Monday, December 7, 2015

Populist Precursers: Alspix' Matchbox Camera

First off I want make sure to point out this isn't one of my designs.  You can find the original directions at I can't find any reference to who Alspix is that relates to this site any more, but according to his Flickr profile he is Alan Cooper from Ipswich, England. The Flickr group dedicated to the Matchbox Camera has almost 1500 members and 7500 images.

One of the motivations for developing the Populist was that people who participated in workshops would always ask me to how to continue doing pinhole after the workshop.  After I had described the need for some kind of a darkroom with a bunch of chemicals, they would nod politely and back away slowly.

To address that issue, when I was preparing for a summer workshop I did for 4th through 7th graders in 2006,  I decided to have them make these matchbox cameras to take home on the last day, so I'd better try it out myself and see what it was like.  I had already made several 35mm film pinhole cameras, and as noted earlier in the blog was kind of smitten with the results.

The matchbox camera is pretty simple to make. Here's all the parts. There's a method for attaching a clicker so you can advance just the right amount, which I used in 2006, but didn't feel like messing with when I took this picture this morning. I also had a disassembled cassette to use for the take-up, but Alspix specifies a used cassette which still has a bit of film sticking out and taping the new film to that to pull it into the take-up cassette.

Alspix recommends using the pull top from an beverage can as a winder, and I believe he used a paper clip in earlier versions.  I used the wooden dowel from one of my previous 35mm cameras.

Heres what mine looks like assembled.

The shutter is simple tape and there's no tripod mount, but I think I superglued a nut to the bottom for a while and I wouldn't be surprised if I attached it to a tripod with rubber bands on occasion,

The pinhole is 12mm from a square 24mm frame. This makes it a pretty wide angle camera.  I noticed as I smooshed the tape to make sure it adhered and conformed to the junction of the box and cassette, it deformed inward, so I wouldn't be surprised if it was even a little more wide angle,

I started out with a .15mm Gilder electron microscope aperture that's almost exactly Mr. Pinhole's optimum recommendation.

Those apertures were part of a group buy Earl Johnson organized that included a whole range from .075mm to .8mm.  It takes a pretty short pinhole to film distance to qualify for the smallest of that range so since I had been cavalierly ignoring physics in selecting pinholes in the past, I switched it to a .1mm somewhere in the middle of the roll (the film is safely in a cassette so you can change the pinhole and only lose one frame) and continued to use that.

In the middle of this, my son graduated from college, so that's what I used that day.  This was before I even had a table top tripod and I sure didn't want to haul a regular tripod around at graduation. Here the camera was held against a tree for the exposure. (I also photographed his first master's degree commencement with a pinhole camera).

There's not always a tree where you need one. I photographed Sarah thumbing through the program by holding the camera against my forehead. Giving evidence to the extreme wide angle is my finger protruding in the left side of the frame.

As you might guess, the smaller than optimum pinhole works well in close-up situations so important in photojournalism.

This was the first camera I just carried around in my pocket and whipped out in odd situations. Here's a picture of my boss at the time in a meeting that took place in a regular classroom.

For a while this emerging hosta was my most popular image on Flickr.  It is a little hard to believe this came out of that tiny little camera, but I think the curving lines and soft pattern of the hosta leaves trick you into thinking it's sharper than it is.

These peonies are my favorite image that I made with the matchbox.

One thing I constantly hear about 35mm pinhole and sometimes about 35mm in general is that it doesn't hold up to enlargement. When I had a little exhibit at the university library, I had a largish frame laying around, so I made a 16 inch square print as a centerpiece for the show.

It has hung by Sarah's side of the bed since then.

I have great affection for this camera. However, it has several issues that keep me from considering it a reliable daily driver.

First of all, it's dependent on having and using opaque black tape every time you change film. Not the most convenient thing to reload in the field.

Despite being an experienced adult pinhole camera maker using 3M #235 for tape, I occasionally experienced light leaks, which were an equal risk every time you resealed the camera after loading.

Getting the tape off the thing to get it apart often leads to damage, but I guess it's so simple starting out with a new matchbox every time wouldn't be that much of a problem if you could figure out what to do with a half a million little wooden matches.

About the only idea I eventually used for the Populist was the clicker, and I struggled adapting his method for days before coming up with my own.

There's only one camera left before the Populist, which contains almost all the design features that eventually became the Populist.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Nick. I like reading the backstory of how the Populist came to be. Since I haven't worked much with 35mm color film and pinhole, perhaps in a future article can you cover the topic of determining exposure times, especially for indoor shooting?

    I continue to update my pinhole blog as well. I have yours listed along the side of mine.

    ~Joe Van Cleave