Before we begin, I just wanted to mention a couple of things. In the interest of the flow of the article, links to websites, Instagram pages, and YouTube videos will all be found at the end of the review (but I do hope you’ll read the whole thing, and not just skip to the end!). Also, this is my first experience shooting on a panoramic camera, and I’ve only run a few rolls through it so far, so it’s really more of a first-impressions kind of review. I’ve never had a chance to shoot with an XPan, so any comparisons I make between the two are from other’s experiences I have read about online.
All right, enough of that! Let’s get down to it, shall we? Here’s what I cover:
Table of contents
As far as film photography-related search keywords go, the #1 most searched phrase is probably a toss-up between “thrift store Leica” and “Hasselblad XPan alternative”. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to figure out why; who isn’t trying to find a highly sought-after camera at a fraction of the cost? For those of us relentlessly searching for XPan alternatives, the search has been a long one.
At least as early as 2003, people have been trying to crack the code of finding a 35mm panoramic camera without breaking the bank. A quick online search shows a variety of different options, ranging from a Horizon Perfekt, a Cameradactyl Brancopan designed by Ethan Moses, or a Lomography Sprocket Rocket, to simply using a 35mm to 120 adapter and shooting through a medium format camera. Some people even prefer to crop images down to panoramic size, or use a camera with a built-in crop mode. While all of these options have their merits and might be suitable for others, I was still searching for a little something more, something special. Enter the custom-built PressPan.
About the PressPan’s creator
Freeman Lin is an engineer by trade based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada. His passion is customizing photography gear because, in his words, “everyone is unique and their gear should reflect that” (quote taken from his website). Using a mix of 3-D printed pieces and machined camera bodies, he creates commissioned 35mm panoramic camera builds based on his designs, as well as providing other modification and conversion services. One quick look at his Instagram page or website is all you need to see his obvious love for re-creating something new out of something old, making unique cameras for unique photographers.
According to an article he wrote in June of 2020 for 35mmc, he found himself in need of a project to do at the beginning of the pandemic, a distraction from all of the sad news he was seeing. He felt lucky at being able to work from home, but that wasn’t enough to distract his mind. Finding himself inspired by a camera that Wilco Jansen from Hassyparts had built, Freeman created what he calls the “FauXPan”, which is what led him down the road to building the PressPan.
Introducing the PressPan
So, what is the Press Pan, you ask?
At its base, it is a Nikon FE. Mind you, an FE that has been stripped of its prism, had its shutter disengaged and curtain removed, its lens mount severed, and the film gate machined out from the standard 24x36mm to approximately 24x68mm, making it 3mm wider than the XPan. Not a significant size difference, but one nonetheless.
The negatives have rounded edges though, which means either leaving them as part of the images when scanning, or cropping the frame slightly for squared-off corners. Personally, I do choose to crop mine for my own aesthetic, but I still think it’s kind of a neat quirk on an already quirky camera.
Click to view this and any other images in this article in full screen.
After the body has been stripped, it gets retrofitted with a 3-D printed lens mount system designed by Freeman for your lens of choice (of the available options outlined on his website that are wide enough to cover the entire frame, and have a built-in shutter). I decided to go with the Mamiya Press 50mm f/6.3, which is the camera’s namesake. For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a bit of a Mamiya fan-girl, so having the opportunity to mount that lens on a Nikon body was thrilling for me!
The lens and accompanying viewfinder were the main cost of this custom build. They are relatively rare in the North American market, but are easily found on eBay from Japanese sellers for around $350-550 USD. While the Mamiya Press lens is not exactly the cheapest of options, in some ways it is still the most practical.
The lens remains completely interchangeable, so it can still be used on a Mamiya Press or even a Goodman Zone camera, and there are no modifications needed. The lens is attached to the body by way of a 3-D printed bayonet ring and 4 screws for kind of a “steampunk” look, which at first looks bulky, but feels really balanced once in hand.
Handling and first impressions
Speaking of how it feels in hand, I was surprised at just how well it suits me. I had some concerns at first; holding the hefty Press lens in one hand compared to the light-weight machined FE body in the other had me scared that the camera would be very front heavy, and therefore difficult to compose shots hand-held.
I am no stranger to heavy cameras, one of my all-time favourites is my Mamiya RB67 which weighs in at approximately 6.5lbs, but I usually use a tripod when I’m out shooting with it which makes the weight manageable. Once assembled, I was shocked at how perfectly balanced the forward off-set 3-D printed grip made the PressPan feel.
