Betty Giles with Model 112 camera.
"Beloved High-Speed Film Camera Faces Extinction"
August 22nd, 2012
For more than five decades, the Charles A. Hulcher Co. filled an important niche in the camera world. Their cameras, which shot up to 100 frames per second, were used to make photos of everything from Space Shuttle launches to Major League Baseball games.
But as digital cameras came to dominate, Hulcher saw business decline steeply, and today the company is down to just four employees.
“Digital has pretty much killed film cameras,” says Richard Hill, 75, who has been at the Hulcher company since the 1950s.
The original model, the Hulcher 70, was built in the early 1950s by Charles Hulcher and could shoot up to 50 frames per second on 70mm film. Higher frame rates threw photography back to the days of the motion picture’s invention, where art revealed scientific truths and scientific investigations were made visually beautiful. Like the Eadweard Muybridge race horse photos in 1887, high-frame-rate cameras laid bare dazzling dissections of human movements and the physics of the material world.
And of those high-frame-rate cameras, Hulcher filled a special role.
Gary Beasley, 67, another one of the remaining employees, says Hulcher originally invented the Hulcher 70 while working as an employee for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor. He says Hulcher developed the prototype because scientists needed a way to study rocket launches in slow motion to find out why some of them exploded.
The camera would go on to be so popular, however, that Hulcher was able to quit his job at NACA and open his own business in 1954. Various models of the camera were built, including one that pushed the speed up to 75 fps. Eventually the company started producing cameras that shot 35mm film, and that’s when they reached the 100 fps mark.
The cameras achieved this high speed by running 100 feet of film between two large spools like a movie camera. Unlike a movie camera, however, Hulcher ran the film horizontally instead of vertically, creating a larger image area and in turn a high-resolution negative.
For his shutter, Hulcher combined two rotary discs and then cut a pie-shaped slice out of them. The discs were adjustable so that the pie slice could be made smaller or bigger, which is how the photographer controlled the shutter speed; the smaller the pie cut, the faster the shutter speed. The discs would then rotate, and when the pie-shaped cut met the light coming in from the lens, the light would travel through and expose the film.
Hill says the military was always one of the company’s biggest clients. Hulcher manufactured a special camera for the American Navy that fit onto submarine periscopes. They also made more than 100 high-speed cameras for the Royal Canadian Air Force, which used them for aerial surveillance.
When the Hulcher company started making cameras, there were already other high-speed cameras on the market. But the drawback to those cameras was that their frame rates were too high and as a result burned too much film.
For sports photographers in particular, the Hulcher was fast enough to capture the action but didn’t cost an arm and a leg to operate. It was also relatively small and Hulcher could build the cameras so that they fit with lenses from other camera companies.
One of the most famous photographers to use the Hulcher was John Zimmerman, who worked for Sports Illustrated, and made several well-known shots with modified Hulcher cameras. Instead of just allowing the camera to fire multiple shots on sequential frames of film, Zimmerman would often disable the film-advance mechanism, creating vivid multiple exposures that captured the graceful movement of various sports figures.
In a shot of Oakland A’s pitcher Vida Blue that Zimmerman shot for LIFE magazine, he modified the shutter on his Hulcher camera by including a second pie slice. The result was a multiple exposure where the normal shutter slice stopped the action at 1/1500th of a second, and the second shutter slice captured the blurred delivery at 1/15th of a second.
“He was a great innovator,” says Greg Zimmerman about his father John, who passed away in 2002. “And the Hulcher was one of his favorite tools that he had in his chest.”
Heinz Kluetmeier, another Sports Illustrated photographer who still shoots for the magazine, says that Hulcher was great at what it did and allowed photographers to capture action like they never had before.
“It was fabulous,” says Kluetmeier, who brought the camera to several important events, including Mark McGwire’s chase of Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
Over at Golf Digest, staff photographer Dom Furore says the Hulcher was particularly useful for breaking down the components of a golf swing.
“Ideally to me you need about 50 frames a second to get the impact frame, anything over that is overkill,” says Furore, who still works at the magazine. “The Hulcher was right at the sweet spot.”
Both Kluetmeier and Furore say that in addition to the advantages there was also the occasional drawback. Furore says his camera worked great, but he knew other people who had a hard time keeping theirs running. Kluetmeier says the Hulcher also had a habit of breaking the film roll when it first spooled up because it need a lot of force to get the film moving at 50-100 fps.
“I often thanked God I had that Hulcher camera but I also damned it at the same time,” Kluetmeier says.
Furore used his Hulcher camera up until four years ago when he switched to a specially modified two-camera system that uses Casio EX-F1s, a digital camera that shoots up to 60 fps. According to Kluetmeier, however, the pictures the Hulcher made are still sharper than any of the modern high-speed digital alternatives. “I wish we had a better digital equivalent,” he says.
Many of the photographers who used the Hulcher say the company was great about customizing cameras for specific needs. Golf photographer Leonard Kamsler, who used a Hulcher many times throughout his over 50-year career, says Charles Hulcher was always willing to help him re-tool his camera and should be remembered as one of the most innovative people of his time.
“I have to credit Mr. Hulcher for much of my success and for helping me to make sure I could make a living in this business,” Kamsler says of Hulcher, who died in 1994.
Today, the Hulcher company can still build you a custom high-speed camera. According to the website, the 123, which is just the most updated version of the Hulcher 70, sells for $12,700. But because digital has taken over, employees mostly just do repairs and occasionally sell one of the panoramic units they manufacture.
“A big part of the problem is that film for the high-speed cameras is hard to come by,” Hill says. “It’s what’s crippled us really.”
Beasley says the company has also been able to stay open by using their machine shop to produce small parts for NASA and other businesses. About 30 years ago the company started anodizing all their camera bodies, a service that NASA still needs.
The business is still open five days a week and for now they say there are no plans to shut it down.
“We just do this because we love it,” Hill says. “We’re always here for our customers.”