dante stella stories photographs technical guestbook

"What kind of a plane is that?"

"D-558 Phase Two.  Scott Crossfield."

"It sure as hell is."

Noblex Oblige

Like what we've done with the place?  This is on new Tri-X in D-76.  Scan is a lumpy, grain-aliased 2000 dpi on a Sprintscan 120, not-flat glassless carrier.  Imagine if these were scanned properly.

Panorama or paranoia?  Everyday people just seem to love panoramas.  They are, perhaps, the most popular type of depreciable ("dentist's office") art.  We've all seen the anodyne pictures of skylines, stadiums, and landscapes.  They're just... awful.  But they sell.  And something about panoramas is perverse - because they go just beyond what we see (generally, any aspect wider than 16:9 is fairly classed as unnatural).  But like communism, we all get behind panoramas at some point.  Panoramas just haven't been practiced in their pure form yet.

The most common panoramic cameras today are the Fuji 617 and the Hasselblad/Fuji Xpan.  The model for these cameras is quite simple - use a large-format-coverage lens on a smaller negative (120 and 35mm film, respectively).  The Fuji uses a leaf shutter in the lens like a large-format camera; the Xpan uses a focal plane shutter like a 35mm SLR.  A panoramic design like either of these has the virtue of being mechanically simple - and has the vice of producing a big camera.  The use of a lens to cover a large piece of film also involves mechanical vignetting; hence, it is necessary to use exotic and expensive center filters.

The Noblex model of panoramic photography is by no means new, but it is the most sophisticated incarnation.  Like its predecessors in varuous formats (Al-Vista, Kodak Panoram, Graflex Cirkut, Widelux, Horizon, Panflex, Panox, etc.), it uses a lens swinging through a 150 degree arc to scan a very narrow slit of light across a long frome.  It's similar to the focal plane shutters found in many modern cameras - with two twists. One is that the slit cannot change width, so shutter speed is governed by rotational speed.  The second is that the film plane is cylindrical.  Where the Noblex is revolutionary is in its motorized (rather than spring-driven) operation.  The motor , under solid-state control, speeds the shutter-drum up to speed on the first revolution and exposes on the second.  The result is perfectly-even, banding-free exposures.  The exposure control runs on 4xAA batteries.

Construction.  You can tell this camera was made in Dresden (by a company with the very functional name "Kamerawerke Noble," i.e., "Noble Camera Factory").  There is no sense of humor in the build of this camera, which is put together on a huge aircraft aluminum frame with the typical plastic covers.  The body is about the size of a ceramic brick with a cylindrical front and two handguards.  It is capped by a 150-degree optical finder (removable on some models).

Controls.  Consistent with Dresden's all-business attitude (except for the Dynamo team...), the Noblex has exactly five controls: shutter speed (1/250, 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15), single/multi exposure (to aggregate up to longer shutter speeds), film wind, shutter release, and the lever that opens the back.  None of these is particularly well-designed (see Ergonomics, below).

Optics.  Suprisingly, the lens on the Noblex 150 is a Docter Optics 50mm f/4.5 Super-Tessar, which for all intents and purposes is a lens of a design typically used for 35mm photography.  Could such a lens be up to the task?  A 35mm-style lens can easily cover a 35mm frame diagonal (42mm).  Closing down the maximum aperture to f/4.5 and focusing the lens at closer than infinity helps bridge the gap to the 50mm slit height of the Noblex (the frame is 50x120mm).  Casual tests in scanning reveal that the Super Tessar delivers an exceptional amount of detail, well over 3000 dpi worth.  Considering that the negative is 6 inches long, that's about 108Mp - and certainly enough to challenge your computer's memory when using Photoshop.

