Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Populist: Prototypes

As mentioned before, I got this bug in response to questions from pinhole workshop participants who inquired how to continue working with pinhole.  Acquiring the right materials and chemistry and a suitable darkroom space for tray developing paper always seemed to stop them in their tracks.  After looking at and experimenting a little with available plans already on the internet for homebuilt roll film cameras,  I set out to make a design for a camera that anyone could make with readily available materials that used commonly available film and processing, could be reloaded in the field and was reliably light-tight. My plan was also to produce detailed illustrated instructional materials on building and using the camera. (One of the things I did professionally).

I was kind of a fan of paper models of planetary spacecraft and tourist destinations. I based the Populist on the idea to print a pattern that could then be glued to card stock so individual parts didn't have to be precisely measured and drawn out by the user.  I experimented with versions printed on the heaviest card stock that would feed through my printer, but that's not something people commonly have laying around, and those turned out to be too flimsy.

The depth and ergo the distance from film to pinhole is 24mm, the diameter of the film cassette.  With two cassettes inside, the loaded camera is surprisingly sturdy and crush proof for something made out of paper. The 36mm wide image is the standard for 35mm film and therefore meets the objective of easily available processing.

I must have made thirty variations, often not completed when I discarded some idea or came up with an easier way to do things. There was a lively discussion about this while it was going on on the Lensless Camera: Making and Modifying forum on f295.

These are the two prototypes I saved.

They represent the two ends of the process.  The one on the left, made from a Sunbelt Granola box is one of the earliest; the one on the right, from a Frosted Mini-Wheats box, is one of the last. They both have the same shutter, except on the earlier it's attached with tape, and the older, I wanted to see if the glue was sufficient to hold it together during use.  You'll notice only one winder. I only made two or three winders and just kept reusing them on new variations.

The older camera, on the bottom, has neither tripod mount nor rewind hole.  I was going for ultimate simplicity, but later decided these two weren't all that complicated, but made regular use a much better experience, and both could be optional.

On the inside of the earlier, the internal dividers were separate pieces that were glued to the top, bottom and front with tabs. This was kind of complicated to cut from a pattern and tricky to glue reliably, straight and exactly were they needed to be.

Even though they consist of a double weight of cardstock laminated together with glue, they weren't very sturdy, and you can see how the one on the supply side is slightly bowed out as the film traveled over it, making that side of the frame curved.

In the last post about the PrePopulist, I said that was the last time I put felt over the surfaces the film rode over to protect from scratches and add some lightproofing insurance from the hole the winder went through, and I was a little surprised when I opened this camera and found I had done it again.  I later decided this was probably too complex, a unusual material to have, and was unnecessary.  When using the Populist without the felt I rarely have issues with scratches and the ones that do appear are usually from reusing a reloadable take-up cassette too often (I'm on my third cassette after 8 years using the same camera).

Another method that I eventually discarded was for the clicker which let the user count a certain number of audible clicks as the sprocket holes went past while advancing the film.  I started with the method Alspix used for the Matchbox camera.  It consists of a ring cut from a plastic comb-bound document (a common enough item for a mid-level university administrator, but another I didn't think would be common in the general population).  It was taped to the outside of the supply cassette aligned with the sprocket holes. This had several problems. It would make it a pain to reload in the field since you need tape on hand to do it. I had problems with it staying aligned with the sprocket holes.  It would click several frames, and then slide away from the sprocket holes and just ride silently over the film. In the matchbox camera, it was held in place between the tray and the cover, but in the Populist was just hanging out over the edge. This also pushed the film toward the pinhole creating kind of a wavy film plane.  Fun for some people I suppose, but I prefer a flat film plain.

I was planning to recommend people go into the dark in a closet to unload the film and rewind it into the original cassette if they didn't want to lose the last frame, but this clicker will slice off the sprockets as the film is rewound so I put this label on top with the viewfinding lines to remind them to remove it before rewinding.

It didn't to seem to meet my objectives for simplicity, field use and reliability, so I had to find another solution.

