This Gigantic Tintype Camera Shoots the Analog Equivalent of Gigapixel Photos


Gigapixel photography is all the rage these days, as photographers all over the world compete to hold the record for “world’s largest photo,” but one photographer in San Francisco is participating in a very different way.

Michael Shindler, a photographer at the tintype studio Photobooth, has built a custom giant tintype camera that shoots portraits that are the analog equivalent of a gigapixel photo.

Norman Chan over at Tested reports that Shindler’s new camera is built like an old school view camera, just like the cameras used to capture daguerreotypes in the 1800s. The camera snaps photographs on 14×17-inch plates — much, much larger than the 4×5-inch tintypes Shindler used to make, and a standard size for X-Ray photography.

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Photographer Ian Ruhter is another person who works with ultra large format (ULF) wet plates, but he mostly works in outdoor environments with his camera van. Shindler’s camera is designed for portraits captured in a controlled, studio environment.

The camera was created using various camera parts Shindler has collected over the past decade, along with some custom pieces he personally designed and had built. The bellows was taken from a 60-year-old copy camera (it’s like an old school copier), while the lens was a Rodenstock Sironar-N 480mm f/8.4 lens purchased for $1,000 on eBay.

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When mounted to the camera, the lens has a 35mm equivalent focal length of 40mm, so it’s neither very wide nor very telephoto (it’s shorter than the standard 85mm-135mm focal range used for portraits). However, the resulting tintypes can capture the subject at a 1:1 scale, meaning the portraits are almost exactly life-sized.

The giant camera comes with operating costs that are just as large. Shindler tells Tested that $400 in silver nitrate is only enough to develop roughly 30 plates, so each plate requires over $13 in chemicals alone.

Finally, the resolution: Tested states that a 35mm film frame contains roughly the same amount of data as a 20-megapixel digital photo. Similarly, a 4×5-inch frame has the equivalent of 200MP of information. Shindler’s tintypes contain roughly 10 times the area of 4×5-inch shots, so they likely contain the same amount of detail as digital gigapixel photos.

Here’s a 14×17-inch tintype Shindler digitized using a Canon 5D Mark II. The digitized version contains roughly 1/100th the detail of the actual tintype (you can find a higher-res version here):


Chan reports that if you use a magnifying glass, you can see every little hair and pore in focus on the woman’s face, as well as the capillaries in her eyes. Here’s a close-up photograph Chan shot using a macro lens (high-res 100% crop here):

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Want to have a “gigapixel tintype” created of your face? You can stop by the Photobooth studio in SF for a portrait shoot appointment — provided you’re willing to pay “several hundred dollars” for the one-of-a-kind photo.

Image credits: Photographs by Norman Chan/Tested and used with permission. Tintype photograph by Michael Shindler/Photobooth

  • Dylan Roberts

    I really wish I could get into the original analog photography its way more hands on and slow. I find my work is much different and better than my digital work when I’m forced to slow down due to the equipment/style of photography.

  • alex_cerulean

    wow, that portrait is stunningly beautiful

  • Jason Philbrook

    Wet plate has no grain (whereas dry plates/films have dried crystals we call grain), so the limit is probably practically only the subject movement or skills of the photographer.

  • superduckz

    “several hundred dollars” would be a bargain for such a unique photograph!! Wish there was a southeast studio that did this in that price range!

  • Danielle

    I hate how the the phrase ‘provided you’re willing to pay several hundred dollars’ is included at the end of this article. Um, for something like this, of COURSE you’d pay at least that. Photography is only cheap from digital shooters who aren’t at the top of their game. Same as any other field, when you know the difference, you happily pay a decent fee for quality work.

  • beautox

    The 100% crop of the eye certainly has something akin to grain/noise. Also the limit is probably the lens.

    To argue (as the article does) that because a 35mm film has allegedly 20Mpix resolution, that this guy’s tintype has the same resolution per unit area is wrong. For all we know tintype only has half or quarter (or less) resolution than 35mm film (which for 20mp would be pretty slow). Although you say tintype doesn’t have grain, that doesn’t mean it has infinite resolution – there are clearly some limits – and I’m not convinced that they are higher than 35mm

  • DamianM

    the 100% crop is from a digitized image. so its pixels and not grain, a tintype does not have any grain.

  • DamianM

    16 x 20 cameras are not new and are not competing with the gigapixel race. the gigapixel race is competing with older cameras, 1870’s old. They made 16 x 20 and 20 x 30 tintypes in those days. There is a panorama of 1890s San Francisco made of 16 20 x30 tintypes.

  • Will Mederski

    “hands on and slow” may be inherent to film, but why not apply the same rigor to your digital work?
    if you want to become a better photographer, take more photos and just work on making the next shot better than the last one.

  • DamianM

    I shoot only film because I care about what I photograph. I’m burning money and that makes you think twice. So the image should be perfect and not fixed in post.

  • wickerprints

    “Grain” in the film sense may not be present in such a process, but the photon shot noise inherent in the exposure is unavoidable. Equally unavoidable is diffraction. Both of these impose a practical limit on resolving power independent of the recording medium used, or format. And as previously noted, the aberrations of the lens itself becomes a source of resolution loss–especially in the macro regime. Finally, one should consider the contrast and dynamic range of the process itself, which may or may not be able to capture the tonal gradations of other types of imaging.

