I recently had the opportunity to talk with David Hancock about his recently launched Kickstarter campaign: large format pinhole cameras from 5119 Cameras. You may know David from his eponymous YouTube channel and articles here on EMULSIVE.
David has been a fixture in the photography space for about a decade and most people know him for his thorough, evenly paced, detailed, and easily followed camera manuals and film deep-dive analyses. David’s mission is to make photography more accessible to photographers of all experience levels, but he primarily focuses on helping learning photographers shorten their learning curves.
I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to discuss 5119 Cameras and associated campaign, and share this recent Q&A with you all.
EM: How’s the YouTube channel going?
DH: It’s going well. I just passed 32,000 subscribers, which is awesome. I remember hitting 1,000, and 10,000, and each milestone feels just as unbelievable as the first. I often start my mornings checking comments and answering a few. It’s a good way to get ready for the day, knowing that there are people benefitting from the content. I still work to answer every question I get, though it takes a bit more time than it used to. My hope is that I can answer every question at least until 50,000 subscribers. I think, then, it will be too much. Some days I have 20 or more questions from viewers.
EM: Can you tell me a bit about what prompted the creation of 5119 Cameras and the Kickstarter campaign?
DH: When I started learning photography I had some great professors and some who were more focused on other areas of their lives. The same held true for my other college courses, and I remember that the professors who really dedicated themselves to their students cast the longest shadow on my work and personal growth. So, I’ve always wanted to be that guy for my subscribers. This is part of that.
As I moved into large format photography, I found that the learning curve was steep. Getting into large format pinhole photography helped me learn a lot of the basics, like proper film handling, loading, and developing, without as much of an investment as a used camera and some lenses. I also found that pinhole work helped me understand photographic and film principles like exposure, image composition, and most importantly image visualization very well.
Because there’s no ground glass on a pinhole, using a pinhole camera forces the photographer to visualize the image in their mind. Pinhole photographers have to learn that skill, to imagine an image before it’s framed and the shutter is moved, because that’s where the image originates, our imaginations. Pinhole photography teaches that skill better than any other photography, and my goal with these cameras is to help photographers gain or refine that skill.
A specific event that led to this campaign, one of my subscribers and I had a good conversation one day about some arthritis-related challenges he had. A big one, he couldn’t hold his cameras — which were all very nice — without risking dropping them. Also, the fine dials and buttons were too small for him to move any more. And the loss of his ability to take photos was palpably painful for him. I had an idea in my head for a pinhole camera campaign at that point and that night I sat down at my computer and drafted the shapes that became my campaign’s camera’s first-generation prototypes, and my goal was specifically to make a camera that someone with severe arthritis, poor vision, one hand, or any of myriad other challenges could use. So they had to have easily used features, be sturdy enough to withstand drops, and also be relatively easy to assemble at home. If someone with physical challenges can use the camera, then anyone without those challenges can. That’s something I think that a lot of camera makers ignore.
That was 2018. In 2019, I advanced the cameras through seven prototype generations, fixing geometry issues, refining the design, improving their ability to be used easily by anyone.
EM: Sorry, seven prototype generations? How have the designs changed in that time?
DH: And then two more in 2020, and a final set of design changes earlier this year, so that’s, what, ten or eleven? I think I use ten as the iteration number. It was a lot. I knew from the start that I wanted to release finished products, not go to the campaign with an idea or prototypes. I knew also that I wanted these to have a demonstrated and successful track record of delivering quality images. I’ve lost money on Kickstarter, including on photo gear campaigns, and I’m not willing to let that happen to my backers.
The designs have changed a fair amount…well, a lot.
I didn’t keep any of the old units. Some went to a charity, many just got thrown out because their usability issues were a problem. Early on I had a limited supply of film holders and my original designs had a hook-lock system for the film holder backs, the part of the camera with the exposure calculator. These worked great for old wood and metal film holders, terribly for plastic ones. And that was too bad because I liked that the old design was very tactile and the feel of slapping the back of the camera into place was rewarding. The final cameras use shock cord to hold the film backs in place and that solution works brilliantly from a functional perspective, even if it’s a bit less fun.
