Shooting Wide

A few years ago, I managed to get hold of a somewhat legendary analog camera, the Fuji TX2. It's better known in Europe as the Hasselblad XPAN II, but it's in effect a simple rebrand of the exact same camera. It's a rangefinder with a very limited set of optics, and for a very good reason: it shoots superwide panoramas, exposing two 24x36 frames at the same time. The XPAN II was released in 2003, so it's not an old camera. Only three lenses exist: a 45mm f/4, a 90mm f/4 and a rare as rocking horsesh*it 30mm f/5.6. I own only the former two, and to be honest rarely if ever use the 90mm. 

It took me a long while to truly befriend the xpan format. I was lucky that on my very first roll I caught some interesting scenes and got a glimpse of what the wide format could deliver. It was not before my third or fourth roll that I caught a scene in Shanghai (where I was living at the time) that truly showcased the power of panorama. 

(This photo shot at Xiangyang Park in Shanghai on a sunday morning shows people dancing under the branches of naked trees. The symmetry of the scene could not have been easily captured with any other system.)

In this age of digital wizardry, it may seen strange to be obsessed by a particular format or frame size, since all can be reframed in post. And I'm not the last one to do that with shots that warrant it. But one of the great things about analog in general and about the xpan in particular is to think about composition as you're framing rather than revisit composition later. It means generally that the shots that work work better, because the thought process was there in the first place. Another aspect of course is that if you were to shoot that wide with a classic wide angle lens, you'd have to deal with all kinds of parallax issues which just don't affect xpan shots. 

Still, two frames in width (24mm x 72mm) is a lot of real estate to be working with. When I say it took me a long time to get accustomed to the xpan, what I really mean is that it is intimidating, looking through the viewfinder, to see how broad the image is, and to notice all the elements that will end up in the picture and then try to compose to keep it all interesting. I'm sure there are many kinds of photographic approaches that would make good use of the xpan, but the two I've been most consistently exploring have been street and landscapes or cityscapes. Portrait is not really an option because the lenses don't open much (although with the 90mm you can do interesting things in that area, but it's not something I've explored enough). 

With *street*, the key challenge is lines : the frame is such that there is a very powerful urge to shoot parallel to any lines: curbs, buildings, all of that right angle stuff that you find in most cities. And it's not a bad approach, it delivers strong compositions quite often, but it can get a bit samey and boring after a while. 

(Shot in Warsaw on a morning walk to a business meeting. Three guys in yellow jackets with brooms, I couldn't miss that. Notice how the photo is perfectly aligned with the street...)

The only way I've found to extirpate myself from this is when shooting groups of people, in which case the mass creates the focal point and the lines don't matter so much. Still, these are few and far between and it's still an approach I need to experiment more with. 

(Shot in Shanghai. This was a spur of the moment shot, I really wanted to capture the scene and do it fast enough that my raising a camera wouldn't distract the players. I wouldn't say this is a strong composition, but it works...)

In summary I'd say that the challenge of shooting wide street with the xpan is to break off from the tyranny of lines (at least sometimes). On Instagram, I'd recommend checking the work of @vsoniji who really makes the street work with the xpan (but doesn't post near enough xpan shots to my liking).

With *landscapes* or cityscapes, to a certain extent you are similarly prisoner of a single strong line: the horizon. But then that's true of all landscape photography I suppose. Here the wide real estate in the frame really shines because from any high vantage point you can usually embrace much more than what a traditional 2/3 frame will grasp unless you go really wide and then you get more sky than landscape, which can be great for certain shots, but not for all. Where the xpan format shines is really in two things, in my opinion: 

The first one is in highlighting a jagged landscape or cityscape that follows a roughly horizontal line. The silhouette that results is unusually strong because it is so wide. 

(This shows what you can do cityscape wise with a high enough vantage point or a long enough distance from your point of interest - 45mm is rather closer than comfortable for most ground level cityscapes.)

The second approach is to highlight a single point of interest amongst a lot of negative space. I love to use this approach for sunrises, sunsets: find a single point of foreground interest and build the composition around it. It results in a fairly classic framing, but very effective. The negative space can be really appealing in this context. 

(Here I aligned the setting sun and the fishing boat for a single line of strong interest (and also great silhouette lighting on the boat) and left the rest empty.)

I encourage you to check out @bryce_drobny on Instagram for some really interesting landscape and cityscape compositions

So obviously there's a lot more to wide shooting with an xpan than what I have highlighted here, and I have only begun this journey of exploration. But I'll be posting more xpan shots as I run them, and I intend to produce a zine sometime later in the year when I feel like I've accumulated enough worthwhile material. In the meantime, if you're interested in this format I can only encourage you to subscribe to the #xpan hashtag.

If you enjoyed this article, you might enjoy the other WHAT I’M WORKING ON articles that other YOUR EXHIBITION members have written. You can find them here.