Alastair Thain shot this image in London from his modified car. Fitted with "a truly epic flash" and a medium-format camera, the car allows him to capture split-second shots on the hoof and capture everyday scenes. Image © Alastair Thain
Best known for his astonishingly ultra-high-resolution portraits, shot with custom-made cameras, military lenses and outsize satellite reconnaissance film, and printed up to 3m high, Alastair Thain has made a long career shooting commercial and editorial commissions alongside personal work. Having exhibited them around the world, including retrospectives at the Kunsthalle in Mannheim and Les Rencontres d’Arles photo festival, he’s now at a turning point.
Having designed 16 large-format cameras to date, including a system  for shooting at speeds of up to 1/100,000s as he sped along in his car at night, these days he’s more interested in the possibilities of digital technology. “I’ve been trying to rise to the challenge and get the kind of quality and depth with digital that I used to get with film. I’m really loving it. I can’t tell you what it was like hauling my stuff around the world.”
Achieving that quality is a tall order, however. For the past 15 years, Thain has been using lenses such as a superwide 90mm landscape glass, made by Zeiss’ military manufacturing division with “engineering like you wouldn’t believe”. But by taking several photographs of the same scene and stitching them together, he says he’s approaching the equivalent. “The Canon 5D Mk II has a very large sensor and, by stitching images together, you can make file sizes however you like,” he says. “Plus, you have this extraordinary choice about how you compose, shoot and expose.”
But inevitably, he’s also building his own kit. Unhappy with the rigs currently on the market, he’s making his own that allow him to put together a bank of digital cameras to create the best possible files for stitching in Photoshop. After the technical challenges involved in making his large-format cameras, it’s been an easy ride, but it still requires careful planning. The most important things are making sure the rig is parallel and the cameras are shooting directly over a central axis, he says, adding that his rigs are “very stable, very controlled”. It allows him to shoot exactly as he used to with his 9×18-inch custom camera, and he’s now designing a grid that will allow him to put four Leaf backs together. “There are things I miss about film, but it’s hard to get hold of these days, and impossible to get the negatives developed in the UK,” he says. “I have much more freedom this way.”
Thain’s car, fitted with flashes that use 1500W mains power. Image © Alastair Thain.
Thain has also looked into making his own digital cameras with specially designed sensors and chips but, as that might cost upwards of £1m, it’s an idea that will have to stay on the drawing board. He’s also still working on the high-speed project. “I fitted a car with a truly epic flash, using huge sine wave converters to generate mains power of 1500W out of lead-acid batteries,” he reveals. “The idea behind it is that I can drive along the streets at night with a large-format camera and capture life , because people don’t notice you if you’re in a car. It’s a completely arbitrary process, but the advantage of digital is that you can take 10,000 shots and get maybe 50 revealing images.”
As with the large-format cameras, it’s an idea partly inspired by the military. The US Army used powerful airborne flashes to photograph the Vietnam jungle by night (until the Viet Cong learnt to shoot at them), and Thain thought about trying to buy some of them. But, as with all his inventions, he says it’s the subject matter that really counts.
“I’m keen to keep developing it, in places like Mumbai and Delhi,” he says. “You can really see the story of the poverty of those cities at night. I’ve been on this huge journey [learning how to make cameras, flashes and rigs], but I never have a particular technical goal in mind. I’m just trying to make images that are as intimate and compelling as possible.”
Born in Daly City, California in 1971, Chris McCaw first went into a darkroom at the age of 13 and got well and truly bitten by the photography bug. Initially photographing friends in the local skateboarding and punk scene, he got his first 4×5 in 1992 and got into platinum printing shortly afterwards. By 1995, he had learnt to make his own large-format camera, teaching himself to fold his own bellows from a single page of photocopied text.
“Initially it was to do with finances – I wanted to use these large cameras and couldn’t afford to do it any other way,” he says. “The first camera I built was a 7×17 format, which I made for $150. I took it everywhere, even out to photograph friends skateboarding, because it was so liberating knowing that I could fix it myself.”
The 7×17 proved hard to carry around though so, in 1998, in preparation for a trip around Ireland, McCaw made his second camera, a 5×12 that is, as he points out, “still a historic format”. “I found two film holders that would hold 5×7 so I cut them up and adapted them to create one 5×12 holder,” he says.
“Once you open the door [on making cameras] you can figure out pretty much anything, and the simplest designs are usually the cheapest and most functional.”
Chris McCaw with one of the many large-format cameras he has made over the years. This model uses an ex-military reconnaissance lens and photosensitive paper to record the movement of the sun. Image © Chris McCaw.
McCaw likes the immediacy of contact printing, rather than using enlargers so, to make bigger prints, he’s made much larger cameras. For his Sunburn series, he made one of his biggest cameras yet – a 30×40 monster using five ex-military aerial reconnaissance lenses, which cost the US Army tens of thousands of pounds to make but which he picked up for $950 on Ebay. These giant optics let in a lot of light, but McCaw needs it for the Sunburn pictures, which are shot directly onto photosensitive paper. Putting the paper in place of film, he points the camera towards the sky and focuses the lens to infinity, then opens the shutter and leaves it for up to 12 hours. The papers record the surrounding landscape and the passage of the sun, whose light is sometimes so intense it literally burns the paper.
Ethereally beautiful and intimately tied to the process of photo-making, McCaw only happened upon the technique.
“I was on camping trip with some friends and we drank a load of whiskey and fell asleep,” he says. “Making an all-night photograph of the stars, I left my camera aperture open and the lens focused to infinity and, when I woke up a few hours after sunrise, I nearly threw the film away. But then I developed it and realised the sun had solarised the film negative. I thought ‘That’s got some real potential’, and spent the next three years trying to make film-based sunburns and printing the resulting burned negative in platinum, until I used photographic paper.
Chris McCaw uses extremely large-format cameras and vintage photosensitive papers to make the images in his Sunburned series, which record the movements of the sun. Sunburned GSP # 429 (Sunset/Sunrise, Arctic Circle, Alaska), 2010, a unique 8x10-inch gelatin silver paper negatives. Image © Chris McCaw.
“The first paper I tried, a modern Ilford paper, didn’t work – I just ended up with a black rectangle with a burnt hole in it – but when I tried some papers from the 1970s and 80s I got a solarised result. Now I use papers from the 1960s, 70s and 80s; every day I’m on Craigslist and Ebay.
I love that the work is so basic, so directly related to the medium and light and being grounded in the world. You can tell by the angle of the sun where I am on the planet and what season it is; because of this I am more in tune with the seasonal changes of the sun and its relationship to the landscape. That’s part of the reason I drove from San Francisco to the Arctic Circle in Alaska for the summer solstice in June.” In fact, re-using old lenses and papers is key to McCaw’s work for philosophical as well as practical reasons – people are abandoning analogue photography, he says, but we’ve still barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with it.
He’s currently collecting 50mm standard lenses, binding them together to create huge photographic grids, with which he plans to create Muybridge-related imagery of the sun.
“I made a camera two weeks ago using 20 50mm lenses, next I hope to do a 20×24 grid,” he says. “I feel like, ‘I’ve made a 20-lens camera, I can make any camera I need, to create the ideas I have. I’m not restricted by needing expensive precision machines made from mahogany, leather bellows and brass, and because of this, my imagination in regards to photography are wide open.”
A lecturer at Cambridge University’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, Dr John Brackenbury started out as a zoologist, yet his passion for insects led him to photography. “I’m interested in bugs, so I set myself the task of freezing the movement of their wings in flight,” he says. “It was a technical challenge at the start, but I was bowled over by the pleasure of looking, and that made me want to make more pictures.”
Since then, he’s written several books on photography, including his latest, In the Blink of an Eye, published by David & Charles, gaining worldwide acclaim for his macro photography using high-speed capture techniques that he has developed himself.
He specialises in shooting his subjects in motion in their natural environment, for which he’s designed custom-built flashes and shutters to freeze the action, roping in colleagues at the Department of Electrical Engineering at Cambridge to help him develop the technology.
John Brackenbury took this shot using an automatic flash system laser-triggered by the bees when they flew into the right spot. Capturing the insects close-up and in motion, yet retaining much of the background, Brackenbury’s system shows insects in a much more natural way than many macro systems. Image © John Brackenbury.
