The Cube: A Camera Two Years in the Making

A couple of days ago, Andrea Pizzini reached out to me about a really cool camera that he and his friend, Christian Martinelli, had created. The camera, pictured in the photo above, is a giant cube which they spent two years putting together and testing. I was able to sit down and talk with Andrea recently, in the B&H Executive Offices.

Chris: Tell me about the camera and how the project started.

Andrea: It started back in 2009, in Peking. We’re both photographers, and we were there for work. While we were looking at old cameras, we came up with the idea to create a camera of our own, but much bigger. We wanted to create a camera that can take life-size images of people.

That meant creating a camera that was really huge, we would have to find the lens, and we’d have to create a new system and technology, because it’s very complicated. It may look easy, but it’s very complicated.

After two years of testing and building, we finally found a way to create amazing pictures. Since September 2011 we started to take our first pictures in color. The images are 1 meter by 1 meter (3 feet by 3 feet). The kind of photos we get are unique, and you cannot copy them. They are positives, Ilfochrome actually. So you have amazing quality, the best quality that you can get in a big size. So what you’re seeing is something that you’ve never seen before. That’s the very short version of the story.

Chris: I remember that you said that it uses a Nikon Industrial lens.

Andrea: Yes.

Chris: And I remember you showing me just how big it is. Many times larger than modern Pentax lenses. How many lenses did you go through when you were testing and creating this camera?

Andrea: Quite a few lenses. We also dismantled some lenses to try to find a solution, but we couldn’t find a lens that was good enough, because we wanted to create an amazing shot with perfect contrast and color. We were very close to building our own lens, which would have taken a year. That’s very difficult. We know someone who developed them for astronomy, and he would have helped us, but he’s 85 years old.

Chris: Oh, wow!

Andrea: Yeah, but eventually we bought a lens on eBay, from a guy in the United States. We still didn’t know if it would be adequate, because we didn’t know what kind of imaging circle the lens had.

Chris: So was there any modification done to the lens after the purchase, or do you just use it as is?

Andrea: We use it as is. It’s perfect. It has a 2.5-meter image circle, so we are going to build another cube next year which will be even bigger, to create larger positive photos. We’ll be using the same lens, but we’re going to try other lenses too.

Chris: So how do you focus with the camera? Are you using the hyperfocal length method by saying, “Okay, this subject is around six feet away, I need to focus that far”?

Andrea: We (two of us) are actually inside the cube, working in complete darkness, with a manual shutter. Inside we have a rail system; on one end is the lens, and on the other end there is a steel magnetic plate with a clear area that lets you focus. The plate actually lets you see the image, so as the light comes in through the lens, you see the image on the plate.

Chris: So it works like a bellows system with ground glass?

Andrea: Yes, exactly. It’s just larger. So you see the photo there, and you tilt and shift until you get the effect, seeing what’s sharp and what’s not. Then, in complete darkness we put the paper on a plate. We then open and close the shutter manually, resulting in exposure of the paper.

Chris: This sounds almost like old pinhole cameras that I’ve played with.

Andrea: Yes, except that it has a lens and top-quality paper, and you have a bellows/rail system that lets you get amazing quality. Pinholes are cameras that you associate with unsharp photos.

Chris: But these are very sharp, you say?

Andrea: They are amazingly sharp.

Chris: I remember that from some of the samples you showed me online. They’ve got some amazing quality.

Andrea: Yes, but it’s impossible to see the full quality on the website, because when you see it on the web you sit there and say, “Okay, that’s nothing special.” But when you see it in real life it’s like, ‘oh man!’ It’s a different experience.

Chris: So you guys been looking into getting the photos into galleries?

Andrea: We don’t have enough photos yet for a gallery show. We’re still meeting a lot of people, and we’ve got good friends here in the US and London. And after that we’ll start to organize shows in New York, London and Belgium. That will probably happen at the end of next year.

Chris: Tell me more about the paper and the whole developing process.

Andrea: The paper is Ilfochrome, from Ilford. It’s usually used to copy from a negative to a positive film, or even digital to paper. Artists use that paper for their gallery shows, but they don’t use it to take photos. It’s almost impossible to take a good picture with it. It’s a silver paper, with three layers of silver. The light that hits it destroys the layers and carves out the color. That’s why it has such a unique gamut of color. It’s almost like a sculpture.

Chris: So how do you develop something like that?

Andrea: The problem is that we use three kinds of acid. Since it’s a large positive, we had to create a large cube to put the paper in. Then we needed to agitate it quickly, and roll it over and over again. We use one acid after another, and it takes around three hours to develop one photo. It’s a lot of physical work. We have to roll it the entire time.

