Sutton Panoramic - Antique and Vintage Cameras

Sutton Panoramic

c. 1861

Thomas Ross



Image of Sutton Panoramic

Lens Type:

5 " diameter. c. 100 angle of view. Two hemispheric components with water filled central cavity.

Serial Number:
26 .

Patented in 1859 and first produced by Frederick Cox late in that year, the Sutton can claim to be the first wide-angle lens. After only a short period Cox's involvement ceased and manufacture was taken up by Ross, an advertisement from December 1860 shows that Ross was starting manufacture.

It is a monocentric design comprising two, thick, flint glasses with concentric surfaces. The centre cavity is filled with water, flint glass has a high refractive index and dispersive power, water low. The inner sphere is about one-half the diameter of the outer one. The lens had no coma and no astigmatism, there was spherical aberration either over or under corrected. In published calculations Sutton states that the focal length of the lens will be nearly four times its radius to correct for spherical aberration and be partially achromatic, but this does not seem to have been adhered to, possibly he, or Cox, had to compromise in the larger sizes and reduce the outer diameter with, presumably, the inner diameter not following the 'half the outer diameter' rule. The image surface was part of a sphere, for practicality a curved image on a cylindrical surface was adopted.

Diaphragm or Equaliser
The diaphragm is referred to by Sutton as an equaliser; as well as the usual functions of a diaphragm it presents a circular aperture to both light along the central axis and for oblique rays. On Ross models, the equaliser consists of an elliptical opening with the major axis horizontal. Two wings project at an angle from the diaphragm plate. At their base, where they join the diaphragm, they each have a roughly semi-circular section removed. A beam of light entering centrally will be obstructed by the two wings but due to the removed portions a circular beam will pass through the lens. A beam of light striking from the side will be relatively unaffected by the wings and, as the elliptical hole is at angle, will also result in a circular beam passing through the lens.

In early descriptions and diagrams the form of the equaliser is not so clear, the diagram in the December 1859 issue of Photographic Notes shows an arrangement of three vanes two towards the front of the lens cavity and one behind, these reach the circumference of the cavity. This could simply be an mistake in the drawing or may indicate an earlier design.

Cox era
Manufacture must have started in late 1859 as the camera was exhibited in early 1860 and mention is made of getting suitable negatives during winter. In February of 1860 negatives were on show in Cox's shop. Very few lenses were produced by Cox, one reason that was given was the problem of procuring suitable slabs of glass. In November of 1860 Sutton states that only about five or six outfits have been sent out, possibly this means sold but might include any made for evaluation, presumably one or two more would have been made for Sutton himself. Since Ross took over manufacture at the end of the year Cox cannot have produced many more than the six lenses mentioned.

The first example went to the United States, this was probably the one that Sutton himself was using as in the summer of 1860 he notes that he has been without a panoramic lens for some time. Other models went to the Bishop of Tasmania (Francis Russell Nixon), Paul Liesegang, a Mr Hooper of Manchester and one to the Cape. Paul Liesegang bought a 15" x 5" camera following a visit he made to Jersey in September 1860, Cox was also present. G.W. Wilson had a camera but states in November he has not found the time to take any pictures.

The sizes given for Cox lenses varied, from descriptions in journals they were approximately:

  • No. 2 7" x 3", 3 " focus
  • No. 4 13" x 5 ", 6.5" focus, 4" diameter, depth-of-field is 30' to infinity, 22
  • No. 5 25" x 10" or 20" x 9", 11" or 12" focus, 4" diameter
  • No. 7 33" x 14" for paper, 16" focus, 5" or 6" diameter
The angle of view was given as 120. Interestingly, in Sutton's various early descriptions of the lens he mentions different types and sizes of diaphragm.

Cox was the exclusive manufacturer in the early history of the lens and took a hand in promoting and demonstrating it at meetings, he also undertook the manufacture or at least the supply of the camera and other equipment. Sutton offered to supply Cox manufactured lenses in cameras made locally in Jersey using cheaper Honduran mahogany.

The response to the lens was not overwhelmingly favourable judging by comments reported in the photographic press, some of these resulted from a clear misunderstanding of what was being described, some may have been due to a slight antipathy towards Sutton himself. One recurring complaint was that the camera could not be focused.1 Of more relevance some thought that only the centre portion of the image was really sharp.

The camera was available for paper negatives as well as collodion wet-plates, mica was also mentioned as a possible support. When glass plates were used they had to be bent on an iron mould to the correct curve determined by the focal length of the lens. Paper prints could be made from the curved glass negatives or transparencies could be made onto similar curved plates, for this it was recommended that copying was done with a similar lens but of about half the focal length.

A rather odd suggestion made by Sutton was that for paper negatives a camera could be used without a dark slide, the paper was simply attached to the curved back of the camera and a large dark cloth was used when taking the photograph. For this a camera was made locally.

