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Homemade 35mm Box Camera

Ever thought about taking the Pin Hole camera to the next level? Well now you can!

Coming some day: The camera works so well I've decided to upgrade the shutter so it will be able to shoot in broad daylight.

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When I first started this project, the plan was to make a really nice Pin Hole camera. But after doing a little homework I quickly realized that the problem with pin hole cameras is that it's very difficult to figure out how long you need to let light enter the hole in order to get a proper exposure. I started to think, which in my case is very dangerous, and needless to say at this point, I got more than a little carried away. The project went from making a Pin Hole camera all the way to a home-made Box Camera with a real lens. All because I wanted to be able to figure out the shutter speed based on a known aperture. What on EARTH was I thinking? Many hours of head scratching went into the design and even more hours went into the build. But guess what? It worked! It not only works, but it takes remarkably great (sharp) pictures, supports interchangeable lenses, shoots 35mm film, and is easy to use. About the only draw back worth mentioning is that the shutter design doesn't provide speeds fast enough for photos in the bright sun. Indoors, shaded areas, early morning and evening are all doable. I encourage you to design a faster shutter design and add it to this Instructable.;)

I would rate this project as moderate to advanced if you plan on using power tools to make it. It doesn't require power tools, nor do you have to use all the same tools I used, but it will certainly make the task easier if you do. This simple, classic design is all original, I didn't borrow any ideas from other home-made cameras I saw on the web or anywhere else. It's a little complex so I took a lot of pictures, hopefully the entire build process will be clear enough in this Instructable that you can build one yourself, but I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Materials and Tools

Materials List:
1/2" Plywood
Wood Screws
Black Masking Tape
Small Piece of Neoprene
Thin Sheet of Plastic
A Broken Film SLR Camera and Lens for Parts (The camera is optional but you'll need a lens and way to mount it.)
Empty Film Roll (Courtesy of any Photo Lab that processes film)

I chose 1/2" birch plywood that was left over from another project to build my box with. I got the sheet of plastic out of the bottom of one of those reusable shopping bags, and the small piece of neoprene was cut out of one of those pads you put in front of your keyboard to rest your wrists on while you type. The only things used in the making of this camera that I didn't fabricate, are the tripod mount, which I took off a broken film SLR camera, the lens mount, which I could have used off the same broken camera, but I happened to have a lens adapter that I was able to take the threaded (M42) sleeve out of, which I only preferred over the one from the broken camera because I have a better selection of lenses for it. You guessed it, zero investment so far, and it's a pleasure to get some use out of my old Pentax lenses again.

Tools Used:
Table Saw
Powered Miter Box
Fine Tooth Hand Saw
Drill and Counter Sink Bit
Hack Saw
Coping Saw
Razor Knife
Screw Driver
Dremel Tool

If you don't own or know how to use all of these tools, it's OK, I'm certain you could do this using only hand tools. If you wanted to tackle this with a hand miter saw and a sharp chisel, I'm sure you could, it will just take a lot longer.

Design Elements 1 of 2

Image 1: Outside view of the side panel. Both side panels are identical, from the outside you can see the film slot where the film enters and exits the camera. The film slot was cut by hand with a hacksaw blade broken in half with a masking tape handle (see materials photo).

Image 2: Inside view of the side panel where you can see the film slot and the shutter curtain groove. Note how close the shutter is to the rear of the camera (film plane). This will all make a lot more sense in a minute. The groove was hand cut with a regular, fine tooth hand saw.

Image 3: The front and rear panels measure 3" x 3" square and the finished outside dimensions of the camera are roughly 4 x 4 x 2.25 inches. The lens hole was cut by hand with coping saw, I drilled a small hole to slip the blade through and then attached the handle to cut out the hole. The recess cut for the lens mount ring was made with a router. If you made your box the correct depth, you would be able to avoid the recess cut altogether. I didn't get it right because I failed to take into consideration that I was going to recess the film into the rear panel, so I had to make up the distance by recessing the lens the same amount. I will explain this at length later, but the short version is the lens has to be an exact distance from the film plan so that three things will happen, the lens will be able to focus close up, the lens will be able to focus to infinity, and the distance meter on the lens will be accurate.

Image 4: The rear panel, which also serves as the film plane. If you look close you can see that the thin plastic sheet, which protects the unexposed film and creates a 35mm window frame, is flush with the wood. I did this just to make sure the shutter wouldn't run into it and get hung up. I used a router to make this cut but I suppose you could do it with a sharp chisel. There is another cut behind the plastic that is very shallow that creates a track for the film to slide behind the plastic sheet. See the next image for a close up.

Image 5: Close up of the rear panel showing a piece of leader film sliding under the recessed piece of plastic.

