Fotoman 617; An “Affordable” Panoramic Camera Page 2

Module 5 is the lens, which you can order from the company or supply yourself. This is one of the enormous attractions of the Fotoman: you can get a focusing mount for virtually anything that will cover the format, a huge range of lenses ancient and modern. I tried both a 75mm Nikkor from the company and my own 110mm f/5.6 Schneider Super-Symmar XL Aspheric, while with a secondhand 90mm f/8 Schneider Super Angulon this would be an unbelievably affordable 6x17cm camera. A cable release connects the lens to either the right-hand or left-hand body grip.

Module 6 is a masking viewfinder available in at least two patterns: I received one 72-150mm and another 90-180mm. These fit into a simple accessory shoe.

Focal lengths are set via a knurled ring on the front of the finder. Distortion is remarkably low and the finder is very bright and clear. At 72mm the short edges of the finder are curved and in the corners of the field of view you can see the actuating arms that move the masks: they do not disappear until 110mm. On the 90-180mm finder the edges are less rounded at maximum angle but the actuating arms stay in view until 135mm, though they occupy a negligible part of the finder at all focal lengths.

Overall, the finder is a masterpiece of clever, simple design. Sure, you could make a better one, not least by adding eyesight adjustment and parallax compensation, but it would probably be twice the size and three times the price. Finders for 6x12, 6x17, and 4x5" may be purchased separately and should do at least as well as the camera itself.

Module 7 (optional) is a simple ground-glass screen that can be dropped into the back of the camera for precise focusing and composition--though it is necessarily dim at the corners. On production models it is held in place by magnets but with my preproduction prototype you have to hold it or tape it in place.

Admittedly you can only use it with no film in the camera but with only four shots per 120 roll (220 cannot be used because of the red window) this is not much of a drawback.

The back of the Fotoman, with the red window advance and the 3-6-9-12 reminder. This is a preproduction model with only two accessory shoes.

You can assemble and disassemble most of the camera yourself. The focusing mount is held into the cone by a threaded collar: a wrench is supplied for loosening or indeed removing it and replacing it. I would recommend the use of Loctite or a similar locking compound if the mount is not to unscrew unexpectedly when inadvertently focused "beyond" infinity. Four knurled screws pass through the cone (and spacer, where fitted) to secure them to the body.

Lens-to-film distance at infinity can be adjusted via shims: a helical adjuster with a lock (jam) nut would be easier to set up, but more expensive. I might be inclined to have new lenses fitted and shimmed by a professional repairer--it shouldn't cost a fortune--rather than doing it at home.

Trees by the river. The 6x17cm format is usually too long to use vertically but the pictures do have a certain shock value. The bottom has been cropped slightly in this shot. (Kodak E100VS home-developed in Tetenal chemicals.)
© 2005, Roger W. Hicks, All Rights Reserved

As when No. 20 or 120 or B2 or British Standard 2 film was introduced over 100 years ago, you wind the numbers on the film backing into a red window: a time-tested approach, though the backing numbers on some modern films are a lot easier to see than others. The relevant numbers--3, 6, 9, 12, because it is a four-on-120 camera--are marked on the back of the camera and there is a sliding cap to protect the window so that light can't strike through.

There is not a great deal more to say about the design or its execution. There is a huge pressure plate some 23/4x63/4" (70x174mm). The back--another big chunk of metal, hinged at the left--is opened via a simple sliding catch on the right. There are three accessory shoes, one for the finder, one for a two-way spirit level, and one for an exposure meter (the Voigtländer VC would be ideal) or an accessory rangefinder: the latter can still be found on the used market, though ever fewer of them are reliable.

Any criticism of the Fotoman must be based on what it is not, rather than what it is. It is not a deluxe camera. It is built to sell at as low a cost as possible, without sacrificing either durability or the necessary precision. A domestic comparison might be between a deep-cushioned leather sofa and an oak settee. Both do the job they are designed to do; both do it very well; and each is informed by its own design philosophy.

The Fotoman is big and solid and simple, and more than precise enough for a 6x17cm camera: I don't think it would be possible to get a sharper image, given film flatness issues. I'd hesitate to shoot at wider than f/8 and f/16 would be better, but this is true of any 6x17, regardless of price. Fotoman recommends that just before you shoot, you tension the film using the feed knob on the right (not the wind-on knob on the left) for maximum possible film flatness: wise advice.

So what is it like to use? Pretty much as you would expect. Although you can use it handheld, it's happier on a tripod: most of the time I wouldn't reckon you need the ground glass. Both 3/8" and 1/4" tripod sockets are provided. Red window film advance is never going to be as fast as an automatic film stop, but equally, an automatic film stop is always going to cost more than a red window. Fotoman has not ruled out an auto film stop version in the future, at extra cost, but I'd be as happy to save the money and go for the red window. Apart from that, it's simple. Scale focus; cock the shutter; compose; shoot; wind on.

If you want to shoot 6x17cm and either can't afford or can't justify a Gilde, Linhof, Fuji, or Canham/Walker, you can use a Fotoman with great confidence. For someone like me, who has a weakness for 6x17cm but doesn't really shoot much of it, the Fotoman is a dream: (just) inside the bounds of affordability, but also with the potential to create seriously saleable images.

Yes, I'd rather have a Gilde, but to be honest, the price of the Gilde (at least five times that of a Fotoman) rules it out for me. Linhof, Fuji, or Canham/Walker are cheaper than Gilde, but still a lot more expensive than a Fotoman.

Put it this way. Before my taxes came due--which put the kibosh on the whole idea--I asked Fotoman the price of the camera configured for my 110mm f/5.6 Schneider Super-Symmar XL Aspheric. I don't shoot much 6x17cm, but I know that for the right subjects, it's wonderful. I can't afford to use cameras that don't deliver publishable images. The Fotoman delivers very publishable images. Enough said.

For more information, contact Badger Graphic Sales, Inc., 1225 Delanglade St., Kaukauna, WI 54130; (800) 558-5350, (920) 766-9332;