I’ve been on a long strange trip with this camera. Well, not this particular camera, but a couple like it.
I should back up.
I was gifted a Polaroid Land Camera- a Model 95a, the Massive Misfit. I tried to convert it to use 4×5 film over the years, and failed. Replacing the back with a 3D printed one designed in Italy was helpful, but problematic. The plastic wasn’t thick enough to be light tight, and even painting it matte black and using some flocking didn’t stop all of the light transmission. The design on the hardware used to keep the film holder on the back was inconvenient and slow to use in the field. I had little success re-purposing parts from a different camera to move the locking position of the lens board to achieve infinity focus.
I worked on this camera on and off, trying something new when I thought about it, fiddling around with it. Eventually, the fungus in the lens won out, and the first Massive Misfit was consigned to the graveyard of misfits. And there the saga ended for a while.
I kept having the itch that started this whole thing. I wanted a large format option that I could run and gun with, which is a total oxymoron. No serious large format photographer wants a lightweight handheld camera or thinks about speeding up their process.
Except, I really wanted to scratch that itch. I wanted a lightweight backpack large format. Something I could throw in to a saddlebag and not break. I’m not the most smooth operator out there, and I wanted a camera that can survive and continue to function in spite of my clumsiness. There is a company that produces a 3D printed 4×5 called the Travelwide. Like most Kickstarter projects it got off to a rocky start, but is in production now. The weight is about right, but I wanted a camera that could fold down for storage.
I’d troll eBay and camera web pages, not be satisfied, and then move on until the next time the itch got bad and I’d look again. The only reason I didn’t find the solution earlier is it was hiding in Norway.
This kit looked promising from the start. It had everything including a ground glass, tripod mounts, and most importantly a new infinity stop plate. The price was decent, too. It was about as much as I had paid for the 3D print of my previous back alone. I rummaged around in the Land of Misfit Toys and found a still complete Polaroid Land Camera 800 I had bought for spares but had never gotten around to stripping, then hit the buy it now button.
The kit is designed with the more professional and expensive 110 series Land Cameras in mind. They have better lenses with conventional f stops and shutter settings that make them easier to use. But, because it is me, I wanted to try to use the lens and shutter on the camera. When the kit arrived, I pulled the 800 out of it’s case and set to work.
Side note: why do these cameras always smell so bad? The felt lining in the cases seems to skip right past the heavenly scent of lilacs or honeysuckle and instead they saturate themselves with stale cigarettes, mildew and cat urine. Cheap as they are, you pay a huge olfactory price.
The conversion kit is a product of Morten Kolve from Norway. He sells them on eBay. He also offers his own 3D printed large format designs. The quality of the printing was excellent, I didn’t have to remove any burrs on my kit. The hardware was included as well, saving me huge amounts of time. He now offers a Graphmatic roll film back option, and an experimental one for the Polaroid 405 back as well.
I looked over the instructions on his website before the kit arrived and made sure I had the correct bits for my Dremel. Those instructions are about as clear and easy to follow as they can be, and the result was as perfect as my hamfisted Dremel work could make it. I did resort to duct tape to ensure things were light tight in some areas, but is it really a DIY project if it doesn’t involve duct tape? Any omissions and flaws were mine, and not Mortens.
None of the Land Cameras will do any movements, so they are considered inferior by the serious large format crowd. What they do have is portability. You can carry one around with no effort at all. This setup is perfect for hiking. Once you get rid of the original back on the Land Camera, the replacement 3D printed parts are barely noticeable. Having a rangefinder is vastly faster than having to focus on the ground glass. This combination makes for a light, fast large format option.
Everyone will tell you the lens on any of the Land Cameras except the 110s is shit. Everyone is wrong. I was pleasantly surprised by the negatives this 130mm f8.8 triplet produces, they have a vintage look I was hoping for. They did not have any of the lomo-esque features I was hoping to avoid like vignetting. It is not a sharp lens by any measure, but it does deliver a pleasing image. Does this lens cover full 4×5? I suspect it does but I don’t think it would allow for any movements. I say I suspect it does since the 3D printed back is not quite 4×5. Per Morten, it’s about 5mm short on one side. This isn’t significant at all and makes a handy place to attach the clip when you hang the negative to dry.
The only trade-off in using the original lens in this 800 is having to use the old school Polaroid EV numbers. The Land List web site has a chart that translates the EV numbers in to shutter speed and F stop combinations. Polaroid used to make a light meter that can give you the EV number as a reading, but you can use your iPhone with the chart. I do fudge the numbers a little bit to make it fit in a certain EV setting or resort to pushing the film if needed. My lovely wife has helped me with some of the light leaks.
While using the Polaroid EV system can be limiting, it does have an upside. Mechanically, this shutter is very simple and may well last forever. There is an in depth video of how the shutter works here. Note that it incorporates a simple iris mechanism as well. It’s a bit more robust than the Prontor shutters in the 110 model, so buying a sticky shutter is less likely.
I’m pleased by the outcome of this conversion. For less than $150 I have a 4×5 with an accurate rangefinder that collapses to a small size and weighs less than some SLRs. Morten’s kit allows you to make the best possible lightweight large format camera.
If anyone needs me, I’ll be out in the back country or on the back roads using this thing. It’s cool to have an all rangefinder line up of large, medium, and 35mm format cameras.