Large format photography is a particularly slow and contemplative practice that often calls for a different state of mind than the ‘run-and-gun’ style more typical of street and/or documentary photography. A big reason for this is that, with few exceptions, the large format camera has to be set on a tripod, and since that already precludes snapshots, the practitioners go to the other extreme and employ a level of control over the image that borders on the insane. The large film size also ensures that a lot of detail can be captured on the film, thereby necessitating great care in capturing the image.
One challenge for users of large format cameras before the digital age (and for the most part, after it) is that despite the care and control taken in setting up the image on the ground glass, what happens at the moment of exposure remained guesswork. From the 50s, photographers quickly found that the then-new technology known as instant Polaroid film can be used for previewing their shots. No less distinguished a photographer than Ansel Adams himself was a proponent of this use for the new instant medium (though one should note that he was employed as a consultant by Edwin Land!).
Over time, two types of Polaroid film – sheet film and packfilm – saw popular use in large format photography. These were reasonably high quality film, and were able, with some control for the latitude, to provide valuable feedback to the discerning photographer for adjusting the lighting. However, the third film type – the integral film – remained almost exclusively in use by amateurs for snapshots, despite being very convenient (no messy goop to deal with, as is the case for other Polaroid film), in part because of the slightly lower resolution. Nevertheless, a relatively rare film back for 4×5 cameras exists, which is essentially a Polaroid camera without the entire lens assembly.
Because of the rarity of this film back, it soon became an overpriced item. When I was shooting the Impossible Project (now called Polaroid Originals) film, I desperately wanted to get my hands on one of these film backs. In any event, these films were experimental and pricey, and I decided to stop shooting them some time back.
The only other company still making integral films is Fujifilm, under the Instax banner. The Instax Wide film is of excellent quality, with a relatively large image area. However, the cameras are ‘plastic fantastics’, that is, cheap, low quality camera, without any meaningful exposure control. For a long time, no film back existed for large format cameras. Until Lomography came onto the scene. Say what you will about the company’s appeal to hipsters, they have certainly helped make film cameras and accessories more accessible to everyone.
One of their product lines is the Belair 6×9 medium format cameras, and for that series, they developed an Instant Back, as pictured above. This is a manual processor, that runs the film through a pair of rollers for processing. It is very overpriced for what it is, but I bit the bullet and bought one a few years ago, intending to modify it for my 4×5 camera.
Now, I have a 4×5 Tachihara camera that has seen little use in the past couple of years. This is due in large part to the difficulty of getting the sheet film developed, especially when I feel like shooting color images. In the past, getting around this involved using the Fujifilm sheet film or packfilm, but in recent years, all these film types have been discontinued, and I am hesitant to open up what film packs I have to shoot carelessly.
On the other hand, Instax film can be had for reasonable amounts of money, and this prompted the current project. What I needed to do was to adapt the Belair Instant back onto the Tachihara. Of course, I’d have preferred to make this a generic instant back for use with any 4×5 camera, but its thickness meant that this was always going to be difficult.
What the mod amounts to is the removal of the parts protruding from the film side of the instant back, as seen above. Next, careful measurement of the Tachihara interface, as well as what remains of the Instant Back yielded a 3D model of what the adapter plate needs to look like. Since my 3D printer isn’t big enough to print the whole thing in one piece, I split the model in three, and build screw holes into the design to allow the pieces to be securely fastened together. Furthermore, the dark slide (obtained by savaging a 4×5 film back) needed for this film back has to sit in a groove that is too small to print directly – the amount of support material that needs to be put in, and removed from the groove makes it unlikely to succeed. Printing in parts allows me to sand away material if the groove proves to be too small.
After assembly, and with a bit of epoxy and black silicone, this is what I have.
There were teething problems in the form of light leaks, but these were reasonably easy to solve. Here’re some results from the camera and Instax back.