For some photographers, it’s all about the light. For others, it’s sharpness. Frequent readers know my own photographic passions are driven by a quest for context.

For this reason, I prefer to shoot from the middle of the action rather than outside it — enveloping my subject within the context of his or her environment. I demand my photos show what’s above my subject, beside my subject, in front of my subject and behind my subject. I want the viewer to feel as if they’re a part of the scene, and not just an observer. This is precisely the reason I usually shoot very close and with wide angle lenses. For me, 50mm is a telephoto lens.

That “quest for context” fueled my decision to purchase an old Widelux F7 earlier this year. The swing lens Widelux captures a 120 degree horizontal field of view — providing me with more context than I’ve yet been able to use effectively. Sane people would be perfectly satisfied to stop here. Frankly, I think sanity is overrated.

Because I usually shoot from the center of the action, my photos are missing the added context of whatever’s happening behind me. If my goal is to place my camera in the middle of the scene then, by definition, the 120 degree Widelux is only capturing one-third of whatever surrounds me. For this reason, shouldn’t my camera have a 360 degree field of view? Fortunately my madness is not without precedence, and as early as 1857 there were crazy camera makers making crazy 360 degree spinning cameras for crazy photographers. Throughout the years, nut jobs like myself have had access to such panoramic cameras as the 1904 Cirkut, the WWI-era Cyclorama and the 1958 35mm Panorax.

Flash forward to the summer of 2010, when wacky “toy” camera company, Lomography, released the Spinner 360. Truth be told, I’ve always been a bit ‘put off’ by Lomography cameras. In my (admittedly uninformed) view, Lomography had simply pioneered a unique way to sell inferior cameras via their superior marketing skills.

But the lure of 360 degrees of context proved too much, and I eventually caved to the internal voices and ordered a Spinner 360 from Lomography Canada.

Every new purchase is an open invitation to the inevitable first question, “How do you like it?” But with the Spinner 360, this actually becomes the second question. The first is, “what the heck is that thing?”

“A camera,” I answer. “It spins around in a circle and takes a 360 degree panoramic photo.”

“Cool!” comes the inevitable response — followed quickly by the expected, “How do you like it?”

Surprisingly this is proving to be a difficult question to answer. Normally, it’s quite easy to decide whether or not you like something. If the sum of its negative qualities is less than the sum of its positive qualities, then the ultimate answer is “yes, I like it.” So, with this is mind, I prepared a decision list for the Spinner 360. First I listed the negatives, then the positives.

NEGATIVES: Unreliable. Overpriced. Poor build quality. Light leaks. Awful optics. Limited functionality. Inflexible exposure options. Attention grabbing. Expensive to operate. Awkward to shoot. Inconvenient to carry.

POSITIVES: It’s kinda cool.

Since the negatives far outnumber the positives, most readers will likely conclude that I must not like the Spinner 360. And if every factor were weighted equally, this would indeed be a reasonable assumption. But the “cool” factor alone carries a substantial amount of weight. Is it enough to counter all those negatives? In order to answer, I’ll need to carefully weigh each factor.

Spiraling in on the Spinner

The Spinner 360 comes packaged in a particularly clever and well-engineered box — perhaps even more clever and better-engineered than the camera within. When you see the package, the camera seems reasonably priced. However, once you discard all that packaging material into the appropriate recycling bins, you’re left holding a rather cheesy looking plastic camera wrapped with, what I assume to be, surplus textured shelf liner from the 1980′s.

Even though the camera is predominantly plastic, it comes with a large, threaded, heavy metal lens hood that seems totally at odds with the rest of the camera. It took me a couple days to realize why a cheap plastic camera was fitted with such an industrial strength hood — without it, the camera cannot be held stable when spinning. The heavy metal hood is actually necessary to counterbalance the weight of the camera body.

The camera comes festooned with dolphin insignias — one molded into the front of the camera and another atop the blue plastic bubble level. I’ll admit to not knowing why nor having enough journalistic interest to investigate.

Next to the dolphin adorned bubble level is a cold shoe. Obviously, putting a flash atop a spinning camera would not yield the most aesthetic of shots, so avoiding the complexities of a hot shoe makes perfect sense. Cold shoes are normally used to mount an external viewfinder, and I suppose you could pop on a 24mm finder to get an approximate idea of the camera’s vertical field of view. Just remember to pull your face away from the camera before you spin it, or that heavy metal lens hood will come whipping around the handle and break your nose. Perhaps a better purpose for the cold shoe is for mounting a battery-powered constant light source, like an LED panel? With the camera’s limited exposure range, it might be the only way to shoot interior scenes — unless you’re part robot and can manually spin the camera with extreme consistency. I fear, though, that such a panel would throw off the delicate balance required to spin the camera.

