DIY 4X5 Camera Scan Back

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About: My name is Randy and I am a Community Manager in these here parts. In a previous life I had founded and run the Instructables Design Studio (RIP) @ Autodesk's Pier 9 Technology Center. I'm also the author ...

This is a tutorial for making a DIY camera scan back for a 4X5 camera. I made this to work with a Graflex Series B camera which at one point was one of the top-of-the-line cameras. It long ago belonged to my Great Great Uncle Nat who was a commercial photographer for JCPenney in the 1930s.

My reason for making this scan back was because the camera was broken when I received it, and it could no longer be used to take film photos. The shutter cloth in the back had rotted, and the cost of sourcing a new one and repairing it was more than buying a working antique Graflex camera to begin with.

Nevertheless, I told the family member who gave me the camera that I was going to somehow get it working again. I began to explore options for taking photos without a working shutter. One of my ideas involved putting a sheet of ground glass in the back, and scanning it. That is when I stumbled upon camera scan backs.

Unfortunately, I quickly realized a commercial camera scan back costs thousands of dollars. Undaunted, I simply decided to make my own for much cheaper. The cost of making this project is about $200.

Of course, for $200 you get what you pay for. This scan back only works in black and white, the photo in unevenly illuminated, and, as you can see, the rings from the fresnel lens show up overlaid atop the graphic. These are not the best digital pictures in the world, and it would be fair to say that the photos that result are a bit of an acquired taste.

While I would get much better results simply by buying a 4X5 adapter plate for my Canon DSLR, I feel like this scan back is more in the spirit of shooting film with this camera. For starters, I can make use of the camera's native SLR mechanism (one of the first of its kind), which would not be necessary when shooting digital photos. Also, there is a kind of "development" involved since I can't see what I am shooting until I load it onto the computer. Also, there is unexpected artifacts and graininess like you would see with film, especially when shooting moving subjects.

It is the combination of antique technology and the element of surprise that makes using this 4X5 scan back with my camera so fun. I wouldn't say these are the best photos I've ever taken, but I had a great time getting this family heirloom working again.

Step 1: Scanning the Image

If you simply place the scanner in the back of the camera where the 4X5 film cartridge normally goes, and scan the frame you will get a reasonably high resolution but narrow "keyhole" image.

It's difficult to figure out what part of the frame you're going to capture, but you will definitely get a high resolution photo.

Step 2: Adding a Lens

By adding a fresnel lens on top of the scan bed, you can more evenly disperse the light and get a full frame picture. However, the trade-off here is that the scanner light reflects off of the lens and you can see the lens itself overlaid on every picture.

This results in a blurrier and lower quality full frame image.

I decided to go this route and add a lens because I was more concerned about capturing the full frame than making high quality photos. Nevertheless, what I am about to show you can be built with or without the lens (to your preference).

Step 3: Materials

For this project you will need:

(x1) Flip Pal portable scanner (or similar)
(x1) 5 x 7 Fresnel Lens
(x1) 12" x 12" x 6mm black acrylic
(x1) 12" x 12" x 3mm black acrylic
(x8) 3/8" x 6-32 flathead bolts
(x1) Roll of heavy duty 3M tape
(x1) 12" x 12" square black vinyl ***

Tools required:

(x1) Laser cutter (or appropriate plastic cutting saws)
(x1) Drill press
(x1) 3/8" x 82 degree countersink bit
(x1) Drill press vise
(x1) Tapping machine (or tap wrench)
(x1) 6-32 tap
(x1) Hex wrench set (or screwdriver)
(x1) Cricut machine (or vinyl cutter) ***

*** This is very optional! I used it because I had it, but you can get the same results with a black Sharpie or some black electrical tape.

Step 4: Laser Cut Parts

Download the attached laser cut files.

It should be pretty straight forward what to do, but if it's not, here are some instructions:

  • Laser cut the one labeled EigthAcrylicVectorCut.eps out the 1/8" acrylic.
  • Laser cut the one labeled QuarterAcrylicVectorCut.eps out of 1/4" acrylic.

If you don't have a laser cutter, can't find one at a local makerspace, nor want to pay a service bureau to cut the parts for you, then you can use the files as templates and use traditional shop tools to cut them out. Check out this amazing guide on doing digital fabrication by hand.

Step 5: Thread the Holes

Thread all of the holes in the 1/4" acrylic using a 6-32 tap.

Step 6: Countersink

Countersink the holes on one side of the larger 1/8" acrylic piece using a drill press.

The idea is to make the countersinks just deep enough that the 6-32 flathead bolts lay about flush when inserted.

