Anton Orlov’s 4×5 Camera Has an f0.7 Lens

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All images by Anton Orlov. Used with permission.

Fact: as a camera sensor/film plane becomes larger, the depth of field at a given aperture and focusing distance becomes congruently smaller. Many photographers can barely get anything in focus at f0.95 on a 35mm size full frame camera sensor–so just imagine how tough it would be to capture a scene at f0.7 on a 4×5 piece of film.

That’s what photographer Anton Orlov can do with a new camera that he recently made. By using an X-ray lens with an f0.7 lens, he tries to shoot on 4×5 film–which is incredibly tough to do. Anton was born in Moscow then came to the US in 1994. Here, he got a B.F.A in photography from San Jose State University, and in 2012 he built a travelling darkroom called the Photo Palace Bus. He now resides in San Diego, CA and runs a rental darkroom.

As Anton proves to us, this type of work is far from simple.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

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Anton: I got into photography when I was about 12 years old when I was still living in Russia. My grandfather was a photographer and a camera man in a Moscow film studio and I have always been fascinated by watching him take family photos and then developing and printing them in our little bathroom, emerging after a few hours with wet prints in hand. Unfortunately he passed away before I was old enough to learn the craft, but in 5th or 6th grade a buddy of mine showed me how to develop and print black and white film and I’ve been hooked ever since.

My first adjustable camera was a Smena 8M and I still have photos of me with it. Later I used my grandfather’s Zenith 18. I saved up my allowance to buy a roll or two of Svema film and I’d shoot it on class camping trips or just at school. Then I’d pull an all-nighter and print almost every frame from those rolls and give away the prints to my schoolmates the next morning. I learned a lot by trial and error while crouched over a bathtub with an enlarger and trays set up on an ironing board. Thinking back on it the enlarger was most primitive, with no filters or even a timer, but the pleasure of late night meditative quietness of a print session and the satisfaction of final results was extraordinary and I still enjoy it a quarter century later.

Phoblographer: What got you into shooting portraits and wet plate images?

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Anton: Images of people have always fascinated me, be they street documentary or portrait style. It’s one thing to shoot a still life or a landscape, which you can shoot over and over, but it’s entirely different to deal with people: constantly in motion, with fleeting emotions and a preconceived notions of how they want to see themselves. Throughout history portraiture has been a major focus as well as bread and butter of photographers. To make a sitter look good is an art form in itself – no matter how attractive they may look to the eye the lens sees them purely objectively and it takes skill and patience. In the past I have worked for many portrait studio companies and the satisfaction of seeing someone be happy with their captured likeness has never diminished.

I got into wet plate in spring of 2013 and since then, I’ve been doing almost nothing else. That particular medium is a great thrill to me because of several factors: its difficulty in respect to making clean plates free of flaws that unfortunately are today synonymous with collodion due to shoddy work by so many, its incredible resolution that a higher than any other image-making process, it’s archival quality and the uniqueness of each plate. I enjoy the fact that each plate I make and sell is a physical object that gains a life of its own and travels down the windy roads of time with precisely the same visual appearance as in the moment I varnished it – the same crystals of silver will reflect light into generations of viewer’s eyes long after I am gone and forgotten.

Phoblographer: Tell us about this camera and the lens. It’s quite unique, no?

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Anton: Lately I have been getting into making daguerreotypes, the light sensitivity of which is even slower than that of collodion and so exposures can run into minutes. I’m trying to perfect my skill in Becquerel daguerreotype, which uses only iodine as a sensitizer and hence is even slower yet than mercury daguerreotypes. It’s a very contrasty medium and so for a good range of tones one must expose in the shade, another factor extending exposure. All those combined made me want to use a really fast lens. I hunted on eBay a bit and found this lens from an X-ray machine. It’s kind of rare for some reason to see them with a mounting flange and so I had to look longer than expected. Once I got it I was confronted with a technical stumbling block – none of my cameras would allow me to bring the lens close enough to the film plane.

The focal length of this lens is about 5 inches and the rear glass must be about 2 inches or so from ground glass for the image to form… The only sensible solution that came to mind is building a camera. The camera is made of 3×0.5in mahogany on the sides and regular 1/4-inch plywood front. I also fashioned a couple of imitation Arca Swill plates to fit my tripod ball head in both horizontal and vertical position. The entire building process took about 30-40 minutes and all I had to work with were a Dremel, jigsaw and a power drill.

Phoblographer: How do you go about using this? I’m sure with a very low ISO and not very much in focus, it can be quite tough to do without using strobes.

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Anton: I rarely use studio lighting, natural light just looks so much better to me. This camera is intended more for daguerreotype photography. I anticipate my exposure to be about 20-30 seconds in open shade with Becquerel process. In all honesty the depth of field is so thin that it may not end up being a camera I use often, I will probably build another modification where I’ll put a Gundlach 6-inch f1.5 lens on a Speed Graphic – that should give me a bit more DOF to work with and it should still be fast enough to keep exposures in tolerable range for portraits.

Phoblographer: What about the wet plate shooting process do you like as opposed to digital shooting?

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Anton: Digital is ephemeral and fleeting while wet plate and any other analog photography technique is physical and more permanent. Where will your hard drive be in 20, 50 or even 100 years? Will the cloud service onto which you faithfully backed all the thousands of files from each photo shoot still be active? Who will remember your password or keep up your website after you’re dead?

Each image I make, whether it be a wet plate or a simple silver gelatin print, was touched by my hands and a little part of me will travel with it wherever it ends up. You can’t view a real plate or print on a poorly calibrated screen at 72-dpi or scroll over it on a tiny phone screen. Real prints have a true visual presence.

The additional bonus I see in wet plate, daguerreotypes and other alternative techniques is the challenge of the relationship between image maker and chemistry, which changes over time and even on the same shoot can be affected by rising or falling temperatures or humidity.

Plus, on a wet plate the area of a single pixel of a camera sensor contains 18,000,000 silver particles!