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François Besson

identité françois besson 


Version française ici


Speaking in praise
for the "ROTO-PINHOLE" camera

by François Besson

(translation Emmanuel BIGLER)


A poor, ill-designed device, and yet it does rotate !



This strange machine was created when two passions met, the love for panoramic formats, discovered with the 6x13cm image collection by Lartigue, and the love for pinhole cameras.

Pinhole photography cannot be reduced to strange anamorphic images exhibiting heavy vignetting, it does provide an unrivalled light and atmosphere, so different from conventional photographic images whatever the lens in use might be.

Having in mind urban photographic landscapes, I realised that there was no available camera, at least at an affordable price, that would meet my expectations: 240° in a single panoramic shot... I also did not find any drawings or designs corresponding to what I was looking for. No problem! I should do it myself, therefore I started to think about my own design and I soon understood that what I needed for the images I dreamt of, was a "ROTO-PINHOLE" panoramic camera.

The principles are simple: the camera rotates around a mechanical axis supporting the pinhole. The film, held outside a drum, travels in front of the pinhole so that at any time, one particular point of the landscape corresponds to a fixed, non-moving point on film. Exposure is made through a thin vertical slit (see below, the camera described in images).

General view of the roto-pinhole camera: of course, it is rather bulky, but any other camera using the same large format film size would be as bulky as this one..



© françois besson - 2005



The principles are simple, however the design and fabrication needed hard work:

I did not find the right solution at the first attempt. The first version was somewhat naive, I imagined that the pinhole would rotate around a fixed drum; the result was disconcerting: a perfectly abstract image on a magnificent film... As an example, the sun, which you can only guess through the clouds, had left a weakly concave arc-shaped image on top of the film, spreading across about one quarter of the image... and the rest exhibited a very similar strange look, upward concave circular arcs on top of the image, downward concave arcs in the bottom part of the image. All those interlaced arcs totally blurred the image. The next version of the camera also delivered strange images, however with a much less abstract character:



I really liked those images, however this was not the goal of the initial project!

The final result is not really a crude do-it-yourself device made with scotch tape and pieces of string, however it is not a fine watchmaker's-style piece of craftsmanship, eligible for a permanent exhibition in a museum of science and technology (a museum like the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris).

Technical specifications

My roto-pinhole camera was built with a "focal length" which is not really an ultra-wide angle; this is a personal aesthetic choice, a similar type of construction can be made with any other choice of pinhole focal length. For similar reasons, I limited the panoramic angle of view to 240°, however a full 360° circle could be easily reached using longer pieces of film.

- film format : 8"x20" i.e. 20.3 x 50.4cm
- image format : 20.3 X 48.3 cm i.e. 3/4" smaller in length
- "focal length" 120 mm - 7"3/4 corresponding to a vertical angle of 118°
- total angular field of view covered during the rotation : 240°
- adjustable vertical shift: +3 cm (~1"1/4) upward, -1cm (~3/8") downward
- shutter : black scotch tape
- choice of exposure times : 18, 6 and 3 minutes
- viewfinder : a simple angular index on the roto-pinhole camera
- dimensions : height 53 cm (10"3/4), width 34 cm (13"3/8), length 51 cm (20")
- weight: 14.5 kg (31.9 lbs).

The camera in images


The pinhole is located just above the principal rotation axis. The film is located on the outer side of a rotating drum moving around a secondary axis; the exposure is made through a thin vertical slit. (the drum, the heart of the system, is a vintage stewpan bought in a flea-market !)



The whole camera is rotated by a small electrical motor fitted with and important geared reduction system, a "moto-reducer", transmission is achieved with a chain. The cable located under the chain actuates the drum film holder when the camera rotates.




Speed adjustments are made using different combination of voltages provided by a set of batteries connected in series or in parallel : 3 speeds are available, corresponding to 3 voltages (240° are achieved in 18, 6 or 3 minutes for 3, 6 or 12 volts).



Although the camera works perfectly and delivers very interesting images, this prototype still exhibits many drawbacks: it is very bulky, sensitive to wind, exposure times are long, only a single shot is possible per "shooting session"... For those reasons, I am thinking of a successor design using home-cut large format rollfilms in order to cure all these disadvantages (may be a "packet-size" version using 4"x10" films suitable for contact printing !)

