Is it such a good idea to build your own view camera ?


I do no want to prevent you from building your camera, but just share my experience.

The following reflects my experience so far, and should not be seen as a critic against plan-makers or kit-makers.

So here you are, much involved in photography for some years, but dreaming of something radically different. You think you know all you need to know about 35mm SLR, your pictures may or may be as you want them to be, but you think the LF experience would benefit you. May be you consider AA’s pictures the best that were even made, may be you don’t like them… Whatever your reasons are, you know that you MUST move to LF.

Then, you decide to have a look at the market… Gosh! Why are these cameras so expensive? OK, they do not sell as much as Di***al P&S do, but on the other hand they are not as sophisticated as the electronic devices in the “up-to-date” cameras. If you look at the used market, you can see that some good maker’s cameras can be found at almost reasonable prices. If you look at ebay, then you may think you can find what you want at a decent price, or may see it much more expensive than what you think it’s worth… By browsing the Web, you may find that there are some view cameras kits available. They are not that expensive, even though they do not come for free, but they look like you can do the same by yourself, if you have some woodworking skills.

By browsing a bit more, you will discover that some individuals have built their own view cameras, and that some materials are available, from free plans to websites presenting the building experience with pictures. You can even buy some plans of such cameras, and the pics they show of the finished camera look quite nice. Nice also are the pictures that were taken by these cameras…

So, you may start thinking “why don’t I build it myself?” After all, wood is not that expensive, I already own the basic tools I would need…

Let’s say you purchase some detailed plans, that you study them for a while and decide you CAN do it. After looking at the shopping list, you go to your local DIY retailer, and may or may not find the recommended wood pieces you need. May be you’ll find the right wood but not the right dimensions, may be you won’t even find the right wood.

Then you look for the other parts, as knurled screws, knobs, etc… It will easily end up with a 60 to 100$ bill for the wood and fittings.

All your purchases made, you can start the building process. But how skilled are you with wood working? The only essential measurement in the camera is the distance between the film and the film holder plate, I agree, but you want your camera to be some kind of light-proof don’t you? You will also probably want it to look nice. To put it simple, this means that, even if the measurements are not critical, the adjustments are critical, for light-tightness as well as for aesthetics. To have proper adjustments, you’re better having some reasonable skills and the appropriate tools so that a 45° mitered cut is accurate in all directions (45° on one direction, 90° on the others, so that the pieces of the frame you are building can be glued together with a tight joint). As the frames are made of several pieces, this means also that you have to be able to make these pieces with the same accurate dimensions if you want the inner parts to fit in the outer ones.

The frames are the “big” part of the camera, but there are “small” ones such as the sliders which will connect the standards to the rail. These are little pieces, and it’s probably there that you’ll discover how the wood you’ve chosen suits this purpose. Oak is readily available from almost any DIY shop, but it may not be sufficient to qualify it for your project. This wood is prone to splitting and this may get you some trouble when trying to adjust the small parts of the sliders.

When you are finished with the wood working, you will then have to become a metal-worker, to cut all the little brass fittings that will connect the different parts of the camera together… There are many parts, and most of them are small. This may not be the worst part of the process, since brass usually does not warp and does not split, but if you want the fittings to be good looking and play their role, it will again not be an easy job.

When all of these are done, you –almost- have a camera, as you’re still missing the ground glass and the bellows. Home brew bellows can be made, but it will again be a project by itself, and will be time consuming and need the same efforts to be nice. If you want to buy one, then it may cost you something about 100$ or more. This will depend on the maker, but if you did not buy the bellows before starting the process, you may be bound to a maker’s brand (or have to build adapter frames for the bellows…)

My purpose here is not to tell you “don’t do it”, but to share my experience in this project. If you sum-up all the parts you have to buy (considering you already own the tools), you may easily spend as much as you’d have spent on a used camera. My experience is close to what I describe here (I did not start the fittings, but may have less issues since I’m more used to metal working), but experienced issues with the wooden parts.

I’m still in the process of building this camera from Jon Grepstad’s plans. The plans are very good and detailed, but my progress is slow. I have to confess that working in IT does not help, for the usually long hours I spend on my job, but that’s not all. I took some advice before starting, and most of them were that it would take me away from photography, as the little time I have would be better spent on actually taking pictures, and I’m afraid it was true.

After that, let me put my 2 cents contribution to your decision and –hopefully- success :

- Do it if I did not discourage you. It is not as easy as it seems, but it will be rewarding when you see the first picture coming out of a camera you built yourself.
- Don’t do it if your purpose is to photograph. This project will take you away from photographing for a while, and as soon as you’ll be finished, there’s a chance that you start building a new “improved” camera.
- Don’t do it if your purpose is to save money. My estimated budget is about 300€, without lens, and this may cover for buying a used camera. (See the budget below for more details).
- Think about it, and make sure you take your time. Choose the right material for the parts, make sure you bought enough. Decide what you will buy and what you will build, and try to get the parts to be bought before you even start the process. If you plan to buy the bellows, you may have to adapt the frames to accept it, for example.
- Stick to the plan you bought if you’re not an experienced woodworker. It’s easier to stick two parts together than to use a router to make the same thing out of a bigger piece of wood.
- On the other hand, if you did not find the wood in the appropriate dimensions, or if the parts you bought are not the recommended ones (i.e. the ones around which the plans were drawn), then review the related dimensions. You may find later that sticking to the design but changing some parts could have been much simpler if you took the time to think about the reasons why some parts are designed as they are.
- Chose standard dimensions for the interchangeable parts (lens board, bellows, ground glass…). It will make any replacement easier, even if you did these parts yourself at first.
- As most parts do not have fully standardized dimensions (bellows, lens boards…), it may be wise to buy the parts you do not plan to make yourself before actually starting the process. This way you can use them as templates to adjust the dimensions.
- The absolutely needed tools for me are : a router (even a small one is absolutely useful) and its tools, a drill and some bits, some clamps (not matter how many you have already, buy some more, borrow as much as you can from friends, steal a few ones, and you may still be missing some)). Avoid cheap tools: my miter-box is so cheap that it can’t achieve a proper cut, so I have to use a block plane and a special device to make the adjustments 45° precisely.

The latest budget for my project is as follows:

Item Price Percent.
Inserts 6.00 € 1%
Brass 10.00 € 2%
Knobs 10.00 € 2%
Screws 15.00 € 3%
Plywood 16.00 € 4%
Ground glass 20.00 € 4%
Wood 30.00 € 7%
Book 30.00 € 7%
Film holders 50.00 € 11%
Bellows 108.00 € 24%
Lens 150.00 € 34%
Total 445.00 € 100.00%

More to come:

- The building process in images and the mistakes I made.

- The making of the metal parts (hopefully with more mistakes)

- A view of the finished camera and the first photograph took with it (hopefully some time next year)

………………………………. stay tuned!