As far as weight goes, fully assembled, the PressPan weighs about 2.5lbs (1173g to be precise), which makes it heavier than many SLRs or rangefinders, but not so much as to be a deal-breaker. The weight of the XPan is harder to determine; depending on which lens you use, it can weigh up to 3lbs (1362g), but I’ve heard it weighs a little less when using the 45mm lens, so they are quite comparable.
Functionality: How does it work?
As a Mamiya RB67 user, I am used to having a checklist of essential steps to make sure that my images are properly exposed and to avoid the dreaded accidental double-exposure, and the PressPan is no different in that aspect. Since the shutter is built into the lens, in essence, it becomes the camera itself, as the FE portion now acts as a film back only, and the two do not communicate.
Once I have found a subject, the first thing I do with any of my cameras is to get a light reading. The battery-operated light meter built into the Nikon FE body has been removed so now a light reading needs to be taken with either an external light meter, or by eye. Personally, I am a big fan of fully mechanical cameras; not only are they relatively easy to service, but there’s nothing like battery failure to derail a shoot.
After obtaining a light reading and adjusting the desired settings on my lens, the next step is to determine my distance from the subject to fine-tune my focus. The removal of the prism means it is now a zone focus camera, so it does take a bit of time to get used to, but I still find it easier than focusing a Holga! I also have to remember to set the distance on my viewfinder as well to correct for parallax, which is something I did forget to do a couple of times. When focusing at infinity, that step isn’t as important, but it definitely makes a difference when your subject is much closer. Once all of these steps are taken care of, it’s time to cock the shutter on the lens and fire away!
As soon as I have taken a shot, I immediately wind my film to avoid accidental double-exposures. The film is still advanced by the original lever on the FE, but now it’s a double-stroke due to the widened frame size. The frame spacing is really well done in this modification; there is lots of room between shots without wasting film, so no need to worry about cutting between frames. I choose to start shooting on “0” and continue counting my frames through even numbers. Maybe that’s a little OCD rearing its head, but it does allow me to shoot 19 frames on a roll of 36, and so far that method has worked out for me.
The really fun part about buying a camera from an individual builder are the extra touches they include, and the PressPan has a few. Not only is the grip really practical for holding the camera up, it also houses a little secret: you can stash a spare roll of film inside!
Sometimes when I’m out shooting I don’t like to carry more than I have to, so being able to store both fresh and exposed rolls on the camera itself is really neat. I just need to remember to put the canister in with the top facing down, otherwise it’s a struggle to get it back out again.
Also on the grip is a 3-D printed ring ergonomically designed to hold a shutter release cable which can be rotated to be used either with your thumb or your index finger. Since the shutter is built into the lens, so are the cocking mechanism and shutter release button, and beside the button is a place where you can screw in the cable.
My personal preference is to still use the shutter release button on the lens as I find it more comfortable, but the ring actually offers me more stability when holding the grip, so that’s a nice bonus.
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The addition of the level bubble on top is also really practical, especially for shooting landscapes to make sure those horizons are straight. Of course, using a tripod will also help with that, and now that the original socket is being used to hold the grip to the body, the new socket has actually been installed under the lens mount, which also helps to balance out the weight and keep the camera sturdy.
My absolute favourite add-on though is the new serial number imprinted on the 3-D printed bottom plate; mine has “NO. 07” engraved. It’s such a nice touch, and it really gives the camera a whole new personality.
Issues I encountered
There were a few problems that arose while I was testing out the camera, but luckily they can all be easily solved, and have more to do with user experience than from the build itself. Funnily enough, the first thing that raised questions was the lens.
From my experience shooting on an RB67 with both Sekor and Sekor-C lenses, I have learned that the non-C lenses are not multi-coated, and therefore either need to be used with a good multi-coated UV filter or a lens hood to reduce glare and fogging when pointed towards the sun. Unfortunately, this Press lens has that same flaw. Because the thought had come to mind before I started shooting, I at least knew how to handle the situation, and avoided composing scenes facing the sun.
The only thing I hadn’t accounted for was exactly how wide of an angle this lens has, so I do have some shots where I didn’t quite manage to keep the flaring out, but my next purchase is now going to be a good UV filter and I’m confident that will do the trick. It is also possible to source a lens hood for the Mamiya Press lens, mine just didn’t come with one.
