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Dale Rothenberg’s Custom-Built 4×5 Rangefinder

by Abram Goglanian on 03/09/2013

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How many of you out there can honestly say that you can build your own rangefinder camera? And what about a large format rangefinder? Not many of us can, but Dale Rothenberg is a young photographer based out of Connecticut who took it upon himself to craft one out of an old Polaroid folder.

We had the chance to speak to him about the camera and his photography.

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Phoblographer: How old are you and where do you hail from?

Dale: I’m 21 years old and I’m from West Hartford, Connecticut.

Phoblographer: What motivated you to want to build your own 4×5 rangefinder?

Dale: At the time, I couldn’t afford a good medium format rangefinder, and the painfully slow and complex method of photographing with a large format camera was a little frustrating. I wanted something with a lot of quality that I could hold in my hand and use quickly.

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Phoblographer: How many prototypes did you go through? Or did it involve a lot of trial and error?

Dale: Just one camera was built. I used parts from three polaroid cameras in total. I found some basic instructions online, and was able to talk with someone who builds these cameras professionally, so I had some help. Still, parts of the camera like the lens board, the back of the camera, and the integrated cable release were completely original and involved a lot of trial and error.

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Phoblographer: How about your choice of lens, did you have a specific one in mind that you wanted to use?

Dale: I had to use a 127mm lens. These rangefinders have a “cam” which is a little piece of curved metal that decides how quickly the rangefinder moves. Most large format rangefinders use this system. The cam is specific to a certain focal length, and you have to swap it out if you want to use a different lens. This is why cameras like the Leica are so brilliant, and replaced Speed Graphics as press cameras. They’re also much more complicated, though.

So unless I wanted to alter my cam, I had to stick with a 127mm lens. The original Ysarex from the Polaroid 110B is an interesting lens; I’m not a fan of the regular Kodak Ektar 127mm and I had a Ysarex lying around so I just used that. Originally I had found a compact Rodenstock Geronar 150mm f/6.3 lens, but it was going to be too much of a hassle to make it work. Plus, the 127mm is a little wider and opens up a bit more.

Phoblographer: Was this a project for fun? Or were you hoping to start building more of them as a business?

Dale: Totally for fun. It was enjoyable, but I don’t want to build a lot of them. Maybe I’ll build one more in the distant future, now that I understand what I’m doing. The building process actually taught me a lot about cameras (and rangefinders) that I did not understand before.

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Phoblographer: What type of work do you shoot?

Dale: Mostly landscapes and staged conceptual work. It hasn’t solidified into a consistent body of work yet, but it’s getting better.

Phoblographer: How does shooting with a Polaroid rangefinder help you to achieve your creative vision?

Dale: It allowed me to not worry about the technical settings of a large format field camera, and just shoot. Unfortunately, as a college student shooting color 4×5 film, it gets expensive very quickly. Now I use a Mamiya 7 for most of my work, and a large format field camera when I need more quality. I prefer this setup, but I’m still glad I went through with the project…I had to speed the process up before I realized that the slowness of large format photography is what makes it so unique. The image quality and field of view is less important than it seems. That being said, there is still a place for a handheld large format camera, and some day when I feel more comfortable shooting through a $40 box of film in three minutes, I’ll build a better one.

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Phoblographer: What kind of challenges did you face during production?

Dale: All sorts of things…the first thing I did was peel off the old leather on the front of the camera, which managed to take five or six hours and the assistance of a hair dryer. So I guess you could say I had bad luck from the start. I had trouble with the paint, with the condition of the sixty-year-old viewfinder, getting the film plane just right, calibrating the rangefinder…I guess almost all aspects of the project had major obstacles I had to work my way around.

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Phoblographer: What got you into photography? Is this just a passion for you, or do you hope to build a career out of it? (alt: Or do you have one already?)

Dale: I started photographing things in high school out of boredom. It’s turned into so much more. I don’t have a career yet, but I think whatever I already have has the potential to turn into a great job that I love. We’ll see what happens!

 

Thanks for sharing your experience Dale! This was a really cool project for such a young guy to pull off successfully. He has since sold this particular camera off with the intention of building another one in the future. I have a couple more of his example images to share with you guys, and I encourage you to visit him at his various web presences. (His Website / Tumblr / Flickr)

 

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