History of the Invention of Rollout Photography and the Evolution of Improved Technology


The first rollout camera was made over a century ago, in England. Rollout cameras have been manufactured by at least three different companies at different times in the last half century. Ironically, in an era when everyone wants a rollout camera, the last production model ceased about three years ago. F.L.A.A.R. happened to buy what turned out to be the last of over 20 years production of rollout cameras in Switzerland.

Photographing rollouts at La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation.

Today the F.L.A.A.R. Photo Archive has three rollout cameras, the last Swiss model, the first Belgian model (made circa 1980's) and the first (and last) digital large format rollout camera. All three of these cameras are among the first of their kind to utilize mathematically correct formulae to work out the precise rotational speed, a significant technological advancement over earlier cameras which utilized what might most politely be described as the trial and error method of rollout photography. The rollout below, of a row of birds on a Late Classic vase, is from the Belgian camera. This happens to be the same camera initially used by Lin Crocker Deletaille for the beautiful book, "Rediscovered Masterpieces." Lin Crocker has been doing rollout photographs in Europe for almost two decades now. F.L.A.A.R. acquired her original model as a present from a friend after Crocker had a second system constructed for herself in Belgium (the same person who made the one now used by F.L.A.A.R.). The Belgian rollout camera system was able to achieve rollouts which better because the rotational speed is more precisely coordinated to the size and shape of the Maya vase. Since every vase is a different height and circumference, each vase requires a different rotational factor. This factor (actually several factors working together) are what regulate the speed of the turntable relative to the speed of the film in the camera. The more accurate the speed, the more accurate the resulting rollout. Accuracy is defined in whether the dimensions are correct, too long (stretched, speed was a bit too fast), too short (compressed by improper speed), and fuzzy, a condition similar to poor focus but resulting from additional factors over and above optical focusing.


Although the name "rollout" camera is the term used by Mayanists, the term "peripheral photography" is used elsewhere (as in the professional magazine Industrial Photography, Jan. 1987, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 28-31, in an informative article by Andrew Davidhazy, RIT). In Europe the word "roundshot" is used, among other terms in the various European languages. In Europe this type of process is also sometimes called turntable photography (or turntable mode for cameras that can also do panorama mode). I have suggested "circumferential photography" as another designation, since it is the circumference which is the goal of this technique.


70 mm Maya vase rollout by Nicholas Hellmuth, copyright 1996 F.L.A.A.R.


All of us who work in the field of Maya art consider that the rollout camera was virtually invented to do rollouts of Maya vases, but there were already technical articles describing the process of rollout photography almost half a century ago. Actually in the 1960's through 1980's there was a spate of articles describing the process. The 1987 article cited above (and others by Davidhazy) also describes the complete technical specifications of how to make a rollout camera. Because so many rollout cameras are in use worldwide, the development of rollout cameras by other institutes and individuals was generally unaware of the use of comparable cameras to record Maya vases. Until recently, few of the descriptions of rollout cameras in the Maya field have really discussed the fascinating technology elsewhere, so I thought it might be worthwhile to introduce some of the facts of the history of rollout cameras outside the Maya world. For Mesoamericanists, about the only information which is readily available is that National Geographic developed an interesting version in the 1970's, using 35mm film. These rollouts were accurate enough to enable enlargements for the end papers of George and Gene Stuart's book, "The Mysterious Maya."

Professor Davidhazy reports that "the Shell Corporation had description of such a process in the mid 1930's and from what I gather the British Museum did such photography in the late 1800's...so the process is not new..." When I first began to be interested in rollout cameras I was surprised to learn that the Charles Hulcher Co. was still manufacturing rollout cameras into the 1980's (he recently passed away). Technical articles on peripheral photograph even listed the several companies, both in the United States and in Europe, that manufactured industrial strength camera systesm for doing the photography of the circumferences of cylindrical objects. I now have two European rollout cameras in addition to the new digital system made in California.


Something else I learned after I got deeper into the subject of rollout photography technology was that whereas it is easy to make a basic rollout camera, such cameras are not generally capable of professional quality results. This is a polite way of saying that most home made rollout cameras produce results which are fuzzy and distorted. Attempts to enlarge such rollouts reveals the distortion and out-of-synch fuzziness rather quickly. Several cameras have been well enough made to avoid these problems (most of the time at least).