Image 6: Shutter Curtain/View Finder, which is made from the same thin plastic used on the film plane. The thin piece of wood glued (epoxy) on at the bottom serves two purposes, most importantly it prevents me from pulling the shutter curtain right out of the camera when I take a shot, and it also stops the shutter in the open position as soon as the film window is uncovered to prevent any unnecessary travel. This is important because in some cases you'll want to open and close the shutter as fast as possible. I put a little paraffin wax in the grooves to help make the shutter slide smooth and operate without any binding, which helps avoid camera shake.

Design Elements 2 of 2

Image 1: Top Panel, outside (top) view, the neoprene seal is approximately 1/4 inch thick and has a razor cut down the entire length except for the ends. I aligned the cut in the neoprene over the cut in the wood by having the shutter (thin piece of plastic) sticking up out of the cut, which allowed me to slip the seal over it and hold it in place while the glue set.

Image 2: Top Panel, inside (underneath) view, here you can see the cut that the shutter curtain slips through so you can grab the top of it to open and close the shutter curtain.

Image 3: Bottom Panel, outside view, here you can see the Tripod Mount.

Image 4: Bottom Panel, inside view, shutter curtain groove was cut with a fine tooth hand saw.

In the next step you'll see how the panels assemble, how the shutter curtain seals off the rear of the camera (film plane) in between shots. All the design elements will come together and make sense if they haven't already.


Image 1: The side panels are attached to the rear (film plane) panel and you can see the how the slots for the shutter curtain are right in front of the rear of the camera and film plane.

Image 2: Shutter test fit. You can already see how the shutter fully seals of the rear of the camera and film plane so you can safely advance the film after taking a shot.

Image 3: A different angle so you can see the shutter in the open position. Note how the window frame cutout only allows light to fall on a 35mm section of film, this protects the unexposed area of the film so there is very little waste between shots.

Image 4: With the bottom panel on and the shutter in the closed position, you can see how the shutter slips into the groove at the bottom, creating a light proof curtain so the film can be advanced and be ready for the next shot. Just to play it safe, I keep the lens cap on in between shots.

Image 5: With the top panel on and the shutter fully open you can see how the piece of wood on the shutter curtain limits the upward travel to only what is necessary to expose the film.

Image 6: With the front installed you can see how the lens opening is aligned with the 35mm frame opening on the film plane.

Final Touches

Image 1: Black masking tape seals up any possible light leaks at the seams and here you get a good look at the neoprene seal that prevents light leaks at the shutter curtain, which doubles as a simple view finder. The shutter is actuated by quickly pulling it up till it stops and then pushing it back down till it stops.

Image 2: Here you can see how I used an empty roll film from a disposible camera (courtesy of the local film lab) as the take up reel. I simply taped the film coming from the new roll of film on the other side to the little tail of film sticking out of the empty roll with clear tape. Then sealed all the way around with black masking tape to prevent light leaks. The camera is now loaded with film and I probably wasted around 2 or 3 more frames than you might with a store bought camera. The little spring metal tab you see serves two purposes, it prevents the spool from spinning backwards while you're trying to advance the film for the next shot, and it also allows you to count clicks so you can accurately advance the film with no waste. I figured out after the first roll, that less clicks are needed as you make your way through a roll of film, I didn't think it would be that significant but it is, in the beginnng it's about 12 clicks and buy the end of the roll it's closer to 9 or 10. It will make the difference of at least two extra shots. Waste not, want not!

Image 3: Nothing but the finest optics, lenses by Takumar a.k.a. Pentax. I'll be shooting with a 35mm f/2, a 50mm f/1.4, and a 75–260 f4.5 zoom. I don't think the zoom will be very realistic at much above 70mm due to the lack of a through the lens viewfinder, but I might just try it;)

So, do you want to see some pictures I took with it?

Sample Photos

These were all from the first roll of film. Fourteen of eighteen shots came out. The night (time lapse) shot was 15 seconds, all the rest were between 1/3 of a second and 2 seconds.

On the last step I will explain in detail the importance of getting the distance from the lens to the film place accurate and how to do it, and how you can figure out what your shutter speed capabilities are.

Important Notes

If you're a Pro Photographer or have a really deep understanding of how a camera works, you can probably skip these notes. I am a novice (at best) so I learned a lot. I truly think I'm a better photographer as a result of making this camera.

Notes on the distance of the lens to the film plane:

I mentioned earlier that the distance from the lens to the film plane has to be accurate, stating that the lens has to be an exact distance from the film plan in order for three things to happen...

1) The camera to be able to focus close up.
2) The camera to be able to focus to infinity.
3) And the most important of all, the distance meter on the lens to be accurate.

