In print: Le Negatif

I am always pleased to find myself in print. Yes, I mean always, as even bad press is good press. And there is something particularly charming about being niched in publications that only publish film photography.


Open publication – Free publishingMore analog
Tobias Feltus:

X-Synch on the Graflex RB Super D

I was puzzled that the internets seems to have no information on the Super D’s flash synch. I posted on looking for some insight, but ended up – eventually – investigating the system myself.

The result? Yes, you can use electronic flash on your Graflex RB Super D! How? well, simple. Using what some folk call “drop curtain”: what this meant was obscure to me too, but I worked it out. The shutter on the Super D gives you speeds from 1/30 to 1/1000, however there are two other speeds which you can obtain: if you lock your mirror down, and roll the shutter curtain to “O”, when you release the shutter, the mirror flips up exposing your film, then the shutter closes. At the lower spring tension you get approximately 1/5, and at high spring tension you can obtain 1/10. This is brilliant, isn’t it? Yes, but even more so when you consider that these two speeds can also be used with electronic flash, as the flash contacts close when the mirror completely clears the film gate!

However my bi-pole sync port was not working…


To get at the mechanism, you need to remove the shutter plate (where you set the curtain aperture and flip the mirror). Before taking off the plate, I would suggest removing the back (remember there are a few hidden screws that you can only access with the back partly rotated), so that you can use a (white) pencil to mark the position of the upper lip of the shutter curtain on “O”. To remove the shutter plate only four screws need to be removed, but you also need to extract the pin that is on the mirror shaft. This took me a couple of weeks, and I ended up using a microjet torch (the variety that takes a butane lighter inside, and burns up to 1300c with a tiny sharp flame) to heat up the metal locally, just enough to be able to tap the pin out. The concentrated heat seems to not cause any problems, and with a few seconds was just enough to loosen its grip. Be careful and gentle – don’t force anything. Then remove the four screws (one may be flat-headed), and the shutter will close. Don’t panic.


What you will find is that the actual mechanism of the Super D’s shutter is remarkably compact and simple, and that the flash contacts themselves are little platinum or silver tips like what one would expect inside a motorbike engine’s distributor or a relay. Give everything a wee clean. The leather will probably have a bit of greenish waxy oxide on it, and some dust. The flash contacts are very easy to adjust, but I would start by spraying some contact-cleaner or switch-cleaner into them, and maybe fiddling a bit of paper over the platinum points. The reason why my flash was not triggering had to do with the “thumb” at the bottom-right of the shutter mechanism. The thumb is the spring-loaded part which is meant to close the contacts when the mirror hits home (and the contact itself is on the small leaf-spring, bottom-centre of the picture to the right). Said this, it also appears to be held in place with a tin-plated screw which has oxidised over the past 65 years, and hence become a bit stiff. So unscrew that, use a dry brush to clear off the oxide, then I added some PTFE lubricant and reassembled the thumb. Check that all of the other moving parts are free. I added some PTFE to a couple of the other pivots, and cleaned the dry grease from the upper curtain roller bush. Make sure you did not get any lubricant on the flash contacts (or clean them again), and check that the gap is good: connect an ohmmeter to the contact prongs, and rotate the mechanism to make sure that the thumb is closing the circuit, and that it is opening again. If you need to adjust it, you bend the upper contact by a hair, using a screwdriver or something (it is very malleable/delicate). It is also worthy of note that the flash timing would be adjusted by the shape of the thumb, but it should be right, so don’t bend it.


Once you are satisfied that everything should work smoothly, rotate the curtain key until the “O” is centred in its window again, as you are likely to have wound the gears way past its correct positioning. Make sure it is centred, and not just visible. At the back of the camera, wind the curtain up until your pencil marks match. Try using something like masking tape on the ribbons to hold it, probably just above its marked position, so that you have enough play to mesh the gears. Place the shutter plate onto the two pivots, and wiggle it until your gears mesh, place two screws to hold it tight, then untape your curtain, and check that it holds with your pencil marks matched up. If they do, then try running the shutter at its different gaps to make sure they are all correct (as in they start with the gate closed, and end with the gate closed). Replace the other two screws, position the mirror lever and replace its pin (which may not be easy). Replace the rotating back.

