I Built a Digital Technical Camera, and Yes, It's Slightly Ridiculous

I’m not one to obsess over gear; I’ve never suffered from GAS. Frankly, the seemingly endless discussions around cameras, lenses, and various bits of kit that just keep multiplying year after year, couldn’t interest me less. And now that I’ve said that, I’m going to write about gear.

The Camera

If you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re at least somewhat intrigued by the headline and lead image. You might have even asked yourself, “what the heck is that thing?!” Fair question, and now I’m going to tell you.

It’s a “frankencamera,” built from three different types of camera systems: digital 35mm, large format film, and medium format film. Specifically, it’s a Nikon D850 body (serving as a digital back), a Cambo SCX monorail (the technical camera), and Mamiya lenses from their classic RZ67 system.

Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, I use it every day in my professional work.

As you might imagine, this thing isn’t exactly “turnkey” and I had to do a lot of modifications to make it all work. Going through all of those modifications would fill a small book, and I’m not going to write that much, so instead, here’s an image gallery with descriptions.

What’s the Point?!

Is this a solution in search of a problem? Why would anyone even do something like this? It’s all about the ability to execute certain types of movements.

In commercial product photography, you’re often faced with certain technical challenges that just can’t be adequately addressed with a regular direct-mount lens/camera setup. Lines need to be kept straight, things need to be fully in focus, front to back, and a whole host of other issues. A technical camera is what addresses all of those problems. Tilting and swinging the front standard allows me to manipulate the plane of focus, which would otherwise be limited to only being perpendicular to the sensor plane.

Tilting and swinging the rear standard changes perspective the same way as just tilting or panning a regular camera would. Then, the rise and fall of the standards allows me to change perspective without creating converging/ diverging lines. This is most often used in architectural photography, but is also common in product photography. Shifting the standards left or right does the same as rise/ fall, and is useful when you want to, say, move your camera out of view of a reflective surface. Ever wonder how mirrors are photographed without having the camera in there? It’s the shift!

But, surely there’s a commercially available system out there that does the same thing, right? Yes, there is! Cambo makes the incredible Actus XL 35, and if I had the money I would probably use it, but my setup does the same thing at roughly 1/10th of the cost. And that’s just good business. Perhaps more importantly, though, I enjoy tinkering, and I get satisfaction from being able to say that I built my system, as opposed to just buying it. And, as a bonus, more people are starting to get interested in this kind of system. I wouldn’t go as far as saying there’s a community yet, but with people like Scott Choucino in the game, it probably won’t be long!

As for results? Well, I’ll let another image gallery do the heavy lifting.

In the above examples, the first image employs front standard tilt. The focal plane follows the stem of the roses. Now, at the distance and aperture I was working, DoF is still shallow enough that focus stacking will still be needed. However, by employing tilt in this scenario, I can use far fewer images for my stack, which is important as the roses are definitely moving and will create problems if I can’t get through the stack quickly.

In the second image, no tilt is employed, and you can see that the stems and the roses have much less area in focus. It will take many more images to get through a stack in this case, and movement in the roses will be a problem.

The third image shows the resultant composited stack. I didn’t get the very front edge of the forward-most rose in the stack, but you get the point.


Anyway, that’s my camera! Is it for everyone? Definitely not. But it does what I need it to do. As I said before, I use it daily, and it has more than paid for itself. It’s even sort of portable, and recently made the trek to Atlanta for some client work. Heck, I might even make another one!

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