Since I just alluded to the limited exposure range, I might as well go all the way. This camera gives the photographer exactly two exposure settings: one labeled with a sun icon, and the other a cloud. The product literature tells us this corresponds to apertures of f/16 and f/8 respectively. Less likely to engender confidence is the spec that tells us the shutter speed is “fixed” to “somewhere between 1/125 and 1/250.” What this implies is that, in general, you’re going to want to shoot with ISO 400 speed film on your average outdoor day. Indoors? Well, even ISO 3200 speed won’t be fast enough, meaning you’re free to experiment with cold-shoe mounted light panels or bionic muscle-control inserts for manually spinning your camera. I don’t know if there’s a lot of sample variation between these cameras, but I do know mine tended to overexpose quite heavily using Tri-X 400. Fortunately, B&W film has tremendous exposure latitude, so I was easily able to salvage every photo. But the fact remains, your exposure options are supremely limited with this camera.

If you’re wondering how the camera actually spins, the answer lies on the back of old-fashioned talking dolls. If you’ve ever seen the kind of doll where you pull a string and the doll talks, well… that’s the technology behind the Spinner 360. Only instead of setting a rotating plastic phonograph record in motion, pulling the string sets the camera in motion. Come to think of it, I’m not sure why the Lomography people don’t make the camera talk when it spins — surely such a feature would double camera sales?

Though inexpensive to implement, the pull-string isn’t the most ergonomic device one could use to set a camera in motion. Nor is it the most reliable. Pulling and releasing the string frequently failed to deliver a full 360 degree spin — something I’d consider a major flaw in a product called “Spinner 360.” I’d estimate, at best, the camera lived up to its name only about half the time.

Earlier I made mention of “shutter speed” but, in reality, the camera has no shutter. The aperture simply remains open all the time — 24 hours/day, 7 days/week. The reason this doesn’t completely fog your film is because, unlike a traditional camera, the Spinner 360 does not expose an entire frame all at once. Rather it exposes a frame sequentially (through a narrow slit) over time. In this way, the Spinner 360 is very much like the Widelux. In the case of the Widelux, the film stays stationary and the lens slit rotates across its surface. In the case of the Spinner 360, the lens slit stays stationary and the film slides across it. So how does the film manage to move across the slit? By rubber band! Really. Seriously. A rubber band “gear” connects the film transport to the camera rotation mechanism. So when you set the camera in motion, the rubber band couples the spinning camera to the film’s take-up reel, pulling the film across the lens slit.

It’s all quite ingenious — but not without issues. Because the aperture is always open, there’s a potential for light leaks inside the camera. The Spinner 360 “combats” these light leaks by hanging a pair of thin felt-like “draperies” inside the camera. The film is pulled through the opening between the two flexible curtains and, in theory, this prevents the edges of the frame from being fogged by the open aperture. In reality, it’s only a partial solution. Every frame I’ve taken is fogged along the left edge — indicating light from the open slit has leaked into the leading edge of the frame. Exacerbating the situation is the fact the Spinner 360 apparently needs a tiny bit of time to ‘ramp up’ to speed — further fogging the leading edge (by giving it additional exposure time).

If this was the camera’s only optical flaw, I’d probably just work around it. But a much larger flaw is the quality of the lens itself. Judging from its excessive softness, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that this camera uses a plastic lens. If it doesn’t, it should — Lomography would save a few pennies and the image quality couldn’t degrade much further. That said, most people will probably just post their Spinner shots on the web, and all that downsampling and software sharpening can mask a multitude of imaging sins…

… which brings up another curious question about this camera: How do you display its output? A successful 360 spin results in a negative with an aspect ratio that’s nearly 6:1. On a 4×6 photo print, a 6″ wide image will be only 1″ tall. If I run a sheet of 13×19 photo paper through my Epson Stylus Pro 3880, my 19″ wide print is still going to be only a little over 3″ high. The images certainly don’t get any taller when viewed on a computer monitor. And what if you shoot vertical images and try to display them via the web? The results are far from satisfying (as you can plainly see in the vertical image I included earlier in this article).

Next amongst my litany of complaints? Cost of ownership. With only 8-9 images from a roll of 36 exposure film, the Spinner 360 is not the most frugal camera you could have. Of course, this is not the fault of the Spinner 360. You can blame this one on physics. A typical camera creates a frame that’s 36mm wide. Many of my Spinner 360 frames exceed 170mm. That’s a lot of film blowing through the camera.

