I have always built cameras, machines and models for fun. Never anything that I thought I could sell, just to use and enjoy myself and possibly to share with a friend or two.

A while back I bought a 3D printer to use as a CNC carriage. I wanted to mount a laser on it, so I could cut PCB’s (printed circuit boards) at home for prototyping some industrial electronics projects that I was working on. The printer arrived but was left sitting idle on my desk for over a month while I waitied for wifi modules to come in from China.

I could not help myself. I had to make something with it.

I would have liked to build an 8×10 camera but thought that a 4×5 was the dirt simplest camera I could make with only minimal modifications to the printer. Mostly, I was just curious to see if it could be done, with minimal outside parts. I was just building for myself and at the time, only had a tiny spool of filament that came with the printer.

 

 

Fits and starts; a 4×5 camera, one component at a time

I always try and start with something simple, and work my way up from there. What was to become the CAMERADACTYL started off as the result of days making tiny pieces, dovetail sliders, miniature gears, then dovetail rack and pinion gears.

All told, I made about 14 prints over three days straight before I had a simple block with a knob that would smoothly slide a rail back and forth. I was unshowered and greasy, had neglected my normal work, my girlfriend thought I was crazed.

Maybe she was right, but I was excited about that one little success.

Three more days of building nuts and bolts followed. I was figuring out printer tolerances and minimum component sizes possible for certain fittings that would still be strong enough to use reliably. I knew that if a regular metal and wood camera looked like Lego, my camera would have to look like Duplo to be strong enough to actually use.

From there it was few months of trial and error; a bit of CAD, a bit of printing, fitting pieces together (or not!), breaking them, going back to CAD, repeat.

Finally, I created something I could use.

 

 

A working “Duplo” prototype

I had created something that maybe wasn’t a Deardorff but what I considered to be a workable camera – success! If I had to use a camera every day, this wouldn’t be it but it worked 100%.

The focusing rails slid back and forth, the standards locked down stiff, the back was firm, the ground glass was on the correct plane, the bellows, back and standards were all light tight. The effort, it seemed, had been worth it.

Naturally, I was excited for a real-world confirmation that all the time, sweat and tears I’d invested in creating this Duplo-esque camera had been worth it.

In short, I got what I wanted.

Like most cameras of smaller formats, the “look” of large format pictures is almost completely determined by your lens (unless the camera isn’t working properly and leaking light, of course). That this Duplo camera was capable of producing images on par with any Sinar or Deardorff or Linhof, etc.. Well…

Of course, that first final build took a little more work to use than those other names and will likely never be as smooth to use, but it came really surprisingly close and ultimately has resulted in me writing this article today about the production-ready version, my CAMERADACTYL 4×5.

 

 

When a toy is not a toy

I grew up in an era where I worked for a photographer who shot with a Sinar P2, he didn’t use film for unpredictability or wacky effects, he used 4×5 slides for ridiculous resolution, clarity and sharpness: for photographing diamonds.

I was just the idiot kid who ran the film across Canal Street to the lab and would call on the landline to say whether or not the film was good, if he could break down the set, or if we needed to try again. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against Holgas or the like. Nor am I against some unpredictability when desired but film has become relatively expensive, and at a few bucks a frame, plus so much time involved to shoot, I really want to be in control of things when I can.

What I wanted to do with the CAMERADACTYL was to create a “toy” camera that was capable of producing results indistinguishable from a “professional” camera. I think I succeeded in that – even if it takes a little more effort to get there – and I am pretty proud of it.

I buy and sell photographic, scientific and industrial equipment for a living, and I’ve sold a ton of 4×5 field cameras over the years, so I know that I am not the only person who loves this type of equipment. I was initially really excited at how cheaply I could produce this “professional toy” in comparison to the classic wood and brass versions that I have dealt in for so many years, and was excited to try selling a few.

I have a sickness about it some might say.

I guess you could call it camerabedies.