Step 7: Peel and Stack

Peel the protective coating off of the black acrylic.

Stack them such that the 1/4" piece is on the bottom, the smaller 1/8" piece is in the middle and the larger 1/8" piece is on top with the countersinks facing upwards.

Step 8: Bolt Together

Bolt all three pieces together with the 3/8" x 6-32 bolts.

Step 9: Cut a Cover (optional)

Download the attached vinyl template and cut it out using your vinyl cutter of choice.

This will be used to cover the heads of the 6-32 bolts so that the scanner does not see them, and to prevent them from reflecting light.

Step 10: Cover the Bracket

Cover the side of the bracket where the bolt heads are showing using the black adhesive vinyl from the previous step.

If you don't have a vinyl cut adhesive cover, then you can use some black electrical tape or just draw over the heads of the bolt with a black marker.

Step 11: Place the Fresnel Lens

Place the fresnel lens centered atop the scanner bed with the smooth side of the lens facing upward.

Step 12: Double Sided Tape

Place high strength double-sided tape all along the edges of the scan bed atop the fresnel lens.

The idea is to make sure that you have taped down the lens during this process.

Step 13: Stick on the Bracket

Center the bracket's opening atop the scanner bed and stick it down.

Step 14: Clean It Up

Cut away the excess tape, or cover the tape with more black acrylic.

To be honest, the first time I did this I cut the tape away, and it lost some structural integrity.

I later redid it by cover the exposed tape with leftover black vinyl and this worked very well.

Step 15: Attach the Scan Back to Your Camera

Attach the scan back to your camera as you would any other camera back.

You are now ready to begin shooting!

Step 16: Shoot Some Photos

One thing to keep in mind when shooting photos is that your subject needs to be very brightly lit.

Also, on account of the depth of the acrylic bracket, the scanner bed is spaced back about 1/2" from the normal focal plane. To account for this, get your subject in focus and then manually move the bellows in about 1/2".

Another helpful thing I learned is that it makes no difference whether or not the back of the scanner's see-through window is covered. Don't worry about this letting light in.

Lastly, if your subject moves while scanning it, you can get some fun and interesting results.

PLEASE NOTE!
If anyone can figure out a way to make the scanner work without the scanner's light turning on (the light is required for calibration before every print), I will be your friend forever!

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    22 Discussions

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    peterbryenton

    5 hours ago on Step 16

    Really good to see your family heirloom still in active service, thanks.

    You clearly have all the skills and more to try some Fuji Instax instant print film in your fine old camera if you'd like to. I have just published an 'Ible showing some of the results from my recent tests.

    Regards

    Peter

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    randofopeterbryenton

    Reply 3 hours ago

    That's a cool film mod!

    I considered trying some sort of Polaroid pack film back, but was reluctant to put in a bunch of effort there since Fuji discontinued pack film.

    Making an Instax wide adapter is a great idea. Definitely cheaper and better quality than the Impossible 600 film.

    This definitely gives me something to think about. I wonder if I could possibly preserve a lot of the instant camera and use a microcontroller with a light sensor to automatically time and eject the exposure.

    I would guess the big issue is that even if I eject the film in a timely fashion, there is nothing to rapidly close the shutter. That would probably take some figuring out :)

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    dancortazio

    3 days ago

    Very detailed instructable. Thanks for sharing.

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    gravityisweak

    4 days ago

    To make the scanner not light up, you could try making your own tiny wire harness for that ribbon cable, that keeps all the connections except the one that powers the white light. If you take a 9v battery and play with a few of the connections on that ribbon cable you should be able to get the lights to light up different colors and thereby figure out which one, or combinations lead to white, then just not create connections for them in your harness. Not sure how well I explained that but TLDR: Unplug that ribbon cable and figure out which pin powers the light, then take power away from that pin.

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    randofogravityisweak

    Reply 3 days ago

    It needs the light for calibration before every scan. So I can't simply permanently disconnect the light or it won't start the scan.

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    FookI

    8 days ago

    The *PROBLEM* you have with this scanner back is that it is a scanner that was natively designed for reflective scanning i.e. prints, which is why it has a light source and self-calibrates with a white strip under the glass. You should really be using a scanner that has a transparency mode (no light on the scanner head) and a frosted glass which can be scanned that you are using to focus the image on and then you'll get a proper image.

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    kk6vxx

    16 days ago

    awesome stuff! I didn't know they made scanners in that form factor.

