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Maker Profile: Michael Shindler's Ultra Large Format Tintype Camera

By Norman Chan

The making of a giant tintype camera, which takes stunning one-of-a-kind portraits with the digital equivalent of a gigapixel photograph.

One of my favorite videos we shot last year was with photographer Michael Shindler of Photobooth, a studio that specializes in tintype photography. Michael taught us about the tintype process--exposing a photo on a chemically treated metal sheet--and also shot those amazing portraits you may have seen hanging in our office studio. Tintype has seen a revival of late, with photographers adopting the medium for its striking look--the large format sized plate grants very shallow depth of field, which when combined with the ultraviolet sensitivity of the coated plates produces piercing portraits that seem to reveal the souls of subjects. It's also a somewhat precarious process, since photographers only get one exposure for each plate, and the results are so dependent on lighting the subject's ability to stay still. In the age of full-frame DSLRs that can rapid-shoot nine photos per second, the measured pace of tintype photography and the finality of its images is refreshing.

But with the number of tintype photography practitioners increasing along with the awareness of the process, photographers have to find new ways to make their photos stand out and keep people interested. "There's definitely a feeling of tintype fatigue," Michael told me when I visited Photobooth recently. For his part, Michael has tinkering with new ideas for his tintype portraits. And he just completed his latest project, building a giant camera to shoot massive studio portraits. Whereas the tintype plates on his last camera took 4"x5" photos, this new camera takes photos on a 14"x17" plate. That puts it in the ultra large format (ULF) category, which in film was historically used for landscape or group photography. In fact, 14"x17" is a standard size for X-ray photography.

Here's how Michael built this camera, and how much detail tintypes portraits in ultra large format reveals.

Michael's giant tintype camera is built like a traditional View Camera, like the ones used to shoot daguerreotypes and tintypes over a hundred years ago. They're composed of three basic components: a front standard, rear standard, and flexible bellows box. The front standard is a board that holds the lens and shutter at the front of the camera, while the rear standard is a board that holds the viewfinder and image plate at the back. They're connected in a light-tight seal by the accordion-pleated bellows, which can expand and contract to bring the two standards closer or farther apart from each other. The standards can be mounted on a rail to slide to the ideal distance, and the front standard is sometimes held by a frame that can swivel and tilt to make focusing adjustments.

For this camera, which Michaels says he's been building in his head for years, the components are comprised of camera parts he has collected over the course of a decade and custom parts he designed and built at TechShop. The bellows was taken from a 60-year-old copy camera (used to make copies of prints before scanners were invented) and the slider another found part he had kept in his collection for just the right project. The catalyst for this build, though, was finding the right lens. The massive large format lens mounted on the front standard here is a rare Rodenstock Sironar-N 480mm lens with an F/8.4 aperture. Those lenses, when found with accurate shutters, cost over $1000 on eBay.

This lens plays an important part in how the giant tintype portraits look. With a 480mm focal length, it's actually considered slightly wide-angle for the 14"x17" size of the exposure--about the equivalent of using a 40mm lens on a 35mm camera. But he likes the look of its portraits, which can now be taken at 1:1 scale. That means the size of the portrait on the Tintype plate is the same size as the subject's head. That's a feat considering that you can't blow up tintype portraits--remember, the plates are not like film negatives where you can make develop and expose them onto as many prints as you like.

Shooting with this camera also requires new lighting considerations. Michael's 4"x5" tintype camera had a F/5.6 aperture lens, but the F/8.4 lens on the giant camera is about two and a half stops slower. That means six times more light is needed to get the same exposure. Even when shooting in bright daylight, the shutter is opened for two to four seconds to let enough light in. Under studio conditions and flash lighting, Michael has tuned his shutter down to 1/8 second, which provides a satisfying click as well.

Developing the tintype plates for this camera is just like developing 4"x5" plates, except it's an even more unforgiving process. Michael has to use more chemicals and apply them more carefully to avoid streaking, and he estimates that $400 of silver nitrate will only last 30 or so plates. But the results really speak for themselves.

The amount of detail on a 35mm film camera is estimated to have the equivalent digital information of a 20 megapixel image (dependent on film quality, speed, and lens). 4x5 inch large format film is estimated to contain 200 megapixels of data. Since a tintype is a direct positive process, the 4x5 tintypes Michael shot for us last year have about that much data--no consumer DSLR can capture its fidelity in its entirety. But the 14x17 inch tintypes that Michael can now shoot are 10 times the physical size of those 4x5s, meaning these are effectively gigapixel portrait photographs.

Michael shared with me one portrait he took in testing the camera, which was digitized with a Canon 5D Mark II. At 21 megapixels, this photo (click to expand) captures approximately 1/100th the potential detail of tintype:

I examined the tintype up close, and the amount of detail apparent was astounding. With a magnifying glass, you can make out every hair and pore in focus on the subject's face, and even the capillaries in her eyes. I used a macro lens to take my own close-up photo of this tintype, which you can find here.

Here's that photo cropped to 100% (click below to expand), which really gives you a sense of the quality of the photo.

The new giant tintype camera will reside at Photobooth, where Michael will soon allow customers to make appointments to have their portraits taken with it. It won't be cheap--expect for these one-of-a-kind tintypes to cost several hundred dollars, with shadowbox framing.

Even though tintype photography is a dated technique, its revival and modern practice is still in relative infancy. The waning of its novelty as a medium is actually a good thing--it'll let the photographers who take it seriously focus on the art of taking photographs. Tintype become just another tool in their trade. A maturing tintype community will also allow for aficionados to accumulate enough experience to really take the format to new heights, combining the technique with the innovations offered by today's technology. For Michael, that means thinking ahead to future projects and experiments. One idea that's been stirring in his head for a while now: color.