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I Built an 8×10 Paper Negative Box Camera… and It Works!

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papercam_feat

I know, I know. It’s been done before, but not by me, so I gave ‘er a go. It started when I discovered a blog post online: DIY Foam core 8×10 camera by Cory Norton.

Norton outlines a detailed and inspiring tutorial on how he constructed his box camera with affordable materials, specifically foam core. With his box-within-a-box design in mind, I began to plan my own version made of wood. I headed to the craft/hobby store, played around with a few ideas, and then slapped her all together.

That makes it sound seamless. It wasn’t entirely seamless. There were a few bumps in the road and many trips to the craft/hardware stores—7 or 8 trips in total. A 3D printer sure would have been convenient during this process… but tape and glue are more my jam.

Without going into too many details, here are the plans and the general idea behind the camera:

DIY 8x10 Paper Negative Box Camera

Oh, and because I am a bit crazy moneyless crazy, I also constructed a DIY paper/negative holder and ground glass holder to fit a custom back. Honestly, the film holder took longer to put together than the camera itself. More on that below.

Why Build a Box Camera?

  1. An available weekend + the will to create + abstaining from Pokemon Go.
  2. A lens collecting dust on my shelf + curiosity. Could I put a 300mm Fujinon f6.3 (intended for 6×8) on an 8×10 format camera? How large would the image circle coverage be? There’s only one way to find out.
  3. Piles and Piles of Darkroom Enlarging Paper. I received an unimaginably generous gift from a local printer who could no longer print. Upon receiving the bounty, I was told to “do right” by it. And that is what I plan to do.
  4. The tonality of this paper is breathtaking. These web-ready jpgs do not do it justice.
  5. I have a darkroom in my apartment.
  6. The element of the “unexpected,” so like, art, and stuff.
  7. This is my passion, and I won’t apologize for it.
  8. I recently sold all my digital equipment.
  9. Because Hipster.
  10. Still avoiding Pokemon Go.
  11. Why not?

The Basic Build Has Four-ish Key Components

This is the boring stuff. If you want to get straight to the results, keep scrolling.

1. Lens and Lensboard

boxcamera_lenses

I started with the Fujinon 300mm f6.3 intended for a 6×8 camera. I wasn’t sure what the image circle/coverage would be… but I knew the focal length of 300mm is ‘normal’ for an 8×10 format camera. This is mounted to a prefabricated wooden square like-a this one. Technically, you could experiment with any large format lens. My next experiment includes an old projector’s lens.

2. Inner Box

boxcamera_innerbox

12″ H x 12″ W x 7″ D. This size covers 8×10″ paper. (2) 12×12″ pre-cut panels/plaques similar to these for front and back of box… You know, the kind of blank wooden wall hangings you decoupage magazine clippings and/or paint strawberries on.

I calculated the depth of the box based on the focusing distances of the 300mm lens. I wanted it short enough to focus on distanced points. I cut a 4″x4″ hole in center of the front plaque for lens, and cut out all but the framing for the back side of box (ends up being around 10″ x 10″).

For the walls: (4) of these pre-cut wooden pieces for the side panels cut to 7″ on one edge (for the depth of the box). These pieces fit snugly inside the back framing of the wooden plaques. It was almost as if it was meant to be. I finished the corners (where the walls meet) with 3/4″ corner moulding. Then put ‘er all together.

3. Outer Box

boxcamera_outerbox

The Interior of the outer box (that’s a confusing statement) has to be just big enough to fit the Inner box. It needs just enough room to slide. So, if the inner box is 12″x12″ on its outside edges, then the interior of the outer box should be about 12 1/4″ x 12 1/4.”

The outer box has two picture frames for support on the front and the back sides. I had wooden laminate cut at a local lumber yard to ensure uniformity, (4) panels 12 1/4″ x 13 L”. The edges were finished with 1″ corner moulding. This helped block light and stabilize the outer box. I left an inch or so at the back without moulding so I could build a back that would hook onto/wrap around the box.

4. Ground Glass Holder + Paper Holder + Back

This is the most important part of the whole project because it will determine if your image is sharp or not-even-a-little-bit sharp (AKA a not-so-great portrait). I recommend binge watching Netflix on your living room floor during this stage. It’s a bit tedious. If you have money, you can buy 8×10 film holders and a back. But where’s the fun in that? I built mine.

Before I built the back to hold the ground glass holder and film/paper holder, I had to assemble the paper holder and the ground glass holder.

