Friday, July 21, 2017

10th anniversary iPhone Box Pinhole Camera

I mean how can you not make a camera out of an iPhone box. It's almost exactly the height of a 120 reel.

My used iPhone 5, which didn't come with a box, turned into an attractive little brick one day this winter, and I'm not sure I can live without Pinhole Assist, so I bought a new iPhone SE.  I suppose the boxes for the 6 and 7 are close to the same width, just a little longer.

There's a rich tradition of making cameras from iPhone boxes. I've seen 6 x 6 cm and 6 x almost 9 cm for 120 and versions for 35mm. I'm pretty sure I saw several simple versions loaded with photo paper using tape for a shutter (which would take about 10 minutes to make) this year reviewing submissions for Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.

It's a really good box. It's a double layer of pretty high quality card which is reliably opaque. The printed outer layer wraps completely around the box so there are no seams or overlaps. It is still paper but it's pretty durable. I used a damp cloth to clean off excess glue several times, and you can erase pencil marks and fingerprints without damaging the surface. The top fits on the bottom precisely with hardly a gap between the two.

And of course it really looks good.  I couldn't cover up that design. This one has several Sharpie marks in one corner where it looks like somebody got a little too enthusiastic signing a shipping form on a palette full of iPhones, but I thought that gave it a little provenance and patina.

Of course there are things you can't change.  It's 36mm from pinhole to film. Kinda wide but that's actually pretty popular.  (The Zero 2000 is 25mm.) With a 6 cm film width that makes the angle of view 80°.  In order to make it a roll film camera the front of the camera needs to be the bottom, inner part of the box.  I can think of ways around those but Occam's Razor ya' know.

I decided to make it 6 x 6 cm.

The box is about 20mm wider than I need. I put a double layer of black foam core at either end.  The interior structure is made  from flat pieces of black matte board. Vertically, it's just a little longer than the 120 reel, so in the film bays, there's a single layer of matte board at the top.

The winders are my standard 3/8 inch oak dowels with the whittled ends, but they're glued into some cut-off cork stoppers from our local olive oil and balsamic vinegar vendor to give a little more torque when advancing the film and a more finished look.  They're only held in by friction, but I tried to make them pretty tight. My prohibition against violating the design meant I didn't want to use a winder minder, which would require rubber bands. They're actually a little hard to get out.

The bottom of the box is mostly white with a few labels with small printing and bar codes that identify the individual phone with a big white space in the middle.  In order to blend in the front shutter as much as possible, I constructed it out of solid white poster board, which I got at Walgreens of all places.  There is a layer of black poster board in the back of the sliding shutter to make sure it was opaque. It only ended up covering one of the bar codes.  I usually have the shutter pull out of the top -  I think out of some sense of symmetry - but since the top part of the box overlaps the bottom by just a little bit, it got in the way, so the shutter slides out to the side.

I made a .26mm pinhole. Mr. Pinhole says .253 is optimal.  That makes it f138.  Kinda fast, but that's part of why these short pinhole cameras are so popular.

Earlier this year I found a piece of liver of sulfur an art student gave me years ago and seemed to successfully tarnish a pinhole moderately dark with it, so I bought some liver of sulfur paste to try again. I assumed sanding the brass would be sufficient to remove the coatings that are commonly applied to sheet brass so I didn't follow the directions to clean it with ammonia (This is really a smelly process).  In my first experiment with the paste, it seemed to change the shiny brass only slightly -   until I looked at it with the Teslong. Those coatings must be pretty tough, because under the higher resolution, I could now see that right around the pinhole, where it was actually pierced and most aggressively sanded to remove the burr, you could now see it was tarnished nearly all black, which is all you need.  The rest of the brass can be shiny as new, but if the pinhole itself is black, you've gotten all the optical benefit.  Also, I used to be bothered by getting the sanded off material stuck inside the pinhole and it was tricky to get rid of it without enlarging the pinhole accidentally.  I'm not sure if it was the liver of sulfur or running it under hot water for minutes afterward but this one is really clean.

One thing I like about the SE box is that it has an image on the phone that's relatively symmetrical around both a vertical and horizontal axis, so I could make the camera in it's horizontal position without it looking like it's laying on it's side. The only thing that really determines what's upright is where the tripod mount and viewfinders are. Since the format is square, it really wouldn't matter if you made it vertical (which I have done a couple times with Scotch boxes.)

My original intent for the film counter shutter was to cut out the iPhone image, but I was afraid I couldn't cut it out neatly enough.  I just made the shutter from black matte board with a couple of laser printed copies of the image to imitate the original appearance of the box. Again, the image gave me plenty of room with featureless black areas, so I didn't have to match anything too exactly.

I ended up using a square nut for the tripod mount. Since the card stock of the inner box is so thick, I had to inset it into the box or the tripod screw wouldn't reach it. It will be held on pretty firmly by the outside box so I'm not too worried about it falling out.

Again in a bid to be as unobtrusive to the design as possible, I used white beaded pins for the viewfinders.

So what kind of pictures would be appropriate to take with an iPhone box camera?

The iPhone practically invented the selfie. I love how prominent the new scar on my right knee is.

People post a lot of pictures of cats on the internet that are probably done with iPhones.

Meals seem to be another popular subject - brocolli and cheese quiche with watermelon.

I see people using iPhones to capture local sights and attractions such as the statue of Chief Oshkosh in Menomonie Park.  I love it that he's looking out over Lake Winnebago facing away from the city.

I wonder how close I can get with this thing - it's a little tricky with this wide angle.