 

 

Standing on the shoulders of madness

I found out about the Intrepid Camera and Chroma camera right after I thought I had something that I could sell. I found them both when I was researching Kickstarter campaigns about cameras. I had never run a campaign myself but thought that making the cameras in batches would be the only affordable way to do so.

At first, I was pretty disappointed to see that they had in many ways beaten me to it (from a business model perspective) but I was also left really excited that there were other small camera companies out there also making beautiful cameras.

I haven’t yet talked to the guys at Intrepid, although I am a big fan of their cameras. I think their cameras are beautiful, and in a lot of ways, they did what I set out to do as just a thought experiment…and did it really well.

I have chatted a bit over Instagram with Steve Lloyd from Chroma, I think we’ve some interests in common, to put it mildly. I’d love to meet that guy for a pint one day. His Kickstarter was closed by the time I learned of his existence, but one day I’ll get my hands on a Chroma, and I bet it will be awesome.

I also found out about the Standard Camera, by Drew Nikonowicz when it launched on Kickstarter a few days before my own project. I sent him a message on Instagram and asked him if we could be the best of friends and bitter rivals. He graciously accepted, and I’ll meet him for a beer the next time I pass through St. Louis.

In all seriousness, I think its pretty great and interesting that there are all these people rediscovering film and these types of cameras. It’s a pretty cool community and a great resource, and I think we all really need each other and our collective buying power to keep film alive. I think EMULSIVE, Japan Camera Hunter, The Sunny 16 Podcast, 35mmc, Analogue Wonderland, and so many more are a big part of that too. I really appreciate it.

If I were to count the hours I didn’t work on real work, and the plastic and printers and screws and fabrics and even the non-negligible portion of so many months electric bills running my printers round the clock… Well, I would guess that I could break even at about $25,000 on the camera. That’s pretty ridiculous. I am a terrible entrepreneur.

Still, I bet Drew and Steve are probably in about the same boat. Camera building seems like a get-poor-at-a-medium-pace sort of thing, but I don’t think that’s why anyone does it.

I don’t think that they can help themselves, they too have camerabedies.

 

 

Putting my camerabedies to good use

I thought I could share my idea with the community and sell a few cameras: make back a bit of what camerabedies had taken in the past, and will inevitably take in the future.

I wish I could make the CAMERADACTYL even cheaper and sell them to more people. Both as an economic principle, but also maybe out of sheer the narcissistic pleasure I would dervice from more people using and loving my cameras.

I created my campaign and set the Kickstarter goal much lower than what I have invested in the project – kind of the minimum level I needed to not lose money if I produced them as a small batch. I didn’t see any logic to making the funding goal 20, or 50 thousand dollars, the cameras are ready to go, and I just want to produce them quickly enough that it will be reasonably affordable to do so.

I probably shouldn’t mention this – maybe I should – I set the Kickstarter reward timelines at about twice the time it will actually take me to produce them, figuring it would be better to surprise people with an early camera, rather than a late one. There’s I said it. Don’t shoot me, I’m trying to underpromise and over deliver.

The campaign was fully funded in something like 12 hours and I am really stunned and flattered by that.

 

 

The future of Camerdactyl

I would love to make my designs open source.

I would love to continue doing more design work and less brokering work.

I would love to see my ideas and projects taken up and built all over the world, to where they become ubiquitous tools within our very niche industrio-community.

…but I have a problem of sorts.

Get ready for a wall of text.

 

My problem

My problem (one I don’t know how to solve necessarily) is that for better or worse, we live in a capitalist society.

I am self-employed and I have to earn money. Developing cameras is really time intensive and as a small businessman, that has a direct correlation to the amount of money I can earn.

I burn so much cash in market-rate health insurance, and food and rent and car insurance, water bills, and taxes just by being alive and breathing, so I feel a little forced to take every opportunity to sell things that I have a right to sell.

Ethan - Into the fisheye - Credit Denis Muradov
Ethan – Into the fisheye – Credit Denis Muradov

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am a (relatively) white man with an ivy league diploma and a US passport. I do OK and I don’t want anyone to feel bad for me or donate to Kickstarter so that I can eat or anything like that.