If you are lucky, you may have some kind of a cable which plugs into the two-pronged flash port. I did not. So I had to make an adapter. I made the contacts out of a figure-8 connector, which i covered in heat-shrink tubing, soldered on a PC socket, and then caked the lot in Milliput® epoxy putty. I put cling-film in the socket first, so that I could get my putty out when it had cured (this works well), and then I filed and sanded it back. Some day I shall get round to painting it black too.

In conclusion, this solution makes the Super D one of the most ductile large-format portrait cameras, as you can look through the lens without the delay of then closing down the shutter to load film. Though the Super D has automatic diaphragming for its own three lenses, I only have one of these, and plan to modify the front standard to take brighter lenses like the Dallmeyer Pentac 8″ f2.9, and being able to use electronic flash with these lenses is quite an unusual privilege.

Tobias Feltus:

Richard Learoyd: finding ways to trivialise the digital era.

Last week Sophie and I went to visit the newly reopened Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The new layout is accessible – more so than before – and reminds me of the McManus in Dundee, being of a similar period: a glorious building indeed, with one of the most spectacular foyers I know of.

The museum does, of course, have many of the usual suspects – many of the kinds of paintings that one would expect from a portrait gallery including one of the most striking paintings of Mary Queen of Scots, which you can get up close and intimate with. Some of my favourite pieces in the collection, however, are the early photographs: The John Muir-Wood salt-prints, Paul Strand’s photogravure and Archibald Burns‘ views of Edinburgh in the 1850s, counterposed with the humour of Catriona Grant’s Cows, and the imaginative use of photography in Calum Colvin‘s work (though I am not impressed with the inkjet-on-canvas that is on display, and cheekily described as a ‘Giclée’).

One piece, however, stole all of my attention. This giant photographic image – over a metre square – stood out and dominated. Initially I was simply excited by its scale and colours, so I got close, only to find that its detail was infinite, and it had a familiar metallic shimmer. The label said that it was by Richard Learoyd, and that it is a direct positive made on Cibacrhome (or Ilfocrhome) in a purpose built camera, and on loan from the artist.

It is such an alien experience to walk up to a print (as I often do), and not find any defects nor artefacts in the print itself: I am so used to seeing decay in a strand of hair, where a digital input or output device has been unable to describe a sharp diagonal. Or indeed noise in a gradient, as 8bit files are not particularly suited to describing the tonal range of such common graduated qualities of light.

Around the fingers of her right hand the depth of field is around 2cm, and within this area one strand of black hair stands out (though less distracting than that one pube in Weston’s Nude 1936) which is impeccable. Sharp as a scalpel. At this moment the image opened up to me, expanded and became infinite. Despite the fact that some digitophiles might argue that soon they will be able to reach this kind of detail as well (since an average print 1m square is a mere 139megapixels), I feel that Learoyd has created something that we may loose. What he has done, is build a camera that is more akin to a house than to a disposable camera. According to what I have read, he works from within the camera, standing inside it rather than looking through it. The image is exposed directly onto the Cibachrome, which makes a positive image without the disruption nor need of anything as intermediate as a negative. It represents a raw reality more purely than our eyes could possibly do on their own.

The only picture of his camera that I have found is here, which shows little more than its size and a hint of the size of the light-bank needed to expose such a mammoth of an image. Of course making images like this is not particularly practical, and hence why Learoy appears to be the only person making pictures of this kind.

I don’t think I have ever had such a gobsmacking experience with a photograph that I did not already know and love. The beauty of reality created by Learoyd is one-off and one of a kind. Nothing artificial has interpreted nor interfered with it. The relationship between scale of the the subject and lens, the chemistry and artistry in his process is one that no digital arrangement will ever truly mimic. And yet mimicry is seemingly one of the most important omissions in his process.