One night I had a fit of insomnia and you're not supposed to read on your iPhone if you ever expect to get back to sleep, so I read a book about the Photo-Secession.

Our first iPhone was a 3GS in 2009.  About that time a home decorating store in Oshkosh gave away these black sheep pillows as some sort of promotion. I decided it would make a good head rest where I sit on the couch.  As we sat down that evening, I asked Sarah what we should name it. She was engrossed by her first transcendent experience with the source of all knowledge in her hand and immediately replied "Steve Jobs."

Sarah's family farm is over the ridge from Ellsworth, the nearest town, and cell reception varies from awful to non existent, but there's this spot under the tree toward the barn where it's a little more reliable.

And I'm sure vegetarian Steve Jobs would approve of a picture of tomatoes and a garlic scape from the farmers market, and home-grown orange cherry tomatoes.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Camera maker manifesto

I shouldn't use the term manifesto, because that implies I'm trying to convince you of something, and I firmly believe you'll have more fun and be more creative if you just do what you feel like, but "statement of personal objectives and standards" doesn't make as snappy a title unless you have a Masters in Business Administration.

I think a lot about why I make cameras the way I do, and why others do it differently. Writing about something often makes you spin it around and look at it a little differently, and there's always the possibility that someone might comment and realign my perspective a little.

I make cameras that I want to use. For many years it was single-shot cameras, but my current goal is to have a roll film camera that's reliable to use, portable, and reloadable in the field. That of course means absolutely light proof. Never saw light leaks as charming.

Being made from paper, they're not as durable as wood with brass hardware, but they only weigh a few ounces and you could drop them off a ten story building and they would probably bounce without exposing the film. Some have been covered with opaque black photographic tape which makes them moderately waterproof, and I'm starting to experiment with clear finishes.

They're not made for sale. Since I promote the idea that anybody could make a camera as well and put directions how on the internet, it would be kind of weird to expect anyone to buy one. I think making your own camera is the ultimate sacrament of pinholiness. (Ya gotta do it at least once.) Recently the purpose of making some of them is to make sure those directions on the internet will yield a usable camera, and I do use them to make sure. I occasionally give them away.

I expect the images to be as good as those coming out of the best highly crafted cameras you can buy. This is determined by the shape of the exposure chamber and the pinhole. My experiment last winter demonstrated that anyone can make a pinhole, while not measurably better than expensive commercial pinholes, good enough that in most applications you can't tell the difference. (This post is about camera making, but, it's not the camera that takes the picture, it's the photographer.)

I started out drilling my own pinholes, but got hooked on Gilder electron microscope apertures for about a decade. Just in the last year or so, I've gotten a little superstitious about using anything but hand-drilled pinholes, and am actually having fun seeing how good I can get at it. Not about to say to an audience of pinholers that sharper is better, but it's fun to try.

You have to know roughly what's going to be in the picture.  My viewfinders are triangles on the top and sides of the camera which point to the edges of the image. Some 3 dimensional object like a bead does a better job than just a line drawn on a flat surface.

You need to know that the film is advancing, and how far.  With 120, a window with a shutter in the back does this, and for 35mm, counting sprocket holes with an audible clicker will tell you if you've advanced exactly one frame. I'm not as concerned about knowing how many frames I've exposed. Discovering when you get to the end of the roll seems to work with the zen of pinhole. I'm not fond of directions to rotate so many turns for each exposure.  If you space it right at the beginning, you get increasingly large gaps between frames toward the end.  If not you can overlap images. Wasting film is definitely not pinholey.

A tripod mount is essential.

I prefer a flat film plane, but that's an aesthetic, not an engineering decision.

My cameras are hand-made. The most complicated machine I use is a scissors. I don't have any woodworking or metalworking equipment or experience.

Glue, card stock, foam core, wooden dowels, paint, brass for the pinholes and the occasional cork from a whisky bottle are all the materials, often recycled from another purpose. I've been using the same bottle of Aleen's tacky glue for years. Much of the card stock is from packaging. I have bought a sheet of foam core and one each of black and white card stock in the past year (Tons of scrap pieces were available when I worked at the university). I bought a 100 x 6 inch roll of .002 inch brass shim stock on a grant in 1992. It's gone through the grant kits, through a dozen workshops and I've still got about a quarter of it left. It is about as good a material as you can get. These are pretty inexpensive materials. I was raised by a depression-era child of immigrants, so I guess I'm a little cheap.

I've promoted the idea that you could print a template so you didn't have to measure everything, glue it to an appropriate substrate, and just fold it and glue it together. You could argue that printing a template with a computer is high tech, but it's one that's available to everybody. I don't own a printer. I go to the library when I need templates.

I don't always use the printed templates. Sometimes I don't use a ruler to measure, for example using the actual film reel to measure parts that have to be that size. Lately, I've taken to cutting some parts without a steel rule, just following lines by hand.  My cameras look handmade.

It may seem that I don't care what my cameras look like, and that may have been true in the past, but I've been playing around with the idea lately.

I definitely don't care if it looks like a lensed camera. Just about every plan or kit for a paper camera either has parts or printing on them resembling parts of a lensed camera. Some of them with the most parts, which can be tricky to put together, include multiple-part, moving, functionless assemblages to look like viewfinders, shutter speed dials and for Pete's sake, focusing rings - on a pinhole camera!

Lately though I've gotten the idea to make them with the printing from the cardboard I'm using facing out and working the packaging design into the parts and trying to get the parts to line up with the original illustration. I've done it several times in the past, but now I'm working on the sixth camera in a row this year in that category. Blog posts about these coming up. Watch this space.