Horizon S3 Pro panorama camera

Predecessors of the S3 Pro

The soviets manufactured panoramic cameras as far back as the late 1950's. The FT2 was made at the Krasnogorsky Mechanichesky Zavod - the famous KMZ -, and had an Industar-22 f/5 50 mm rotating lens. (Later versions featured an improved Industar-50 f/3.5 50 mm lens.) It produced a very long, 24x110 mm image on 35 mm film. In comparison, the Horizon cameras have a f/2.8 28 mm lens and create a 24x58 mm image. Despite these differences, the FT2 may be considered the forerunner of the Horizon (or Horizont) cameras.

The Horizont - without any model number -, came out in the late 1960's. It had a metal body, a rotating lens (just like the FT2), and a large removable viewfinder spanning an area just under 120 degrees horizontally. The viewfinder also had an inbuilt bubble level that you could observe when you looked through the viewfinder.

Then, in the 1990's the Horizon 202 appeared. This camera is the immediate predecessor of the S3 Pro, the model I will be discussing in greater detail below. The 202 has many things in common with the original Horizont. What is different, however, is the material used for the body exterior - plastic - and the viewfinder is inseparably built into the middle of the body.

Currently (July, 2005) there are three very similar new models on the market, and it is worth your while to take a careful look at them, if you plan to purchase one of these cameras. These are the S3 Pro, the S3 Sport, and the S3 U-500. And if that wasn't confusing enough, my camera is an S3 Pro and yet it came in a box with 'Horizon 203' written on it! But do not despair - as far as I know, the only difference among these models (apart from the label) is in the shutter speeds. The highest speed on the S3 Pro is 1/250, whereas on the others it is 1/500. And what about the slower speeds? Well, for the S3 Pro, see below. The others, I don't know for sure.

Introducing the S3 Pro     (A concise user's guide.)

The S3 Pro has a modern new look. Its surface is smooth, the corners are rounded off. In fact it is hard to find an edge or a flat area on it. Once upon a time there was a camera, the Argus C3, that was affectionately referred to as 'the brick'. The nickname described it fittingly. The S3 Pro is the exact opposite. It looks like an oversized bar of soap. Unfortunately, it is almost as difficult to hold securely - it keeps wanting to slip out of one's hand. Or maybe I just haven't got used to it yet. It is an unusual camera, so it probably requires a different handling in more ways than one.

The S3 Pro is a fully manual camera, there is not even a light meter built into it, so not surprisingly there aren't all that many controls to worry about. To me that is good news rather than bad, because I like to set things up manually, anyway. With the Horizon you are unlikely to be in a hurry, as for great panoramic shots you will probably want to put the camera on a tripod and take time to compose the picture. This is not to say that the camera is not suitable for candid photography. It is. What helps in this respect is the lack of a big, intimidating zoom lens hanging off the front of it; the lens is only visible during exposure and even then only barely. Also, since the lens is fixed focus, no need to worry about adjusting the distance. You just have to keep in mind what depth of field goes with what aperture setting. As for measuring the light, I always use the same Sekonic light meter no matter which of my cameras I am shooting with.

The camera has a fixed focus f/2.8 28 mm lens. As there is no distance scale, use these hyperfocal distances to judge what will be in- and out of sharp focus on your picture.

Aperture Depth of field (meters)
2.8 5.5 - infinity
4 3.9 - infinity
5.6 2.9 - infinity
8 2 - infinity
11 1.5 - infinity
16 1 - infinity

Now, onto the controls. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here are a couple of pictures to show what is what on the camera.

Some explanation:

On the first of the above three pictures you see the lens looking out from its hide - a rotating turret. I had to half wind up the shutter for this photograph, as normally the lens is parked at one side and is not visible. The deeply set lens is not easy to get to should you need to clean it, but the good thing is that it is well protected from undesirable stray light. I had absolutely no problems with glare so far, thanks to the double coating on the lens and its good position.