    I'd like to recommend a couple things, firstly that you use a focusing screen instead of a fresnel. technically if a frenel is used it's usually somewhere else in the optics because it's not just a surface to project on, it's a focusing lens. I recommend you get some clear acrylic lasered to size, and then frost one side with sandpaper or a scotch-bright pad or similar. then put that surface down on the scanner and try to focus the image onto it. I'd also reccomend and IR cut filter to get more natural looking portraits etc.

    Others have built large scanner cameras and solved the bulb issue in different ways, I think basically they put the light on a switch so it can calibrate and then be switched off. this is pretty critical, unless your camera is made of vantablack, the light will cause visible clouding and inconsistencies.

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    ak08820

    19 days ago

    All you need to do is cover it in matching leatherette material. I wish someone would make a digital back available for 6x6cm or even 35mm cameras to put TLR cameras like Rolleiflex and Yashica back in service.

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    Technicsauak08820

    Reply 16 days ago

    Nikon has a patent for digital back,but doesn't make one. Just to prevent any other person or manufacturer doing so! I know the person that was involved in writing that patent. Sad but it shows the calibre of the brand, comercial only.not for its long time supporters that are stuck with film camera's . good question and I hope someone finds a way around,for hobbyists .

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    JeromeS29

    16 days ago

    that is really cool... i thought the film was responsible for color and whatnot...

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    Lindie

    17 days ago

    So glad my Great Uncle Nat's camera was given some life back! I used to visit him, in NYC, when he was working, and walk out with lots of goodies, white pencils and black paper being my favorite. Very cool, giving some form of life to his camera. :-)

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    hugheswho

    17 days ago

    Great project. I am going to keep my eye out for a suitable camera to try this. Thanks for posting.

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    eddie6630

    18 days ago

    Hi randofo, i recently tinkered with an epson photo scanner to convert it in a (circa) medium format camera. To override the lamp (but to keep it working in calibration phase) i located the power cable of the lamp and put a momentary switch in a position to keep it close in the cal phase (i don't know about the scanner you used, but epsons make the scan head move slightly during that phase), open during the scanning and make it close again when the scan head returns in resting position. Complicate but it works :)

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    randofoeddie6630

    Reply 18 days ago

    Ohhhh.... That's an interesting idea. I will investigate if that might work with this one. Thanks!

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    waynoedm

    20 days ago on Step 16

    My thoughts are it is judging exposure with the light. So if you disable the light the light sensor will still be expecting something of a value so it may be just a matter of providing whatever voltage from the sensor the computer inside is hoping for (could be as simple as a photoresistor). By providing variable voltages you could very well have control over exposure at that point, as opposed to automatic exposure that the scanner is designed for.

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    randofowaynoedm

    Reply 20 days ago

    It does a fancy light calibration sequence before it starts a scan. It flashes a couple rapid pulses of different color lights and reflects it off a white bar on the inside of the scanner. If it doesn't get the right light readings back at the sensor it won't start. Not sure how to override this.

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    jellmeisterrandofo

    Reply 18 days ago

    Could you move the light bar to where the white strip is? Or add an Arduino and FET that turns the light off once it finishes calibration?

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    MichaelB1280

    19 days ago

    If you can find either the back assembly from a Graphic 4x5 camera, or from some models of 4x5 View Cameras, there is a special Fresnel lens before the ground glass focusing screen. It is a harder material and cut for photographing. It was needed to insure enough light fell on the film and focusing glass. Since your shutter is gone, with some reworking you could remove the back of the camera (I'm not sure if this works both directions - portrait and landscape like a Graphic) and rebuild your mounting plates to move the scanner glass into the film plane - just allow for the Fresnel. Some camera stores that specialize in used & classic cameras have all sorts of accessories for Graflex cameras - which, unfortunately, are entirely different than the more common Graphic. But I seem to recall there were different typed of film backs including one that took the "Film Pack" which was a block back that had several sheets pre-loaded. It might be easier to create a mount on one of the different types of backs.
    Enjoy the largest SLR camera that was in regular production.

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    Salvagione

    19 days ago

    I'm wondering if using a piece of focusing glass would produce a better image then the Fresnel. Perhaps some frosted privacy film could be cut and applied to the scanner bed.

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    randofoSalvagione

    Reply 19 days ago

    That was my initial plan, but on testing it, the light from the scanner really took the saturation out of the image. However, the plastic I was using maybe wasn't the best. I might try it again with proper ground glass, but I have not gotten to it yet since I couldn't find any pre-made at that size and it seemed like a bit of work. Instead I got sucked into a vortex of planning an 8x10 large format scanner camera using a scanner in which I could turn the darned light off. I did a bunch of testing, bought half the parts, and now it is sitting on a shelf waiting for me to finish. :)