Look away now if you are easily offended.
There were a lot of mundane folding cameras made. By this I mean the ones that take roll film and have a bellows and lens that fold out of the camera body. Some were great – if you find one cheap then do give it a go, you might be surprised at how good the combination of a small-aperture lens and a large negative can be. On the other hand, there was a lot of grey porridge. If you have or find one of these, there is a second life for it.
Check it over first though. The two things that can fail are the bellows and the shutter. If the bellows has gone, buy it for pennies. If the shutter has jammed it can be worth unscrewing the front and back lens elements and dripping a bit of lighter fuel through it. Again, don’t pay real money for it.
Ideally you want a camera that takes 120 film, which you can still get easily. 620 film is a workable alternative – some of the cameras will take 120 film and some can be made to take 120 film by slightly trimming the disks at the end of a plastic spool. (See here or here).
So, victim in hand, take a look at how the bellows and door attach to the camera body. The whole lot can often be removed by undoing a few screws. A bit of similar surgery can remove the support arms from the lens and shutter assembly. You are then left with a camera body and a lens plus bellows.
What I did with the camera body was to make a small box out of thin plywood that just fit into the opening left by the bellows. And you will find, like I did, that you need to seal all of the holes where the screws were removed or you will have some impressive light leaks. I made the depth of the box just enough to slightly protrude from the camera body. This made the front of it something like 21mm away from the film plane. Then I made a nice round hole in the centre of the front surface of the box and taped a home-made (drink-can alloy) pinhole over it.
I then had a 6×9 film camera with a pinhole lens at 21mm focal length. This gives something like 137 degrees angle of view. The field of view was in fact so wide that my initial pictures included the head of the screw that acted as a hinge for the flap of wood I was using to cover the pinhole as a form of shutter.
You could as easily go long – build a deeper box and make a telephoto pinhole. A standard lens on 6×9 is around 105mm, so you could start around 200mm and go from there. There are some good online pinhole calculators that will tell you what the optimum diameter of the pinhole should be for any chosen focal length. For home builders it might be easier to start with a pinhole and calculate its optimal focal length. This is probably easier than trying to make a tiny hole with a specific size. Which leads to the question of how you measure a tiny hole? You could try photographing it against a ruler with a digital camera if you have a really good macro lens. Then enlarge the shot and compare the pinhole diameter to a 1mm division on the ruler. The way I heard was to put it on a flatbed scanner and scan it at a known resolution. Enlarge the image and count the pixels.
I’ve seen some interesting results from using two narrow slits at right angles, leaving a small hole at the point they cross. Separating the two sets of slits gives an anamorphic effect. Whether it is the horizontal or vertical slit that’s furthest from the film will control whether the image is stretched horizontally or vertically. I reckon I could do this using a couple of razor blades to make the slot. I could guage the gap using a piece of thin wire, which I could measure with a micrometer. Time to find another old folder to torture, methinks.
There is no need to put the pinhole in the centre of the film either. Offset it vertically towards the top of the camera and you have the equivalent of a rising front on a large format camera: the camera will be looking upwards without distorting the verticals. Or put four pinholes on the camera, offset up, down, left and right. Then you can uncover and use the best one for effect.
But at the end of the day a pinhole camera is a one-trick pony. It shoots super wide. Whoopee. Though to be fair, I doubt I could ever find a 21mm lens that covers 6×9. But seriously, pinholes: they are everything you could do with a proper lens, but not as good. Which is why I have no pictures of the clever camera body I made: I did it, I used it once, I sold it.
So what do you do with the leftover lens and bellows? Way more interesting stuff than owning a pinhole camera for a start. Find a body cap for your camera, cut a big hole in the middle of it and glue it to the bellows. The result is a cheap version of a Lensbaby. This means you can do all the effects with shallow or extended depth of field and do the shift-lens thing with buildings. The only problem is keeping the lens still – you could be working with an f8 lens and slow shutter speeds. Mine works OK in fairly bright light. If I got serious about it I would find some way of locking the lens in a chosen position. Perhaps if I made a front standard like on a large format camera, sliding on a bit of wood that I can attach to the camera’s tripod socket?
My Mark 1 effort works fine on my film cameras but won’t fit my digital SLR because it has a pentaprism that protrudes forwards. What I will do for my Mark 2 is to try attaching the bellows to the body cap with velcro (I just need to find a nice old 6×6 folder that I can destroy).
Some older shutters have a T setting that locks the shutter open. If not you will need to find a locking cable release to hold the shutter open on B. Assuming the lens was originally meant to cover 6×6 or 6×9 roll film, you should be able to shift it a fair distance away from the central line and still get an image. You can also expect to get soft focus at the edges of the lens coverage, colour fringing and loads of dust released from the inside of the old bellows.
So for the price of an unloved old folder from a junk shop you get a pinhole camera and a tilt and shift lens. What’s not to love? Better than that – you get to sell-on an unloved and useless folding camera to someone who actually wants a pinhole while retaining the useful bit.
Filmic folder fun for all the family.
It’s got me thinking though – I wonder what a swing lens would do to portraits?
I found a picture of the pinhole conversion.
This is the Mk II version without the hinged bit of wood for a shutter. The mass of tape is there to provide a smooth surface so that the piece of tape I am using as a shutter can peel away easily. As you can see, this is a 21mm lens on 6×9 film and has an aperture of f190.