What has changed over time are the bits and pieces which are used to construct the system, the format, the accuracy, and most crucially, the repeatability: what percentage of the rollout photographs are precise enough to withstand enlargement to 11x17; what percentage can withstand enlargement to 24 inches wide; and the real precision test, how many rollouts out of a dozen can be enlarged to 36 inches wide?


Why enlarge them to this size? If you want to study individual brush strokes you need a minimum of 1 meter wide. We are currently studying individual tool marks on a carved Maya vase in the Museo Popol Vuh. The enlargement is 1.39 meters long (done in sections 11.6 inches wide by 16.6 inches high, which is about the size of European A3 paper, the standard size a normal B+W laser can print). What printer(s) can enlarge a rollout to 36 inches long? Two classes, wide-format ink-jet color (ENCAD NovaJetPro 36") and, in B+W laser, the Xante.


Justin Kerr is the photographer best known in the Maya area for his professional rollouts. He personally designed and constructed his own camera, a substantial achievement. When his rollouts were first introduced, in the 1978 Michael Coe publication of an exhibit of Maya vases at the Princeton University Art Museum, this technology caused a revolution in the study of the iconography of Maya vases. Before that, all rollouts were hand drawn by artists. While line drawings are especially useful because they can be xeroxed by any student in full quality, many high tech copy machines can now reproduce the continuous tone of a rollout photograph. What has made the Justin Kerr rollouts an even greater hit among Mayanists is that he allows students and scholars to use them free of charge in non-profit publications (which covers almost everything an art historian or archaeologist does). Commercial use understandably requires a traditional publication fee.


Following Kerr's introduction of this technology into the Maya field two decades ago, several more rollout cameras were handmade by others most notably two 70mm models in Belgium. F.L.A.A.R. has the original Belgium model; Lin Crocker-Deletaille has the second model. The quality of the two Belgian rollout cameras is superior in several respects. So quite some progress in the last half-century, or, if you count the British Museum experiments, in the last century! The British Museum system was made originally to photograph the circumference of painted Greek vases and expanded to photograph the famous Nebaj Maya vase in their collection at that time.


Although two companies manufactured cameras which were capable of turntable rollout mode, they were never successful in the marketplace. For understandable reasons the capable people who make these cameras specifically for photographing Maya vases have not mass produced them for others. I was tempted by the Hutchler system but after learning more about the camera mechanism I became dubious of its precision. I got my Belgian rollout camera entirely by good luck, from a benefactor who got it from Crocker when she upgraded to another model. Since then I have myself upgraded to an even more sophisticated Swiss model, though the Belgian system is still impressively accurate. AFGA, Kodak, and Ilford all make 70 mm film. The new Swiss system, however, can also uses 220 rollfilm (or 70 mm film in 5-meter casettes). Since 1998 we have been beta testers for the Dicomed Better Light digital rollout system in large format.


There are even projectors which can project 70mm film rollouts (from Swiss and Belgian systems) or 110/220 roll film rollouts (from other rollout systems). This is the Noblex 4x5 projector. The digital rollouts can also be producted, by any digital projector. Digital projectors, however, have not yet reached the technical ability to project the full color spectrum in a naturalistic manner (digital projectors are primarily made to project pie-charts and bar-charts for business meetings). Besides, digital projectors cost a fortune. In these respects then, rollouts with 70mm film have many advantages (for lectures especially). To digitize the 70mm rollouts, all it takes is any basic flatbed scanner.


F.L.A.A.R. is equipped to do rollout photography, both with 70mm color film and in direct digital color, anywhere in the world. Actually, any object which is round can be photographed with this technology. We have photographed Peruvian vases with the rollout system as well. See our web site on Digital Photography including more rollouts and QuickTime VR Technology. What is most impressive about the digital system is that it can be tilted parallel to any slope or angle. This makes it possible to photograph the decoration on the inside of large-mouthed bowls, or the hieroglyphic inscriptions around the inside circumferential band of Maya plates.


If you happen to live near Bremen, Germany, or St Louis, Missouri, you can attend a live presentation the the leading universities in each of these cities by Dr Nicholas Hellmuth, complete with handouts of actual rollouts of all sizes and shapes of pre-Columbian plates, bowls, and vases. If you wish this informative presentation for your home town, in German, Spanish, or English, all it takes is a plane ticket, room-and-board, and a modest honorarium to bring Professor Hellmuth to your home town anywhere in the world.


New page format posted July 3, 2009
updated April 6, 1999; last updated July 24, 1999