Building an Ultra Large Format Camera, Part 1

The basic elements of a camera

One of the cool things about a camera is that at its core, it’s very simple. All you need is a lens that focuses light and a surface that this light gets focused on. The process of bending light with lenses to focus on a surface was first explored during the Renaissance with the camera obscura. It wasn’t until the 19th century that people figured out how to keep a record of how much light hit a particular area of that surface. Anyway, to make a camera, all you really need is a lens and a surface for the light to hit, and to create an image from a camera, you either need to trace the image you see projected on the surface or you need some kind of coating on the surface that reacts to light.

lens_ring

Is that a large lens in your pocket?

After giving me a taste of 4×5 tintypes, my buddy at Tintypebooth showed me some large old lenses from photographic systems used in spy planes that he had bought on ebay. These things are serious! They are very heavy and the glass is super thick; there is just something massive about them, and when you hold one and feel its weight, you can’t help but be awed by their image making potential and you get possessed by an urge to unlock that potential. He pitched the idea of building a ultra large format camera with one of them, a little “Kodak Aero-Ektar 24” 610mm” number, weighing in at just over 10 lbs and sporting a few scratches I like to think were caused by the strafing of some of the Luftwaffe’s last Messerschmitts.

Let’s decode those numbers, shall we? The 24” is the size of the image plane and 610mm (also 24”) is the focal length.Based on my previous post about lenses, it means that at its shortest, this camera will be a little over two feet long. At four feet of distance between the lens and the plane, the image on the focal plane will be the same size as the subject in focus four feet from the lens, and six feet will create an image bigger than reality. The film holder will need to accommodate plates that will be 24 inches on one side. I may need a bigger car…

camera_build

I need a plan

Patience is a virtue I’ve always been in somewhat limited supply of. We have this killer lens… What’s the fastest and cheapest way we can get a picture out of it? Sure, we can design a fancy camera with a lot of bells and whistles but it would take a long time and cost a pretty penny. For now, I just need a bare bones proof of concept prototype. I’ll focus on the basic pieces and see if I can build it myself. I’ll build the back out of oak and do all the struts and supports using aluminum channels. The animated image above is a Maya model I built to scale that shows how all the pieces need to fit together. It doesn’t look too difficult, does it? One thing not shown in the animation is that the back that will hold the plate will be interchangeable with another back that will have the ground glass necessary to focus. The process will be as follows: first you will use the ground glass back to focus, slide it out, and then slide in the film back to load your camera.

film_back

Baby got back

Kim Kardashian’s got nothing on this bad boy! I built this 24″x20″ film back over the past couple weeks. I’m not a great builder and my Home Depot tools are a bit wobbly so I wouldn’t call it fine craftsmanship but it will hopefully do the trick. Oh, and did I forget to mention it’s not exactly square? Yeah… Let’s just say it’s square enough. It’s made from 1″x2″ and 1/4″x2″ red oak lumber which I routed to get the insets. It will make a great example when we eventually hire a finish carpenter for the next fancy version of the camera. Here are some pictures of the various pieces it’s made of (you can also see that I like to wear my slippers when I take pictures of my handy work).

More to come…

Here are the steps that come next and will be documented in a hopefully not too distant future.

  • I already bought the aluminum extrusions that are necessary to build the film back support, the lens plate holder, and the rails. I will need to learn how to properly drill in aluminum and figure out how to connect all the pieces. (anyone in Venice with a drill press?)
  • I will built the lens plate, mount the lens on the plate, and mount the plate on the rails.
  • Last will be creating the bellows. Not too sure how that will work but what the hell! We’ve got a few ideas. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.

See? It’s basically like it’s done already…

One thought on “Building an Ultra Large Format Camera, Part 1”

  1. Great site, I like your approach to build this thing. Similar to how I did it: Don’t be afraid, don’t fret too much approach but start doing it and learn as you go.

    Although I have fairly good woodworking skills, I opted to keep it simple. Tool availability and budget constraints pretty much dictated how I build it.

    The construction can be seen here: http://cargocollective.com/martinzaugg/ultra-large-format-camera
    Good to know I got Brothers out there, enjoy!
    Martin

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