One of the reasons I purchased this camera was for a bit of old-school slit-scan photography. In normal panoramic mode, you hold the camera’s handle steady and allow the camera to rotate. I figured, if I instead held the camera steady and allowed the handle to spin, then I would have an effective slit-scan camera. Alas, while it is possible to take slit scan photos in this way, the handle rotates much too fast, preventing any time-varying motion from being recorded. Here, for example, is an attempt to photograph the crashing surf on English Bay:

As you can see, the handle rotated so fast that only the tiniest bit of ‘ripple’ made it onto film. I tried a couple slit scan experiments where I manually restrained the string to slow the rotation of the handle, but the results were abysmal. In theory, I could probably add some external contraptions, weights and flywheels to the camera and turn it into a quasi-useful slit scan, but at only 8 exposures per roll, I didn’t really have the inclination (or the money) to experiment.

Conclusions

By now, I suspect many Lomography fans have either sent me an angry email or are at least contemplating it. Most will likely assume that I don’t “get” the camera. But I do “get” the camera. I also “get” Lomography’s marketing technique. For many of their cameras, they have essentially turned “flaws” into “features” and sold the notion that random, uncontrolled events equal “art.” More than one successful avant grade artist has introduced elements of “chance” into their work — turning to the I Ching for inspiration and embracing its randomness. So Lomography’s marketing practice is certainly not without merit. Randomness introduces the unexpected. And the unexpected excites us. So whether someone’s splattering paint on a canvas, cutting up words and reassembling them to create a poem, or splicing randomly chosen snippets of audio tape together to create a new composition, randomness shocks the senses and delivers a nice endorphin blast to the brain. This is how Lomography can sell the notion that light leaks are “intriguing,” bad lenses have “character,” and botched film processing is “creative.” I don’t argue with any of this. In fact, I applaud Lomography for their ingenuity and for giving us photographers such wild and wacky cameras to play with.

Which brings me back to the original question: Do I like this camera?

And the answer, in spite of a whole lot of belly aching and several thousand negative words, is “Yes. I like this camera.” The Spinner 360 is unique, and the images it produces are equally as unique. That, alone makes up for an avalanche of complaints. But it doesn’t prevent me from having certain reservations.

With its bulky dimensions and limited repertoire, the Spinner 360 is definitely not a ‘carry everywhere’ camera. It is, however, a good “party” camera (assuming your party is outdoors), and the images it produces will definitely provide you with a nice set of novelty photos. The fact is, anyone who runs a roll of film through this camera is bound to get at least a couple of compelling photographs guaranteed to be unlike anything else in the family photo album. The problem is that their uniqueness quickly transforms into sameness, as each image is so similarly affected that the effect grows tiresome quite quickly. As such, images shot with this camera are not unlike those shot with a fisheye lens, or processed with heavy-handed HDR techniques — one or two may capture the eye, but three, four or more begin to repel it.

Ultimately, I’m the type of photographer who relies on subject matter rather than special effects for my images. It’s a modus operandi that doesn’t necessarily preclude me from using the Spinner 360, but it does limit the camera’s effectiveness for the type of photography I prefer. The camera’s image quality is my first and foremost concern, followed by the paucity of exposure options and the unreliable degree of spin it can achieve with each tug of the string. However, if a camera existed that rectified these problems, it would be much more expensive. And given the fact that a 360 degree camera is mostly a one-trick pony, there would be little reason for me (or most other photographers) to justify the added expense.

The loftiest praise I can give the Spinner 360 is that it inspires. After running only 3 rolls of Tri-X through it, I found myself planning a couple of specific photo shoots in which the camera’s numerous quirks and curiosities could prove quite beneficial. Although I believe the camera is overpriced for what it is, it’s in no way prohibitively expensive. And although I believe certain design elements could be improved, they do not necessarily detract from the camera’s ultimate Raison d’être. So the camera is affordable enough to own, fun enough to shoot, and ultimately inspires new photographic ideas. What’s not to like?

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©2011 grEGORy simpson

ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Grizzled Elephant Man Empties Public Plaza,” “Precipitous Pole,” “Beneath Burrard,” “English Bay,” “The Dog Beach Squat & Point” and “Grit” were all shot with the Lomography Spinner 360 on Tri-X 400 film, which I developed in Ilfotec DD-X 1:9. The Spinner 360 product shot was taken with a Panasonic DMC-GH2 fronted with a Lumix G Vario 4.0-5.6 / 100-300 lens, which I then processed into oblivion.

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