The sweep camara
In my Times column today, I reviewed radical new cameras from Nikon and Pentax — two new entries in the race to perfect the pocket S.L.R. They have interchangeable lenses but have bodies small enough for a pants pocket.
Both cameras have some pretty profound flaws. On the Nikon 1, a chief failing is its mode dial. It has only four positions, and two are dedicated to gimmicky photo modes you’ll never use.
Take, for example, Motion Snapshot. The idea is that when you snap the photo, you get both the photo and a one-second, slow-motion video of the same moment, set to tinny music. What the —?
The people at Nikon are probably thinking that we’re entering a post-photograph era. Maybe the popularity of YouTube gave them that idea. Maybe a frozen image really is a holdover from the past, and a one-second slo-mo video is what the world wants next.
I’m skeptical. But there’s nothing wrong with rethinking the snapshot, and I’d like to take a moment to pay homage to a far more successful, useful rethink: the auto-panorama.
I’m on record as being in love with Sony’s NEX series. These are extremely tiny interchangeable-lens cameras that, unlike the Nikon and Pentax, have huge, S.L.R.-sized sensors inside. (I’m going crazy waiting for November’s NEX-7, which adds the two things the NEX family was missing: a flash and an eyepiece viewfinder.)
Not only do they take gorgeous photos, every time, but they incorporate Sweep Panorama, a feature of many Sony cameras. To use this mode, you simply swing the camera around you in an arc, squeezing the shutter button the whole time. You hear the shutter snapping away like a machine gun as the camera captures slice after slice of the scene, all the way around you in a 220-degree arc. It’s surprisingly tolerant of your arm-swinging speed.
When it stops, you look at the back of the camera: there, INSTANTLY, is a perfectly knit, finished, seamless panorama. You didn’t have to do any stitching work yourself.
And when I say perfectly knit, I mean it. This technology works.
More than that — it’s essential. It transforms photography. Think about how much we all sweat about getting wide photos. We buy wide-angle lenses. We review cameras and report the maximum width of their lens angles. Well, guess what? With Sweep Panorama, all of that is moot. A photo is as wide as you could possibly want it to be.
A panorama provides a much better representation of being there than the tiny slice provided by a regular photo. You can actually scan the scene, looking around you. And when it’s printed, a pano makes a perfect piece of art on the wall. Especially over a couch.
I’ve spent the last four months working on a two-hour “Nova” science special that I will be the host of (it will appear in February on PBS). We’ve traveled the world — Yellowstone, Yosemite, Russia and labs all around the country — and I’ve been using Sweep Panorama constantly.
I’ve posted some samples from my travels at http://gallery.me.com/pogue/101683. There, you’ll discover a few fascinating twists.
For example, you can hold the camera either normally or turned 90 degrees. Turning it gives you a much taller panorama that’s not as wide. I actually prefer this style, because the regular panos aren’t very tall (and, at 220 degrees, even wider than probably necessary).
In one shot, I appear twice. I asked our assistant producer to start the sweep of her arm, and while she kept shooting, I ran around behind her so that I could appear again at the end of the sweep, in the same photo. It worked.
In another shot, of San Francisco Harbor, you’ll see an example of Sweep Panorama’s weak spot: It doesn’t do well when there’s movement in the scene. I was on a cruise ship approaching the harbor at a good clip as I snapped away. In the photo, the Golden Gate Bridge winds up looking weirdly segmented. (Shooting moving people is also often problematic. Sometimes people get smushed.)
I don’t think Sweep Panorama gets nearly enough press. I don’t think the Sony engineers who perfected it get nearly enough press. Nikon’s motion snapshots may not be an essential new addition to the world of photography, but easy panoramas definitely are. Those are some Sweet Panoramas indeed.