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Discovering the Appeal of the Hasselblad XPan Perspective from the Comfort of my Desk Chair

The clavicle, or collarbone, is a slender, S-shaped long bone approximately 6 inches long that serves as a strut between the shoulder blade and the sternum. There are two clavicles, one on the left and one on the right. The clavicle is the only long bone in the body that lies horizontally.

You might be wondering what this Wikipedia description of one of the 206 bones in the human body has to do with photography? Well, I recently broke my clavicle during a cycling accident and this has kept me contained to give the bone a chance to heal. Which means, no active photography for me for a while. This gave me a chance to dive into my archive and look at older photos with new eyes. Wide eyed, you might say in this case. You see, in the early days of my recovery, I couldn't really do anything at all. Not even sit at my desk. So I spent more time on YouTube than might be good for anyone. But I did watch a lot of interesting videos. And as you probably all recognize, I went from one rabbit hole to another. One of these rabbit holes was centered around the famous Hasselblad XPan film camera. It triggered something in me. An echo of a recent experience.

The Amsterdam Central Station is a great topic for XPan ratio

I love going to the movies. One of the movies that really made an impression on me in 2023 was of course Oppenheimer. I felt completely immersed in it and I loved the wide panoramic perspective. The three hours runtime went by incredibly quick. Christopher Nolan and his favorite cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema love letterbox perspectives in their work. The interesting thing about Oppenheimer is that they play with aspect ratios throughout the film. They work with both 2:20:1 and 1:43:1 and use it to support different parts of the story. This made the impact of the widest aspect ratio of Oppenheimer even more apparent. It is somewhat similar to that of an XPan camera which is 2:70:1 or 65:24. With nothing better to do and feeling a jolt of excitement of going through some of my older photos and seeing if the XPan aspect ratio would work, I dug into my photo catalogue. I simply used the XPan aspect ratio crop available in Capture One Pro.

Let's see what I found. I will take an existing photo and show you where in some occasions the XPan ratio really adds value. In other examples, we'll see that it needs careful application for it to work. Let's start with the photo below. I took this in Mallorca with an OM-1 Micro Four Thirds camera which allowed me to handhold this long enough to see the light trails from the merry-go-round. Being MFT, this obviously means a 4:3 aspect ratio. I really like this photo but there is a lot of dark space on the top and left which doesn't really add anything to the photo.

Before we go full XPan, let's take a step in between and look at the same photo in 16:9 aspect ratio. What we see is that pretty much all of the empty dark space is now gone and it still has all the elements in it that make the photo interesting.

Now let's look at the XPan slice of this photo. The first thing you will notice is just how much narrower it is than 16:9. We also see that some elements in this case have to be cut to create balance in the image. I don't think it damages the impact of the scene though. The letterbox perspective definitely brings focus across the width of the frame where there is a lot going on. Since I am doing this after the fact, I have no chance to change my positioning with regard to the scene. I think the Xpan ratio works quite well for this scene but had I had an XPan viewfinder at the time, I would have moved back a bit to create room for the people on the foreground. It would probably have ended up looking more like the 16:9 version but with more space besides the cashier booth on the left and the tree on the right.

The second example comes from a trip to Sardinia and was taken on a Sony A7R2 which means a 3:2 aspect ratio. The scene is quite well captured, there is not too much sky or foreground and I was happy with this photo at the time as I had to compose and shoot very quickly.

When we create an XPan crop of this photo, it really changes the dynamic of the photo in my opinion. It immediately feels more cinematic but that is always the first response to an XPan perspective in an urban setting. Why I think it works in this example is because your eyes are drawn quicker to the two people sitting in the typical mode of transport of the Sardinian countryside. The impact is more immediate.

The next photo is another 3:2 aspect ratio capture. This was taken near Paige in Arizona in the United States. We were about to enter one of the slot canyons and I like how my wife kind of disappears between the orange rock.

The XPan version of the photo brings more emphasis to this contraposition of the tiny figure of my wife and the massive rock without actually showing too much of it. The dynamic is once again horizontal for the eyes to follow which I think is an obvious must for composing with XPan aspect ratio. Again, I believe this has more focus than the 3:2 photo.

I never really meddled too much with aspect ratios before. I simply shot with the aspect ratio of the camera so that meant either 4:3 or 3:2. I might have stitched the occasional panorama but that was about it. It wasn't until I started shooting with the square 1:1 format Mamiya 6 film camera that I thought about aspect rations fitting to different scenes. It's one thing to play with aspect ratios after the fact like I am doing here and another to compose in the moment, like with the new-to-me square format of the Mamiya 6. It certainly is a nice way to see a scene completely different. Every aspect ratio has it's pros and cons and since I showed you the photo above near the Grand Canyon, the next photo is an example where XPan would simply not have worked as I just would not be able to frame it that way. Except if I had a helicopter. And even then, I think the charm of the bend would get lost in the width of the framing.

Horseshoe bend on a Sony A7R2 24mm, the widest lens I had with me.

The next photo is one of the rare panoramic stitches I made which more or less turned out to be exactly in XPan aspect ratio. Taken in the Scottish Highlands in the winter, this works well. There is plenty of visual dynamic between the lakes and the land, and the sky has a lot of variation in it.

Scottish panorama taken on a Pentax K-1 Mk2

Less might not be more in the following example. As we move from 4:3, as this was also taken with an MFT camera, to 16:9, and finally to XPan, we see that the forest on the foreground disappears completely. This was taken with a telephoto lens at about 150mm full frame equivalent.

In this case, I tend to think the scene is better served with a more classic 4:3 aspect ratio. This is one of the downsides if I would actually have an XPan camera. You would seriously limit the kind of scenes that you can capture with this format. Anything in portrait mode is pretty much a no-go, and landscape modes need super careful consideration. But there is also joy in limiting yourself. I see some photographers using digital cameras but 'hacking' them into getting the XPan perspective to limit themselves. I can easily imagine this being a lot if fun to do on a photo walk. Here is a guy who simply put some tape on his Ricoh GR's viewfinder to emulate the XPan perspective. But some digital cameras also have this in-body. Because Fuji developed the XPan II together with Hasselblad and launched it on the Japanese market as the Fuji TX-1, Fujifilm now also offers 65:24 aspect ratio as an option on their GFX medium format digital cameras. With that massive medium format sensor you don't have to worry too much about cropping.

When you need portrait mode, the XPan aspect ratio is useless

It has been fun to look at my catalogue with this perspective and I will try to compose more for it as I believe it can be quite impactful when used right. I wouldn't buy an XPan camera though. For one because they are crazy expensive, but also because having this aspect ratio as your only option would be too hardcore for me. I like that Fuji offers it digitally and I believe the Panasonic S1 does something similar. My OM-1 only shows 16:9 which as you can see above is still quite far from a true XPan perspective.

Monument Valley in XPan mode

Another option to have that super wide perspective is to shoot with anamorphic lenses. Especially those with a squeeze factor of 1.5 or higher. Of course, many Hollywood films are shot on anamorphic for exactly that purpose. And it isn't just about the width but the desqueeze and squeeze dynamic of anamorphic lenses adds compression to the wide aspect ratio which can be really interesting. I would prefer to shoot a camera which had anamorphic correction in camera though so you don't see the distorted perspective in the viewfinder. Another benefit here is that you use the full sensor instead of crop mode. I might play around with that.

Thanks for reading and I will leave you with some more examples of photos that I think work well in the XPan aspect ratio.


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