So a few years back I was browsing an antique store out in Montauk when I found a great collection of old cameras. Among the bodies I ended up buying that day was a Polaroid 110B. Now, for those of you unfamiliar with the 110 series of cameras, they were folding rangefinders that used 40-series roll film (now discontinued.) The 127mm Rodenstock lens was sharp, and allowed the photographer to manually control all aspects of shooting. The lens cap even featured an f/90 pinhole, which can produce some very interesting results. The body was made with a mix of steel, aluminum and plastic, and was reasonably sturdy for the time.
As I mentioned, the film stock once used for these type of cameras has been discontinued for decades. Even if you were lucky enough to find some, it would be long since expired and unlikely to produce any kind of usable image.
Still, it was a beautiful camera and he was offering it for next to nothing. I figured it might make for a nice display on my desk or back home. And that’s exactly what happened—for the better part of a year it sat on my desk at work, collecting dust.
So fast forward a year and change, and I’m shooting a protest. The particular protest escapes me at the moment, but that doesn’t really matter. Between the line of police and protesters I noticed a photographer shooting a Polaroid 110B—my exact model. Later, I had the chance to talk with him, where he explained that he had his camera modified to shoot 4×5. It was there that the germ of an idea formed, and I decided to have mine similarly modified.
Using 4×5 for news-related work is nothing new. Weegee famously used his Speed Graphic to good effect, and the military had trained incoming photographers on 4×5 well into the digital era. Still, few people do it these days because the cameras are large, bulky, and relatively fragile. I wanted to give it a try because:
a: I’m an elitist camera nerd
b: Very few other people are doing it
Now, there are a lot of people out there who can do this type of modification, but few who can do it well. Often it involved hacking off a quarter of the body to make room for your 4×5 holders. I ultimately decided to go with Patrick Putze, who has been modifying these cameras for years.
Patrick, who’s a ninja when it comes to this sort of thing, not only modified the body for 4×5, but overhauled, inspected and upgraded it for me. He replaced the leatherette with black Ostrich leather, painted the rangefinder housing black, and swapped out the stock lens for the sharper Ysarex lens. He also inspected and replaced the bellows, which had a few pinhole leaks. I considered swapping out the shutter assembly as well, but decided to keep it as the difference between 1/300th of a second and 1/500th isn’t that huge. Additionally, he installed a removable focusing screen and Graflock back—this increased the bulk of the camera considerably, but also opened up a lot of options. With the Graflok back, I can now use individual film holders, Grafmatic 4×5 magazines, and 120/220 roll film holders.
So what’s it like shooting with one of these? Well, it takes some getting used to. While it’s considerably easier to use and smaller than a Speed Graphic, it’s still pretty bulky compared to my DSLR’s. When folded down, it’s roughly the size of a thick hardcover novel. Focusing is achieved through a knob on the bottom plate, just beneath the lens and bellows. The viewfinder is nice and bright and easy to use. Changing the shutter speed and aperture is more or less the same as any other large format lens. The shutter release is a little awkward at first, but you get used to it.
So here’s the big question: is it worth it?
The answer is actually kind of complicated. It appeals to me because it’s a large format, portable camera that doesn’t occupy a huge amount of space in your bag. It’s easy to use, relatively sturdy, and produces great images. The test images you see below were taken with very outdated Polaroid 669 film in an instant back holder.
The downside is that you’re mildly limited with it: the lens is fixed (there are people who modify them to fit different lenses, but that’s pretty expensive and even more awkward to use.) You also have to be very conservative with your shots – no spraying and praying as with your DSLR. Also, keep in mind that you’re probably spending a dollar or two per shot—and that doesn’t include the cost of developing and scanning your shots. If you don’t do that yourself, the cost increases accordingly.
I love this camera because it’s a solid work of art. Nobody’s making them anymore. More importantly, it allows you to create photos that other people can’t or won’t. To a potential editor or employer, that can be a big deal.