Photographer Captures Hot Air Balloon Festival on Ancient Panoramic Camera

Hot air balloons over Bristol and 19th-century camera

A photographer used a panoramic film camera designed in the 1890s to capture a stunning shot of a hot air balloon festival in the U.K. last weekend.

Simon Williams uses a handheld Kodak Panoram 4D that takes 103 film roll which create a a huge 12×4-inch negative. The 4D model was built circa 1920 and the camera was soon taken out of production entirely.

Williams bought the 19th-century camera five years ago because he wanted a challenge, which it has proven to be. He tells PetaPixel that maintaining and operating it is a difficult task.

“I use single sheets of X-ray film, which though much cheaper than ordinary film is double-sided and scratches easily,” he explains.

“Given that shooting in the field necessitates swapping film in a hanging 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.”

Bristol Balloon Fiesta.
The full panoramic of the Bristol Balloon Fiesta.

Indeed, in Williams’ magnificent photo of the hot-air balloons rising behind the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, a city in South West England, the extreme ends of the wide images are blurred; but some may argue that it makes for a nice effect.

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

“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.”

Clifton Suspension Bridge
A different shot of the Clifton Suspension Bridge taken on the Kodak Panoram.

Williams explains that 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,” he says.

“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.”

Williams has a C P Goertz 110mm f/6.7 lens attached to the camera and has added a permanent yellow filer into it because the X-ray film tends to blow out skies because of its sensitivity to the color blue and ultraviolet light.

The Joy of Analog

Williams says there is a “satisfaction” of shooting on a camera that he himself has revived and renovated.

“I have always liked the panoramic format and produced and printed some large digital panoramas,” he says.

“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,” he continues.

“Lastly, and I’ve appreciated this more and more as I have used the camera, its 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 large part of the scene.”

How The Balloon Panoramic Photo Was Created

Williams says that his Kodak Panoram is made for a photo like the one of the hot air balloons. But plenty of planning had to go into it.

“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?” He says.

“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 viewpoint which was good. With the panoramic format, there is always the restriction that the Sun will be at 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 (05:00) I was able to get to a point where the bushes were lower than elsewhere,” he continues.

“Being so early in the morning (at sunrise) the light level was low. My maximum aperture of f/6.7 with my ISO 100 X-ray film was looking to give an underexposed image by about one 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 no shot to be had. It took two 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.”

The full panoramic of the Bristol Balloon Fiesta.

“This shot is soft at the ends, probably because the film was not flat against the curve — it happens — but in fact, to my eye, this helps the image,’ he says.

“The negative is developed in a tall glass cylinder (5-inch 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 X-T20 on a light table, inverted in Photoshop, and had a treatment applied in Silver Efex 2.”

Last year, PetaPixel featured photographer Richard Malogorski who uses an incredibly complex 1915 Cirkut camera to capture 360-degree panoramics on film.

More of Williams’ work can be found on his website and Instagram.

Image credits: All photos by Simon Williams.