I Built Myself a 16×20-Inch Camera in 10 Hours

[Giles Clement] was avoiding work in a bar, nursing a pint, and doodling a sketch for a camera. He looked at his sketch, thought, “gee, that looks better than answering emails,” and called his friend. An hour later they were at home depot buying supplies, and ten hours of furious work later, they had a camera. Nothing gets a project done like avoiding work! (See it all happen before your eyes in the video below the break.)

The camera is built around a 500mm f/4.5 Goerz Dogmar lens from around 1918 and was apparently used for aerial recon out of blimps. The frame of the camera is pine and plywood. [Giles] had heard that building the bellows for these cameras had taken other hobbyists months and thousands of dollars. Rather than elaborately folded fabric, he supported his 6 mil plastic bellows on telescoping rigid rods. To view the image while he’s focusing it, he sanded a plate of glass with 100 grit sandpaper to serve as a view screen.

Once the camera was completed, they prepared the plates and exposed photos. The first step, from what we could tell, was to disregard all chemical safety practices. The second step was pouring a substance called collodion on an unsanded glass plate and tilting the plate back and forth until the whole plate had an even coat on it. Then it was put in a bath of silver nitrate to sensitize. Once sensitized the plate was placed in the frame of the focused camera and an astonishing amount of strobe light emitted. After that it’s back to the chemical baths for more safety hazards. The whole process has to be done under fifteen minutes or the plate cures before it can be used. The photos that come out are seriously cool. It’s no wonder these old styles of photography have seen a comeback.

[via HackerNews]

53 thoughts on “I Built Myself a 16×20-Inch Camera in 10 Hours

    1. Sounds like good rebellious fun (yay!), but colloidon is based on diethyl ether (the stuff you spray in carburetors when old fashioned cars won’t start). Ether is seriously capable of major, horrifying havoc – its fumes will “go to ground” on the floor below someone working with it. Any static electricity can set off a major explosion and fire. It’s to be used in explosion proof, electrically grounded fume hoods only, folks. Trained chemists, OK? . No high school kids for this project, no matter how smart you think you are!!!

        1. I used to hold a can of ether behind my back and spray it directly into the carburetor of the 5hp Tecumseh on my go-cart as impromptu nitrous when I was 13. It wasn’t dangerous though, not compared to the many attempts at constructing flamethrowers. That or the all the napalm.

          1. The 13 year old me was not as safe as the 2016 me. I would buy calcium carbide at the hardware store – Calcium carbide + water generates acetylene gas. Loads of fun! I took a quart sized coca cola bottle, threw in the calcium carbide in with some water, DIDN’T give some time for all the oxygen to be pushed out of the bottle by the generated gas and filled up a big balloon with it. I wanted to see the balloon streak across the yard with fire shooting fire out the back. OK, I took it off the bottle, pinched it off, let go while putting a match to the gas coming out the end and it blew up. Very loudly. My own little Hindenburg disaster. I was already in plenty of trouble with my parents for lots of other stuff so I didn’t tell them about the nasty burns all over my legs for a few days, until the burns started turning yellow with pus. I will never forget their reaction, but having raised 3 boys I now understand what was behind it. Kind of like “Oh crap, this kid is surely going to die on my watch one day”.

            I’m 61 years old now and I truly understand the kind of kid who reads Hackaday. Because it can be nearly self-igniting, colloidon is a lot worse than napalm.This video shows a disaster that DIDN’T happen, but it’s a disaster video nonetheless. Could these plates be prepared safely? Yes, absolutely. But not the way shown in this video.

      1. Bollocks! I have a set of books from 70s and 80s that describe many experiments for both production and use of ether, cyanide, chlorine gas, carbon monoxide, and other quite dangerous chemicals. One of them describes every photography process from first experiments to first color photographs. Those books were for younger teenagers, and were available in every school library.

        Also a friend of mine, who enjoys chemistry, made both nitrogen triiodide,(which can explode because of its own weight) and ether distillation using gas stove. His worst accident was breaking a vial of ethyl mercaptan.

        1. >have a set of books from 70s and 80s that describe many experiments for both production and use of ether, cyanide, chlorine gas, carbon monoxide, and other quite dangerous chemicals.

          I know about the slender, single volume “Little Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments for Youthful Martyrs”, but what, pray tell, is the title of the book series you are talking about?

