The Noblex ProSport

Vintage woodies at Wavecrest '98, Encinitas, California. (Kodachrome 64.)
Photos © 1999, Dave Howard, All Rights Reserved

The main factor preventing many photographers from buying a panoramic camera has been the $2000 plus price tag. Unless you specialize in panoramas, such a major outlay can be hard to justify. Although a couple of less expensive cameras have been available, they have been of somewhat unpredictable quality, and/or short on features.

With the introduction of the Noblex ProSport, made by Kamera Werk Dresden (Germany), this has all changed. For $995, you can now have a compact, lightweight, solidly built, electrically driven panoramic camera. Of the same high quality as the other 35mm Noblex panoramic models (the 135 N, 135 S, and 135 U), the ProSport achieves its favorable price point by deleting selected features that are of limited usefulness to a fair percentage of would-be panoramic photographers. The omissions include the slow shutter speed range (135 U only), multiple exposure capability, and lens shift (actually a rise). Regarding this shift, there is a cutout visible at the top of the viewfinder, which indicates the upper limit of the composition with the shift engaged. On models such as the ProSport without the shift feature, I feel this cutout should be blacked out; even though you know it's irrelevant, when shooting quickly it's easy to forget to mentally block out the portion of image showing in the cutout, resulting in pictures that fall short of the anticipated upper extent of coverage. Fortunately, it's easy to mask off the cutout with a small piece of plastic electrical tape. Also absent is the accessory shoe with contacts for the exposure module and winder. The sample that I received for testing did not have a level mirrored in the optical viewfinder as do the other models, but I have been told that production runs from September onward will incorporate a basic (no contacts) accessory shoe, to which you can add a shoe-mount level from various makers. This will be a welcome addition, even if the benefit can only be realized when the camera is tripod mounted.

The 136° panoramic Noblex ProSport delivers the exposure consistency of electric lens drive at a very reasonable price point for a specialty camera.

So much for what the camera doesn't have; now let's examine what it does have, which is all the necessary ingredients for first-class panoramic photography.

The ProSport, with a 136° angle of view, features a fixed focus, 29mm f/4.5 lens; maximum depth of field (at the minimum aperture of f/16) is one meter to infinity. Proprietary filters attach magnetically. The lens rotates from right to left (as seen from behind the camera), exposing the curved film plane via a 1.4mm slit in the film drum, which acts as a focal plane shutter. The lens is driven by an electric motor, and comes completely up to speed before beginning the exposure, thereby guaranteeing the smoothness of movement necessary to avoid an overexposed leading edge and "banding," a vertical striping artifact that sometimes plagues pan cameras with mechanical drives. The motor is powered by four common AAA-size batteries. The rotation speeds available provide effective shutter speeds of 1/30 sec to 1/500 sec. The 1/30 sec low speed is one stop better than the 1/60 sec of the more expensive 135 N model, and will be appreciated on dull days. The camera yields 19 24x66mm frames on a standard 36-exp. roll of 35mm film. This compares to Widelux's 21 24x58mm frames; the ProSport's more extreme aspect ratio produces a more pronounced panoramic effect.

Civic Center (downtown Los Angeles), glimpsed through walkway arches of Griffith Observatory. (Kodachrome 64.)

Loading the ProSport is pretty straightforward, but you need to pay attention to the sequence of operations until you're familiar with it. The camera opens by flipping up the film rewind lever and pulling upward. Drop the film cassette into the left film chamber, then push down on the rewind spindle, making sure the forked end engages the cassette spool. There's nothing to thread the film under on the left side of the camera; a pressure roller on the hinged back will position the film properly when you close the back. On the right side, however, you have to remember to thread the film end under the sprocket drive shaft; there's no pressure roller to do it for you, so if you forget, the penalty is a 50 percent fuzzygraph, as half the frame will be out of focus. Continuing on, thread the film behind and to the right of the take-up spool. Fold the tip of the film leader, and insert the tip into one of the slots on the spool. Rotate the spool via its serrated edge to secure the film end; it's a good idea to exert a little drag on the film with your left thumb while you're doing this, to make sure the sprockets engage the film. Close the camera back.

