Digitizing a Reproduction 1865 Box Camera for Authentic Vintage Use

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I’ve been involved with The Wild West Days in Viroqua, Wisconsin since 2008. I’ve been doing photography for most of that time as well, but as-of 2017, officially as Hickok Country Photography.

During a 3-year span, from 2015-2017, Wild West Days had an amazing photographer for the event. Along the main stretch of the 1880s-style Boomtown, his photography studio was just like walking into a late 1800’s studio. He dressed the part. He had tintypes, daguerreotypes, and ambrotypes on display, along with a stereoscope. Lastly, he had a large fully-functional 8×10 box camera and was doing portraits (see Iteration 0 below), later mailed out as B&W prints and cabinet cards. He was awesome and the end result looked great!

Henry Taunt, Photographer. (Per his cabinet cards.)

However, he promised to do three years, and 2017 was his third year. He loved doing Wild West Days but respectfully wanted to pursue other things. I stepped exactly into his shoes to continue the excellent service he was providing.

Doug Hickok, Hickok Country Photography. (This branding works perfectly since I put up several photos of Wild Bill Hickok and use a logo of Aces and Eights. Interestingly, this is our real business too.)

He sold the 8×10 box camera to me for a fair price, knowing I would continue what he started. This camera was an 1865-inspired recreation that he built with his own skill, calling it the “1865 Brady”. He kept the “lens” (painted PVC tube) he was using but sold me an authentic 1863 lens I could use for the very reasonable price he originally paid for it. I quickly fell in love with this lens.

He didn’t know it, but the lens was 4×5, about 115mm. This doesn’t work on an 8×10 camera. But I had a plan!

As a side-note, I laser-cut some Waterhouse stops for the lens so I could demonstrate how they work.

Iteration 0

This is how he originally shot portraits, using a simple point-and-shoot camera out the hollow barrel of a lens (which isn’t the one pictured here). While posing for the picture, this simply didn’t look 1880’s.

My goal for the project: Maintain the 1880’s-era operation of the camera, as seen from the outside, to keep the whole photography studio looking and operating in an authentic way. However, instead of glass negatives, keep a digital workflow for the end product. (The customers do not see the digital part since it’s processed and printed after the event.)

Iteration 1

Ready for the 2018 season, I had the camera working and digitized.

Using the authentic 1863 lens, I focus it onto a plexiglass “ground glass” 4×5 focus plane.

When ready, I switch it to a white matte board. I turn on the pre-focused and calibrated Nikon D750 digital camera.

After my fumbling around under the black cloth (as seen by the subjects and spectators), I put the glass-negative holder in place on the back of the camera and pull the dark-slide while covering the lens, like you’d to in the 1880s.

I ask the subject(s) to hold still and “watch the birdie” while I uncover the lens.

The Nikon D750, triggered remotely from a hidden spot below the camera, takes a picture of the white matte board via the angled mirror. The picture looks something like this:

Note: This was taken on my wooden calibration target, not the white matte board. The lines are 4×5, portrait and landscape.

I fix the perspective and process the digital photo normally, resulting in a B&W or sepia version of this:

Similar to before, I was offering 4×5 prints and small cabinet cards to customers, mailed out after processing.

I purposefully kept the prints small. Why? The lens, similar to those like it in the 1860s, has a soft focus wide-open and gets blurrier and darker towards the edges. I was shooting in a fairly dark studio, taking a picture of a shadow reflected off of white matte board. On the Nikon, due to the angle of the mirror, I had to stop down the aperture to f/8 to get most of the 4×5 image in focus, driving the ISO to 128,000, and a shutter speed at an authentic 1/2 to 1 second.

These example photos from The Wild West Days 2018 look good small but are very noisy upon closer inspection. (The one in the middle is my lovely wife, madam of the saloon girls, on the cabinet card design.)

Photographers in the 1880s were capturing better-quality photos than I was. I wanted to upgrade!

Iteration 2

Since I was better at laser-cutting, I redesigned the camera guts in CAD and laser-cut the new design for Wild West Days 2019.

There are several notable upgrades:

  • A solid plate with the white matte on it.
  • A solid plate with an improved “ground glass” (From a broken LCD monitor — there is one layer in there that works absolutely perfectly, I’d say even better than ground glass.)
  • A shelf to make switching plates easier and faster.
  • Three positions for the plate, for some very close portraits with “amazing bokeh”.
  • Mirror is in a fixed position and won’t move.
  • Nikon is in a fixed position and won’t move, and is mounted as close as possible for the biggest-sized picture I can get.
  • Lens upgraded to a tilted version, so I can tilt to match the mirror’s angle. (Without spending $1,000 on a tilt-shift lens.) This allows me to shoot at f/2, which is 2 EV stops better than before.

So why not photograph the focus screen directly (like other photographers have done)? It has its own artifacts like ground glass grain and much heavier vignetting than it should. Mostly, however, is the space. The box camera isn’t deep enough to allow this method, while still having the authentic-looking glass plate holder on the back. If it were an extra foot longer, perhaps this would be the way to go.

Here’s what the new version looks like. It still has some issues due to the tilt, but over-all it’s better than before. The first image is wide-open. The second image has the f/16 Waterhouse stop inserted to show the tilt issues better. (The tilted lens is wide-open f/2 for both.) The subject is 5ft away with the backdrop 10ft away.

All-in-all, this project has been fantastic! I’ve hacked an old camera in ways no other photographer (that I know of) has. The camera works pretty well and appears totally authentic from the outside, and retains the characteristics of the original 1863 lens and 4×5 image size. Everyone who walks into my shop feels like they’re getting a portrait done in the late 1800s while also learning a bit about photographic history.

About the author: Doug Hickok is a photographer based in Wisconsin who offers his services through A. Hickok Country Photography. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. You can also connect with the studio on Facebook. This article was also published here.

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