If you want your camera to be able to use the entire range of focus the attached lens is capable of, especially the camera's ability to focus infinity, then this step is critical. I measured this distance two ways, one with a hand held test by holding the lens an inch or two away from a white piece of paper and then moved it back and forth until the upside down image was in focus on the paper, then I measured the distance from the lens plate to the paper, the distance was a little over 1 3/4". Then I took my already broken film body (not knowing if the distance is exactly the same for all types (brands) of 35mm cameras and lenses) and measured the distance from the front of the lens mounting plate to the film plane, and again, it was just a little over 1 3/4 inches. I was pretty sure at this point that using a distance of 1 3/4 inches for my camera would was a safe bet.

I ended up having to make a few adjustments to get it just right, I had to use a router to counter sink the mount into the wood a little bit in order to fine tune the distance from the lens to the film plane, one pass (very tiny shave cut) at a time, and then re-test the focus in between each pass, until the depth was perfect. Testing was easy at this point, I taped a piece of white paper to the film plane, held the lens to the front of the camera, held the camera an exact distance from a subject, set the distance meter on the lens to match the distance to the subject, and looked to see if the image was focused on the film plane. By the way, the "exact distance from the subject" is measured from the aperture ring (blades) of the lens, not the front of the glass or the film plane of the camera.

When I got mine right, the distance meter on the lens was incredibly accurate, accurate to within an inch at 15 feet, and a half inch at 2 feet. And since I will be shooting at f/16 most of the time, there will be enough depth of field that I will only have to use a tape measure for close ups, anything more than 10–15 feet away and I can ball park it. You have to remember, there is no "through the lens" view finder, no fancy prisms, and and no trap-door mirrors that can flip out of the way in fractions of a second. This is old school, you measure (or guess) the distance to the subject you want in focus, and you use the distance meter on the lens to focus. You don't get to "see" that your shot is in focus, you just know that it is because you can trust the distance meter. Now all you have to worry about is exposure, as in shutter speed. On that note...

Notes on Shutter Speeds:

If you know anything about cameras at all, you probably looked at the shutter design and asked yourself something along the lines of "How on earth can anyone open and close that shutter curtain fast enough with their hand to take a picture?" Well, that's a darn good question actually, and I'll be honest, it's not possible with the current design to take a shot in full sunlight unless you're going to add a filter as dark as welding goggles on the front of the lens. However, like I stated in the overview, it is possible, and quite easy in low light actually. You DEFINITELY want to use a tripod, it's a given. Now, with all that said, let's talk reality here so you know what to expect and how to figure out the shutter speed you'll need in order to take quality, colorful, contrasty photos.

I was able to determine how fast I could comfortably open and close the shutter curtain by simply operating the shutter in front of my computer while recording. You can just use my results as a guide, or if you're so inclined, you can do this test yourself. Any audio program that let's you record a wave file and look at the visual representation of the wave file will work. You just start recording and operate the shutter once or twice in front of the mic. The click sound that the piece of wood makes as it hits the top and bottom of the camera will show as pretty sharp spikes on the wave file.

When I did my test, the distance or "time span" from open to close was a remarkable, blazing speed of 3/10 of a second. Remarkable and blazing both being sarcasm, as this is remarkably slow compared to fixed speed of even the cheapest disposable camera. Cameras don't have a direct translation for 3/10 of a second, the closest translation would be 1/3 of a second, which is certainly close enough for film.

I don't own a light meter, at least not a reliable one, so here's how I figure out my shutter speeds. I bring along a somewhat modern SLR camera that supports Aperture Priority mode, I set the aperture to f/16 and compose my shot, press the shutter button half way and look at what the camera says it is going to use for a shutter speed if I press the rest of the way. If the speed (reading) is much faster than 1/3 of a second, I know that a shot is not possible. I make a point of only only trying to take photos in places where there is low light, in most cases I get readings of a full second or more, which are super easy to do. Film has a lot of latitude, which means it's forgiving, anything even close is going to work. Sometimes I even have to open the aperture up a little to keep it in the one to two second range. For those shots I just open the shutter, count "one thousand, two thousand' and close the shutter. The shots I took at the marsh were just before, during, and after sunset. I started shooting when my SLR gave me reading of "4" which is 1/4 of a second, even though I knew my fastest hand movement without violent shaking was 1/3 of a second. They came out fine.

If you have a Digital SLR then life is really good, you can do an actual test shot for every shot, and under or over expose to get the shot (exposure) you want. This is extra handy when you go for time lapse stuff where you're going into speeds most cameras don't support, such as longer that 30 seconds. You can use "Bulb" mode and test your shot digitally, once you know how many seconds it takes to get the exposure your after, you take your Box Camera shot knowing it's going to come out.

Unless you can design a faster shutter, any kind of hand held photography is probably out of the question, and you'll probably have to take most pictures in low light, but trust me, it's a lot of fun and well worth the limitations. Now turn off your computer, go make a camera, and go shoot some film flying entirely by the seat of your pants.

Have fun and keep shooting film, Rick


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