“I was going to Spain to set up a studio – a big tent really – and collect, record and release bugs in the local area. I had the idea that we could set up a laser beam connected to a camera focused at a predetermined spot, so that when the bug flew through the beam, it would trigger a camera shutter to open,” he says. “A thousandth of a second later, a flashgun would go off, then the shutter close again.”
Brackenbury and his colleagues built an electromagnetic shutter fixed to the front of the lens and a set of very powerful flashguns, which output the equivalent of 2500V of energy for 1/20,000s. “That’s enough to power a small town – it really is like a bolt of lightning,” he exclaims. “But it had to be, because I was using the slowest film possible to get the best-quality image, and filters to combat reciprocity failure [in which different colours in the emulsion change colour at different rates]. All in all, it was very hit-and-miss, and only one in two or three hundred shots worked. But, when they did, they were fantastic.”
He still uses the same setup now to shoot a variety of moving subjects, from insects to drops of water, keeping the shutter stopped down to f/32 to give him as wide a depth-of-field as possible. In fact, depth-of-field has become something of an ongoing obsession, and he has also developed a technique he’s named “panoramic close-up”, using lenses originally intended for CCTV cameras to shoot very small subjects at close distances, but retain the background detail.
Brackenbury's automatic flash system, which uses 2500V of energy for 1/20,000s captures. Image © John Brackenbury
“Most macro photography puts the background out of focus but, although that’s how the human eye sees it, it’s not how insects perceive it,” he says. “I decided to develop a technique modelled on their vision, looking at various lenses, until I hit upon high-end CCTV optics. They have to be used with very small focal lengths – 1mm, 2mm or 3mm – so I needed to work out how to get them to work with 35mm film cameras or digital backs, which have much bigger sensor areas. Of course, you could take two shots – one for the foreground and one for the background – but in my experience they don’t look anywhere near as good.”
Tim White says he’s always been good at making things and, having become obsessed with photography in his teens, it was inevitable that the two passions would combine, as they did most memorably in 1979, when he designed the slitscan shutter.
“Large-format plate cameras traditionally used focal plane shutters – basically a roller blind with a slit in the middle – which moves in a way determined by the set shutter speed,” he says. “They were easy to make and worked fine with early large-format cameras, which required very long exposures. It was only when film speeds increased that the shutter speed also had to increase. But it took some time for the slit to travel vertically or horizontally across frame, so if the scene changed in mid-exposure, you would end up with more than one ‘moment’ in an image.
“This reminds us of the old school wheeze, where a student in the end-of-year photograph would run round the back from one side of the frame to the other and appear in the same image twice. What I did was to develop a shutter that would move even more slowly so that I could exploit the effect.”
Former Clash drummer Topper Headon, captured in extreme slow motion by photographer Tim White and his large-format "slitsca" shutter. Image © Tim White.
White’s system, which he went on to patent, works with a 5×4 camera and uses exposure times from 10 seconds right up to two hours. The principle behind the mechanism was straightforward, but making sure the slit movements were smooth proved very tricky, and White ended up having to design and build an electronically controlled drive. The whole project took him around 1600 hours over the next two years but, once he’d perfected it, he had something truly unique to offer his clients, and it proved a huge success.
With the help of his agent, Stan Cripps, he won commissions for everything from big-budget Vauxhall car ads to alternative music record covers, such as his artwork for Topper Headon, former drummer with The Clash.
“The scan time for the cover was around 20 seconds, and you can see him on both sides of the image,” White explains. “We used a stopwatch to time his carefully rehearsed movements and had the shutter going from right to left because it was easier for him to get out of bed and move towards the door than the other way around. Whenever he stopped, his image would be sharp but the background remained sharp throughout because, of course, it was stationary.”
The experience of making the device taught him a lot, not least how to use a lathe, and White says it inspired him to make other pieces of equipment too, including a fibre-optic lighting system and his own macro bellows system, incorporating swings and tilts.
Tim White's workshop is neat, organised and well stocked, and includes a lathe that he taught himself to use to make his own kit. Image © Tim White.
Even so, he’s happy to admit that some kit is beyond even the most gifted amateurs, such as precision lenses or blade shutters, and he insists that technology should always be subsidiary to the image.
“It’s great to make things but, once you’ve done it, you can’t just stand there admiring them,” he says. “The technology has to be a means to an end.”
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