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|| News Item: Posted 2012-01-01

The Hulcher 35 and the Hulcher Camera Company
Possibly the Last American Camera Manufacturer in Operation

By Tom Dahlin

Photo by

Charles A Hulcher, inventor, walks through his machine shop in the company building located in Hampton, Virginia.
As part of my tinkering with slit cameras, I purchased a used Hulcher panoramic camera on EBay. The unit was advertised as an early version in need of repair. Because my intention was to modify the camera anyway, I was not too concerned about the condition.

As it turned out, I got quite a bargain. The camera was serial number 1 of the company's model TD70 rotating type panoramic camera. I quickly opened up the unit and discovered that the repairs needed were minor. However, I just could not bring myself to hack up a potentially valuable collectors item. I contacted the company, still operating in Hampton, VA, and inquired if they were interested in getting the camera back for historical use. They replied in the affirmative and we arranged a trade - I received a used 35mm Hulcher high-speed camera, perfect for the application I had in mind. They even took the time to repaint it and update it to the current hardware revisions.

Thus began a technology detour for me that has consumed far too much time over the past couple of years. In the course of this detour, I learned quite a bit about the company and the founder/inventor, Mr. Charles Hulcher. As an engineer myself, and a child of the 60's it was a pleasant walk down memory lane.

"What's this have to do with sports photography?", you ask. Well, read on. There was a time when the Hulcher camera was a mainstay with photographers working for Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest, and other publications that had a big budget and need for unique photos. But first let me set the stage.

Hulcher designed a 70mm version of the camera while an employee of the National Advisory Committee for Aerospace (NACA - of the forerunner of NASA), where he started as a model maker. Hulcher formed his company in the early 1950's to manufacture the cameras after retiring with the blessings of his employer.

The Charles A. Hulcher Camera Company was born in 1954 when Charles Hulcher left NASA to manufacture a camera he had designed as an employee. As the story goes, NASA had a need for a high speed, high-resolution camera to photograph missile launches.

Because many of the launches ended up with the missile exploding or veering off course, it was critical that the event was recorded in as much detail as possible to facilitate postmortem analysis. Movie cameras of that era (e.g. the Mitchell 35) were not of sufficient frame rate or film size to produce the detail required.

As a technician, Hulcher came up with an idea of a mechanism that would allow the film to be moved through the camera without the use of reciprocating pieces. At first it was rejected as impossible by the higher-ups in engineering management. But Hulcher prevailed and was ultimately given permission to build a prototype. The camera was a success, and his employer suddenly had a need for many more units. Hulcher, with the blessing of NASA, retired from the organization and started his own company to do the manufacturing.

Photo by

Betty Giles started working for the company when she was 18 and is now its president.
The first prototype used 70mm perforated roll film and was capable of taking either 5 x 2 _ inch or 2 _ x 2 _ inch images at 25 or 50 fps, respectively. It held 100 feet of film, was powered by a 24 VDC, and weighed 30 pounds. The lens mount was a simple flat plate that slid into a grooved receptor machined into the cast aluminum camera body.

Various lenses designed for the military K24 aero camera and/or 2-_ inch format could easily be adapted to the plate. Focusing was accomplished by swinging a front surface mirror into the optical path, which redirected the image to a ground glass. This prototype became the company's first "production" model, the Hulcher 70, model 100. "Production" is used loosely, as all cameras were essentially made to order due to several option variables such as lens mount, color, and power supply.

The mid 1960's and early 1970's were the glory days of the company. The military and space industry had an insatiable appetite for the cameras and the company grew steadily. By 1968, it had moved from its original building into a new one built by Hulcher next door.

According to present floor manager Gary Beasley, "We had about 25 to 30 employees at that time. I started working there in 1969. We ran 2 shifts .. a daytime shift and another shift from 5 to 10pm. We produced several thousand cameras of various models, all hand made and machined to order."

Betty Giles joined the company right out of high school at the age of 18 and became an important part of the business, serving as secretary, running the studio, processing film, and testing the cameras. She also was featured in several product photos. Charles Hulcher and his wife, Lenore, never had any children. Betty lived with them, taking care of them in their later years. Charles appointed Betty president of the company shortly before he passed away in 1994. She now runs the office, does testing, and pays the bills.

By this time the company was manufacturing a 35mm version of the camera that accepted Nikon lenses and could fire up to 60 frames per second. By comparison, the Nikon F at that time had a frame rate of 3.5 fps with viewfinder operating and 5 fps with the mirror locked up. (Nikon later made a version for the 1972 Olympics that could do 7 fps, and by then Canon had an F-1 HS that could do 9 fps).

SI photographer John Zimmerman was one of the first to recognize and use the Hulcher cameras. The book Zimmerman and Kaufman - Photographing Sports, reports that among his applications was the use of the camera at the start of a horse race at the Belmont racetrack, the use of a modified version to record 320 exposures of a golf swing on a single frame, and another modified version to record three exposures of Vida Blues pitching motion on a single frame. In the case of the later, the first exposure was a slow shutter speed and the second a higher.

One of Zimmerman's most famous shots made with the Hulcher is that of Detroit Tiger Pitcher Denny McLain taken in a location chosen for it's dark background shadows. In this shot, Zimmerman modified the camera to inhibit the film advance allowing it to record multiple exposures, 50 times per second, on a single frame.

Zimmerman was an early SI staff photographer and is known for his innovative use of specialized cameras. His work influenced a generation of successors including Leifer, Iooss and many others. Sadly, he passed away in 2002. See reference section for a link to a Sports Shooter article containing interviews with many who knew the great man.

Photo by

SI photographer John Zimmerman was one of the first to recognize and use the Hulcher cameras.
An example of one of Zimmerman's photos, excerpted from the Alskog book Masters of Contemporary Photography, Zimmerman, Kaufman and Leifer: Photographing Sports. To create this image, Zimmerman modified a Hulcher 35 to inhibit the film advance, thus making multiple exposures on a single frame at the cameras firing rate of 50 fps. This photo of Detroit hurler Denny McLain was made at a live game chosen such that the pitcher was lit by sunlight and a shadow from the grandstand blacked out the background.

Golf Digest's staff photographers Dom Furore and Stephen Szurlej frequently used the magazines Hulcher 35's to record golf swings of several pros. In a 1996 special edition entitled, "Golf's Greatest Swings," the magazine devotes an entire page to honor Hulcher and his camera.

In 1998, David Klutho of Sports Illustrated followed baseball player Mark McGwire around the country as the slugger approached a record 62 home runs. The magazine wanted a sequence of what was to be the most talked about swing of the year. Klutho told me, "We used two Hulchers Š one in centerfield, one in left field, each with a 600mm lens and converter. One ran at 50 fps, the other at 80. We started following him at home run number 59 and were on him for every 'at bat' until he hit the record breaker. We ran 100-foot rolls of HS Ektachrome during the day and Ektapress 800 for evenings. We'd sometimes use up an entire 100 foot roll in a single at bat until we learned how to back off on obvious fouls and strikes." Klutho went on to note that, "The 80 fps unit had a catastrophic failure involving smoke." He thought maybe the film got hot and caught fire.

The model 35 is still in production and they cost about $7,000. The camera takes 100-foot rolls of 35mm film and can fire at rates up to 60 fps. It accepts Nikon lenses and is powered by an external 12V battery pack.

Branching Out
Always the innovator, Hulcher accepted a challenge from Popular Photography's Simon Nathan to design a panoramic camera. With Nathan's encouragement, the "Hulcherama" was born in the early 1970's. This camera used standard medium format 120 and 220 film to produce a 360-degree image by rotating in a circle through the exposure. Essentially a rotating slit camera, it does not have a shutter per se, instead exposure time is controlled by the speed of the rotation (1-144 seconds) and the width of the slit. The resulting negative for a 360-degree photo is approximately 2.25" wide by 9" long.

Charles Hulcher passed away on Thursday August 4, 1994 at the age of 83. The company remains open in the building Hulcher built in 1968 and according to Gary Beasley "may be the last remaining American camera manufacturer." At least of the film variety. Four employees remain. Betty Giles is the president of the company. Her husband Roy Giles, along with Richard Hill and Gary Beasley round out the roster. They still sell and maintain the Hulcher 35 and Hulcherama cameras as well as performing contract machine work for other local companies.

