View of Spirit Lake 1997 Rolleiflex 2.8F camera

Analogue Panoramic Pictures with a Rolleiflex Camera – by Christopher Schwer

“As I traveled with my camera I came to realize that often one picture could not capture all of the emotion that had moved me to photograph. Many of the elements in the landscape that had created that emotion were outside the view of a single square picture. I needed a way to take it all in.

Constructing panoramic images from sequential frames allows the presentation of the landscape in a grand yet intimate style, without the jarring perspective usually associated with wide-angle imagery. In using a lens of normal focal length, a familiar context and perspective are created. Within that context, the language of light, surface, depth and texture can most effectively be expressed across a wide visual expanse.

What overwhelms me still is how small we are in relation to the landscape yet how much control we manage to exert over it. We create magnificent national parks to cherish the landscape yet we remove entire mountaintops, devastating the environment in search of energy, never realizing that we are part of the landscape and inseparable from it.”

Excerpt from a 2011 Artist’s Statement

Long Point Light WWII Memorial
Long Point Light WWII Memorial, Provincetown, MA Rolleiflex Tele camera w/ Zeiss 135mm 4.0 Sonnar lens

In 1977, at the age of 20, I began my life in photography. On a whim, I enrolled in a night school class at a community college in Rochester, New York. I bought a Miranda 35mm camera and discovered a passion which has lasted my entire life. I am primarily self-taught. After that initial photo 101 class, I quit school and read everything I could find concerning the how and why of photography. I got a job at a local camera store and it wasn’t long before someone walked in with a Rolleiflex 2.8F camera to trade. The store decided not to buy it but I chased the gentleman out of the store and bought the camera on the spot. It was my first medium format camera. The seed of the next forty years was planted that evening in a busy parking lot.

I am often asked to describe the working method I employ to create my panoramic images. Before I begin, let me state that for display online, my panoramic images, unless otherwise noted, are scanned from the original silver gelatin prints made by me in my darkroom at Kelton Labs in New York City while I was a principle printer there between 1987 and 2010.

I spent my entire career as a professional photographic printer, working for fashion and fine art clients. For more than forty years, my own photographic work has been made primarily with either a Rolleflex 2.8E or 2.8F and occasionally with the Tele and Wide cameras. There have been other cameras of course but for the purpose of this article we’ll concentrate on my love the Rolleiflex twin lens cameras.

Most of my panoramic images were made with the newer version of the Rollei Panorama Head. This device must be used in conjunction with the Rolleifix quick release to be properly aligned with the rotational point of the camera and lens. From time to time I also use a Manfrotto 302 QTVR panoramic tripod head. All of my work is shot on Kodak Tri-X or T-max 400 film and developed in D76 1:1. For those who are not familiar with the Rolleiflex Panorama tripod head, this is a small device which fits between the bottom of the camera and the tripod. This device has ten click stops which roughly match the angle of view of the lens. The panorama head allows for a small amount of overlap on each frame which is needed to most accurately seam the images together.

180º View of Mount Saint Saint Helens October 1997
180º view of  Mount Saint Helens, Washington 1997 shot with a Rolleiflex 2.8F camera

Many of my images are comprised of five sequential frames. Five frames shot together using the Rolleiflex panorama head will yield a finished picture representing a 180º view. Learning to see in such a wide format takes some care and practice. This process in more akin to working with a large format camera and the contemplative approach that implies.

Once I have found a place I want to photograph, I find it helpful to first determine the ends of the scene I’m trying to compose. Small changes in the start point or end point will have implications for placing the breaks in the final image. It takes some time and patience to find the whole composition and to allow the details in each frame to find their proper place. Carefully planning the breaks in the image is where success or failure of the whole image is often determined. Here, Ansel Adams’ guidance in the concept of pre-visualization is most helpful.

Why have breaks in the image at all?

When I began working this way there was no digital technology, no stitching programs or smart phones with a panoramic mode. I knew from the beginning that I would never be able make the seams between frames disappear in a single final print. I realized that carefully planning where the breaks occur and presenting them as part of the whole allowed the viewer to more accurately see what I had as I made the pictures. These breaks tell the viewer that the image is a construction of sequential frames and hints at the process.

Near Anchorage, Alaska at Dawn 1997
Near Anchorage Alaska at Dawn  1997 Rolleflex 2.8E camera with Rollei middle yellow filter

I would like to take just a moment to discuss exposure and development. In rendering light across a 180º view, careful attention must be paid to proper film exposure and development. The light will often change drastically from one end of the image to the other. Once chosen, the exposure for one frame must remain the same for all subsequent frames of that entire image. Changing the aperture from one frame to another changes the size of the image recorded on the film itself and ends the ability to maintain continuity across the entire image. Consistent film development is also critically important. Since only one exposure setting can be used for the entire image, careful metering and compensation in development should be used to achieve the longest tonal range possible. Since there are only twelve exposures on a roll of 120 film. I often shoot the same 180º scene twice on a single roll and keep careful notes as to what that roll contains and thoughts on lighting conditions and film development.