    That said, however, it is indisputable that the images produced by this process have extremely high detail. Probably not as much as a stitched gigapixel panorama, but they are quite remarkable. Personally, the resolution alone isn’t the primary appeal of these pictures–for me, I find it’s the process and the creation of a life-size original.

  • Csaba

    I agree too. Shooting film is a different story altogether… :D

  • ProtoWhalePig

    Right, because Ansel and Henri and all the rest never f****d up a film image. The image should be perfect (and only you can define perfect for yourself) however you obtain it. Stop kidding yourself that film has some magical, inherent property that is missing in digital. Just apply the same rules when you’re shooting your DSLR.

  • Csaba

    You can treat your DSLR as it is a film camera, but it will never feel the same… It’s like driving in a Ferrari simulator which is similar to the real thing, BUT it is still NOT the real thing.

  • ProtoWhalePig

    I shoot 35mm and 120 film for fun. But film is no more the “real thing” than was tin type or coated glass or digital or whatever future technologies we use. An image is an image. We use differing methods to obtain them, but the image’s quality is far more important than the method used to obtain it.

    Don’t get me wrong: I enjoy doing it, and obviously you do too. But I would never ascribe some mystical difference to it that another method cannot have.

    Since all my cameras are SLRs, I find little difference in the process, beyond the obvious need to load and unload the film then develop it.

    I’m about to pick up a 4×5 system, because I like the resolution it will give. But that’s the only reason. It won’t be any more “real” than a digital 4×5 would be, if one existed.

  • Will Mederski

    no offense, but that just means you are dependent upon an external parameter to ‘force’ you to be a better photographer.
    rather than just conquering that urge to snap away thoughtlessly with a digital.

    you’re blaming / giving credit to the tool, rather than developing / realizing the ability in yourself.

    i shot film for 15 years, and just finished off a roll yesterday, btw.

  • Will Mederski

    i can completely empathize with you, but i hate to see romanticism get in the way of an artist developing their talent.

  • Will Mederski

    agreed. :o)

  • Rabi Abonour

    Seriously. I understand that it was just a way to get a cost estimate in there, but I wouldn’t make a photo that looks like the provided portrait with my 5D for less than a couple hundred dollars. WIth that camera I’m sure he could find a market never getting behind it for less than four figures.

  • Raul Moreno Jr.

    No, I don’t want a silly gigapixel tintype.
    I just want a plain, old boring 14×17 tintype.
    You can save the gigapixel for the numbskulls that care about this analog translation to digital.

  • Raul Moreno Jr.

    It’s not magic.
    Film demolishes the digital medium in just about all areas except for light sensitivity.
    Resolution, color gamut, archival properties of prints, range of value (especially in b/w film)…. yada yada yada.
    You’re right. It’s not a magic thing. It’s a very real thing.

  • Raul Moreno Jr.


  • Mantis

    I like how somebody downvoted you for stating your opinion. (Which I agree with.)

  • Craig Hutton

    Awesome Camera, don’t think they allow me in the photographs pit with this

  • ProtoWhalePig

    There’s no great photo taken with a film camera that couldn’t have been taken by a digital camera.

    You may be right about the stuff you claim — there are endless arguments either way on the Internet — but it doesn’t matter. *You* and your skills define the image’s quality. Not film. Not the sensor. Not your horse and cart based glass plate coating system. If you think the tool defines an image’s value or quality, then you’re way off.

    I liked at you missed out all of the many advantages digital has over film, though as you can see from my posts, I have no horse in this race. :-) The argument I was addressing was the idea that the *process* of shooting with film is inherently better because of some aspect — likely the fact that you have to work slowly — of it. This is drivel: you can work in exactly the same way with a digital camera.

    As for gamut and all the other things you list: nobody, barring the tiny minority of nerds like us who post places like here, cares two hoots about that sort of thing, and nor should they.

  • Ralph Hightower

    You don’t have to think or act differently shooting digital versus film. FStoppers has a video where Photography Legend Don McCullin Tries Digital for the First Time
    Don didn’t spray and pray; he was quite deliberate in his photographs. He also didn’t chimp after each photo. He was amazed as how Lightroom and Photoshop turned “blah” photographs into great photographs.

  • Nick

    Let’s not forget Ian Ruhter? Did you read the article?

  • TJP

    Wow, that anti-film rage is at a 9. We need it at about a 1. He didn’t say anything about magic. He was merely making that point–that coincidentally a lot of other people have observed–that economy makes one a little less sloppy with the shutter release button. More of a film image’s cost is front-loaded. A lot of the intelligence is already in the medium when you press the release. In digital it happens after the shutter release.

    That doesn’t seem like an important distinction until you work in a variety of situations with your photography. Yes, the same basic rules apply, but with the specific techniques involving color, over/under exposure or ambiguous exposure situations (where an exposure computer can’t determine intent of the user), there are some major differences.

  • TJP

    Is it working slowly or working economically? I guess if you’re using a view camera you’re working slowly…because you have no choice. :) (Note to self: develop a technique for snap-shooting with a view camera.)

    I am faster with manual mode/focus because I usually have the right settings and approximate focus dialed in before I am at shooting distance from the subject. Yes, I try to have my digitals set the same way so I can use the same technique, but they require more twiddling.

    But that’s how I do it. Most people I meet are of the trial-and-error mentality. What a waste of time–and you also miss the shot.

  • tesmith47

    at the high end professional you are right , but for 90 % of images made today the digital option gives a better result with the tweaking (HDR etc that can be done