But importantly, almost all of those cameras were used to take photos. Some camera generations were cardboard, just to verify geometry changes on the cheap, but all the functional cameras took actual images and that was key in how I developed some of the camera’s workings, like the interior linings.
EM: Let’s talk about felt…
DH: This was something I was really happy with. I painted early camera versions’ interiors matte black and had terrible issues with hot spots on the images. The matte paint was still allowing internal reflections.
Taking exposures in the minute-plus range, reflections become a significant problem. So I used some felt on a camera, having had good success with that approach in macro tubes, lens hoods, and the backs of some telephoto lenses. It worked. It worked well. I still had some fogging, though, because of some wood warping that led to a small pinhole in a corner of the camera at the front of the body.
I realized if I used the felt geometry to overlap at the seams, and if the felt was dark enough, which it is, this stuff is fantastic, then I could use the interior lining to prevent light leaks due to warping and other variations in the wood. Natural materials are great, but unpredictable. So in that way the felt linings do multiple tasks, they eliminate hot spots, they also dramatically increase image contrast, and they work to prevent light leaks. That last part is key because anything built at home will be built by people with a large range of skills. So having that added light protection means that the most inexperienced camera builder can still have relatively good faith in their results.
EM: Wood warping has been a problem?
DH: The 8X10 and the 4X10 Diptych, yes. Both have suffered some warping on the front plate due to the wood and natural variations in the materials. However, one of my later prototypes for an 8X10 had a gap around two millimeters along part of one seam. It’s ugly and the worst issue I’ve had with wood warping by far. I left it in the camera instead of clamping it out during assembly to see if the felt was able to prevent that from being a light leak, and it worked.
That camera shot all of the 8X10 sample photos I have. I built in redundancy for light-proofing throughout the cameras, and I was so relieved when it worked.
EM: They’re gorgeous
DH: Oh, thank you! My hope is that anyone who backs these, and receives them assuming the Kickstarter campaign succeeds, will have something that people ask them about. I want to help people connect and if someone asks a photographer about their hobby, I think that helps strangers connect over a shared interest. Those connections make us stronger as a community. I think something aesthetically pleasing and with a bold design can create that moment to connect with someone else.
EM: At the time of writing, you’re at about the 60% mark. What’s your plan for the funds if the campaign succeeds?
I set up the pricing to be cost-effective for the backers, not to let me retire young. The campaign goal is my break-even point with a five-percent contingency. I don’t break even on any one of the models until at least five are backed — more than 20 with the 4X5. And I don’t really make any money on them until 50. So the goal is lean. My hope is that I exceed the goal, of course. I’d like to have at least 50 of the 4X5 units backed. I know I won’t reach 50 of the others, and that’s okay.
What money I do make will be going into prototyping the 120 camera lineup. The 120 cameras are significantly harder to engineer and make buildable at home. Also, they’re by necessity made of thinner and more fragile materials. So I have some technical challenges to overcome. I do have a design prototype for a 6X6, and it looks gorgeous, like a 1940s radio. But I need to figure out how to make the design stronger, because I am very hard on camera gear. Generally that’s fine because I like a beat-up and ugly cameras. But I know a lot of photographers want a beautiful camera, so I need to design for both the pretty-camera and durable-camera crowds.
EM: Rough on them with the mountain climbing?
DH: Well, scrambling. Look at me; I am weak. But yeah, my gear slams into rocks, falls off my neck, one of the 8X10 prototypes fell off a mountain ridge and survived. I just can’t bring myself to use much new gear because I will absolutely murder the cosmetics. But I’m also an exception. Many people want a camera they can take pride in the appearance of. So I hope that people get these kits and then decorate or finish them before they assemble them; I truly want these to be the cameras that belong to and reflect their owners.
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The ones that I use I like having be very beat up, stained with dirt, and scratched. For me, scars are the books’ cover and the fact that the camera still works is the story.
So, yeah, they can be painted, stained, polyurethaned, they’ll take stickers, whatever. If someone wanted them to look simply stunning and protect them, I’d go with a few coats of spray-on matte polyurethane, personally.
EM: Time to ask an uncomfortable question; cost. These are a lot. Why
DH: Well, it’s my cost. For complete transparency, let’s talk numbers. I’m happy to be open about this.