The newer version has the solutions to most of these problems.  The felt isn't there.  The interior dividers are made out of a pattern that folds into a rectangular shape that glues to the top and bottom, which makes one side automatically parallel to the other, and can be easily clamped with a binder clip while gluing.

It has the tripod mount. This one is a chunk of foam core to embed the nut in. I didn't think foam core was a common item, so in the directions I suggested people cut about seven or eight of these shapes and laminate them together with glue.

Just barely visible at the lower right of the exposure chamber you can see new clicker, a very small bit of beverage can aluminum taped to the divider right where the sprocket holes go over it sticking up just a millimeter over the divider.  This is probably the trickiest part of the whole job.  Too high and it just folds over and doesn't click and obviously too low or misaligned it won't click at all. However you can wind in either direction without damaging it or the film.

When I was making the shutter for an earlier prototype, I had this Logitech box laying around and I remember thinking it would be funny to use on this ultra low-tech device, and I reused the slider in this camera.

The pattern and directions are still there on my old web site, but sooner or later the university is going to shut that down, so here's a link to the file on Google drive. If you're really fascinated by this, here's a link to the original version with three addenda and pictures of four more prototypes.  Download and view in Acrobat reader to see the embedded notes.

I used these prototypes for about a year, and explored a lot of the themes I continue to play with.

The garden was a common theme in my black and white work. This was the first year Sarah started cultivating Habaneros. Edward Weston's pepper is one of the most famous photographs of all time, and for color photography, habaneros are a particularly rich variety.

I occasionally mention the inordinately prominent role serendipity plays in pinhole photography.  I didn't quite have a full frame left when I shot this rose, so it overlapped with the previous image and had to be cropped, which I avoid doing (except to correct for a non-level camera), but in this case it cropped the image for a dramatic composition.

One of the things I didn't do with my black and white cameras was use them anywhere I couldn't reload in the darkroom.  I did use a changing bag occasionally, but not very often.  One of the revelations of the first 35mm camera was how much I enjoyed just photographing anything I happened upon wherever I was.

One day driving through the town where I went to graduate school, we stopped to visit a favorite oak we used to picnic under. There was no place to set a tabletop tripod, so I held the camera against my forehead for the half second exposure.

I started taking pictures in public places, although I must admit I'm often a little self-conscious when I do it, but rarely does anyone notice me. Most places don't allow regular floor tripods (or photography in general), and the places you can set a table top tripod in public buildings are few, but in this (stair)case, there was a convenient railing in the Charles Allis Museum in Milwaukee.

One day when we decided to go to Madison for the day, the only workable camera I could find was one I'd built while shooting the instructional photos.  I'd drilled the pinhole and attached it to the camera and I never inspected it with a loupe or measured it, but I guess it turned out OK. I was actually invited to add this picture of a foggy day on the roof of Monona Terrace on the Madison group on Flickr and it became a picture of the day selection.

I'd already carried my earlier 35mm cameras to Mosquito Hill and kept and still keep doing that. Close ups of leaves continues to be a theme I keep returning to.

One of my dear loves is portraiture. I just can't bring myself to ask people to actually pose for me, but if they just happen to be sitting there...

One subject I do have control over (most of the time) and has no shame about being portrayed in odd situations is myself.  I've regularly done "selfies" since my twenties for this reason. Here serendipity rears its head again. Most pinhole cameras have no way to prevent opening the shutter without winding the film, and it's inevitable that a double exposure is going to happen sometime.  I usually hate when that happens, but sometimes something new results from it.

It looks like I didn't bother with a shutter on all these prototypes because here's another exposure on that roll of film with me holding a piece of tape with a tweezers while I time the exposure.

Sometimes things you thought impossible are achievable, as I noted at the time, with a sufficiently tired kitty in a sufficiently bright spot.  Here's Stewart at about three months old in the window in the hallway. I swear this cat can hear a tripod coming from the next room. This was with a pinhole that was non-circular with a little split on one edge I used just to see how that would affect the image.

The date of this is pretty specific since he was born in about March of 2007. By that time, I had to admit that I was hooked on the Populist and decided to build one specifically for my use.

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