PetaPixel

Using a Radioactive WWII Bomber Lens on a DSLR with a 3D-Printed Adapter

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Originally produced for the US military in WW2, the Kodak Aero Ektar 178mm f/2.5 is a large-format monster of a lens. Mounted in bombers, facing down at Europe, this lens was sold to the US government for the price of a family car. It found its way into military surplus after the war, and was widely used in journalism and by professional photographers.

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I managed to come into one of these lenses through my uncle, who was director of the radiation protection bureau of Canada. I mention the radiation part, because the rear element is made of thorium glass, which happens to be radioactive!

That’s right kids, it’s giving off all sorts of tasty rays. Luckily the danger is negligible unless you make contacts out of it, or grind up the glass and snort it. One side effect of the composition is the browning of the glass over time, which can be reversed (not that I want to. It’s such a nice tint of brown!)

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So I have this lens, and I want to use it to close to its full potential. I don’t do film, and just placing it in front of my GH2’s cropped sensor would make it a super telephoto, so instead I decided to built a focus adapter.

bombercam

Bust Out the 3D Printer

I decided on a ground-glass style adapter, but I couldn’t find frosted glass fine enough to resolve a lot of detail. What I ended up using was the diffuser from an old LCD I had.

Diffusers are super fine-frosted sheets of plastic that spread out and even out the backlight on your monitor. I cut a piece to size and knew I had to build a housing for it. I started off with a pair of aluminium square tubes, as knew I wanted to build an adapter that could host my digital camera.

The lens would throw onto a ground plane, and the camera would photograph the flipped image from the diffuser. Luckily, I have access to an Up! Personal Portable 3D Printer. I started measuring the lens and designing a support bracket in Cinema 4D.

The 3D printing in progress

The 3D printing in progress

The print was accurate to within 200 microns

The print was accurate to within 200 microns

The quality was so high that I printed a friction-fit ring to seal the lens to the bellows.

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A handy man would have crafted a beautiful box out of mahogany, with dovetail joints, lined with fine black velvet and decorative brass hardware. I had matte black spray paint, epoxy, and little regard for proper ventilation. I set off putting together an aluminium frame to act as an epoxy magnet, and painted the crap out of it to cover up my shame.

The frame that holds this poorly thought-out design together

The frame that holds this poorly thought-out design together

More epoxy than I care to admit to

More epoxy than I care to admit to

The finished box. This is the length my camera needs to focus on the ground glass plane

The finished box. This is the length my camera needs to focus on the ground glass plane

I then folded a bellows out of stiff paper and cloth tape. The bellows provides me with a push-to-focus functionality

I then folded a bellows out of stiff paper and cloth tape. The bellows provides me with a push-to-focus functionality

Here’s a diagram of the rig:

diagram

Here, with the top and back removed, you get an idea of what my camera is seeing. Note the shallow DoF and flipped picture

Here, with the top and back removed, you get an idea of what my camera is seeing. Note the shallow DoF and flipped picture

Here are some sample photographs shot by my DSLR using the lens and my DIY adapter:

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I took the completed setup to my favorite creative meetup, Secret Handshake. It was taking place in a dark pub and there were about 75 people that night rubbing elbows. I had the whole assembly on a tripod with a Nikon flash bouncing off the ceiling. The atmosphere was perfect for this vignetting and graininess:

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About the author: Patrick Letourneau is a freelance 3D artist based in Winnipeg, Canada. You can connect with him through his website, on Twitter as @PolygonSandwich, and on Vimeo. This article originally appeared here.


 
  • http://www.facebook.com/john.sluder John Sluder

    Nice job, impressive re-propose of the vintage glass

  • Bhautik Joshi

    Nice setup, and great idea using LCD diffusers instead of ground glass – that’s superb!

    I bet if you attached a couple of linear motors (e.g. out of an electric toothbrush) to shake the diffuser in the same plane as the camera (e.g. perpendicular to the optical axis) you could probably lose a bit of the graininess and bump up the image quality a little.

  • http://twitter.com/PolygonSandwich Patrick Letourneau

    Author here! I was just daydreaming about that yesterday. I know that the professional focus adapters are the bottom segment of a spinning disc, for just that reason. For now, though, i’m very pleased with how it looks (higher res images on my site). I think the first thing i would do is really build it it out of mahogany and pretty it up

  • DamianM

    Great attempt but sadly the only way to get the most of this lens is to use it on Large format cameras, Other then that it looks like these images where made with a holga.

