I love the panoramic format, and when I say panoramic, I mean 3:1 aspect ratio, printed big (and by big I mean a minimum of 2 to 3 feet wide). In my opinion, anything wider than 3:1 looks contrived, and anything narrower isn't really a pano. Nope, 3:1 it has to be, and nothing works better in conveying a sweeping vista.
Let's look at the options in the digital world:
Yeah I know I said 'in the digital world', but you can't ignore the 6x17cm film format, as made popular by the likes of Colin Prior. There are a few camera options available, both new and secondhand, but the obvious choice are the Fujifilm G/GX 617's. Now out of production, but readily available second hand.
Obvious advantages are the fact it is a 'native' 3:1 format, so what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and quality is very high due to excellent lenses and that massive slab of film (it really is 5.6cm x 17cm, so does fulfil my 3:1 requirement!). Scanning at just 1200dpi would be good enough for a 27" wide print at 300ppi.
Downsides are that these cameras are expensive to buy and run: c£2000 body only and c£2 per shot for film and processing (not including scanning!). Depreciation should be pretty low though.
2. Dedicated digital panoramic camera
There's only one of these that I know of - the Seitz 6x17 Digital. First, the good news is we have native 3:1, plus a resolution of 160 megapixels! Yep, that's enough for a 70" wide print at 300ppi.
Bad news is this camera, with a couple of lenses, spare batteries and a very powerful computer is going to set you back close to £40,000! There's a 18 megapixel version which is cheaper but doesn't quite make a 2-foot wide print at 300ppi, and as we'll see this resolution can be met by a digital SLR these days.
If you're still reading after that price tag, see what can be done with the 160 megapixel version by David Osborn of British Panoramics.
Most digital SLRs have a sensor in the 3:2 aspect ratio, so by simply cropping away half the frame, we get 3:1. Good news is many SLR's have gridlines in the viewfinder, or we can use black tape on the LCD to mask the image, allowing us to visualise the final panoramic composition.
We have to be careful about exposure, as the camera is metering from the whole scene, but with care and bracketing this could work quite well. Given that a 24 or 36 megapixel DSLR will make a 20" or 24" print at 300ppi, this is quite an easy way to get into the format, but it doesn't really allow me to make the sort of print sizes I would like.
(A while ago I even asked Nikon if they could introduce a 3:1 viewfinder mask on the D3x, just as they have for DX and 5x4 formats, but I got the standard 'this is not something we're planning' email back. If they were to do this for the D800, I'd probably buy one, but they probably won't)
In part two, I'll be looking at stitching techniques.