I highly recommend that, if you have the chance, you visit one of Learoyd’s images. I say visit, as I think it is a little more than just going to see a photograph: it is more like visiting a classic painting that you have known for years, but never seen in its physical state. And yet at the same time, it is more intimate, as you are entering a real world that you have never seen before.

Tobias Feltus:

Venere d’Urbino

Oddly the wall in my studio/livingroom was painted with this Titian-esque background around a year and a half ago, specifically with the intent to work with the reclined Venus paintings from the 15-1600s. I don’t really even remember who  I had in mind, at the time, to model for the shot, but I do know that it never happened. The backdrop has been used for a myriad of purposes, and been a landscape that I have been Lost in and represented Loss with, amongst other things.

So finally I find the right woman. Someone with whom I not only can communicate, but who also enjoys working with me. And by pure chance, also has the right body to become a reclined Venus. We set up in mid afternoon, building an unstable bed of tables and camera cases and pillows and rugs, curtains and lights. I found that I was unable to shoot the Titian composition the right way round because of the lighting, so I opted to just flip the negative. Getting the pose right did take many hours: we ended up eating around midnight, and shot a couple of poses. I did some tests with FP100c45 using the Tessar 165/2.7, but realised that it was not sharp at the edges at this focal distance (about 4m), so I got out the Aero Ektar. My new Gitzo tripod made such a difference too. I shot this on Kodak EPP readlyload, and rated it at 200ISO and cross processed it in my Hunt c41 kit.


Tobias Feltus:

Graflex RB Super D: converting the back to take “standard” accessories.

Finally, after a couple of years lusting after one, I have a Super D (thanks to Bob Crowley and his find). It is in very good condition, in fact, almost new, and hardly used if at all. The only issues were need for a bit of lube in the shutter, and some minor cosmetic issues (like the leather coming loose on the lens door, due to retraction). However the Graflex standard back is not too useful today, or at least, it is not much use to me, as I want to use some Polaroid, and a Grafmatic sheet loader. The normal approach to this adaptation seems to be along the lines of what Bob did with his, involving taking a Grafloc back, cutting it down, and gluing it into the RB’s back. But I saw little point in this as Grafloc backs are expensive, to me, and also there is little need for a springback on a reflex camera.

The differences that I found in the Graflex back are:

the accessories are 6.5mm wider than the international standard

the accessories do not have a light trap lip sticking out, but rather a recess in them.

So, I had to shim the whole plane of the mount up by 1mm to create a groove to accept the light trap, and move in the tongue sliders. For most accessories they are fine the way that they come, however my Polaroid 545 back has two slots in either side, so I had to cut my sliders into the typical two-eared shape. I did this with a dremel and files.

But from the start, clean everything up, and the edge of the tray needs filing back by about 1mm so that it sits flush with the new raised level.

I then cut a piece of 1mm black styrene that I had to fit, and cut out the slot for the light trap. Then I glued this in with contact adhesive. The component has no structural value nor requirements. Then I drilled out and countersunk all of the necessary holes, including four new ones to move the lower screws that hold the slider supports in place. They had to be moved 3mm in, so I moved them diagonally to avoid weakening the frame. The slider bar supports are made of mahogany with brass inserts. To move them in the necessary 3mm I cut thin strips of 3mm plywood and glued these into the existing rebate with aliphatic resin, but any good PVA will do the trick. Then I primed and painted the brass tray with the new plastic shim, and the enhanced supports.

Re-glue the felt onto the base of the tray (cutting 4 new holes where the new screws go), and reassemble the base and rotating components. Screw the slider supports back in using the same screws, and reassemble the whole caboodle.

The last thing to do is to shim the ground glass and fresnel assembly. I just used two thin strips of the same 1mm styrene, as this was the only change in the focal distance made.

And now I have a Super D which can take all manner of film holders, including Fidelity double darkslides, as they are grooved on the side so they can be gripped by the sliders.

Tobias Feltus: