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|| News Item: Posted 2012-04-19

60 FPS with the Nikon D3
Recreating a Classic Sports Photo

By Tom Dahlin

Photo by Tom Dahlin

Photo by Tom Dahlin

Tom Dahlin decided to try and mimic the effect of a photo shot by John Zimmerman by using a Hulcher 70 as a high-speed shutter and a Nikon D3 as a digital back.
As a young sports photographer in the 70’s, I read and re-read a book from Alskog press entitled ‘Photographing Sports: Capturing the Excitement of People in Action’ featuring the work of legendary photographers John Zimmerman, Mark Kaufman and Neil Leifer. It was one of the few books on sports photography at the time. One section that particularly interested me described Zimmerman’s use of a modified Hulcher 35 camera to record multiple exposures on a single frame of film achieving a stroboscopic effect without the use of strobes.

The Hulcher was a specialized camera that could run at up to 60 frames per second and used 100 foot rolls of bulk 35mm film. Few photographers could afford to own one, let alone pay for the vast quantities of film it gobbled up. As such, its use was limited and only large organizations or news groups owned one. For more information on the camera and company history, see my previous Sports Shooter article.

According to Alskog book, Zimmerman modified a Hulcher 35, inhibiting the film advance, but allowing the rotating shutter to function. Thus he was able to record multiple exposures of up to 60 fps on a single frame of film. One important image resulting from this experiment captured Detroit Tiger hurler Denny McLain during a live game. The location was chosen such that the pitcher was lit by sunlight and a shadow from the grandstand blacked out the background. The image was made as part of photo essay for SI, but never run. It remained in Zimmerman’s portfolio and was eventually discovered by an ad agency that used it in an ad campaign.

Fast-forwarding 40 years to the present, I purchased a trio of Hulcher 70mm film cameras at a good price on E-bay. The Hulcher 70 series predates the 35mm models and is essentially a larger version used mainly by NASA in the 1960’s. I was primarily interested in modifying them for use as slit cameras, but found that perforated 70mm film was almost impossible to procure. Thus I ended up with three really cool doorstops.

In the process of researching another project, I came across the Zimmerman photo described above and decided to try and mimic the effect using a digital camera. I did this by using a Hulcher 70 as a high-speed shutter and a Nikon D3 as a digital back.

The Hulcher uses a rotating shutter that consists of a black disk that has an adjustable width slot in it. The disk spins like a fan in between the lens and the film plane. In an unmodified Hulcher, the film advance and shutter rotation are mechanically linked so that the shutter slot makes one pass across the film plane per film frame. Zimmerman disconnected this link, inhibiting film advance, but allowed the shutter to spin. Thus he was able to make multiple exposures on a single frame of film.

I used a Nikon D3 and 180mm f/2.8 manual focus lens for the optics and ‘digital back’. I milled a hole in the back of the Hulcher to allow me to poke the lens into the body just behind the rotating shutter. With the camera’s top door closed and a little black tape, the only light that could reach the camera/lens was through the shutter.

To control the speed of the shutter (i.e. rotation speed), I ginned up a simple DC motor speed controller using a microprocessor control board I had left over from a previous project. This allowed me to adjust the speed from 0 to 120 rotations per second.

To record a multiple exposure, all I needed to do was to set the D3 to bulb and open it’s shutter while the Hulcher’s shutter was spinning. Exposure times depended on how long my subject took to complete the range of motion. Typically this was about 1 second. I had the Hulcher’s shutter set at about 60 rotations per second.

All I needed now was a subject, a dark background and bright light. Not wanting to wait for an actual athletic event, I asked some athletes from Carleton College to serve as models in a makeshift studio set up in their basketball gym. The black background was provided with a black backdrop cloth and the bright lights by 4000 watts of tungsten. The lights were set up to only light the subject by using scrims used to shield the background. I enlisted several athletes for the shoot including a baseball pitcher, tennis player and basketball player. I asked them go through their motions in front of the backdrop while I took the shots.

Two of the better results were of the baseball pitcher and tennis player. They work because the ball and subject move across the image. This is important because over exposure would result from white uniforms in a static position.

All in all it was a fun exercise. I got to play with my power tools and electronic toys and produced some unusual images. I enjoyed researching the history of both the Hulcher Company and it’s founder Charles Hulcher. I particularly enjoyed researching Zimmerman’s work and only wish I could have met the great man.

References and Resources
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. News Item: Hulcher 35 and the Hulcher Camera Company by Tom Dahlin. Posted 2012-01-01 (Background on the Hulcher camera)
Engineering and Scientific High Speed Photography, William G. Hyzer, Macmillan Company, New York, 1962. (Pages 69-70 cover the Hulcher 70 and it’s internals. Probably the best description of the camera’s operation available.)

Life Library of Photography – Photojournalism, Time-Life Books, New York, 1971. (Pages 220-221 feature the Hulcher model 108 as a ‘Specialized Tool for Fast Action’. Contains a nice simplified drawing of the camera’s internals.)

Tom Dahlin is a freelance sports 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 30+ 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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