Friday, November 6, 2015

Populist precursers - My first homemade 35mm camera.


Although I've been carrying the Populist around and using it almost exclusively for 8 years now, I had been doing pinhole since the 1980's using 4x5 cameras made from cardboard, foamcore and the occasional cylindrical can using black and white photographic paper as a negative.

I was aware of people using 35mm, generally with body caps on SLR's, but that just didn't seem pinholey enough, and like most others, accepted the common wisdom that 35mm wasn't appropriate for pinhole (I still hear this a lot).

In 2005, I helped my father move from Wisconsin to Florida.  At the time on f295, the possibly erstwhile internet forum, there was a participant (Hi, Darrell!) who assumed the persona of a drill sergeant and constantly exhorted everyone to shoot more film wherever they found themselves. Traveling with my single shot foamcore cameras, and hauling along paper and a changing bag seemed impractical, on top of the exposures of at least a minute in sunshine, and struck me like more than I could deal with on the road in the cab of a 27 foot U-Haul truck. Film is a lot faster and would get exposures down to seconds. As kind of a joke for Darrell, I decided to build a 35mm camera for the trip.


I was familiar with the Dirkon and I think I even downloaded the plans, but it's got a lot of parts and is pretty fussy to build and everything I read from people using it said it was really tough to prevent light leaks. It's big advantage is that it has the appearance of an SLR and I didn't really care about that. Sounded like a hassle and not a particularly good road camera.

A 35mm camera is basically a box with a chamber for the supply cassette, a chamber where the film is exposed, and a chamber for the take-up reel.

I built this first camera out of foam core held together with glue and good old 3M #235 opaque photographic tape.  I don't quite remember why I chose the 50mm focal length. When I was using lenses, I almost never used a normal lens, but the 6 inch 4x5 camera which I primarily used is pretty close to normal.  I thought the conventional 24x36mm format of 35mm film was a little too common and boring, so I made it a little wider -  24x50mm. That prevents getting prints made by the standard photo processors, but I had my own scanner which accommodated wider formats and never really intended to print them anyway.

I didn't bother with a shutter, just covering the pinhole with tape like I had with my photo paper cameras.  I did put a piece of tape on the front to keep from ripping off the surface of the foamcore each time I made an exposure.  3M #235 is some pretty sticky stuff.

I didn't include a tripod mount either. For my 4x5 cameras I had made a little wooden platform for the tripod and attached the camera to that with rubber bands, so I just continued that way.


I drilled the pinhole by hand, and I don't remember much about that either.
I put a label on the top identifying it as f278, so that makes the pinhole .18mm (which I just confirmed with my scanner) - rather small for the 50mm distance to the film.  Mr. Pinhole says .298mm is the optimum for that distance. I had been using a too small .5mm pinhole on a 250mm 4x5 inch camera and getting good results so I probably thought I would get the same in this case.

Pinholes that small are pretty tricky to drill, but it looks very circular. It's in some very thin brass just barely thicker than foil that came in a package of assorted thicknesses I had laying around and I think I just pricked the smallest hole I could with the tip of a #10 needle.

The back is just a piece of foamcore with a smaller piece on top which fits snuggly into the opening. It has to be held on by rubber bands. A lot of people build cameras with backs like this with clever mechanisms to lock the back on, but rubber bands are equally effective, and I never really cared about my cameras looking professional and finished.  I'm kind of an oafish craftsman anyway.

To protect the film from scratches, I glued felt to the back and the internal dividers that the film would ride over.  I now think that's a little overkill, which I discovered when I was working on the minimalist Populist design.

The winder is a piece of 3/8" dowel with a slot in the end.  I put the collar on it to provide a little extra protection from light leaks.

I created the take-up chamber to hold an empty film cassette, as in the Dirkon, out of an abundance of caution to protect against light leaks, and because I didn't create a way to rewind the film into the original cassette and I would have to take the film for processing in the take-up cassette. The disadvantage of this is that you don't know you're at the end of the film until it stops winding, and then to get the film out of the camera you have to sacrifice the last frame.  That kind of bothered me and I ended up going into the darkroom to unload the film and rewind it into the original cassette.

Also as in the Dirkon, I set up spacers so the portion of the reel that sticks out of the cassette faced up on the take-up side and as normal with it facing down on the supply side.

There's no way to determine how far the film is advanced, but led by the Dirkon instructions, I determined that rotating it a revolution and a half would sufficiently advance to the next frame.  As the film wraps around the supply side the diameter of that revolution and a half increases the farther into the roll you get so the gaps between frames get wider,  but, it's a compromise you have to make.

In order to determine what was in the frame, I put white map tacks at the position of the pinhole in the front and at the width of the film at the back to sight along as I had done on my 4x5 cameras.

I viewed all this as somewhat of a lark and I never really intended on continuing to use this camera except for this road trip, but then a funny thing happened.

My Dad's new place in Florida was in a Retirement Park on the shore of Lake Griffin.  My Dad's house was the closest one to the lake.  While we were there, I took these two photographs of the lake at dawn and dusk that are pretty close to my favorite pinhole photographs ever, and got me really hooked on 35mm color pinhole photography.




I've lost both the negatives and the high resolution scans of these pictures, but I had prints made that I exhibited in a group show in Minneapolis which I gave away to the guy who organized the show (Thanks, Tom!), and also made prints for my Dad which hung in his house until he died, and which now hang in my stairway.

I continued to use this camera for a while and once pulled off by the side of the road just south of Hudson, Wisconsin and got this rather dramatic photograph of a shelf cloud which is the only one I've ever seen.



Although Sarah and I had been going to Mosquito Hill Nature Center since we moved to Wisconsin in 1985,  this camera was what I used to begin taking pinhole photographs there which I continue to do to this day (although not with this camera).


In 2013, in order to do something different for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day,  I pulled out the camera again, and submitted this shot for the gallery.


I subsequently built several other 35mm cameras on my way to the Populist.  Next up: The Nickon.

1 comment:

  1. A great article, Nick. I didn't know your background in pinhole was with single-sheet box cameras. I look forward to more. And I'm getting more serious about my own pinhole blog.

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