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From the weird and wonderful files: The Spinshot 35s

SpinShot 35s panoramic camera - front full view

First in our series from the weird and wonderful files comes the Spinshot 35s panoramic camera. Perhaps "weird" is not the best moniker, because in its day it was an innovative approach to panoramic film photography, but looking back, this camera is in a category by itself.

The Spinshot 35s consists of a rectangular, boxy body on top of a grip/handle (when I hold it I can't help but to feel like an Olympic torch-bearer). On top of the camera is a viewfinder, which offers an approximation of the field of view for the exposure. Additionally, there is a bubble-level to help you keep the camera as level as possible, which, of course, is critical to any panoramic photography.

SpinShot 35s panoramic camera - top left view

SpinShot 35s panoramic camera - back open view

The Spinshot features a slit-scan lens design whereby the camera body spins, while the film passes by a 1.5mm wide slit that is the height of the film. The camera can take a full 360 degree image (and sometimes a little more), which eats up the equivalent of seven images of a 35mm roll. It uses a fixed-focus and a fixed-aperture f/111), two element, 25mm wide angle lens that focuses from three feet in front of the camera to infinity. Of course, with the fixed aperture, lighting conditions need to be consistent, and shooting taking place mostly outdoors.

As the camera body quickly spins, the effective "shutter speed" is about 1/500 of a second. It is recommended that you shoot 400 ISO film for consistent exposures.

The SpinShot was the brainchild of Rick Corrales, who invented and manufactured the cameras. Corrales was also an innovator in 3-D animation software, as well a Los Angeles Times staff photographer for 14 years. Corrales held patents on the SpinShot, particularly the unique handle design. Corrales set up manufacturing in 1990 in Whittier, California and sold about 1,000 units before digital photography took its toll on film.

Perhaps the biggest challenge in taking a panoramic with the SpinShot is keeping yourself out of the photo! Because it takes a 360 image, and because you are holding the camera, it takes some creativity to avoid the selfie as the camera whips around. This usually involves some contortions to hold it over your head while ducking out of the way. One problem with the hand-held approach is that is difficult to keep the camera level on the horizontal while you pull the cord and the body spins.

SpinShot 35s panoramic camera - tripod connector

A more practical approach is to mount the camera on a tripod to keep it level and solidly in place during the spin. Even when using a tripod you will need to hold the grip firmly (while crouching down below the camera) while you pull the cord because it takes some force to pull the string. If you didn't hold the camera, you will simply pull over the whole rig, tripod and all. Believe me on this one.

SpinShot 35s panoramic camera - bottom view of belt drive

Another interesting challenge is what I would categorize as film advance. After taking an image, it is critical that you replace the light-tight lens cap immediately. Remember that the slit is the lens aperture, and light will continue to come in through the slit and expose the film even after the spinning stops. Hence, even if you are quick on the draw, an extra dose of light will come in, creating vignettes of overexposed film between images. Perhaps this why the camera in full spin mode will take more than 360 degrees, to account for small bit of overexposed "waste" at the end of each exposure.

Because of this glob of silver at the end of the exposure, you must manually turn the body a tiny bit (while the lens cap is on) to position the slit over a fresh, unexposed part of the film before the next exposure, otherwise the beginning of the next image will be exposed.

SpinShot 35s panoramic camera - pull string

What is especially interesting about shooting with this camera is the unique method of "loading" the spring that spins the camera body. This is accomplished with a pull string attached to a ring that comes out of the grip, near the top of the handle (Anyone growing up in the 60s and 70s will immediately have a flashback to the See 'n Say of their childhood).

To make an exposure, you pull on the ring, which comes out several inches and tensions a rather strong internal spring, then when you release the cord, the camera body spins quickly, exposing the film.. This process takes some practice to get consistent results. An important note is that when you release the string to start the have to release the string quickly and completely; you cannot provide any kind of resistance to the retracting string or the camera will move too slowly across the film and thus overexpose the image.

There is a lot of subjectivity to the science of pulling the string to get just the right amount of spin you want. If you pull the string our as far as it will go and release it, the camera body will spin a full 360 degrees (actually probably 380 degrees, overlapping itself). However, you don't always want a full 360 degree image -- maybe you want just 180 degrees. In this case you would pull out the string approximately half-way and release it. This is more art than science for sure. It made sense to me that there would be marks on the string showing how far to pull it out to get the desired degrees of panorama. Not so, you just guess. If I used the camera regularly, I think I would take some time to make markings on the string to make sure I can confidently know just how much spin I am getting.

Panoram a photo taken with SpinShot 35s panoramic camera

To me, the quirkiness, the subjectivity of the pull-string, the kinetics the mechanics, the springs, and spinning all make for a unique and enjoyable shooting experience.

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