Enter the Sprocket Rocket

About two weeks ago, I came across this post on Twitter:

I liked the photo and left a  comment, and Kim replied:

About an hour of research, an hour of hunting for a good price, a debit card number, and 4 days later, I was unboxing yet another toy…

The day before the Sprocket Rocket arrived, Hamish Gill posted an interesting article about his Hasselblad X-pan and why he sold it after only 5 rolls (well, 5 rolls and 18 months).

He bought the X-pan because he thought “…it had the potential to provide me with a unique perspective, that it might challenge my framing, enable me to shoot frames that felt cinematic, and even give me a sense of medium format photography…” but then never shot with it. At $75, my investment in the Sprocket Rocket is not so high, and if I don’t end up using it much, I’m not out much. Plus, while I think the Sprocket Rocket has the potential to provide a unique perspective, challenge my framing, and encourage cinematic feel in my images, I bought it for the fun as much as anything, so I’m not sure I can lose, or, not in the same way as Hamish did with his X-pan.

I was particularly interested in Gill’s general comments around panoramic photography—in particular the “landscape trap”—and I tried (and will try) to keep it in mind when playing with the Sprocket Rocket. 

And with that, the mail carrier arrived, and I got to unboxing…

Now, I really don’t need another camera, but the Sprocket Rocket is one of the most interesting-looking and different cameras I’ve seen in awhile.

Lomography took inspiration from (or ripped off) an old bakelite camera from the late 1930s and early 1940s, made in Chicago, and marketed under about 20 different names, and this gave the camera a fun and funky sort of Art Deco feel that I really love.

With a groovy design in hand, Lomography modified the insides in several ways ways. Where those old cameras had a 50mm fixed lens and produced 4x3cm negatives on 127 film, the Sprocket Rocket has a 30mm lens and captures 36 x 72mm (or 24x72mm) panoramic negatives on 35mm film.

Now, I’ve seen and been intrigued by the cameras like the Hasselblad XPan and Fuji TX-1 and TX-2, and medium format 6x17cm cameras like the the Fuji GX617, Linhof Technorama 617, and other, less famous (and less expensive) panoramic cameras, but couldn’t ever see needing that format, especially for the price.

But at $75, I couldn’t really resist the Sprocket Rocket.

Now, comparing the Sprocket Rocket, another hunk of plastic from Lomography, with precision engineered marvels like the Fuji cameras that I’ve never used may sound silly, but bear with me…

A 90mm lens on a 617 format camera produces negatives that cover about a 90° area of view. The 30mm lens for the Hasselblads and Fujis  cover 94°. But the Sprocket Rocket gives 103° of coverage, and produces negatives 8mm wider (and 10mm taller) than the fancy ‘blads and Fujis.

Sure, it’s all plastic and only has one shutter speed (or two, if you count Bulb) and 2 rather limited apertures, but still.

Speaking of apertures, Lomography claims the cloudy setting is f/10.8 and the sunny setting is f/16, but virtually eveyone (including Kim, above) claims the camera is light hungry, and the User Manual is explicit. From the section titled “How to Achieve Correct Settings:”

These settings have been designed for using 400 ISO film speed.

Also, under “Trouble Shooting:”

Q: I only got a few images on my roll, and most of them are very dark.
A: Most probably you have been underexposing your images or even using slow speed 100 ISO film. Try out a 800 ISO film which is more light sensitive and be sure to use the B shutter in shade and indoor to get more light on the film. A flash will also brighten up any pictures (sic.), day or night!

Now, with a fixed shutter speed of 1/100th and an aperture of f/16, the Sunny 16 rule would indicate proper exposure with ISO 100 film. If you need 400 speed film in bright daylight, then the shutter speed must be faster than 1/100th, or the aperture smaller than f/16, or I don’t understand the Sunny 16 rule.

Jamie Zucek ran some tests on Provia 400: Sprocket Rocket vs. Nikon F100 with 20mm lens. He guessed the apertures to be more like f/16 and f/22.

Not wanting to “waste” any film, I threw caution (and manufacturer suggestions) to the wind and bulk loaded a couple of rolls of Konica Pro 160. I figured late June in North Texas would give plenty of bright, sunny days, and even f/22 at 1/100th should be decent enough on ISO 160 film.

And I was right, mostly.

I started out shooting sprockets, as the camera was designed for. I shot in bulb mode a good bit, trying to err on the side of overexposure, rather than under, and it almost worked.

A selfy, handheld for 10 seconds on the Cloudy setting, turned out surprisingly well.