The viewfinder is big and bright. I wear glasses, which makes it hard to see the entire picture with some cameras. The Horizon's viewfinder in this respect is not too bad.
When I try out a new camera (or an old camera that is new to me), I sometimes get disappointed upon seeing the developed film, because what I get is not what I saw in the viewfinder (i.e. parallax problem). Although I have not done any exact tests on this, I have not noticed any gross inaccuracies. At any rate, for a large image such as this, a good approximation is often enough. In fact, a reasonably close guess at the image that will be captured on film can be gained by just looking at the subject with one eye - no need for the viewfinder. This is useful when trying to shoot unnoticed.

The controls on the second and third picture are self explanatory. However, I should say a few words on the shutter speed and aperture setting dials. First of all, they should only be manipulated with the shutter cocked. When the shutter is fired the dials spin, so resting a finger on them is not advisable during exposure. After exposure, the dials are positioned in such a way that the numbers are no longer visible. I took the second picture with the shutter cocked. As you can see, I selected 1/60 sec. and f/8.

There is a speed selector lever on the left side of the camera near the film rewind crank. You can either select fast speed (the white dot shows) or slow speed (the yellow dot shows). 'Speed' here refers to the speed with which the turret spins. When it is set to fast speed, the white shutter speed values (from 1/250 down to 1/30) are relevant. When slow speed is set, you select from the yellow values (from 1/8 down to 1 sec.).

Notice how the word 'speed' is overloaded here. We say 'shutter speed' when we talk about figures such as 1/30, 1/250, etc., yet the shutter itself really only runs with one single speed in focal plane shutter cameras. It is the width of the slit between the first and second curtains that makes a difference.

The Horizon, on the other hand, does implement two speeds, as described above. And these two speeds split the shutter speed values into two sets. Within a set, the different exposure values are achieved by a familiar technique; the width of a narrow window in front of the film.

You might have noticed, that there is no 1/15th of a second. If you must expose with 1/15, then the solution is to set the camera to 1/8 and install the grey filter (supplied) that has a factor of 2x.

One word about the aperture; while the 2.8 - 16 range seems sufficient, I do regret that in-between values cannot be set.

Someone made an interesting observation: Unlike in focal plane shutter cameras (as in most SLRs), in the Horizon the lens and the narrow window on the film side move in unison. In other words they are tightly coupled. Also, the with of the window is reduced from one side only, not equally from both sides. This would mean, that as higher shutter speed values are selected, the image circle is reduced one-sidedly. This is less efficient than the alternative solution - from both sides equally -, because it does not take advantage of the fact that all lenses give their best in their middle. From this logic it follows, that for best results one would either use 1/60 (little less than full image circle) or 1/2.
Well, this is something to investigate in the future. How reality stands up to theory.

Thank goodness the tripod socket is placed in the middle of the camera bottom. (Mind you, even old Leicas were guilty of staging their tripod sockets on one side. Highly inconvenient.) Not all is well, however, because that round piece of metal with the thread in it protrudes somewhat from the body, and thus the camera rests on a relatively small surface when attached to a tripod head. :-(

The camera back opens like in most SLRs; you pull up the film rewind knob and the door pops open.
Loading the film is a bit tricky. To start with, you need to draw out a longer length of film than with 'normal' cameras, if you want to succeed in threading it through the rather long and winding path. The film first goes under the roller on the left (not the narrow bar, but the fatter one further inside), then over the curved film gate, then under the narrow horizontal black bar and the shiny sprocket on the right, and finally behind the take-up spool. In other words - and this is a good rule of thumb to remember -, it passes behind everything it can pass behind. In earlier models there was a diagram on the back of the door, but with this camera you only find a curved, plastic film pressure 'plate', that is molded together with the door (see photo). It is better described as a frame of some sort, that supports the edges of the film, only.

When I installed my first film cartridge, I was astonished and worried to see how severely the film had to bend right where it came out of the cartridge. It seemed as if the cartridge should have faced the opposite direction, and I spend some time trying to turn it this way and that to give the film a more natural path. But only the one position worked. I suppose, one could improve on the situation if one loaded the film into a re-loadable cartridge differently. Having said that, I had no problems with winding or re-winding the film so far. Understandably, there is a fair bit of resistance and I took a little more care when operating the film advance lever than with other cameras. It is not exactly suited for quick cock-and-shoot, cock-and-shoot... operation, but otherwise seems robust enough.