The Name Lives On - Modern Day Hulchers
To many photographers of a certain age, the name Hulcher is synonymous with a high-speed camera. Thus when Robert Hanashiro of USA TODAY was following Barry Bonds in 2007, he referred to his 30 fps rig of three Canon Mark III cameras as "a sort of digital Hulcher". Hanashiro nailed the historic swing as Bonds broke Henry Aaron's all-time career home run record of 756 using three separate and synchronized cameras, each running at 10 fps and sequenced with a PocketWizards This enabled him to simulate a high-speed, 30 fps Hulcher-like sequence --- albeit combining images from three separate digital cameras.

Today it is commonplace for electronic imagers to achieve frame rates well over 100 frames per second. The $999 Casio Exilim F1 can achieve 60 fps at a 6-megapixel resolution. Most modern Slurs with video recording option can do 30 fps with limited resolution. The Red Epic M and X models were introduced in 2011, and contain a 35mm equivalent full frame CMOS sensor. They can run at up to 100 fps with exceedingly low noise and high dynamic range. Many machine vision cameras for the scientific industry are capable of over 1000 fps, albeit with relatively poor image quality and resolution by photographic standards.

Photo by John Zimmerman

Photo by John Zimmerman

One of Zimmerman's most famous shots made with the Hulcher is that of Detroit Tiger Pitcher Denny McLain
References and Notes
Masters of Contemporary Photography Series. Photographing Sports: John Zimmerman, Mark Kaufman, Neil Leifer; Authors are Sean Callahan and Gerald Astor, Alskog Book published by Morgan and Morgan, Inc. Dobbs Ferry, NY, 10522. 1975. ISBN 0-87100-094-6.

Technical Photography Magazine, W.G. Williams, Date unknown, Hulcher: The Man and the Camera.

Simon Says, Popular Photography, February 1974, Tongue in Cheek interview with Charles Hulcher by columnist Simon Nathan, a good friend of Charles and who encouraged the design and development of the Hulcherama panoramic camera.

United States Patent 2772941, granted December 4, 1956. High Speed Sequence Camera. Filed in 1952.

United States Patent 3241469, granted March 22, 1966. Camera Construction Improvements. Filed in 1964.

An Overview of High Speed Photographic Imaging. Andrew Davidhazy, Rochester Institute of Technology

Obituary by Nelda Knemeyer. Daily Press, Saturday August 6th, 1994.

Pendley, Gil (July 2003). "High Speed Imaging Technology; Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow". Proceedings of SPIE; 25th International Congress on High-Speed Photography and Photonics 4948: 110-113.

The Opening Frame: People Behind the Camera by Roger Shiffman. Golf Digest Special Edition, "Golf's Greatest Swings", 1996. One page article honoring Hulcher and his cameras. Staff photographers Dom Furore and Stephen Szurlej are quoted.

Rapid Sequence Camera Using 70mm Film. Charles A. Hulcher, JOURNAL OF THE SMPTE, VOL 60, March 1953. In this paper, Hulcher describes the design and development of the Hulcher 70. The photograph used in the paper appears to be a 70mm model 100. Note that he filed for the patent just months ahead of this disclosure. Stephen Gandy's Camera Quest website has several articles describing both Canon and Nikon high-speed cameras of the 60's and 70's. Among these are the Canon F-1 HS, EOS 1n RS HS, Nikon F HS and Nikon F3 HS. Most were made as special editions for the Olympics from 1972-1996. A video documenting Robert Hanashiro's 30 fps 'Hulcher' made from 3 Canon Mark III cameras running at 10 fps each. Sports Shooter feature "A Tribute to John Zimmerman" containing interviews of many photographers who knew the great man.

(Tom Dahlin is a freelance photographer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He covers everything from preps to the pros. His work regularly appears in Sports Illustrated, ESPN, SI-Kids and other major market sports publications. With over 25+ years of experience working as an electrical engineer in the R&D labs at 3M and Honeywell, Tom is a well-qualified technology expert and enjoys using his technical skills to solve difficult imaging problems.)

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