But, in general, the Sprocket Rocket really is surprisingly light hungry. Here, for example, are two shots, taken back to back about 1 in the after noon on a very bright day, the first on cloudy, the second on sunny. There are clouds visible, but the sun was out and almost directly overhead. It was bright out, and hot.

You can see a bit of flare in the center of the frame. The sun was well out of frame, but still high above. I guess flare is to be expected from a plastic lens, but it’s a pleasant-enough flare, and only popped up in these two frames. (The wild colors in the cloudy shot probably came from bulk loading: the first frames on almost every bulk roll I load are fogged, I think because I’m rolling into old canisters, maybe they’re no longer light tight, or maybe the loading does something to the felt? No idea, but it happens on every roll: I lose about 10″ of film to red fog.)

Even with these, though, underexposure continued unabated… These two, for example, were shot in what I considered broad daylight on, but were somewhat underexposed. Sure, I was in shade, but the sun was blasting the scene. The first was shot about 2pm, and the sun wasn’t overhead, but hadn’t disappeared behind nearby skyscrapers yet; the second was later in the day, maybe 3:30 or 4, and partially blocked by my neighbor’s house, but why is the sky a stop or two under?

This one, shot under evening window light, was way underexposed at 2 seconds on the cloudy setting. I still like it, but it’s really a shame: my darling, adorable wife had some great henna tattoos on her darling, adorable hands for Eid, and I didn’t get this roll developed in time to realize how far off it was.

(The red line and creases in the above two came from some issues I had with humidity in the dark bag while loading: I think they add some interest that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

With a little massage after scanning, I did get some acceptable shots, all on the cloudy setting, if my notes can be believed. They’re still off, but closer.

I was pleasantly surprised by the long exposure I took to finish off the roll on my drive into work one morning. I think this was handheld for about 15 seconds.

I really wish I could hold cameras steady in the car at 75mph… Alas.

After that first roll, I inserted the mask, and shot another roll sprocket-less. I won’t bore you with too many of the details, but I like the sprocket-less shots. Pure pano, with no distraction or hipster stuff. I like the extra height from the sprockets, though, and it might be worth trying some unperforated film, if I can find some in 400 speed.

I had some underexposure issues with these too, and learned my lesson about “slow” film in the Sprocket Rocket. (I shot a roll Labeauratoire [kromiəm] 500 at the 4th of July parade that came out a bit better, and God willing I’ll share some shots from that next week.)

So, the Sprocket Rocket.

For $75, it makes a great gateway to the world of Panoramic photography. The plastic lens is surprisingly sharp, for a plastic lens, and the camera is, indeed, cheap and cheerful. I had loads of fun with it, and look forward to putting many more rolls through it.

There is some bad to the camera, as fun as it is. It distorts horribly, but if you know how to work it, you can manage. I haven’t gotten there yet, but I can imagine ways to work with it. It’s imperative to keep the camera level, though, or to keep any horizontal or vertical lines near the middle of the frame.

In the same vein, vertical panoramas are really hard to pull off. They’re just too tall, and the distortion is, again, atrocious.

Portraits could be interesting, and I can imagine some interesting results with some slow, fine grained film (and high-powered, wide angle strobes). Maybe something like Robert Longo’s Men in the Cities series… I need to write that down.

And one last issue that I haven’t run into yet comes from the frame counter thing.

 

On the left side, looking down from the top, between the rewind knob and the flash shoe, there are two circular depressions with little holes in. The one nearest the flash shoe displays the frame numbers; the one near the rewind knob shows a little white dot when you’ve wound far enough for a new frame. This dot is tiny and goes by really quickly, so you must pay close attention when winding.

But those are all just minor complaints: for what it is, primarily a means to shoot sprockets and super-wide angle panoramas, the Sprocket Rocket is great, and it’s cheap enough and as well built as a plastic camera can be. It’s also surprisingly fun and easy to use.

Purpose
Price
Craftsmanship
Ease of Use
 

Overall, I give the Sprocket Rocket a solid 4 stars.

You can pick up brand new ones in a variety of fun colors for $90 direct from Lomography, or brave the wilds of eBay and the internets for used or grey market versions. Lomo was out of stock of the black one when I was shopping, but a nice Chinese firm shipped me one for $75, and if you’re patient, you can probably find one cheaper.

If you want to try out panoramic photography or shoot sprockets, there’s really not a better way, imo… There may be sharper or more optically well-corrected options, but none go as wide, as cheaply as the Sprocket Rocket.

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