This is not a go fund me to find a cure for those camerabedies.

 

My dilemma

I understand that the power of the CAMERADACTYL is not so much that its colors can be customized. What sets the design apart is that it can be almost entirely 3D printed and what can’t, can be constructed with a pair of scissors and an allen key.

On a personal level, all this is relatively meaningless if I keep the plans to myself.

My dilemma is that if I were to release the plans, there would be another factory that could produce and sell my design for less than I can produce it for.

I don’t really have a problem with individuals printing and customizing the thing, it will take you at least 200 hours to do so with one printer, and ultimately cost more than you could buy one from me for. If someone feels the desire to do that, it is something that I philosophically stand behind.

The problem is that once the first file is out there, it will be everywhere, and another, larger and more efficient manufacturer, maybe with access to sub-US-living wage labor will be selling them on eBay well before I make back what I put into the design.

I figure that eventually, I’ll split the difference here: offer camera kits that just include the plastic pieces, maybe some hex bolts, glass grinding powder, a bellows pattern and internal vinyl. It’ll take a customer something like 4 hours to do it right but will make the camera much much cheaper to sell as a kit.

Ultimately, I can scale the number of printers that I have, but can’t really scale my time in assembly. I think if a customer can discount their time in the building from the total cost, I can produce the plastic assemblies cheaper than anyone else could, at least in their home.

 

My solution?

Maybe one day I’ll successfully design a more widely applicable rollfilm camera and will release the files for the first CAMERADACTYL to generate some goodwill towards the second.

Maybe I’ll go totally bankrupt and become a wandering vagrant, with no ability to produce cameras out of my stolen shopping cart-cum-caravan-with-bockety-wheel and I’ll just release the files then, as I’ll have no use for them, boozed up and shouting nonsensical reveries.

Maybe I’ll win a lotto I never play, or become famous enough in the community from some future designs that I can make a living on goodwill donations that support a more lavish vagrant lifestyle where I just make designs and release them all for free, never produce a physical product, and sit on a beach in Bali all day.

Maybe (more realistically), I would create something like a Patreon or a Drip account once I have a few more well-adopted designs under my belt, and have my product become less about cameras and more camera design/printing files, videos, and camera building information, reviews of old patents, disassembly of classic cameras, etc.

Honestly, I am not really sure where CAMERADACTYL will go from here but I do know that I’ll keep selling cameras and parts. It’s because of those camerabedies. I won’t be able to help myself. I’ll keep designing and building more cameras.

 

My immediate-ish future

I’m about 1/3 of the way to a medium format rangefinder, but I don’t want to drum up enthusiasm for anything that I could be years away from finishing. I have a notebook of sketches of my ‘Dream Cameras’ that I’d like to design and build in a mid-market manufacturable way.

We haven’t seen very much use of 3D printing technology to create the gears, cams, levers and mechanical interactions that would be required to produce great rollfilm cameras, I would like to change that.

I would like to make things more affordable, accessible, fun.

Maybe it’s not the best marketing strategy to be so open about these uncertainties, but I have a real respect for EMULSIVE and the sort of thoughtful work that goes up on the site. I want to honor that by being open and saying that I really don’t know what the future holds.

This is my chance to put a little tiny mark in the canon of photographic history, and I want to be thoughtful and open about the process and the future and the uncertainty: the beauty and the horror.

Being a small businessman is all about uncertainty, being open to opportunities, licking fingers and sticking them in the wind. It’s terrifying but also thrilling. I am open to suggestions. Certainly this something that others have thought about in the community.

Most of all, I hope that I can build and share more cameras, and that people will love them.

I can’t ask for more than that. Thanks for reading.

~ Ethan

 

 

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5 COMMENTS

  1. Disappointing to read that he feels the need to offer a quasi-apology for living in a capitalist society given that that mechanism has been the recipe for most (if not all) of the creature comforts enjoyed by the world. I ordered one of his Cameradactyls on Kickstarter but wouldn’t have if I’d read this first.

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