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Monday, June 29, 2009

Large format homemade camera version 1.0

  homemade camera, main body by A.E. Graves
[Image: homemade camera, main body]

If you know me, you know that I am wandering around with huge lists of creative projects I am eager to complete. I try not to carry the actual lists with me, in hopes that I'll forget some of the new project ideas and so can keep the lists closer to realistic (whatever that is), but this strategy generally doesn't work. Right now, my to-do list has additional projects for the Getty Conservation Institute (including a repeat of my first submission on a different paper), THREE photo books to layout, contests to enter, articles to write for, tests to perform on a Polaroid camera I just acquired through eBay, modifications to same involving Fresnel lenses... Until recently, the number one item was building my own large format camera.

But recently, I crossed that one off the list. Because I did it.

I've mentioned in the past that I've got several wet plate collodion projects in the works. I ordinarily rent a specialized package of equipment (including a LF camera), chemistry, and a darkroom to shoot my work. For reasons which I don't completely understand, it hasn't been possible for me to get into the rental studio to get my work done. It hasn't been available; one chemical or another has been lacking; an attendant had a scheduling conflict, and couldn't prepare something for me; the booking went awry.... Obstacle after obstacle. And during this long waiting period, I thought about the ways that the rental program is GREAT... but that it doesn't really give me control over anything, including adjustments to the chemistry I might want to make.

homemade camera with sliding box extension, by A.E. Graves [Image: homemade camera with sliding box extension in use.]

Of course, I would love to have total control. And this led me to think about getting set up to do this sort of work at home. There was one big obstacle, and that is that I am faced with a request for large-format collodion plates, and I did not have a large format camera. The new LF cameras I was looking at looked like they would cost me about $6,000. I searched the couch for change, but didn't come up with enough to spring for one of those.

I have some great books on camera-building, which were quite inspirational. I decided to use my limited understanding of optics to build one by myself.

If you are a gear-head, you may be scoffing right now, laughing at the idea of me building the chunky DSLR that's hanging around your neck right now. Obviously I wouldn't spend my time replicating that. (I don't intend to spend weeks of my life adjusting the white balance of the output. I mean, c'mon.) But semi-permanent photography has been around since the 1840s, and between then and now, there have been many effective, simple cameras.

Cameras are, at their simplest, a box with a lens on one side, and something photosensitive tucked away inside opposite the lens, waiting to be exposed to light focused by the lens. The lens or the box needs to be able to keep light out when not in use, and sometimes the lens needs to squint. For the slow emulsions I use - think ASA 3 - the exposure can be handled by me walking over and removing the lens cap manually for the duration of the exposure, and then putting it back on at the end.

subject and positive print made with homemade camera, by A.E. Graves [Image: sample in-camera positive print beside the subject. The ratio is approximately one to one.]

Without boring you to tears, I'll describe what I did briefly:

-I went onto eBay and bought a "process lens," which is a lens optimized for one-to-one duplication.

-I took the manufacturer's estimated focal length for the lens, and built a box approximately as long as that focal length, and as wide and tall as some 8" x 10" film holders I'd previously bought on eBay, and mounted the lens to one end.

-On the other end, I made a translucent screen using a thick, vellum-like tracing paper. This is a focusing screen, and is also the film plane, where the photo paper or plate will rest. I used this right away to test the design, and immediately got an image on the screen!!!

-I built a long box of slightly smaller diameter that barely fits inside the main box. This box can slide in and out, performing the same functions as bellows on an LF camera. (I got this idea from a clever book called Primitive Photography, which I'll write about elsewhere. I executed it differently from the book.) I can explain what bellows do, but I don't want you to fall asleep.

-I bought some photo paper which (a) makes positive images when developed, and (b) has about the same speed as sensitized collodion, so that I could practice with this paper first, and establish baselines for exposure and focus. (I'll write about this paper at once I've tested it more extensively.)

-I tested the camera, and got great images!!

There are some refinements I need to make to the design to make it operate better, including an improved focusing screen, and better sliding box movement in moist weather. But I think I can manage those improvements, and get this simple camera operable for wet plates. Perhaps even by the holiday weekend!

I'm positively giddy over making this camera. My success is making my project list longer, of course, because now that I know I can build an 8 x 10 camera, I realize I could build all sorts of other special purpose cameras, including panoramic cameras, 4 x 5 cameras, any number of simpler lens cameras, and perhaps some twin lens reflexes...

The next item on my list is getting a collodion studio set up at home, which is something of an ordeal. And after that, plate making at home. I expect to achieve both of these goals in July. I'll report back, and will also post a link here when I write my review of the positive paper.

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