          1. @Galane.
            Few months.
            @pakrat.
            I don’t think it will help you in any way, because those books are written in polish. The one example related to this topic wold be “Fotochemia domowa”(english: “Domestic photochemistry”) by Stefan Sękowski, ISBN 83-02-00672-6. Every book by this author is about chemistry. And in many of them he describes the ways to make or replace unavailable glassware or syntheses of of chemicals that were hard to get in those dark times of centrally controlled economy. Nowadays some of them are hard to get because they are either drugs precursors or used for making explosives…

    2. The chemicals involved are not overly hazardous – not that I would bath in them, or drink them, but gloves and eye protection are more than enough personal protection to work safely with them.

      1. You are so, so terribly wrong about this and I hope that nobody dies or spends a year in a burn unit because of your casual, uncaring and misinformed reply to my post. The way the ether solution was handled in the video made me feel physically ill. The sparks from the brushes of a ventilation fan motor would be enough to set this stuff off. Diethyl ether is the most horrifying combination of volatility and flammability imaginable. There is no other chemical that even comes close to the fire and explosion hazard posed by this stuff. If you disagree, tell me what chemical you think would be worse!

        1. Gotta chime in on this one. Ether was used as an anesthetic and it was a very good anesthetic. The problem was its flammability. People would go in for minor surgery and die with +90% burns over their body. It doesn’t take much to ignite. Even a static discharge can do the trick.

          Only use in a well ventilated area and keep away from sparks.

        2. now i agree with your attitude towards diethyl ether there are far far worse and more volatile chemicals, not that anyone would be crazy enough to use them for something like this, azides immediately comes to mind, some of them cant even be tested for their sensitivity in the best sensitivity lab in the world, coupled with a scary amount of nitrogen bonds any literature about the subject reads like the mad chemists comedy hour.

        3. Right off the top of my head carbon disulfide is far more toxic and has a far lower flashpoint than diethyl ether, which is itself middle of the pack as far as explosion hazards are concerned and there are several chemical far worse in this regard. Furthermore, the individual was wearing the personal protection called for in the MSDS and I saw no evidence of ignition sources in the video.

          Explosion hazards as they apply to VOCs in general are somewhat complex and depend on a far more complex set of parameters such that sweeping statements of the sort you are making above are largely meaningless. That is also true of chemical toxicity. An idiot can place himself in far more danger fueling a lawnmower or snowblower than I see here without much effort, and this is to say nothing about solvent widely available to the general public for applications like painting. Kits are sold on the open for the collodion process, that in and of itself indicating that your statement of the hazards is somewhat overblown.

          Yes I’ve spent 40+ years as an industrial chemist and metallurgist before I retired and I understand that my ideas of what is and is not a high chemical hazard may be somewhat skewed, but I am getting a bit sick of seeing the “chemical=danger” meme misused to the point where we are becoming paralyzed with fear. Processes like this can be done by an amature quite safely taking the minimum of precautions, as illustrated in the video, which put him at no higher risk than he was using the power saw that he likely used to cut the components for the camera.

          Hyperbole serves no one in matters like this.

        4. Dioxygen Difluoride? Definitely a worse chemical, along with everything else on the Things I won’t work with list :P http://blogs.sciencemag.org/pipeline/archives/2010/02/23/things_i_wont_work_with_dioxygen_difluoride
          tl;dr it explodes on contact with water ice, methane and pretty much everything else AT 180 DEGREES CELSIUS BELOW ZERO!!!

          On a more serious note, like many extremely flammable compounds I suspect a healthy respect is as important as the proper safety gear – keeping track of the worst case scenario and such… be careful kids!

          1. I do not want to keep a side conversation that takes away from the discussion of this amazing camera, but I should have said “There is no other solvent that comes close to the fire and explosion hazard by this stuff” instead of “There is no other chemical that comes close to the fire and explosion hazard by this stuff.” Dioxygen difluoride is one of many nasty chemicals to be sure, but nobody will be ever be using it as a solvent!

          2. Carbon disulfide, which I used as an example, is a solvent and it is used very much like diethyl ether in similar applications. It is used in several industrial processes, it even smells somewhat the same. It far more dangerous than diethyl ether both in terms of health impacts and the explosive potential of its vapors. That is not to suggest one can be cavalier about handling diethyl ether but it is far from the most hazardous solvent around.

          3. Someone doing a videogame needs to put a FOOF gun in it. A tank of oxygen, a tank of fluorine, a 700 degree C reaction chamber… Combine the gasses then immediately put the FOOF into a crystal fluorine lined projectile and launch it. Detonator? Don’t need one. Cracking the containment layer on impact will do the job.