The 4X5 costs me $170 to make one. I forget the exact numbers for all the cameras, but the 5X7 is around $235, $380-ish for the 8X10, and about $295 for the 4X10, maybe $305, I forget for sure. There is an economy of scale at volume, but that’s like when I hit 1,000 units, which I won’t.
I break even on each model between five and ten units (depending on model). The 4X5 I won’t break even on until about 35 units because I set the earlybird on those to be a $20 loss per unit. The objective, of course, to reward the early backers as early success drives attention on Kickstarter. So I ran numbers and different backing scenarios and arrived at the $17,500 figure because that is around an 8% profit margin including a 5% contingency.
EM: About $1,500 profit for the whole campaign?
DH: Yup, if I don’t eat into the 5% contingency I set. If I had set the goal at $10,000, there were some very real scenarios where I lost $1,500-$3,000. But that doesn’t really answer the question of why these are so much. I don’t have a laser cutter and it takes something with at least 80 watts in power, preferably north of 100 watts, to cut the 7mm bamboo used.
I tried to cut this bamboo with a 60-watt laser and it took three passes and left huge scorch marks. So really, I think this stuff needs something like 100 or 130 watts. I have a company doing the laser cutting for me. Their time and the materials are expensive. But their quality is exceptional and they have never once made a mistake.
EM: If it’s that challenging, why not choose a different material?
DH: I tried a bunch of materials including a thinner bamboo plywood, various MDF boards in the 5.5 to 6.5mm range, 1/8-inch birch and walnut hardwoods and the same thickness in birch plywood, and some others. I found that the thin plywoods and hardwoods were not light proof.
What I did to test that was order material samples from all these materials. I then affixed them to a camera body cap that I had cut a hole in and made sure the cap was light-proof around the seam. Then I set the ISO to 400, which I think is a fair number honestly, and let the cameras sit for long exposures. I immediately ruled out any material that left an image that was the material’s color because that meant it allowed light through. So all the 1/8th-inch plywoods and hardwoods failed with exposures in the 10-to-20-second range. Assuming it takes 30 seconds of image setup with the film holder’s dark slide removed, including a five-second exposure, that would mean that those materials would need exceptional internal light proofing to prevent film fog, increasing complexity. I ran into that exact issue with lens boards made of those same 1/8th-inch boards. I made a whole video about it, in fact, which you can see here:
The MDF boards and the two bamboo plywoods, even at 30 seconds with 1,600 ISO on the digital cameras, returned images with only sensor amp glow. So I knew they would work. I liked the bamboo’s aesthetics the most, and it was also the lightest. I found the MDF to be a bit not to my liking in terms of aesthetics and strength. The 7mm bamboo, that stuff is like steel, but light.
The felt linings just make the whole thing even more light proof and then the shape of the back around the film holder prevents stray light from entering. The film holders themselves rest against a black wool gasket cut to hold them firmly and snugly. The material costs, they just add up.
The largest single cost, though, is the laser engraving. I think that’s about $65 to $85 per camera when I priced them without. But in keeping with these cameras’ mission, the specs are included to improve usability. The Sunny 16 exposure guide means that in daylight shooting nothing extra is needed. The thick sighting lines on three sides and the oversized text help people with poor vision compose and calculate images. Those are design elements that no other camera kit that I’m aware of has and while it has a cost it truly improves the user experience.
EM: Okay, so we’ve put this off long enough, the 410 Diptych. What the heck?
DH: (Smiling) So I didn’t want to be just another me-too make-at-home pinhole camera kit. And I didn’t want to just make a 410 camera because, I mean, anyone could. So I had this idea that, hey, 4X10 is, what, two 4X5s, right? Yeah, sure, not really that easy but whatever I had a bugbear in my door and wasn’t about to step down from it. I did some digging and if there has ever been a camera before that can shoot either 4X10 or two 4X5 film backs in a diptych, I couldn’t find anything to indicate it existed. So to the best of my knowledge, this is the first. And that idea made me happy. Let me tell you, though, designing a camera to hold the different film backs was a serious challenge.
