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The Inventor of the Big Shot

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Cheyenne Morrison says:

Hello all, I tracked down the inventor of the Polaroid Big Shot Camera, and thought you would all be fascinated to read what he told me about the camera's creation. This is put together from several phone calls and emails.

Invention of the Big Shot camera by Bruce Johnson ...

One note off the top of my head was that this camera, The Big Shot, was not invented by Edwin Land. It was designed by me with the help of my staff.

Stanford Calderwood was our Marketing/Advertising VP at the time, and he approached me to develop a camera specifically for portraits. I was frustrated that he didn’t allow us to pursue a more compact camera. It could have been a third of the size, with the use of internal mirrors; but the sales people wanted it to be large to “make a statement”.

One advantage, however, of the additional length was that it could be held steadier than a short camera, and a flash, as opposed to a strobe, burned for a substantial length of time, 20 to 30 milliseconds, as opposed to less than 1 millisecond for a strobe. Camera motion is of course exaggerated by using a long focal length lens, but a long camera is easier to hold steady. I hate to admit it but perhaps Stan was right after all, but I’ll never know.

Bill Shelton was bugging everyone with some pictures he had taken with a long focal length lens, head shots of people. He rigged one of our industrial camera bodies with another in series to get the spacing between the lens and the film. I don’t remember what he used for flash, but it was an ungainly setup, and with it he proved his point. He made the point with his pictures that if you stand away from a person rather than close in, you get a more flattering portrait, and in this he was correct. He also insisted, however, that you had to be exactly 42 inches from the subject.

The main advantages of the long focal length and the flash arrangement in the Big Shot are:

1. Standing back produces less “distortion” of facial features than occurs when getting close. If you get too close to a subject, the nose looks too big compared to the ears. This is a simple matter of perspective or geometry. The Big Shot forces the camera to be at a substantial distance when compared to other Polaroid cameras for the same sized head image.
2. Standing close to a person to take a picture makes them uncomfortable. You are invading their space. The Big Shot was less intrusive than our other cameras.
3. The brightness/darkness ration of a picture due to flash is minimized when taking a picture from a distance rather than up close. This is known as the inverse square law of flash illumination. There is less brightness difference between the ears (further from the camera) and the nose (closer to the camera) or the background (even further from the camera.) when using a long focal length lens which allows the subject to be further away for the same head size.
4. The flash used in conjunction with the Fresnel lens allowed a small aperture, which gives good depth of field, because it concentrated the light onto the subject.
5. The flash is far enough away from the optical axis such that “Red Eye” was not commonly observed in the pictures.
6. The flash is vertically mounted over the lens, minimizing any visible shadows on the background.
7. The combination of very bright flash , small aperture, and relative short exposure time minimizes the effect of ambient light, which helps to get consistent exposure results. Using the Big Shot outdoors in bright sunlight would produce some overexposure, and is not recommended for optimum results. Normal indoor lighting has little effect on the exposure.

Henry Dreyfuss was the company that did our industrial design for many years. I worked with a wonderful gentleman named Jim Connors (deceased) in their New York office. (Jim also managed the John Deere tractor account.)

One of the more vexing manufacturing problems was the use of screws to hold the shutter housing onto the camera. Self-tapping screws into plastic are a pain in the butt. They often strip when tightened too much, or split the hole in the plastic into which they go. My lesson from this was to try to eliminate screws from camera designs.

I worked later on the “Pronto” camera, the “One Step” and then the “Sun Cameras”. Later I worked on the “Spectra Camera” which took a rectangular format film. As the design leader I eliminated all screws from these cameras, with the exception of a solenoid adjustment screw, which went into a pre-tapped metal part. For this I earned the nickname “One Screw Johnson”, and also pioneered the use of loose fitting moving parts that didn’t have to be precision manufactured. This was nicknamed “The Johnson Slop” and was a hard sell among the design group.

Our manufacturing team was very happy not to need screws, as everything in the following consumer cameras were designed to snap together. This resulted in much faster production, less fall off on the assembly line, and easier repair. I could disassemble an entire camera with a small metal scale. The Big Shot was a great learning experience for me in many ways.

I had a great 39+ years at Polaroid. There were frustrations at times, but a “can do” attitude prevailed. I worked on many projects, including the SX70, digital printing, accessories, industrial cameras etc. As a young engineer, Polaroid was an exciting place to work, and a founder Edwin Land, who was considered by many to be a genius. Even Steve Jobs considered Land to be a guiding light, and would have lunch with Land when he came to the Boston area.

On the patent Bill Shelton and myself share the honors. We each received a whole dollar for our efforts, and a few “attaboys”.

7:31AM, 23 July 2014 PST (permalink)

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obxsk8 says:

This is great to read thanks.
66 months ago (permalink)

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LovePola says:

Thanks for telling the history of Polaroid Big Shot!
66 months ago (permalink)

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RG Burke says:

Thanks for sharing.... Very interesting read
65 months ago (permalink)

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krissikes says:

great read
62 months ago (permalink)

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rise3high says:

fascinating !!
58 months ago (permalink)

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Mick Ekers says:

Great post, love to read about the engineering behind this camera
47 months ago (permalink)

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