  • Eric

    You don’t do film? For shaaame, images like that are the reason I got into large format. (Plus the obscene scanned resolution)

  • cunguez

    Great job. A friend of mine named Chris McCaw has used similar lenses with a home-built large format camera to do some amazing work (namely his ‘Sunburn’ series, where he leaves the aperture open for long enough periods of time that the lens is actually able to burn through the photo paper), 10 pieces of which where purchased by the Whitney.

    Something he and I talked about (and something which coincidentally was just talked about here on PetaPixel a couple of days ago) is the fact that the glass in these lenses where irradiated and still continue to give off a fair amount of radiation. Just a suggestion, but I’d look into medical supply stores that sell exposure tags for x-ray technicians, as well as some lead-lined boxes in which to store the lens (particularly if you, say, sleep with it near your head ;)

    Cheers

  • Fran

    Yes, let’s dismiss this entire project because he used this lens on something that wasn’t a large format. I mean it’s not like he designed a camera or anything and nothing he did would be interesting to hobbyists or anything like that. I mean, it it doesn’t look like it came out of a perfectly engineered large format camera, surely there’s no reason to even acknowledge it exists!

  • http://twitter.com/PolygonSandwich Patrick Letourneau

    Sounds great! As i mention in the post, the old owner was the head of the Radiation Protection Bureau, and as long as i dont sleep with it for 20 years, i’ll be fine :)

  • http://twitter.com/PolygonSandwich Patrick Letourneau

    Ah, but I’m not used to working with large format cameras at all. I had this lens, a 3d printer, and wanted to play around with it. I’m really very happy with the results

  • dada

    good job, but this would have been million times better with film, I do similar things with old field lenses, like xray,aerial, ect… and digital just makes no sense, all you get is poor quality chinese p&s style…

  • Steve Stevenson

    I really enjoyed the look of these images.
    A few years back I used the Nikon bellows for shooting slides, and put an old medium format press camera lens on it.
    The bellows were on rails so I could just focus the lens.
    The results were nice, but did not have the look of the aero ektar.

  • http://www.facebook.com/clovenlife Aaron Lee Kafton

    You’ll want to use some fresnel glass in front of your “ground glass” to help even out the brightness

  • Fullstop

    Very inspiring what you have done here. I too would like to see this lens on a film camera but I do not discount your hard work and incredible drive to see this to completion.
    The lens does produce a very film like element in natural lighting of course.

  • DamianM

    Designing a camera is just a box with hole. not that difficult.
    Im not dismissing it either, I just think the results where probably not worth the time spent on the project.

    Sometimes there are attempts that just dont deliver great results.
    It is trial and error

  • DamianM

    Same thing I thought but people somehow disagree.
    They will do anything to resist the fact that it doesn’t work on digital cameras.

  • http://twitter.com/PolygonSandwich Patrick Letourneau

    Awesome, can you expand on that a bit? I do get a pretty bright hotspot in the center of the frame, which forces some vignetting as the camera’s DR isnt amazing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/clovenlife Aaron Lee Kafton

    when the light the “ground glass” it is directed straight back, so the center will be bright and there will be a lot of falloff from there as the light isn’t being directed to the center. Putting a piece of fresnel glass directly in front of your ground glass will direct the light to the center, removing the vignette.

  • Opie

    Couldn’t agree more, Damian. This is exactly what I thought upon reading the article.

    It’s not that the results here are necessarily bad, but the fact is that this lens is really nothing out of the ordinary in terms of what’s available for a small-format camera. Fast teles are a dime a dozen for 35mm and smaller, but *incredibly* rare for larger formats (As in… this is one of maybe three models ever made). Regardless of the results, this is a waste of an extraordinary lens.

    As a passionate large format photographer, it makes me cringe a bit to know that a lens after which I lust is serving a sentence behind a GH2.

  • zolatour

    great work!!

  • cunguez

    Ironically enough, PetaPixel just posted a story about the guy I was talking about, Chris McCaw. Check out what your lens is capable of (like burning straight through photo paper :)

    http://petapixel.com/2013/05/15/photographer-chris-mccaw-talks-about-how-he-creates-his-sunburned-photos/#disqus_thread

  • whoopn

    Well done!