By the way, on the picture above you can see the vertical slot that opens to let light onto the film during exposure. It is closed when advancing the film and winding up the shutter, and opens to some extent - depending on the shutter speed selected - when firing the shutter. The direction of movement of this slot during exposure is from right to left - the opposite of the lens' movement.

Picture taking with the Horizon

Apart from it a little awkward to hold, the Horizon S3 Pro is fun to use. Select the required turret swing speed, wind up the shutter, set the shutter speed and aperture values on the dials, compose the picture and shoot.

I quite like the little carry bag that comes with the camera. I keep it around my neck and put the camera in it when I'm not shooting. (It is still new, you see, so I look after it. A year from now...well, it'll be a different story.) I don't find the screw-on handle very useful. When I want to use slower speeds, I put the camera on a monopod or tripod.

The bubble level, that you can either observe on the top of the viewfinder or while looking through it, is a handy feature. It requires a little getting used to how to tilt and turn the camera to make that *@~$^*! bubble sit still in the middle of the reference circle, but the effort pays off. Your horizons will be nice and straight. (It is like using a TLR viewfinder the first time.)

Sample photos

I used Fuji color negative film - just the ordinary, non-professional type. Development was done at my local photo shop. They could not print the film, though. I am still to find some place to get the pictures enlarged. Custom made hand-enlargements are offered at some shops, but they are far too expensive. So, for the time being, I scanned in the film and this is what I am able to show you here. The scanning was done on a Canon 9900F flatbed scanner. This scanner performs reasonably well with medium format film, but is less suitable for 35 mm film. For this reason, I won't be showing you blow-ups of image segments to demonstrate the sharpness and contrast of the Horizon's lens. It is a good, sharp lens the scanner is just not able to give justice to. I can see that from examining the negative.

The first shot is of a longish block of units photographed head-on. The picture is telling, because it shows the barrel distortion inherent in the design of this camera. Objects that are toward the left and right edges are smaller, objects in the middle are larger (or seem to be closer). Although on first look this appears to be an annoying handicap, in many cases it does not disturb as much as on this photo.

It can even be turned into an advantage. Imagine a landscape or cityscape shot where you want to frame the subject with something on the left and right; some bushes or trees, or a statue, a pillar, etc. With a traditional wide angle lens your main subject in the middle would seem small and distant compared to the less important objects closer to you. In such a scenario the barrel distortion of the Horizon would come really handy.

I left a little bit of film around the image, so that the very edges of the picture can be clearly seen. There is a narrow gradient on the sides, which should be chopped off, but look at the absence of light fall-off! The same picture taken with a non-rotating wide angle lens would be noticeably darker around the perimeter.

When taking the second photo, I was wondering whether part of the picture would be ruined by the strong sunshine coming from the right. But, as you can see, it wasn't.

While I will certainly not win a prize with the third photograph, it is useful to demonstrate a couple of things. Firstly, just to show what an indoor shot is like. If you look carefully, you can see the opposite wall bulging out (just look where it meets the ceiling), but by and large distortion is not a problem. Secondly, when I took this shot, I used the slow speed, and while the lens was turning from left to right I quite comfortably walked into the picture and took my position at the door - as if I was just entering the room. (Naturally, the camera was on a tripod.)

In conclusion

I was not disappointed with the Horizon S3 Pro, and certainly do not regret buying it. It is an interesting and capable camera for amateur use. The image quality is good and the camera is fun to use. It is not always easy to find a subject that would require such a wide angle shot, but at times it is indispensable.

Some of you might wonder why on earth would anyone buy a film camera nowadays when a decent digital camera can be obtained for the same price and it comes with stitching software for making panorama images? One obvious answer is that with a rotating lens camera it is easier to take photos of moving objects. Apart from that, I guess, it just comes down to personal preference. I certainly prefer the 1.5m wide image I can achieve with my medium format slide projector to the digital alternative - a comparatively tiny computer screen.

Budapest, July 2005

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