Turning My Canon 5D Mark II Into A Digital XPan – An Attempt Was Made

I’ve loved the look of panoramic photos for a long time – much more than the typical 3:2 aspect ratio most commonly used in photography. I’m not sure exactly why that is. Some people say panoramic photos look more “cinematic”, equating them to movies which are shot in a wide aspect ratio. “Cinematic” can mean a lot of things though, so I don’t think it really describes what makes a panoramic photo interesting to me. Maybe it’s something about when viewing a good panoramic image, your eyes have to scan over different parts of it to fully take the image in. Perhaps my brain subconsciously thinks there’s something more satisfying about that. Whatever the reason, I just find panoramic images interesting.

Despite my love of panoramic images, I haven’t had a way to take photos in that wide of an aspect ratio in a really long time. Many years ago I had fun with a few disposable panoramic film cameras, and that may have been the beginnings of my interest in photography. Here’s a grainy one from March 2000:

Panoramic photo taken with a disposable camera

Since then I’ve owned a few different cameras but the closest thing to panoramic was the Canon G7 which can take photos in a few aspect ratios including 16:9 – but that never felt wide enough.

In looking at photo books and researching various cameras, I really like the 65:24 aspect ratio of the long discontinued Hasselblad XPan / Fuji TX-1 / Fuji TX-2 film cameras, or various “617” film cameras. However, they are usually pretty expensive – especially the Hasselblad XPan / Fuji TX models. There are also some less expensive film options like the Holga 120 Pan, or various 3D printed 617 cameras.

In terms of digital cameras that offer a 65:24 aspect ratio or something close to that, unfortunately the choices are pretty limited. It mostly comes down to the Fuji GFX medium format cameras, some Sigma cameras, a Panasonic Lumix S5II or the recently announced Panasonic LUMIX S9. Those are all fairly expensive as well and I’m not ready to make a purchase like that.

So, in the interest of making the most of the gear that I already own, I decided to try taking panoramic images with my aging but much loved Canon 5D Mark II. While the Canon 5D Mark II has excellent image quality along with some great lens choices, it doesn’t have a lot going for it in terms of approximating the shooting experience of a Hasselblad XPan / Fuji TX for taking panoramic photos. There are two main hurdles:

  1. There is no way to preview photos in the XPan’s 65:24 aspect ratio while shooting.
  2. There is no way to crop photos in camera to that aspect ratio. In fact the Canon 5D Mark II doesn’t offer any aspect ratio choices at all… it’s limited to 3:2.

That first issue we can address by using the 5D Mark II’s live preview feature and a bit of masking tape. The second issue we can only solve by cropping the image in post.

So, I set about measuring the size of the live preview screen on the back of the camera to create a cut out that would mask the preview to a 65:24 aspect ratio. That way I could compose photos for that size in camera. Then when editing the photo on a computer I could simply crop it to 65:24, to match what I saw on the camera’s live preview.

I didn’t do a great job with the cutout, but it was good enough to try things out. Here are a few resulting photos:

I’m happy enough with the photos as a first attempt, but the shooting experience leaves a lot to be desired. This is a DSLR – not a mirrorless camera – and isn’t really built to use live preview all of the time. Taking photos like this is slow and frustrating since the mirror has to flip back down to focus before taking the photo. I suppose I could just set it to manual focus, but it’s still not the best experience. After a few days of trying that I gave up and started using the optical viewfinder again and just guessed at the composition as best I could.

I also tried taking photos with a small DxO One camera which has a tiny pixellated black and white photo preview, and guessed with the composition on that as well. Cropping those photos to 65:24 turned out okay too, but again it’s not a good shooting experience.

So, this little experiment wasn’t as successful as I’d hoped, but it was worth trying. I’d really like a new camera that supports previewing and cropping photos in a panoramic aspect ratio. It’s unfortunate that most digital camera makers don’t support anything wider than 16:9. It seems like that would be fairly easy to add, given that most cameras already support multiple aspect ratios. Of the few digital cameras that do support 65:24 or something similar, I find other reasons that make me not want to pay the hefty price tag – at least not right now. Instead maybe I’ll give one of the less expensive film camera options a try, like the Holga 120 Pan or a 3D printed 617 camera?