Photographer creates gigantic ultra-large format digital camera


A photographer built his own ultra-large format digital camera from scratch. The rig uses a 600mm f / 9 lens and has a one-meter throw area, resulting in some crazy pictures.

Tim Hamilton, a New Zealand photographer and filmmaker, was inspired to build this monster rig after seeing a similar build online by Alexey Shportun. We recently interviewed Shportun about this setup in the article How to Get the Wide Format Film Effect with Any Digital Camera. Shportun’s rig is essentially a DIY large-format camera, but the film plane has been replaced with a matte white screen. This allows the lens to project the image onto the screen, which is then photographed by a digital camera looking through a hole in the front. Think of a camera obscura that has been modified to take digital photos.

I interviewed Hamilton about his ridiculously huge camera and he shared his experiences with co-creator, Lexy. He explained that they were eager to create an even bigger and crazier large format digital camera, especially since they were looking for new creative techniques for an upcoming project. Hamilton had recently come across an old magnifying lens. It was a Rodenstock 600mm f / 9 lens and was originally used for making newspaper enlargements. Rather than let it sit and collect the dust, Hamilton decided it was perfect for a large camera.

The experience

They started this bizarre experiment and gathered all the necessary materials. Rather crude in appearance, the platform was put together using various pieces of wood and scrap metal with a lot of glue. They found all of the materials nearby so cost wasn’t much of an issue with the installation.

The design is relatively similar to that of Shportun’s large format camera. Hamilton used a matte white screen as the projection area, the whitest he could find, however, this area spans an impressive one meter wide by 80cm high. With such a large area, the 600mm lens becomes equivalent to a 35mm lens. This gives you the insane compressive effect that a 600mm lens would give you, but with the angle of view of a 35mm lens. It is so large, in fact, that when a subject is up close, the projected image is actually larger than the subject itself. The results look very otherworldly and certainly different from what I have seen before.

Hamilton said the focus between the back of the lens and the white screen was one meter. It was all enclosed in a box painted in jet black, the only holes being for the lens and digital camera.

Much like a traditional large format film camera, the setup is essentially a large box with a bellows and a lens. The bellows, which are towards the front of the camera and are used for focusing, allowed Hamilton to focus incredibly precise. The close focus is so impressive that you’re actually limited because the camera is so large that it obstructs the light, making your subject too dark.

The digital camera in question was the Canon 1D X, which Hamilton already owned. He attached it to the front using a simple ball joint mount, with the lens stealthy through a hole in the setup.

After a lot of work and customization, they released the new monster camera for a test drive. The final images certainly looked unique. The strong compression of the 600mm lens is evident and gives the images an interesting feel that is almost from another world. However, they seem to lack quality, especially when you compare them to high-resolution scans of 8×10 film photographs, which can exceed 700 megapixels. While the lens appears to be sharp in some areas, the overall sharpness appears to be weakened by something in the pipeline.

Sharpness isn’t everything, however. The general impression that this configuration produces is different and the textures are reminiscent of film photography. Clearly, much of the visible grain you see is actually the texture of the matte white screen, not the image itself. An added benefit of using a matte screen is the possible highlight, which can be seen in the image below in the model’s hair.

Challenges

The biggest challenge was just getting enough light to see an image. Hamilton explained that due to the time of year in New Zealand, the sun only shines for a few hours. It wasn’t exactly ideal, as the camera itself needs a tremendous amount of light. As mentioned, the widest aperture of the lens is f / 9. Combine this with the extra light loss from the projection inside that giant black box against a white screen, and significant light output is required.

In addition, Hamilton did not want to disrupt traffic during the day, blocking the roads by rolling this giant monstrosity. Instead, he and Lexy went out at night when no one else was around. They managed to get results using what appear to be streetlights; However, they tried to use more powerful lighting again and got some nice pictures. Of course, the size of this thing was a frequent challenge for Hamilton. He explained that the platform was so heavy that any normal tripod he put it on broke. He said the legs would bend under the huge weight. Therefore, after some hair pulling, he built his own tripod from scratch. This was then placed on sturdy wheels so that he could move it all around.

Finally, the last challenge was to keep everything framed and focused. Since he was working with two lenses pointing in opposite directions, it was important for him to adjust as he went. Similar to Shportun, Hamilton needed to focus the large lens on the subject, then focus the digital camera on the white screen.

And after?

It was not Hamilton’s first experience with DIY and combining digital with large format. When he was a teenager he experimented with building a large format camera that used a flatbed scanner as a film shot. This essentially gave him a large digital sensor attached to a box with a lens. However, the image took a long time to take, as it should slowly scan from side to side of the image.

Hamilton hopes to release this camera more during a brighter time of year in New Zealand. I believe there is a lot of potential with this design; it just needs that extra light to reach its full potential.

In addition to being a photographer, Tim Hamilton is a VFX Artist and Image Editor for Pow Studios. You can follow her work on her Instagram page and co-creator, Lexy, on her Instagram page.

Images used with permission from Tim Hamilton.



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