            A container made of crystallized fluorine was the only thing capable of holding fluorine gas until glasses resistant to it were developed. The accidental invention/discovery of Teflon is what enabled R&D of a large number of fluorine compounds.

            A FOOF gun would use a lot of teflon on the Fluorine side of it. I’d expect it to be a maintenance intensive weapon, expensive to get and expensive to keep in operation – but ooooo the damage it could dole out with very small packages.

            What’s extra crazy is that most compounds of fluorine, the most reactive element, are among the most stable and non-reactive things invented – excepting FOOF, Chlorine trifluoride and others on the Things I Won’t Work With blog.

  1. Impressive! I like the result. Makes me want to dig out all my darkroom stuff out of the closet and start developing films again.

    P.S.: To think that back in the old days landscape photographers used to do this in the field.

      1. A tintype is made with the wet collodion process, just on blackened tin (or aluminum these days).

        These are “ambrotypes”, which are produced exactly the same way as tintypes, just on a glass substrate.

  2. If you want even better results float the plate face down on a tray of mercury (and then lock it’s position) and have a periscope system for the lens, so that the light enters the back of the plate.

    Why do this, other than to make the danger even more fun, well because the light interfering with itself as it reflects off the mercury will generate interference patterns in the emulsion that will record the different wavelengths of light, it will record a color image.

    I’ll leave it to the reader to hunt through Wikipedia to find the name of the process and who invented it so many decades ago.

        1. Ether, mercury, more minor chemical hazards please…… maybe some finely divided aluminium and iodine and a drop of water, or perhaps weedkiller and fertilizer, or maybe some finely ground zinc powder… or concentrated acids, or hydrogen cyanide, or chlorine gas, or sulphur doxide…. or 30kV power supplies, or mains voltage lamps switched with old telephone relays and a couple of 555 timers… and all of which, and many more, I might add, I experimented with as a kid, and lived to tell the tale.

          I agree there is hazard here, but it is low grade, when compared with some of the things that a kid of the 1970s and 1980 could expose themselves too without much effort.

          Take sensible precautions and work in a well ventilated area (outside in the garden if there was anything particularly dangerous, was my preference).

          I wasn’t quite in the league of David Hahn however…. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Hahn

          1. True, but I was actually waiting for somebody to point out how easily you could just plate the emulsion surface with Gallium. You can wash it off with hot water, even the developer could do it if it can be used at 29.76° Celsius.

          2. Replying to Dan’s reply to this comment…

            Getting the gallium off a Lippmann plate is much easier said than done. Gallium “wets” the emulsion, and short of physically rubbing it off it will cling (and the rubbing destroys the emulsion).

            A better attack, I think, is to allow a very thin layer of liquid gallium to come into contact with the emulsion and solidify. When thin enough, it can peel away like a thick foil. I haven’t found a way to get the gallium to flow uniformly across the plate so far, though.

          3. That… could be really effective! Much simpler than the wacky contraptions I was dreaming up.

            Looks like it’s time to go out and find an old, junked up record player…

      1. Paint the glass with Spaz-Stix Ultimate Mirror Chrome. It’s made for application to the inside of Lexan bodies for radio control cars but works equally well on glass-smooth polystyrene, glass and some other plastics. It’s a spray on mirror.

        Rustoleum Mirror Effect is nearly as good, comes in a larger can, costs less than Spaz-Stix, but does not work on polystyrene.

        Either should give the same effect as floating the glass plate on mercury. Both should clean off of glass with lacquer thinner.

        1. The reflective coat must be in direct contact with the emulsion because for the effect to work well the correct separation distance is determined by the wavelengths of visible light. That is why you expose through the back of the glass.

  3. I used to make photographic paper to use in a pinhole camera. Pretty crude, and no access to what was needed to make a collodion plate, so I used paper instead (this is a condensed version with blank spots where I’ve forgotten a few things):

    Dissolve gum arabic in ethanol, brush onto paper, allow to dry (FLAT!)
    Turn off the lights, dissolve silver nitrate in distilled water (or use tap water and watch the sliver chloride fall to bottom of the mixing vessel), brush onto dry gum-arabic treated paper, allow to dry (FLAT!). Keep it in the dark.
    Mount photo paper into cardboard mat-cut frame, insert into pinhole camera.
    Choose subject, set up camera, expose for x minutes.
    Turn off the lights, remove exposed paper, develop with (memory blank here), fix with regular photographic fixer solution, wash, dry, viola!

    I can’t remember why I used gum arabic, I think it was a substitute for the gelatine base in commercial films. I also can’t remember what I used to “develop” the image, except that it wasn’t commercial developer.

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