Edge To Edge
James Kays Panoramic Views

Edge To Edge

"I looked for a long time before finding a wide enough spot in the Arizona slot canyons to make a panoramic image," Jim says. He made this one with the 105mm lens.
Photos © 2002, James Kay, All Rights Reserved

Keep your eyes moving. That's good advice for any photographer, especially for an outdoor, nature, and adventure shooter. James Kay, whose work fits into those categories, is always looking for the best angles and the most effective compositions. But when he started shooting panoramic photographs, he discovered that his eyes were moving in a different direction as he sized up a scene.

"When I shoot in a normal format--meaning rectangular, slight off-square--I'm usually looking for a scene that will have some foreground detail," Jim says, "with subjects up front that will lead the viewer's eye into the picture and toward the background. I'd be looking for, say, some wildflowers in the foreground, and a mountain in the background that's reflecting into a lake; maybe there'd be some clouds visible behind the mountain, so you have this three-dimensional, front-to-back scene."

The Maroon Bells in the Snowmass wilderness of Colorado. Jim photographed there last fall and used the GX617's 180mm lens for this image.

And that's what Jim still looks for when he shoots with his 6x7 Pentax gear or his 35mm Nikon outfit. But when he's carrying his wide format Fuji Panorama GX617, he'll be reading the world left to right rather than front to back. "It definitely is a change in thinking," Jim says. "Before I got the panorama camera, whenever I saw a scene that had no interesting or `leading' foreground, I never really considered it for a photograph. But with the panorama camera, I all of a sudden started to see images in a lot of different places."

Grinnell Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana. The 105mm lens on the panorama camera provided an image that could be divided into three separate photographs.

Actually, the standard front-to-back composition is pretty much eliminated. "The panorama is essentially a long strip," Jim says, "and there's not much depth at the bottom of the frame."

Jim started shooting with the GX617 about five years ago. "Out in the field I saw other photographers using it, and then I saw the beautiful results. I thought it was a really interesting way of picturing the world, and it was also something different for me."

There are four lenses available for the GX617, and Jim has three of them: the 105mm f/8, the 180mm f/6.7, and the 300mm f/8.

Jim used the 300mm lens for this winter image of the Timpanogos range in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. You may not be able to see it here, but Jim's 7x20 enlargement of this photo reveals what he saw when he made the picture: a bald eagle in the left-most cottonwood tree.

First Trip
The panorama camera's wide view of the world offered Jim an opportunity the first time he took it out into the field. "I was down in Zion Canyon [Utah] with my 6x7 gear and the panorama camera, and I saw a six-inch wide groove in the sandstone with water racing through it. I'd seen a lot of shots like this taken with standard medium format cameras, but this time I looked at it and realized that this is exactly the kind of shot a panorama camera is made for. I set up right above it and shot straight down, and I got one of my favorite photographs."

Morning sun on the Grand Staircase, Escalante National Monument, Utah. "I showed up before sunrise," Jim says. "A storm was approaching and the sky was overcast except for a finger's width on the eastern horizon if you held your hand up to the sky. The sun came through that crystal clear slot and lit up everything." He used the 105mm lens.

The rewards of the panorama are great, but it takes some effort to realize those benefits. First, of course, you've got to haul the stuff. "When I go out on location now, I take the panorama camera and my regular gear," Jim says, "and it adds up to a lot of weight.

"The thing is, I feel that I have to carry the panorama with me because if I don't, all the images I'll be seeing will be panoramics." And then there are some places in which the wide view is pretty much required. "In the Tetons," Jim says, "everything's a panoramic."

The Towers of the Virgin mountains in Zion National Park, Utah, captured with the 180mm lens on the GX617.

Steady On
He almost always shoots with the GX617 on a tripod. "I've shot a few handheld pictures, but it's really hard." The camera has its own bubble level to help keep horizon (and other) lines straight, but, Jim says, "mostly I eyeball it. With a panorama I think it's easier to level the image visually than with a 6x7 because there's more width to work with--you see the long horizontal lines very clearly."

Another consideration is film. Jim's choice is Fuji Velvia, and for the panorama camera he carries lots of it. "The camera takes 120 or 220," he says, "but you can get only four images on a 120 roll, so I take the 220 and get eight pictures.

Little Cottonwood Canyon and the ski resort of Snowbird, Utah, in a 45-minute exposure by moonlight. "It was five below zero," Jim says, "so I set the camera up at midnight, left it and came back later." The lens was the 105mm.

"Of course you can't bracket as much, so you're much more careful with your exposures. The other thing is, it's much more difficult and expensive to get dupes of panoramic images, so I do a lot of in-camera dupes, which also eats up film pretty fast."

Jim uses a handheld spot meter for his exposures. "If it's a difficult exposure, I'll shoot six frames," he says, "four at the meter reading and one over and one under a half-stop."

A six-second exposure, looking straight down on water rushing through a sandstone slot in Zion Canyon, Utah. Jim used the 105mm lens on the GX617.

Compositional Considerations
There's a little more leeway in composition when using the panorama camera. "The center area of the frame extends a longer way," Jim says, "and you have more choice of what you want to place toward the center. And sometimes centering the subject works well with a panoramic image where it wouldn't with a normal format."

The success of his panoramic images is measurable. "We sell prints at our web site, and currently 80 percent of the prints we're selling are panoramics. Maybe it's the variety of it, that people haven't seen it that much, or maybe it's because the long thin format fits so well in their homes--over sofas, couches, and beds. We just sold a customer five 17x50" panoramics, and he didn't even know about them when he first came to the site.
"You know, if I'd known I'd get this kind of reaction, I'd have bought the camera a lot earlier."

All photos were taken with the Fuji Panorama GX617. The photo captions provide lens information.

Note: You can see more of James Kay's images, including panoramics, at his web site, www.jameskay.com. A nice bonus to the viewing of Jim's photos are the detailed captions.