The most important step in this process is to ensure the paper is being held in place at the exact same distance from lens in the film/paper holder as the ground glass focus point plane. Basically, match the depth of glass to the depth of paper holder. If they don’t match, you won’t get a sharp image.

drelynn_boxcamera-paperholder

This is all about playing around and figuring out what works best. I used black mat board and foam core. The mat board is half the thickness of the foam core. The “ground glass” is glass from an 8×10 picture frame, with strips of the satin finish scotch tape across it. It ain’t fancy, ya’ll.

From there, I made the back by building it out from the box. I used balsa pieces, 1/4″ thick in varying widths. Now glob on piles of wood glue.

boxcamera_back


Here She Is

DIY 8x10 Paper Negative Box Camera

And Here’s a GIF Cuz People Like Those


The Paper Negatives & Prints

If I’m being honest, I didn’t expect much. After all, I am making images through a medium format lens, attached to a cheap wood box, focused onto “scotch tape” ground glass, projected onto 25-year-old paper, that’s held in place by a DIY foam core film holder. I wasn’t sure what this contraption would capture.

I figured it should work in theory because it has the basic makings of a camera: a light-tight space, a lens of sorts (a way for light to enter the box), and a light sensitive material (shout out to John G!).

Fortunately, all those hours of cutting balsa/foam core/mat board and watching Stranger Things paid off because as it turns out, you can attach a medium format Fujinon lens to an 8×10 camera and you can use scotch tape ground glass… and the results are, well, take a look:

Jay Anderson, Milwaukee Musician // Printed on Agfa Brovira #2
Jay Anderson, Milwaukee Musician // Printed on Agfa Brovira #2
Jacob Salzer, a Milwaukee Painter  // on Kodak RC Multigrade Lustre
Jacob Salzer, a Milwaukee Painter // on Kodak RC Multigrade Lustre
Jessi Paetzke, a Milwaukee Photographer // printed on Agfa Brovira #2
Jessi Paetzke, a Milwaukee Photographer // printed on Agfa Brovira #2

If you’re curious, the exposure times for the portraits above were between 3.5 and 6.5 seconds when shooting wide open at f/6.3. Each paper’s sensitivity reads a bit differently… generally between ASA 2-6. This lens doesn’t have a built-in shutter (because it isn’t intended for this use), so I am timing my exposures by plugging my continuous day-balanced lights into a digital enlarger timer. I have not yet experimented with strobes.

How Did This Happen

I have been incredibly fortunate and very patient. Professional photographers, instructors, hobbyists, and old-school printers have reached out and donated or sold analog equipment/supplies they had once used, but longer find use for. This generosity has allowed me to pursue my passion wholeheartedly and without hesitation.

You know the saying, “Go Big or Go Home…?” I guess you could say I went big at home because about a year ago I converted my bedroom to a darkroom… and threw my mattress on the closet floor. Recently, after completing the box camera, I figured, “Why stop there?” So, I sold most of my furniture to make room for a small studio set-up in my living room. Who needs a couch?

Former bedroom
Former bedroom

What Will I Do With This Camera

Making these sacrifices has allowed me to streamline the process. I am able to make a portrait with my box camera, turn around, enter the darkroom and immediately process the paper. How cool is that? I think it’s pretty cool.

Here’s where I think it gets even cooler: The experience of this camera—both for subject and maker—is incredibly intimate. Aside from the subject entering my home and having his/her portrait made, he/she can enter the darkroom with me and watch their likeness emerge in realtime. For those who haven’t experienced this, it’s magical, I tell you. MAGICAL!

Ultimately, my camera is a means to an end. The camera was created through passion; with it, I want to photograph passionate people. The vision of this portrait project—currently in the beginning stages—is to get to know inspirational individuals in my city through the lens. By welcoming a stranger into my home and darkroom, he/she will better understand me as a passionate creative, and I them through our conversational exchange. I hope to develop a visual network of inspiration… a web of positive energy.

If you’re in Milwaukee, get in touch, come on over, grab a beer from the fridge, take a seat, and experience the magic for yourself.


P.S. Still abstaining from Pokemon Go.


About the author: Dre L Hudson is a production artist/imaginator based in the Midwest. In her free time she’s either behind her camera, printing in her apartment darkroom, and/or eating a taco. You can find more from her on her photoblog, and be sure to give her a follow on Instagram. This article was also published here.

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