All the cameras are based on the ANSI specs for double-sided film holders. There’s no ANSI spec for this 4X10 and two 4X5 holders design. And the 4X10 film backs also don’t have an ANSI spec of their own. There are two competing specs for 4X10 holders; I believe that this camera will accept both. So, ya know, this design took far longer to get to a usable stage than I had hoped because I had to do a lot of trial and error with shapes and alignment and then I had to decide on the compromises I was willing to make for this to be a reality.
EM: I need to ask, where did the name 5119 Cameras come from? Any chance it’s your PIN number?
DH: Good question, but no….and before you ask, although I’m in Denver, it’s not my elevation (we’re at around 6,000 feet). The name is old. Back in a former life I was a real estate broker. I was working to go into commercial real estate brokerage for contaminated land with the aim of facilitating sales to owners that would remediate and redevelop brownfields.
As a self-sponsoring real estate broker, I had to have a sign readable from the street on my place of business, which was my home, and where I lived banned business signage. I needed a work-around that would meet state legal requirements and not raise the ire of the HOA. So I walked out in front of my home and tried to figure out a solution. That’s when I realized that I could read my address from the street. So I started doing business as 5119. When I left that part of my life and began my Amazon store, I kept the number because I always enjoyed that moment of cleverness.
EM: I have to ask, where do you see analog photography headed?
DH: Into the past, quite honestly. The problem with analog photography is that it requires a major industrial support structure. In that, it’s unique among art forms. No one is making their own acetate film. No one is making their own SLRs. Even the most basic ball-bearing leaf shutter is going to be beyond the capabilities of most anyone to build themselves. Right now analog photography is at a crossroads that will determine if it survives in a format we recognize today or not.
A big part of that is the future of working cameras. As a camera reseller, let me say that the rate at which incoming cameras are DoA is increasing a lot. It used to be, as a specific example, about 2-3% of my Canon AE-1 bodies arrived dead and unrepairable. That’s around 15% this year, 18% last. The rate is slightly lower on other popular bodies like the Pentax K1000, Minolta X-370 and X-700 bodies, which have a dead rate around 9% right now. Other camera lines have different dead rates, but a few years ago it was 2-3% for all of them and, with the exception of cameras made before the mid-70s, that dead rate is increasing across the board.
That’s a huge risk. I don’t know what the tipping point is, but if at some point cameras with reliable functionality become too scarce to sell affordably, that means that the customer base for film makers will erode. So having working film cameras is required for the film makers to stay in business and having those film makers is vital for easy access to analog photography. Ultimately, everything about the future of film relies on the ability of photographers to obtain usable and reliable cameras.
I don’t think that pinhole cameras are the magic bullet, because no single solution to the issue exists, but I do think that going back to photography’s roots with build-at-home cameras can be a part of the solution. Back in the day, people made their own cameras, or they were hand-made in shops by craftsmen. They were simple and shot images with a timeless quality. And they shot sheet film. So a contribution I can make to helping film is to hopefully increase the base of sheet film users. Making a simple, entry-level camera that uses sheet film and gives photographers ownership of their camera, medium, and art, I hope, helps that.
But ultimately, saving analog photography has to be a team effort. Older photographers who grew up with film, some are really great and helpful to the newcomers. Those who aren’t need to re-evaluate the way they interact with young hobbyists and students. People who like this hobby and who can program actuators in Arduino or RaspberryPi, they would be great sources for creating electronically controlled leaf shutters made with laser-cut or 3D printed components. That would go a long way to saving large- and medium-format photography, especially if photographers could build their shutters and cameras at home. People like Jason Lane, who makes and sells his truly fantastic glass plates, are doing a ton to save this medium, more than I am I think, because they’re making a product that will help keep young photographers engaged. So there is a lot of hope for the future of film photography, but I don’t know that it will be as we recognize it today in 20 years.
But here’s the bottom line on what will actually save film and analog photography: a community of people who recognize and value the challenge of obtaining very good images without the assistance of artificial intelligence, algorithms, and sensors with so much image latitude that exposures don’t even need to be close for an image to be recovered. No gear, no marketing, no person can save this medium; only a desire from enough photographers to be their best and to see what they can do with no assistance from computers will save this medium. I believe that will always exist.
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