A few hints for the adventurers

Appendix 1 : panoramic cameras and large format pinhole cameras

This short recension does not aim to exhaustiveness, but only to stimulate curiosity ; I purportedly left aside all conventional panoramic cameras that are described for example, in the excellent book by Arnaud Frich [3] la photographie panoramique, Eyrolles 2004.

Hexagonal-shaped panoramic pinhole cameras :
They deliver a panoramic shot made by an uncertain stitching of multiple images.

A very finely crafted camera:
Luc Ewen : [4] http://www.tortuga.lu/francais/1_descriptif.htm
(very nice camera, at an impressive price...)

Another camera, still a prototype : the "hexomniscope" [5]http://www.abelsonscopeworks.com/cameras/hexomniscope.htm 

A few results with multiple-shot panoramic pinhole cameras :
Andrew Kemp : [6] http://www.andrewkemp.net/flash/index.htm 


Craig J Barber : [8] http://www.craigbarber.com/gallery.html 

Panoramic pinholes made with a semi-circular "camembert-shaped" box :

Kurt Mottweiler : [9]http://www.mottweilerstudio.com/html/cameras/camera_6.html 

Semi-circular "camembert-shaped" large format cameras fitted with conventional lenses: Tom Yanul : [10]http://hometown.aol.com/tyanul/myhomepage/profile.html 

Rotating panoramic pinhole cameras :

pinhole camera with 120 film, a camera by Robert Lang, cf page 189-191 of Eric Renner's book, [11] Pinhole photography, 3-rd edition 2004.

small and medium format cameras : [12]http://www.tbk.de/panorama/show1.htm 

home-made : Doug Bardell [13]http://www.cyberbeach.net/~dbardell/panoptic.html 

large format cameras :

The Kodak cirkut camera: [14] http://www.bigshotz.co.nz/cirkut.html 
This camera was designed at the beginning of the XX-st century for negative size of 5", 10" or 16" wide rollfilms.

Another link showing a video recorded during a shooting session :

[15] http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/panoramic_photo/pnshoot.html 

Jamie Youg explains how to print large rollfilm negatives made with a "Kodak cirkut camera" with alternative photographic processes: [16] http://www.jamieyoungphoto.com/jamie%20young%20%20cikt2.html 

semi-spherical panoramic shots with a mirror : [17]http://www.tbk.de/panorama/show3.htm 

Pinhole cameras :

The "moonscapes" by Eric Renner: 4 images on 120-film, with anamorphic images :

[18] http://www.pinholeresource.com/agora/agora.cgi? cart_id=&xm=on&product=Cameras

The mode of operation of rotating pinhole cameras by Oward Romero is mysterious... [19]http://www.panscenic.com/cameras.htm 

Appendix 2 : where to find large format film (the point of view of an European LF photographer)

I have used 16"x20" film (40.6 x 50.8 mm) cut in two halves to yield a final 8"x20" format.

In ASA 100,

One of the readily available films is supplied by MACO, Germany (the company offers numerous other formats up to 20"x24"). MACO's web site dedicated to film products: [20] http://www.mahn.net/Frameset.htm  ; a direct order is now possible.

An alternative is to use Efke film, that can be ordered for example from JandC Photo in the USA:

[21] http://www.jandcphoto.com/index.asp?PageAction=VIEWCATS&Category=69 

In ASA 400, JandC offer their own "JandC" brand.


Custom-made film cut on special order, at a nominal charge and important delivery period, can be obtained from:

Bergger : [23] http://bergger.com/ 

Wephota : [24] http://www.banse-grohmann.de/wephota/sortimix.htm 

Let us remind to those who wish to use ultra-large formats, that there are actually alternatives to contact-print-only, as shown by this model of 16"x20" enlarger by Mike Westmoreland:

[25] http://www.bigshotz.co.nz/mike_westmoreland.html 

As a conclusion to this "panoramic" review, let us pay tribute to one of the bravest of our predecessors, Melvin Vaniman ! [26] http://www.bigshotz.co.nz/melvin_vaniman.html 

PS : small-hole aficionados are usually not ready to comply with the hard laws of optics; however they may have some interest in reading this article by Emmanuel Bigler "How to optimise your pinhole camera". Doing so, they will be ready to infringe these laws with due knowledge !


bibliothèque de France © françois besson - 2005   




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