This DIY large format digital camera obscura shoots the most beautiful photographs

The lure of large format photography attracts many. Relatively few can justify the cost of pursuing it, though. Even 4×5 sheet film gets pretty expensive, and that’s the smallest of the large formats out there. What if you could make one relatively inexpensively, though, and at the same time, avoid the hassle and cost of chemicals by shooting the results on your digital camera?

That’s exactly what photography Olexiy Shportun did when he created what is essentially a large format digital Camera Obscura. A lens is mounted in the front of the unit which projects the image onto a backplate, like a normal large format camera. But in this case, the backplate is a white surface where it’s then photographed by his mirrorless camera.

It’s a very cool technique, and while we’ve seen lots of photographs from inside rooms that have been turned into camera obscuras (usually of the pinhole variety), applying it in this way isn’t very common. DIYP spoke with Olexi about the camera and its construction. He tells us that the lens used is an Industar-37 large format lens, which is designed for printing on 13x18cm (5×7″) material.

This lens is designed for photographing on 13x18cm photographic material. It is quite difficult to use it with a digital camera, because even if we mount it on the camera using an adapter, we will get only a small part of the image that it produces

The only way to get that large-format look is to project the entire lens onto something of appropriate size. So, Olexiy says, that he went the other way, making a camera obscure to project the entire image from the lens onto a surface and then photograph that surface.

Therefore, I went the other way. I made a kind of camera obscura – the same obscura camera that painters used to create their paintings – but this camera is additionally equipped with a digital camera that captures the image that appears in it. Schematically it looks like this

The principle of operation is simple. A large format lens is placed on one side of the black-painted box. The image projected by it falls on a white focusing screen(as a screen, you can use ordinary white matte office paper) located inside the box. A digital camera is located on the same wall as the lens, a little higher, and with the help of it, the image on the focusing screen is photographed through a hole in the wall.

It’s an obvious solution to the problem of getting a large format look on a small sensor camera, although it does present some issues of its own. For a start, you have to focus twice. First to focus the main large format lens onto the white focusing screen, and then you have to focus your mirrorless camera on the screen to be able to see it sharply. This also means adjusting your focal length on the digital camera to ensure the projected image fills a suitable amount of the frame.

You also potentially have to deal with parallax errors with the digital camera not being parallel to the white focusing screen that you need to correct for in post. Then there’s the time to consider. This is not for use in a fast-paced environment, by any means. But the results sure look worth it.

Olexiy says that the technique allows him to capture the full “crazy depth of field” that you can only really capture with large format and that the photos come out of the digital end with soft natural colours – although, if you decide to build one of these yourself, that will depend on the camera you’re using. But for the digital capture side of things, you don’t need anything fancy or expensive. Even a compact zoom or a smartphone will do in a pinch and you’ll still get that same large format look.

Another issue you have with this technique are the lighting demands. Because you’ve got two apertures to take into account. The first is the aperture of the lens making the projection and then the aperture of the lens in the digital camera, which is cutting the light even further. So, you’re at a low ISO shooting fairly long exposures to get a good result. This will limit the subjects you’re able to shoot, unless you can convince your subjects to stay perfectly still for the duration of the exposure.

Olexiy tells DIYP that the experience of shooting this way is quite unusual and difficult at first, but it is a lot like shooting with a regular classic large format camera. So, if you’ve wanted to give it a try at a lower cost than shooting wet plates or even developing sheet film, then this could be a good way to go. The construction of the box is pretty simple, but you will still need to buy a large format lens – and those aren’t always cheap!

Here are a few photographs Olexiy shot with his large-format camera obscura that he sent over for us to share.

You can see some more of Olexiy’s work on Instagram (where there are loads of very cool images) and reach out to him on Facebook. You should also check out his Facebook group, DigitalObscuraCam.

Have you tried anything like this before?

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