Now comes the pay attention part. Without switching the power on, press the shutter release button. Wind the film advance knob to stop, press the release button again, and repeat the sequence. Press the release button once more, then set the LCD frame counter to "0" by pressing the reset button to the right of the counter. The next winding operation will ready the camera for the first exposure, with the counter reading "1" (the foregoing is from the instruction manual; in actual practice this wastes too much leader, with two release and wind operations being quite sufficient). If you wish to make an exposure at this point, turn the power on via the on/off switch on the bottom of the camera (a green LED signal lights up), set the shutter speed dial and aperture as desired, and press the shutter release. Until you get used to this routine, you might want to jot the sequence down on a small piece of paper and keep it in the camera case or tape it to the back of the camera.

Inside the Botanical Building, Balboa Park, San Diego, California. (Kodachrome 64.)

Also, before you start taking pictures with the ProSport for the first time, you should run through the shutter speeds (camera empty) while watching the lens action from the front of the camera. Unlike a conventional "click and it's over" exposure with your SLR, a short-rotation panoramic camera like the ProSport "wipes" the image across the curved film plane through the narrow slit in the film drum. At higher speeds this is almost instantaneous, but at 1/30 sec, for instance, the full cycle takes approximately two seconds; therefore the camera can't be moved until the lens swing is complete, unless you're game for some impromptu "creativity." Note, however, that this doesn't require the same tripod mounted immobility as a two second time exposure; any given point of the film is only exposed for 1/30 sec.

At roll's end, rewind the film with the rewind crank, while keeping the rewind button on the camera base depressed. Also, there's a film speed reminder dial around the base of the rewind crank. Personally, I can never remember whether or not I set the dial when I loaded the camera, so I find this type of reminder to be of limited usefulness. I much prefer a film box tab holder; there's room on the back for a peel and stick holder, but it would cover the serial number plate, unless you feel ambitious enough to cut a window in the holder before installing it.
Other specs: 1/4" tripod socket; lug for wrist strap (supplied); shutter button threaded for a cable release; soft nylon shoulder/belt case included. Dimensions are 61/2"x51/8"x3"; weight is approximately 28 oz.

Holding this type of camera correctly (to avoid getting your fingers in the picture) is important, and the ProSport exhibits careful ergonomic design to this end. The camera back is molded to form natural rests for your thumbs, while the sculptured rubberized grips on the front coax your fingers into the proper comfortable and anonymous positions.

Those contemplating enlarging negatives or projecting transparencies taken with the ProSport need to do a little homework first. As previously mentioned, the camera produces negs and transparencies that are 66mm wide, which is approximately 10mm wider than the average 6x6cm enlarger or projector is designed to cover. This is no problem for the several popular 6x7cm enlargers, preferably with a 90mm lens. You can mask a 6x7cm or larger glass negative carrier to the panoramic format, with built-in masking blades (if your carrier is so equipped) or black paper strips. Pro Photo Connection can supply Noblex format carriers (glassless) for Beseler and Omega enlargers. As for projection, if you have a 6x6cm projector, you need to check three things: any mechanical restrictions to the 66mm film width in the projector's film gate, and whether the condensers and lens will cover at the edges. Otherwise, a 6x7cm projector will be necessary, such as the Pro Cabin models imported by Mamiya America. Gepe mounts in the Noblex format are available from R.T.S.

If you prefer dropping your film off at a lab for printing, keep in mind that the supermarket processors that print "panoramics" from APS and masked 35mm formats won't touch your 24x66mm Noblex negs. They require the services of a custom lab, preferably one that specializes in panoramics. Pro Photo Connection (California) and Custom Panoramic Lab (Florida) are two such labs.

The Noblex ProSport performed well in all regards. Those who don't need the low-light, multiple exposure, lens shift, or autoexposure capabilities of the more deluxe Noblex models, will find that the ProSport delivers consistently reliable results over a wide range of situations, all at a very realistic price for a specialty camera.

Custom Panoramic Lab (panoramic printing)
1385-87 Palmetto Park Rd. W
Boca Raton, FL 33486
(561) 361-0031

Mamiya America Corp. (Pro Cabin projectors)
8 Westchester Plaza
Elmsford, NY 10523
(914) 347-3300

Pro Photo Connection, Inc. (panoramic negative carriers and printing)
17851 Sky Park Circle, Suite A
Irvine, CA 92714
(800) 732-6361

R.T.S. Inc. (Noblex cameras)
40-11 Burt Dr.
Deer Park, NY 11729
(516) 242-6801
fax: (516) 242-6808