The problem in manufacturing the lens is illustrated by an article in the British Journal of Photography reporting on a meeting, a Mr Hooper had agreed with Sutton to purchase a No. 7 model camera with 5" diameter lens (presumably this was a Jersey made camera with a Cox lens), Sutton stated that the lens would have to be made and, when ready, may not have the exact image size or focus as advertised; the first four attempts at producing the lens had failed due to striae in the glass. Frederick Cox did not have the necessary experience to procure the glass or work large lenses. The exact focal length of the lens could not be determined until the lens was finished and, since the radius of the curved plates is determined by the focal length, either a mould to bend the glass had to be made for each lens or there was a degree of approximation.

Ross era
In June 1861 Sutton exhibited a Ross camera and lens at a London Photographic Society (LPS) meeting, he stated that this was the first Ross model he had and had so far only taken one photograph with it. A complete Ross outfit was displayed at a LPS meeting in December of the same year. Ross lenses were much better received than earlier models having better image definition. The butterfly diaphragm (as described above) was in use at this time and the 'stoppers' used to fill the cavity were done away with. Larger models had a sliding box arrangement probably allowing the lens to be adjusted rather than introducing a focusing arrangement. The camera proved more successful under Ross but only a few dozen were manufactured.

An advertisement in a Bland catalogue lists the following plate sizes:

  • 10 " x 5" 22
  • 14" x 6 " 30
  • 17" x 8" 40
  • 20" x 10" 60
The angle of view seems to have been reduced to 100. The prices listed were for an outfit comprising lens, camera, plate holder, ground glass screen, gutta-percha bath with dipper (silver nitrate bath), frame to hold the plates whilst cleaning, box for plates, printing frame and tripod.

Ross purchased the British patent from Sutton in 1861, Liesegang bought the French and Belgian rights.

Sutton was enthusiastic in all he did, with a high opinion of his abilities, and was inclined to make exaggerated claims for his inventions and ideas. When introduced he imagined that the Panoramic lens would become a common article of photography, he saw no reason why it should not be a photographer's standard lens. Using a curved glass plate presented no obstacle, in fact he claims it was easier to coat a curved plate than a flat one.2

The Panoramic lens was a failure in terms of sales. Apart from the technical issues of manufacture the basic problem was that there was no clear and obvious use for such a lens. Photographers would have welcomed a lens having a wider field of view but not at the cost of using a dedicated camera and curved plates. Such an extreme angle gave perspective distortion which would have limited its use to landscapes. Large panoramas were produced in Victorian times, notably by pasting together three or four individual images, when done well with suitable subjects these appeared in photographic exhibitions and were sold commercially but the demand was not great. Sutton devised, at least on paper, viewers for stereoscopic panoramic prints, perhaps he would have been better to promote a new format of panoramic cards rather like stereo cards.

References & Notes:
BP 2193/1859. Phot. Notes: 15/12/1859, p. 297; 1/1/1860, p. 21; 15/1/1860, p. 24; 1/2/1860, p. 37; 1/3/1860, p. 62; 1/4/1860, p. 94; 15/4/1860, p. 107; 1/5/1860, pp. 116, 122, Report on the Photographic Society meeting (April 1860); 15/5/1860, p. 134; 15/7/1860, p. 186, for paper negatives; 1/8/1860, p. 200, for paper negatives; 1/11/1860, p. 292, letter from G.W. Wilson and problems with glass; 15/12/1860, p. 335, ref. to Liesegang, optical explanation; 1/3/1860, p. 59, stereoscope; 15/4/1860, p. 104, stereoscope.
Phot. News: 11/11/1859, p. 118; 5/4/1860, p. 375, report on Photographic Society meeting of 3rd April; 14/12/1860 p. 396, Ross takes over manufacture.
Phot. Journal: 16/1/1860, p. 140; 15/3/1860 pp. 184, paper read by Sutton, 187; 16/4/1860, pp. 193, 196; 14/12/1860 p. 396, Ross to start manufacture.
BJP: 15/3/1860, p. 73; 15/3/1861, p. 114, comments by Mr. Hooper; 15/6/1861, p. 225; 16/12/1861.
Ross, Cat. 1861, p. 10. Bland Cat. 1864, contained in 'Practical Photography On Glass and Paper' published by Negretti & Zambra, this is an updated edition of Charles Long's early publication. British Association for the Advancement of Science 1861, p. 33. Abney, Instruction, p. 87.

[1] These included Shadbolt, Mayall, Malone, Jabez Hughes and Heath (of Murray & Heath).

[2] Sutton was the editor of Photographic Notes and a leading figure in photographic theory of the time, he was very opinionated and happy to share those opinions in his own journal and others. His exaggerated statements and claims did not always stand up to scrutiny but did lead to heated exchanges at meetings and in the photographic press.
Joseph Solomon writing in 1887 had the following to say on Sutton - 'He was most virulent when writing in opposition to an assailant, but in conversation one of the most attractive men one could meet, and was ever ready to help any photographer out of a difficulty'.
Obituary: Phot. News 2/4/1875, p. 162.

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