Yesterday's discussion of sensor aspect ratios had several people mentioning circular sensors. It's my understanding that sensor fabrication technology doesn't permit non-rectangular shapes, but I'm far from an expert. However, a couple of people mentioned that very early Kodak cameras—the original "You Push the Button, We Do the Rest" box cameras—created circular pictures.
Indeed they did—here's an example. I have a book around here someplace that gives chapter and verse on early Kodak prints, but I'll be danged if I can turn it up, so I can't give you the dates during which the round prints were de rigeur for Kodakery.
In any event, they didn't last for long, I don't think.
Circular prints have perhaps been the rarest of the basic shapes, unless you include triangles and diamonds and various trapezoids and other shapes that essentially never occur (for more on one such offbeat shape that wasn't uncommon, see below). Oval prints (and oval vignettes) were much more common at one time, being popular for portraits and portrait mats. They're out of fashion now, of course. Long, skinny panoramic shapes are probably ten times more common than circles.
Emmet Gowin included a number of circular images in his influential and beautiful 1976 Knopf book, currently available in a very nice reprint (one of those books you need to buy before it's gone again). Again just going from memory, I believe he made these by mounting a medium-format lens on a view camera so the whole image circle is recorded. I have to say "circular images" rather than "circular prints" here, because it's obvious from the books that the backgrounds, black or gray, are part of the pictures; the image area might be round, but the prints are rectangular.
New York State driver's license pictures used to be round. These three show TOP reader Carl Leonardi's father at different ages.
Many fisheye lens pictures are circular, because that's how the lenses see. This one's by Geoff Fox, from his website.
Many fisheye pictures are just goofy, all about the gimmick and little else.
Reminds me that a magazine I once worked for had purchased a Nikkor 6mm fisheye, at great expense—thousands of dollars (here's a picture of it, which will give you an idea why it cost so much)—to do one cover shot with. In the eight or ten years since that cover had been done, the publishing company's photography department had not been able to figure out a single additional use for the lens.
The one cover looked nice, though.
Photo by Sam Wang
Very few photographers I know of work in circular format consistently, although many "technical tourists" may have made one or two such pics. One of the former whose work I published a portfolio of in Photo Techniques magazine was Sam Wang. I recall Sam as a good guy and a good photographer. He was a friend of Phil Davis's and Fred Newman's, a photography teacher, if I'm remembering correctly. He used the circular shape in an interesting way that didn't seem forced, I thought.
Another odd shape, although not circular, is the sort of proscenium arch that can be found on certain 19th-century photographs, including a few Daguerreotypes. I have a beautiful original 20th-century print by Ted Orland called "Even Ansel Adams Had to Earn a Living" that uses the same device. (The print was a gift from my former editor and friend-I've-Never-Met Ed Buziak. Signed inkjet versions are available from the Ansel Adams Gallery in Yosemite.)
Doubtless the original reason for the "proscenium arch" shape, most of the time, was to hide cutoff or lens vignetting resulting from excessive rise. Early lenses didn't cover very well, and it isn't uncommon even now for large format photographers to overdo their front rise.
Above is a modern example of physical vignetting from front rise. This example resulted from the photographer leaving a lens hood on a 60mm Distagon and forgetting that front rise was in use. The camera was a Hasselblad Flexbody.
(Thanks to Carl Leonardi, Kent Phelan, and Roger Bradbury)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by David Bostedo: "I'm not a fabrication expert, but I do design chips for a living.
"There's nothing inherent about a round sensor that means you couldn't make one. The main reason you don't want to make round sensors is that one sensor can't abut to other ones, therefore wasting area on the wafer. Chips are manufactured as wafers of arrays of the chips. (Here's a good picture of the way chips are arrayed on a wafer.)
"In order to make a round sensor, you'd have to use the same area of the wafer as a square sensor. At that point it's cheaper and easier to make a square sensor, and just create the circular image in camera.
"As far as why wasting wafer area is expensive, it's based on the size of the chip, and consequently the number of chips you can fit on the wafer. As chip size increases, the number on the wafer goes down, and the percentage of the chips that work properly goes down. Both of those mean more expensive chips.
"So wasting area with round sensors would drive up the cost of the sensor for no good reason."
Featured Comment by Robin Dreyer: "A current body of work that's based on round images is Deobrah Luster's 'Tooth for an Eye,' which documents murder sites in New Orleans. She shoots with an 8x10 and I'm pretty sure that, like Gowin, she's using a lens that doesn't cover so she can get the whole image circle."
Featured Comment by Mark Sampson: "The round Kodak photos came from their very first cameras, which had no viewfinder; you merely pointed the camera toward the subject. The round print gave you a level horizon, no matter what. (That idea didn't last long.) And the George Eastman House had one of those 6mm Nikon fisheyes on display, back in the '70s and '80s. It was mounted on a camera with a big prism viewfinder and you could actually look through the lens—it was just spectacular."