Sketch to Shape to Snap in one week

Daguerreotype Camera, Smithsonian Museum of American History

Daguerreotype Camera, Smithsonian Museum of American History

The challenge: Design, mill, build and use a wood wet plate camera in a week. Well, five days.

I’ve talked in the past about the CNC machine, building it, tweaking it, breaking it and learning the process from CAD to real life. Or, as Chris Anderson in the book ‘Makers, the New Industrial Revolution’ puts it.. ‘Bits to atoms’. In the end though, I wanted it for one thing. Building photographic gear. Wood, plastic, metal – I don’t care, as long as I can put photo sensitive material inside and expose to it the world.

Over the past few weeks I’ve perfected (as closely as possible) my own personal ‘bits to atoms’ approach. It’s been a long road for the hardware alone, adjusting, power issues, dust collection. Software has been a bit more forgiving – after all you just make something in a 3D CAD program and hit print right? Not so fast. You then need to disassemble the 3D object as you would something in real life and then lay it out. From there you take it into your CAM program which allows you to specify the boundaries of each piece to tell the CNC machine what to cut out.

Which leads me to the initial challenge. Design in CAD a camera for a reenactment event this weekend. Mill the camera design out of wood, build it, finish it and then bright and early Saturday morning. Make a plate.

Let’s look at the basics of a camera. I have included a Creative Commons licensed photo from Flickr User ‘Burnt Pixel‘.

This is a photo of a specimen of a sliding box camera for Daguerreotypes. There’s three important parts to this very basic camera. The lens which projects the image from in front of the camera to the focal plane inside the camera. A back that allows an easy place to swap out light sensitive material and a set distance in the middle. Depending on where your subject is in front of the camera that area of focus is either closer or further away from the lens. This is where the sliding aspect of the box comes in. By sliding the box forward and back I can focus from very close to the camera to infinity.. That is, if the sliding movement is enough to cover to infinity.

A bellows camera does the same as the sliding box. Gives the camera a way to set the distance between the lens and the light sensitive material. A bellows can really squeeze together so that the camera can be folded up nice and compact.

So, this is the design I’m going to go with. Here’s my thinking of what I need to do, figure out, and problems I may face with the design and build.

  1. Light leaks may be a problem. The inner and outer box needs to be light tight. The source of light will go between the halves and with the design like in the photo any light will go towards the lens and not the film. If the inside of the camera is painted matte black I may be able to get away with a few leaks.
  2. How am I going to focus the camera? I’d rather have a working sliding design that I can set the tripod and focus. This will require a pretty stable way to move the box in and out and then lock it down. I will also need a ground glass on the back for focus.
  3. It’s imperative that the ground glass is on the same plane as where my wet plates will be. Otherwise I’ll have focus on the ground glass but not on my wet plate.
  4. Tripod hole. I need to find a way to put in a tripod hole without impeding the movement of the sliding box design.
  5. Since I have a back flange for the Petzval lens I am going to use for this design, I can just cut a hole in the front of the camera the exact size of my lens.

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