PetaPixel

Hacking an Old Polaroid Big Shot So That It Syncs with Modern Day Flashes

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A lot of people love the “vintage look” in photography these days.

Of course, it’s one thing is to capture it with the plethora of software readily available — or by applying “vintage filters” (like the ones on Instagram) to a digital image — and it’s another thing entirely to get old technology to work for us today and create photographs just like we would have done 30, 40 or even 100 years ago.

One of my all time favorite “old technology” cameras is the Polaroid BIG SHOT, a minimalistic medium format plastic contraption that Andy Warhol used extensively in the 1970s to take portraits of the rich and famous. You can see Andy at work photographing Farrah Fawcett with a BIG SHOT in the video below:

But there are problems to solve if you want to keep shooting a Polaroid BIG SHOT today. Polaroid went bust, so the only usable instant film stocks on the market are the Fuji FP-100C (color, 100ASA) and the Fuji FP3000B (black-and-white, 3000ASA).

Additionally, the BIG SHOT’s marvelous 220mm plastic lens comes with only a center, left and right aperture setting — center being normal, left darker and right lighter. According to tests carried out on the BIG SHOT group on Flickr by member “monodistortion,” the lens aperture is (roughly) f/36.7 at the center setting, f/55 at its darkest setting and f/24 at the lightest one.

And finally, the shutter speed varies (surprised?) from 1/52nd of a second to 1/43rd, averaging 1/48th of a second.

With such specs you’ll soon understand you need a lot of light to expose your photographs properly. And unless you can use the brightest of sunlight on the brightest day, more often than not you will need a flash. However, the only flash that can be used on the BIG SHOT camera is the MAGICUBE (note: not the similarly named flashcube).

A metal rod that pops up when you depress the shutter mechanically triggers the MAGICUBE, tripping a small wire and provoking each of the four small flash bulbs to pop. MAGICUBES generate a very powerful light for a duration of about 1/30th of a second, which is diffused on the face of your subject by the Fresnel lens mounted right in front of it.

Getting ahold of these little marvels of long-lost technical ingenuity is getting difficult, the few you can find on eBay are usually overpriced, and they obviously need to be discarded once they’re used up.

Well, loving the remarkable images I get out of my BIG SHOT camera as much as I do, I actively started looking for alternatives.

Here’s a video that explains what I ended up doing:

After spending many hours in the most remote recesses of the World Wide Web, I realized that there is a very highly sought-after plastic box called the “National PW110 Adapter.” Highly sought-after because it is capable of transforming the mechanical trigger of a BIG SHOT into a PC flash sync pulse.

Like most things from a bygone era, this little sync box that attaches to the MAGICUBE receptacle is almost impossible to find, and the few still around are being sold for ridiculous amounts of money to die-hard aficionados.

So I asked myself, “how can I keep shooting with this iconic portrait camera?” (which, mind you, you can only focus by dancing back and forth). And how could I get my studio strobes to work with it?

Ingenuity turned out to be the solution: I Velcro-ed the smallest flash trigger transmitter I could find in my box of tricks to the BIG SHOT camera, stripped the wire that goes into it, and taped the two exposed ends above the metal rod that pops the MAGICUBES.

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Voila: It worked! Not an elegant solution but it gave my BIG SHOT a new lease on life. I am currently experimenting with different strobes and different settings. The biggest problem thus far is being able to match the extremely powerful light and long flash duration of the MAGICUBES.

I’m getting there though, all the while thrilled that I’ve managed to breathe new life into yet another image-making machine from the past!

Here is the first image I shot today with my new/old “strobist” BIG SHOT system:

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I used a humble Nikon SB600 flash on a stand, camera right. Still need to work on dialing in the exposure, but at least it’s telling me that the flash duration syncs all right!


About the author: Giovanni Savino is a photography enthusiast based between New York City and the Caribbean. You can find his work on his website here. This article originally appeared here.


 
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  • http://keyofnight.com/ keyofnight

    Excellent. Thanks for the tip. :)

  • Ken Elliott

    I think what you are looking for is a microswitch. Mount it over the firing rod and wire it to a hot shoe for a flash or radio trigger.

  • Josh

    From the Warhol video “After 40 pictures Andy captured the look he was after. But his sessions often require as much as 300 shots”
    Andy, y u no shoot in burst mode?!

  • randymoe

    I was just given a very fine Big Shot, microswitch coming up, I’ll get 5 as they are cheap and I’ll use a couple on a few Packard shutters.