The "cigar-box" handheld 11x14 camera

by Micah Marty for the Large Format Page.

Frustrated with the d.o.f. problems of larger formats (in terms of working speed/spontaneity, not results), I've been fascinated with fixed-focus larger-format "cigar box" cameras. I purchased the 8x10 Hobo ( and it worked well (I probably wouldn't have bought it if I didn't already own the 120SW lens for 4x5). I modified the Hobo a teeny bit, adding a metal handle (w/built-in thumb-operated cable release) on the right side (after finding that gripping the camera with my right hand often flexed the film holder, causing light leaks). I also replaced the four lens board bolts with wingnuts and cut a set of lensboard-shaped gaskets (out of mat board, each maybe 1/16" thick) so that by undoing the wingnuts I can (relatively) quickly add or remove gaskets to change the optimal zone of focus from, say, 100 feet to 12 feet (yes, everything is supposed to be in focus from 4' to infinity with the 120mm/f8 lens, but of course that isn't really true; I figured it'd be nice to be able to alter the focus distance at least for infinity landscapes/cityscapes vs. closer street/people shooting). This camera made possible some shots that would have been much more difficult with conventional 8x10 cameras (e.g., handheld shooting from atop a huge ferris wheel and from a helicopter flying over downtown Chicago).

Inspired by the 8x10 Hobo, I turned to a broken 11x14 monorail I had been trying to figure out what to do with. I had used my 150 Nikkor SW/8 on the 11x14 (with only barely-discernible darkening in the very corners above f22), so I knew it could cover the 11x14 format similar to the way the 120SW covered 8x10. The front standard, originally from a Toyo 4x5, had been 'way underbuilt for most 11x14 lenses and I'd been baffled about how to shore it up without spending a couple of hundred bucks in machining charges. The bellows were great, but I reluctantly removed them and the front standard and the rail clamps and tilt mechanisms and all so that all that was left was the back (originally a B&J)-basically a cigar box with no lid and a glass bottom (the groundglass back).

I put the 150SW on my 8x10 monorail and focused at infinity to measure the lens-to-groundglass distance and then mailed the measurements and the lidless glass-bottomed "cigar box" (back) to my brother Peter, a Lutheran minister in Iowa who's an ace woodworker in his spare time. He fashioned out of wood a corresponding, slightly smaller "cigar box" front that sleeved into the back (think of an inverted gift box, with the lid on the table and the bottom of the box nestled in from on top) and epoxied the whole thing together, painting it a nice semigloss black before returning it to me. I mounted the lensboard holder (from the Toyo front standard) on the front, spacing it with gaskets as I had with my Hobo so that it was focused at a point about 30-40 feet away. At f22.6 this puts everything from about 14 or 15 feet to infinity in focus.

Because the 11x14 spring back had always been a little loose (causing small light leaks), I screwed it on to the camera in landscape mode, which works fine for street shooting. For verticals I put the camera on a tripod and tilt the head 90 degrees (to the bottom of the camera I have attached a q.r. plate that fits into a cheap-but-sturdy Bogen pan-tilt head; #3047?). I attached two bars to the sides of the camera to hold and carry it (black-painted metal bathroom towel bars, actually); the left side one (left side as you're holding the camera) is a full 13" or so high, but the right one is only half as long so that the thumb-operated cable-release can protrude from the top of the towelbar handle halfway up the camera. As with the B-S Hobo, the camera is sturdy enough to stand on.

The whole camera (I call it the Petecam after its builder) weighs perhaps 12-13 lbs. with the 150SW lens but without filmholders, which are a beastly 3.5 lbs. apiece (Fidelity). I can carry up to five of the filmholders in a backpack, loading a holder in when I see a picture taking shape. It's not point and shoot, but it's a lot quicker than the full-blown bellows routine, and it does bring a bit of spontaneity to my LF shooting, which was the original goal. In sunlight, with HP5+ rated at 640-800, I can shoot somewhere between f22 and f32 at 1/125, fine for handholding.

A couple more notes: The groundglass in both the 8x10 Hobo and the 11x14 Petecam is useful for composition/framing (on tripod) but not for focusing, which is preset via testing. Since the matboard gaskets allow only a few focus steps-unlike with most cameras-there's no reason not to initially shoot a series of transparencies wide open to check the actual focus point for each combination of lensboard gaskets (to photograph various focus points, I use index cards folded into "tents"-inverted V's-laid out off into the distance on a long carpeted hallway, with foot-markings written on the cards in magic marker).

For eye-level (non-groundglass) composing when handholding either of the above cameras I was using the Voightlander 15mm viewfinder (made for their new 35mm rangefinder cameras) mounted in an accessory shoe on top of the camera. Alas, I was recently talked into selling that viewfinder with a Cambo Wide package (another kind of prefocus LF camera) and haven't been able to come up with the $170 yet to replace it. So for now handholding composition is guesswork on the Petecam and using the only-semi-useful door peephole provided with the Hobo (again, for tripod work with either camera I can use the groundglass). If I get really serious about (or frustrated with) shooting either camera (I'll still be using the 8x10 Hobo for color because 11x14 color film is so pricey), I'll have to spring for a new Voightlander finder.

Can't think of anything else to say about the 11x14. I just finished construction last fall and haven't used it much because the light hasn't been very cooperative, but I've taken enough pictures to know that everything works fine and am looking forward to shooting some street stuff like road repair work here in Chicago this summer.

After I learn some more from the 11x14 about what to do and what not to do, I might try one larger format. All winter I've been looking at my dusty and humungous 210 SuperAngulon that casts a 20" image circle and it got me to thinking about making a 20x20 cigarbox camera that makes round pictures. I think I'd make it so it only accepts one sheet at a time, as filmholders in that size would just weigh too much for light tripods, let alone handholding (with one-sheet loading, I could also better secure the film against sag by using magnets over the darkened corners outside the 20" image circle). That would really put pressure on to get the picture right (knowing that I had to go home or to the nearest darkroom to reload film), which is antithetical to the hit-or-miss nature of "true" street shooting, but it might be worth a go anyway. Of course, it's fun to think of even larger box cameras-I'm told that my diminutive 600 Fuji CS, for example, can cover 20x24-but the limitation is that when the focal length gets too long, the box just gets too deep (and, of course, too heavy) to easily walk around with. So maybe 11x14 is my upper limit and I'll leave the larger stuff to someone else. We'll see.

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