Alaskan Tundra Trans Alaska Pipeline
Alaskan Tundra & the Trans Alaska Pipeline along the Dalton Highway. Rolleiflex 2.8E camera and Rollei middle yellow filter
Approaching Storm Kluane Lake, Yukon Territory, Canadae Lake
Approaching Storm at 10:00pm, Kluane Lake Yukon Territory, Canada 1997 Rolleiflex 2.8E camera and Rollei middle yellow filter

After choosing which negatives to print, my method is to print each image in sequential order and full frame, at least 10 X 10 inches. My habit is to make at least 5-7 prints of each frame. Once the prints are washed, dried and flattened, I create several complete sets of prints which best match in tone and contrast. After the sets are created I head back to the darkroom to tone each set in both Gold #231 and Selenium. These toners create a blue / magenta split on Kodak Ektalure paper. Like so many others, this paper is sadly no loner available, a victim of environmental regulation of products which contain cadmium. Occasionally, I use Kodak Polytoner alone to shift the colors to a red brown and blue split. Once the prints are again dried and flattened, I can begin to construct the final images in the mounting process.

To create the finished piece, I trim the overlap created by the Rollei pan head on each individual print. I also trim either the top or bottom of the frame to keep the images square. This has the desirable effect of slightly raising or lowering the horizon line of the entire composition. The prints are then dry mounted to acid free museum board or a black muslin fabric. Once mounted, I mat and frame the final constructions.

180º View Tolliver Creek, Western Maryland 2007
180º View of Tolliver Creek Western Maryland 2007 Rolleiflex 2.8F camera

The image just above is a 180º view of Tolliver Creek in Western Maryland. For display online this image was scanned from the original negatives. The finished piece is the only copy of this image I ever printed and it is far too large to scan. The prints I framed were actually my proof prints. Of course I can print this again but the older papers I originally used are long discontinued. The over all matted and framed size of the above image is 20.5” X 58”. Making these images is a long and labor intensive process but one I truly love. I never let myself forget that the camera is a license to look at the world more closely.
Christopher Schwer

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22 thoughts on “Analogue Panoramic Pictures with a Rolleiflex Camera – by Christopher Schwer”

  1. These are absolutely beautiful, stunning. And what attention to detail. I love them. Thank you for explaining your process in such detail.

  2. Lovely images. I’ve done panoramas with digital but now I’m sorely tempted to try with my Rolleiflex.

    I understand the importance of nodal rotation where you have a mixture of close foreground and background detail, but I wouldn’t expect too much of a parallax problem in a lot of cases – how important do you regard the Rollei Panorama Head?

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Thanks Bob, when I first bought my Rolleiflex camera The only accessory I wanted was the panorama head. Since the Rollei pan head matches the angle of view of the lens, it made learning to make these images a little easier. It is also very small, making the kit required to work this way very portable. I can travel easily with this equipment. I have taken this kit with me to many places around the world.

  3. Daniel J Castelli

    Not a criticism, but a question because I’m curious: why not use a medium panoramic camera? OK, that’s out of the way.
    The pipeline shot is my favorite of your series, although they all are exceptional. It’s an image that best illustrates the application of your work process. Getting the pipe to look natural must have been a challenge, but the final result is so good. I also don’t find the lines to be a problem. What would erasing the lines accomplish? They are an important part of your work.
    I like working with film, I personally like the process film offers that I find lacking when I’ve occasionally used digital. Reading you description of the process you employ resonates with me. I understand it, I know the hours in the darkroom working on a negative, the decisions in the field, etc. This type of photography is hard work, and you really don’t know if you made a successful image until you emerge from the darkroom and assemble the prints.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Daniel, Thank you for your kind words. I have made many of these segmented panoramic images with a variety of cameras. It has been my experience that the square format of the Rolleiflex works best for my purposes. A medium format panoramic camera employs a wide angle lens. Wide angle lens tend to push the viewer back and out of the picture. Rotating a lens of a “normal” focal length creates a view already familiar to the viewer. Please remember these images encompass a very wide field which is curved in nature. Flattening that out on a two dimensional plane creates some distortion itself. Using a wide lens adds even more distortion. I am happy you like the pipeline image. On the Alaskan tundra spacial relationships between the elements in the landscape are unique simply because of the vastness of the open spaces. To get the pipeline render in smooth transitions from frame to frame perfect leveling of the camera must be achieved. Thanks again for your kind words. They are truly appreciated.

  4. Clearly a lot of skill and forethought has gone into this process, as evidenced by your superb images. I don’t believe that I’ve seen any images before that have “stretched” the technique as here, and those that have tried with specialist panorama cameras sacrifice IQ with using 35mm film. It did occur to me in viewing the images with a clear didtinction between the frames, that this could be masked by fabricating a false window frame so then it could give the impression that the viewer really was seeing the magnificent vista through a window. This would be more realistic, of course, if you could print in colour.
    I did have some fun when I got my first Sony Nex camera, the 5, that has a panorama sweep facility with a ratio of 4.4:1, and can produce some interesting results, with practise and care, but doesn’t lend itself well to viewing other than via a monitor. So whilst I can capture a very wide angle, it does lose impact on a monitor.

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Thanks Terry, This process and indeed my pictures are looked at differently these days. When I began working in this way, there was no digital technology at all. I had to work out a way to do this all by hand and with equipment small enough to travel easily. These days it has become incredibly simple to record wide vistas with the sweep mode on any cell phone and I’ll be frank, I do this too…but I have chosen to continue with the film, paper and chemicals because this process has been my life. When you see these images in print form and framed the breaks disappear. I have enjoyed watching others view these images on a wall in gallery situations. People will look at the whole image and then get right up close to see the detail and step back once again to view the whole. This often happens a number of times in looking at the pictures. The other thing I try to do in the printing is to choose paper materials which allow for a prints that go beyond a matter of fact interpretation of the information.

  5. Arthur Gottschalk

    Great stuff. But you didn’t mention how you use the Tele-Rollei, as that camera has a different angle of view from the normal Rollei lens. How do you use the Tele?

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Thanks, for the Tele Rolleiflex and Rolleiflex Wide cameras I use the Manfrotto 302 QTVR HEAD. This allows adjustment of the degree of panning angle. Unfortunately it weighs much more than the small Rollei pan head.

  6. Ted Ostrowski

    A very engaging article Christopher, the work is outstanding.
    I have seen the Manfrotto QTVR head in our workplace studio, it has unfortunately “disappeared” and I never did get a chance to try it out.
    Having said that, it has remained in the back of my mind as something that begs for experimentation. I was not aware of Rollie Pan Head, but it seems to me that it would work well with others cameras as well, I have a Hasselblad 500 CM. Would that Rollie head work, I can’t see why it wouldn’t. Cheers great images !

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Ted, The Rollei Pan Head would rotate well enough for a Hasselblad with the 80mm lens but simply attaching it between the camera tripod socket and the tripod will not put the point of rotation at the right point in relationship to the lens. The Manfrotto 302 is a better choice for the Hasselblad

  7. Beautiful images very carefully and lovingly produced. Thank you so much for sharing. This is not a technique I had ever come across before but such beautiful results.

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Thanks Patrick, Since the beginning of photography photographers looked for ways to expand the view their equipment would allow. The earliest forms of panoramic photography were done by rotating the camera to achieve a wider view. The week link in the whole process is one’s own ability to print this many sequential images to perfectly match in tone and contrast. Had I not spent my entire career as a photographic printer I would not have surmounted that problem.

  8. I think these are wonderful Christopher – for so many reasons! The technique and craft is great, but perhaps what I like most is the persistence of your vision in building on the series over so many years. I shoot rollfilm panos using overlapping multiple exposures with a standard lens and mine are nothing like yours – but I really appreciate what you are doing; maybe because I’m concerned with some of the same questions you are but my own solutions are so different. Lovely to see these.

    1. Christopher Schwer

      Thanks so much David, This is exactly what I love about photography and art in general. In each of our hands it becomes something new, an individual voice expressed for a unique reason and purpose. I truly love to share my work and I love to find that unique voice in the the work of others. Thank you for taking the time to share your beautiful work with me!

  9. Rosen Kalpachki

    Unique work, done with great diligence and mastery. Thanks for showing and for inspiring me to keep taking pictures!

  10. Jay Dann Walker in Melbourne

    You and I (or you and me, if you prefer) are the only two photographer I’ve ever met since the 1960, to use a Rollei panorama device. Obviously there must be many Germans (and ther Europeans) out there, who’ve used them as well, but as far as we go, they have never posted on this site. So we are two uniques…

    I bought mine in the early 1980s at a camera shop closing sale in Sydney, Australia. As I recall, I paid AUD$20 for it, a considerable amount of dosh at the time to a young struggling freelance writer and would-be photographer. I’ve kept it all those years, largely as it cost me so much in the first place, and I made so little use of it with my beloved Rollei 3.5E2, that it was not really worth the bother to put it up for sale in the first place, not even when Ebay came along and everything Rollei suddenly started going for serious money. So I still have it, along with all the other odd bits I bought over the years for my E2. Which I still use. Maybe 1-2-3 times year. Digital has displaced just about everything in this world, but nobody (not even Fuji with its celebrated GX) has made. digital Rollei.

    In the 1980s I shot panoramas at Mount Promo in East Java, at Mount Merapi in Central Java, and at two or three other temples where pano images seemed the way to go. In the 1990s I took it to a few other places, notably Angkor Wat, where the tourist pests annoyed me so much that I was severely restricted from shooting the images I saw so clearly in my mind’s eye. Since about 2000, the pano device has sat mostly unloved in one of my camera storage boxes, except for a once-a-year inspection to make sure it is still in one piece.

    Your most excellent article has made me want to take it out and use it again. A few more times before I move on to another avatar, and my Rollei ends up in who knows hands…

    While I’m at it, I must also look thru’ my negative archives, and see where those old Rollei panorama black-and-white negativess are.

    So you have inspired me. I am ever grateful.

    From Dann in Melbourne

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