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Balloons over the Clifton Suspension Bridge - Kodak Panoram

Designed by Kodak in 1890, this particular model (Panoram 4D) was built between 1920 & 1926 the camera is simple to shoot but loading/unloading film is challenging. Originally using a (103) roll format there would be 4 shots per roll. I use single sheets of X-ray film, which though much cheaper than ordinary film it is double sided and scratches easily. Given that shooting in the field necessitates swapping film in a changing bag scratches were a real problem. I have now come up with a system of putting each sheet of cut film, together with a black paper backing, into a glycine folder and am able, most of the time, to load and upload the film without accumulating dust or scratches.

I have added (non destructively) some foam supports inside the camera to try and keep the film flat against the curved guide. This isn’t always successful and so some sections of the image can be slightly blurred.

Composition is a challenge as the top-mounted viewfinder shows only the middle third of the field of capture, which is 142 degrees.

The fast shutter speeds mean the camera can be hand-held - but, unless done for artistic reasons, it must be level or the horizon becomes curved, and straight lines become distorted and curves either flattened or emphasised so I added a period Kodak bubble level (fitted on other models).

The shutter mechanism is a, beautifully simple, spring loaded trigger mechanism which can be cocked in the 1/50 or 1/100s position alternating left to right after each shot as the lens changes sides each shot.

The spring operates a toothed plate that engages with the spindle on which the lens is mounted turning it as the spring is triggered from the shutter button. My camera has been well used and there is now only a very fine range of vertical adjustment available to engage the toothed plate with the geared spindle and it took a lot of time to find a working position. At the end of its swing the lens arrangement is caught by a sprung catch to stop it - these too needed fettling to get a good working position.

The lens (C P Goertz f6.7 110mm) has waterhouse stops and I have added a permanent yellow filter as the X ray film tends to blow out skies being most sensitive to blue/UV.

Behind the lens is a rectangular cone that creates the defined projection of light that sweeps across the film.

There is the satisfaction of shooting with something that I have revived and renovated. I have always liked the panoramic format and produced and printed some large digital panoramas. I love the fact it produces such big negatives that mean I can make good-sized contact prints - whether as ordinary silver-gelatine prints, pigment prints or cyanotypes. I enjoy the fact that the camera, lens and process impact an aesthetic to the image that makes viewers stop and wonder about the age of the image.

Lastly, and I’ve appreciated this more and more as I have used the camera, it’s format means I have to change my eye for composition. “Leading lines” are a common feature of effective pictures and are particularly important here; otherwise there can be dead space with nothing of interest in the a large part of the scene. Then there is the opportunity to play with distortions the camera produces which remind me of some of Bill Brandt’s work.

Not every scene works in panoramic - but some scenes and subjects are just made for it - like the balloons over the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

The first problem to face was where to stand to get the shot. This was wind dependent - in which direction would the balloons be flying? Fortunately the forecast was for westerly blowing from the launch point across to Bristol over the bridge and gorge. I wanted to get the balloons flying over the bridge and the bridge with as little distortion as possible so that meant being some distance away from the bridge on the cliff top path where it curves in towards the river. This was an early morning shot and the sun was going to be well off to the left from this view point which was good. With the panroramic format there is always the restriction that the sun will be in either end of the shot and blow-out one end of the image or the other. So the fact it was slightly cloudy also helped in this regard.

Then I needed to be able to get a shot holding the camera absolutely flat horizontal, without getting any of the bushes on the cliff edge in the bottom of the image - fortunately turning up early enough (5:30am) I was able to get to a point here the bushes were lower than elsewhere.

Being so early in the morning (at sunrise) the light level was low. My Maximum aperture of f6.7 with my ISO 100 Xray film was looking to give an underexposed image by about 1 stop at my slowest shutter speed of 1/50s. Fortunately the balloons were another hour from launch and by the time they started to come over my light meter app was reading for 1/50s and all images were properly exposed.

I took one shot with the first balloon so I had at least one ‘in the bag’ because a change in wind direction would mean not shot to be had. It took 2 minutes to change the film and now more balloons were up in the air - I waited to see if some of the balloons would rise above the horizon, which fortunately they did.

This shot is soft at the ends - probably because the film was not flat agains the curve - it happens - but in fact to my eye this helps the image.

The negative is developed in a tall glass cylinder (5” diameter flower vase) in dental X-ray developer and develops out in 15 seconds, then into another vase for the fix and finally a wash tank. Once dry the negative was photographed with my fuji XT20 (23Mp) on a light table, inverted in photoshop and had a treatment applied in SilverFX 2.

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