow filter to bring out clouds.

Back in Autodesk Inventor, I designed the base of the filter holder to conform to the curved face of the Pix Panorama. I then designed the part responsible for holding 58mm filters. The filters are held in place by two small “fingers” 180° apart from one another. The distance between them is a little less than 58mm, meaning the filters fit snugly in place due to friction but can be easily changed.

Both filter mount models were printed in PLA at 100% infill like the tripod mount. I chose to print this using a matte black filament, so it absorbs light as it’s placed around the camera’s lens. In my mind, this will mitigate the chances of light reflecting oddly into the lens if using white or another light-colored/colored filament. Once the models were printed, they were removed from the printer and brought to the bench, where they were adhered together using WELD-ON 4, one of the best solvents I’ve found for adhering PLA together.

Likewise, to the tripod mount, the filter holder was adhered to the front of the camera using double-sided tape. Once installed, the inexpensive set of Neewer 58mm filters I use could be mounted and changed easily.

Disaster

Much like my life, I expected loading the Pix Panorama to be easy. However, disaster struck almost immediately. When loading the camera with film, for reasons unknown, I didn’t believe the film was winding properly, so I hit the rewind release and rewound the film… completely. I wasn’t planning on doing this. I thought I could rewind it just enough to leave the film leader exposed and then try again. Nope.

Normally, saying goodbye to the film leader wouldn’t be so bad, as I would pull out another roll of film and save the process of retrieving the leader for home. Double nope. Not only was I an hour or so away from home, but I also didn’t bring an extra roll of film. In a panic, I began trying everything to recover the leader, using my Leatherman to cut up bits of random plastic and cardboard found in my car to make a makeshift leader retriever, but nothing worked.

About to give up, I realized that I could turn my jacket into a makeshift darkroom bag by zipping it up, sealing both top and bottom openings by rubber-banding them closed and sticking my arms through the sleeves. Before doing this, I loaded the jacket darkroom bag with the roll of film, the modified Pix Panorama, and my Leatherman. Once my arms were in, I was able to pop one cap of the film roll off using the Leatherman’s bottle opener tool, remove the spooled film just enough to feel the leader, and slot it back through the opening slit in the case. I popped the cap back on best I could and proceeded to load the camera with the roll.

With a few prayers said, the camera was removed from the jacket darkroom bag and was ready to shoot.

A recreation of the jacket darkroom bag

Results

Fortunately, it appears my Macgyvered methods to load the camera worked. I shot a roll of Ilford HP-5 Plus, which I developed with old ID-11 developer. The age of the developer likely contributed to the grain seen in the photos. Regardless, I’m quite satisfied with the outcome. Even if they aren’t “true” panoramic photos, the effect is still impactful.

The Pix Panorama also has a unique focus, with it being sharpest in the center and some blurring and vignetting in the corners. The use of various colored filters achieved what I wanted, and the tripod mount was incredibly helpful. So, in the end, is there really any reason to use, let alone modify a camera like this? Absolutely.

I had a great time designing the parts for it and had an even better time shooting and developing the film, even with the initial mishap accounted for. Being able to change out filters was made easy by the filter holder, and many of the photos were taken with the camera on a tripod. While it certainly isn’t a Hasselblad or Widelux, it’s still is a distinct and fun camera.

The Final Product

Sample Photos Using Ilford HP5 Plus Developed in ID11 Developer

About the Author

Nicholas Morganti is a landscape, architectural, portrait, and product photographer based in Buffalo, NY. You can find more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram. This article was also published here and shared with permission.

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