Ergonomics.  The Noblex is a mixed bag in ergonomics.  It's good for a panoramic, but there are three things to watch for.  The first is the grip.  There is really no way to hold a 150 degree camera that is 100% certain not to get your fingertips in one side of the frame or the other.  The Noblex has two indents, one on either side, into which your fingers fit (caged by the grip/crash/guard bars).  Most of the time, this works.  But if you are under stress, wearing gloves, or you are in a hurry to get the shot, you will grip the camera incorrectly and get three or more fingers in the frame.  The second ergonomic issue is the placement of the single/multiple exposure switch so close to the film winding knob that it is very easy to knock it to M and take two pictures on the same frame of film.  The third is the placement of the aperture control (and on some models, the focus and shift controls) in the front of the drum.  Difficulties of these types are all mitigated by using a tripod.

Operation.  This camera can be handheld, provided that you shoot at 1/125 or 1/250 and can hold the camera level front-to-back.  There is a spirit level for that - but unlike the left-right tilt level, it is not visible in the viewfinder.  Tilting the camera can lead to some insane curved-and-converging verticals.  Pick your two shots well.  Whoops, did I say two?  Yes.  You get six 50x120mm frames per roll of 120 film, and if you bracket one over and one under, that means two.  Do not neglect this aspect when you consider that 120 film is now running US $4 a roll.  Of course, since that's only 1/1000 the price of a new Noblex, a cost like that might just slip by. 

Learning to load the camera is an interesting process - and even after you learn it, it is easy to forget to press the shutter release after lining up the arrows inside the back - which will lead you to wind through an entire roll of film.  The correct directions are this (the manual is actually wrong):

(1) put a full roll in the left side and an empty spool in the right;

(2) check to make sure that the camera's counter is on S (not five [5] as the manual says) and staying on S as you test winding (in other words, you have not pressed the shutter release after the counter reached S);

(3) run the leader across to the takeup spool and insert it;

(4) turn the winding knob (you'll feel resistance) until  you see the arrows on the film line up with the dots inside the back;

(5) close and lock the back; and then

(6) press the shutter release and wind to frame 1. 

When you finish frame six, turn the winding knob until the counter reaches S.  Turn it 10 more times to make sure the leader has cleared.  No matter how well you follow these directions, you'll have two frames that are so close they are almost touching.  There is very little margin for error in loading.

Noblex-space.  There are three important aspects to Noblex-space.  The first is geometry.  To understand Tyree Guyton, you have to imagine that you're in the movie Scanners and that you've stumbled upon one.  To understand the Noblex 150 panoramic camera, you have to understand that there is something beyond the 3-space you learned in maps and flows calculus.  Traditional wideangle lenses typically exhibit geometric "stretching" near the edges of the frame.  These effects dissipate with distance.  Noblex pictures exhibit something much different.  It could be called cylindrical distortion: a straight horizontal line off-center will bow in toward the camera.  This, too, dissipates with distance.

The next important area of study is invisbility.  You need to make yourself such.  One of the most dangerous things about framing with the Noblex is eliminating shadows from the picture.  The camera's view is very wide and reasonably tall, and particularly around sunrise and suset, when shadows are long, sunlight falling directly on a subject in front of the Noblex will also throw a shadow of the camera, tripod, and photographer into the picture.  But if you shoot into the sun, you end up with an equal and opposite problem: a square patch of flare from the recessed lens.

The final aspect is the level landscape.  The Noblex makes an excellent camera, provided always that you keep it perfectly level.  The swinging lens tends to make strange shapes if the camera is tilted up.  You get converging verticals but in an unnatural radial pattern.  This, of course, can be put to your advantage.

The output gap.  One thing that you should consider carefully with the Noblex is how you intend to output the pictures.  The negatives are certainly big enough for contact prints, but be aware that optical printing requires a big 4x5" enlarger.  Using a conventional flatbed (like an Perfection V750) is not a bad way to go, but the usable resolution will be relatively low.  Conventional medium format negative scanners usually have a 6x9 (hardware induced) limit, even if the carrier can hold a bigger negative.  So look before you leap.

The bottom line.  The Noblex is fun, even if you don't always get the shot you want.  It's an excellent way to enjoy the heady dying days of 120 filn.