Chris: That’s a lot of time in the darkroom.

Andrea: Yes, we need one day to take a picture with the cube. Then we need three hours the next day to develop. Only one out of three are actually good photos, because there are so many things that can go wrong.

Chris: Have you considered trying to get your hands on large instant film for that?

Andrea: We did, but we wanted to make something unique. The problem with instant film is that it doesn’t have the quality that you see here. And the second advantage of the Ilfochrome is the archival value. It lasts forever, while instant film will start to degrade after 10 -15 years. If instant film is kept it in a safe place, it has been tested to have the capability to last 250+ years. After that, it will start to degrade.

Chris: And you’re shooting at f/16, right?

Andrea: Well, the lens starts at f/11, but the problem is that there is a lot of vignetting on the side. We mostly shoot at f/16, but sometimes we’ll use other apertures.

Chris: So how much is in focus at f/16?

Andrea: It depends on where the object is. At f/16 it’s around 19 inches. At f/11, it’s around 1cm. You don’t have that in digital, especially with such a wide-angle lens.

Chris: What focal length is the lens?

Andrea: 870mm, but with the conversion rate, it’s around 24mm in full frame.

You can follow more of the project on Cubestories.com.

Do any of you shoot large format?

A photography project that has been fascinating us for a while now are the 100 Strangers. According to the project’s group, “The 100 Strangers project is a learning group intended for those wishing to improve both their social and technical skills needed for taking portraits of strangers and telling their stories.” The challenge being to “Take 100 photographs of at least 100 people you don’t know [by approaching them, asking] for permission to both take a photo of them and to post it to this group.” (100 Strangers, 100 Personalities, 100 Stories « Flickr Blog)

A photography project that has been fascinating us for a while now are the 100 Strangers. According to the project’s group, “The 100 Strangers project is a learning group intended for those wishing to improve both their social and technical skills needed for taking portraits of strangers and telling their stories.” The challenge being to “Take 100 photographs of at least 100 people you don’t know [by approaching them, asking] for permission to both take a photo of them and to post it to this group.” (100 Strangers, 100 Personalities, 100 Stories « Flickr Blog)

Alternative Uses for Film Negatives

Want to try your hand at a creative project? Consider finding another use for all your old film negatives that you don’t need anymore. If they’ve been scanned already and are sitting there collecting dust, you may not necessarily need all of them. That doesn’t mean you should dispose of them though—recycle and re-purpose them into something else. Here are a couple of fun arts-and-crafts projects to consider when reusing your film.

Warning: We’d only recommend doing this if you have absolutely no use for the negatives anymore. Otherwise, keep them cataloged in those archival pages.

Decorations (Lamp Shade)

One idea that seems to be common is to re-purpose your film negatives into lamp shades that have a cool, creative and almost vintage look to them. Of course, this requires you to get a frame first, and then wrap your negatives around it. The more film you wrap, the more the light will be diffused. This is a fun project for interior decorators or photographers looking for another way  to add some creative spice to their studios.

For safety, we’d recommend that you first put glass or something else between the film and the light (besides the frame). This will help to prevent your film from burning (no pun intended). Take a look at a short tutorial by the folks over at Poorscape.

Bracelets

Have you ever thought about wearing your film? That’s the idea behind a bracelet made by one creative person. Her Etsy store has a film negative bracelet—cast in hard plastic resin. It’s an item that will let you wear your memories with pride.

Just think—you’d be able to show people some of your best memories just by showing them your bracelet.

Bookmarks

There are a couple of ways that one can use negative film as a bookmark. You could go the super-simple route, and cut up the strip, and then just place it in the book.

Or you could get a little bit more creative. In the photo above, I took a piece of paper and folded it around a cut strip of negative film. Then I cut a frame around the film and pasted it all together. To protect the film from fingerprints, I cut up Archival Film strips, and then pasted that over the film.

Bookworms will appreciate this project the most.

Bonus Round: Coffe Table Display

You heard about building a light table, but what about a light table and a coffee table? A popular hack that I’ve seen is displaying photos by using a coffee table and lighting it from below. To do this, you’ll need a coffee table with glass in the middle. Then you’ll need to paste the film onto the glass with the negative side facing out. After that, you’ll just need to install a small light onto the backside of the film to illuminate them. Finally, enjoy coffee with some of your friends and converse over things like where you were when you photographed what’s visible on the negatives.