With this build, Freeman also included a 3-D printed slip-on viewfinder mask to help with framing compositions in panoramic format. While I love that he included this piece, I’m finding that it is going to take some getting used to. Since it is a slip-on that means that the mask is further from the frame lines inside the viewfinder, so at times, what you see isn’t always what you get.
I don’t mind that I get more in my frame than I see in my viewfinder, if anything that just gives me more to work with in terms of the final image, but I did notice that when I was closer up I would sometimes cut off my subjects mostly on the bottom of the frame because I would focus more on what I saw in the viewfinder than the position of the lens itself. This issue is really more due to my lack of experience with the viewfinder, and I believe that it will go away the more I use it.
Another issue I encountered came from using the shutter release on the lens, as opposed to installing a shutter release cable. While I find it convenient, it’s built-in locking mechanism for bulb mode can engage without me realizing it, so as soon as the shutter is cocked it will automatically fire, usually meaning I have accidentally ruined a frame. It does seem to lock easily by itself in my bag, so it’s really just a matter of staying attentive.
I had also noticed the appearance of some reflections in the top left of the frame on my negatives. They didn’t look like light leaks, or uneven development of the film, but they had me a little stumped. What I soon realized after was that I had been running my finger along the frame gate to make sure there were no stray hairs or threads of printed plastic (admittedly, also just because I was in awe of the new frame size!) and doing so caused me to rub off the paint that Freeman had applied. At the time of writing this review, I have not attempted any solutions, but I’m pretty sure that carefully reapplying matte black model paint to the film gate will most likely do the trick.
I am someone who gets really excited at the idea of a new camera, and the PressPan has definitely lived up to my expectations. One of my favourite things about using a panoramic camera is that it challenges me to look at the world around me in a different way, it forces me to frame things in ways I can’t with other cameras, often revealing subjects that were invisible to me through other aspect ratios.
I tend to photograph primarily landscapes, and I think this camera is an ideal tool to have in my arsenal. Not only does the panoramic format offer a different perspective, but the lens offers apertures all the way up to f/32, which is ideal for obtaining sharp backgrounds whilst maintaining foreground interest.
While it possibly wouldn’t be some photographers’ first choice due to the checklist involved in shooting, I do think this could be an interesting camera to use for street photography. The hyper focal settings on this lens have immense potential; even at f/16 you can achieve full focus coverage from 1m to infinity, meaning you can set your focus and aperture once and shoot away, especially if using a film at ISO 400 or higher, and the shutter speeds can be adjusted as needed for changing light.
Also, it’s doubtful anyone on the street will have seen this camera before, so it could definitely be a conversation starter, if that’s your thing! Honestly, this camera can really be used in a variety of situations, and the wider frame can help add a lot of context to your images that you might not be able to get with other cameras, especially when shooting portraits.
Is it better than an XPan?
I can’t answer that.
Every camera has its perks and its flaws, but I do know that it is a much cheaper alternative, especially if you’re already invested in the Mamiya Press system, or if you have a broken Nikon FE lying around that is still capable of advancing film. Full disclosure: in its entirety, including the build, lens, viewfinder, Nikon FE, and shipping costs, came out to about $1000 CAD ($763 USD). I know, that might still seem high to some of you, but the cheapest I have ever seen an XPan go for was $2,500 USD, and the average price hovers closer to $3,000-4,000 USD, so the PressPan’s lower price point is definitely noteworthy.
Of course, Freeman states on his website that there are different options, including cheaper lenses, so if you are interested in having a camera built, the best way to get the true price is to contact Freeman directly.
Even if I have only put a few rolls through at this time, I am already in love with the PressPan. It feels right, fits well in my hands, and it’s such a joy to see the world in a panoramic format, plus, let’s be honest, it just looks so badass! A bonus for me as well is that I got a chance to support not just a fellow Canuck, but someone who saw a problem and solved it. It always amazes me the things that people can accomplish because I just don’t have the mindset to conceptualize and build things; and not only can they build new ideas, they want to share them with the world and put them into the hands of people who will enjoy using them, and that’s just a beautiful thing.
If you want to see this camera in use, I filmed a video for my YouTube channel:
You can also find more of my work on Instagram @jesshobbsphoto, and, of course, please don’t hesitate to check out Freeman’s Instagram page @watchmemake, and if you are thinking of having one made for yourself you can get in touch with him through his website: trastic.com.
He also wrote an article with detailed pictures of his FauXPan build at 35mmc (also linked above!)
Thanks for taking the time to read this, and Happy Shooting!
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