For the last few months, I have been working tirelessly at destroying my anonymity for the purpose of selling cameras. The responses I’ve been getting are mixed – mostly trolls in the comments section when I release a new product, but also an encouraging bunch of sales.

It’s really great to see my cameras and accessories being used all over the world. It makes up for the negativity in the comments. The strange thing to me is that everyone, supporters and detractors alike, seem to understand what I am trying to do as building crazy colored items that are fun and whimsical.  The way I like to think about it is that I am trying to make functional gear first, that happens to be available in all sorts of colors.

I have always wanted to be rich and not famous.  I used to say that I was halfway there.

I offer everything in traditional black, (and about 70% of my sales have been in all black), what seems to draw the most attention be noticed is my hot pink and unicorn patterned “pro” offerings. I’m amused by this and really love that some people enjoy the whimsy, but I’m not exactly sure if it helps or hurts my marketing strategy at large. I am no marketing genius, but I assume that hot pink camera grips will get covered on the blogs, while black camera grips aren’t really different enough for people to take notice. I am working under the assumption that deeply polarizing cameras can be good for business, but that has yet to be proven out fully.

 

 

My latest project

I’ve been tinkering around bringing cameras from my dream camera journal to life over the last few months. I had about 90% of an 8×10 field camera finished when the laser cutter went down last month. I am also about 95% done with a little shoe mounted light meter, but had been waiting on parts: tiny esoteric rotary switches, PCB’s being printed at the fab, special engraving acrylic for the dials.

It must be obvious that I really like working on one project at a time.

I am obsessive, and probably have more of a laser beam focus than a flashlight. I am loathed to start one project before I finish the last, but idle hands do the devils work, and my camerabedies flares up in idle times.

My next (hopefully polarizing) project: the CAMERADACTYL OG 4×5 hand camera.


CAMERADACTYL OG 4x5 family portrait
CAMERADACTYL OG 4×5 family portrait

Available in all black or black and grey, color-changing hot pink to purple or even glow in the dark finishes. Most importantly to me is that – whatever the color scheme – I really like the camera.

It’s fun to use, and able to take some great pictures in competent hands.

 

 

Back to the start

One project that I had been keeping on the back burner was a handheld 4×5 scale focusing camera with a helical lens mount. I’ve had it in my journal since before my first 4×5 field camera was finished.  I have had a few requests through Instagram and my website for such a camera, and while at the time I thought that I could produce and sell them at a really reasonable price but I knew that it would take many thousands of dollars worth of time to sit down and design one.

I re-directed people to other, less-than-ideal alternatives, but interesting cameras and camera-makers in their own right.

CAMERADACTYL OG 4x5 - a pile of parts
CAMERADACTYL OG 4×5 – a pile of parts

Knowing that I would be sitting idle for at least two weeks while waiting on parts and equipment, I couldn’t help myself. I started sketching and drafting. I knew that the most difficult part to design would be the helical focusing mount, so I started there. In a day or two I had printed a concept model that could be described as a teacup that telescoped into a pint glass. Invited to dinner at a neighbors house, I demonstrated the prototype. They were politely ‘impressed’. It wasn’t exactly recognizable as a camera part, though, with a Copal 0 hole, right square in the middle of the bottom, neither was it useful as a water glass.

After my success with a model of the helical, I moved on to designing the rest of the camera: a lens cone; a film back; a hand grip; and a little hoop sight style finder. I had a working camera in about a week and spent another few weeks playing with the camera, getting everything right. I really liked using the camera, but wanted to smooth out any kinks before releasing a saleable product.

 

 

From prototype to production

Here are some of the things that I am proud of on the camera, that I worked hard on and I think came out really nicely:

 

Grips

I made about 8 iterations of a hand grip.  It doesn’t really affect the image quality of the camera, but for a guy who sells a ton of hand grips for classic cameras, I thought I should get this one perfect. I really like how this grip fits in my hand, and that I can hold on to the camera with just a few fingertips in a little smooth rounded groove hidden on the inside when I am not shooting with the camera.

 

Focusing helicoid

I went through about 10 iterations working on the tolerances of the focusing helicoid, the nose cone baffle mount, and the focusing ring itself, to make sure that there was no slop, that everything was nice and tight and wiggle free. The focusing helix sits both inside and outside of a light baffle cup, so no matter what, it can’t leak light, even if re-assembled with way too much slop. It works a bit like a light baffle in a developing tank.  It’s pretty unique to my camera design and I’m proud of this detail.

 

Ground glass options

I made the ground glass spring frame in such a way that it both holds a standard 4×5 sheet film holder between it and the back of the camera while shooting and ridges on the back that catch the light baffles of a standard film holder. What does this all mean?

You can use a sheet film holder as a cover for the ground glass and just throw it in your bag and not worry about breaking or scratching anything.

I also made a few versions of ground glass: a standard glass ground glass, which is very bright and easy to use (but fragile, because, well, its glass). I also will offer a ground acrylic ground glass either with no markings or with laser etched grid lines. I prefer the acrylic because, even though it’s a little darker to focus through, it’s much more durable (and I am rough on cameras). I like to climb up and slide down mountains, bumble through caves and canyons, and am not particularly coordinated.

 

Lens cones

I made a range of nose cone/helix/focusing ring combinations to be able to use a range of lenses on the camera. Fortunately or unfortunately, large format lenses are not bounded by a fixed flange distance when focused at infinity.

My 127mm Kodak Anastigmat lens focuses about 10mm longer than my 127mm Kodak Ektar at infinity. I made a cone for each of them. Strangely, my 135mm Graflex Optar focuses at right about the same distance as the 127mm Kodak Ektar, I assume because they were both press lenses used on speed and crown graphics, and may have used the same rangefinder cams, but that’s just speculation on my part.

I also made a cone for a 90mm Schneider Angulon, as well as a 150mm Schneider. I’m working on expanding the range to include 75mm, 65mm, and 47mm Aangulons, and I’ll try to make some custom nosecones for anyone willing to precisely measure their infinity focus flange distance before ordering.

In my opinion, 150mm is about the longest lens you’d want to use with this sort of camera. the 127 is my personal favorite.

 

Viewfinders

To go with these lenses I created lensless viewfinders. These are pretty simple to design, and no-brainers to print, but they came out really nice, and are surprisingly useful. 90mm is pushing about how wide one of my eyeballs can comfortably see through, without some negative diopter lens involved.

I did notice that if I push my eyeball hard up against the finder, I can achieve anamorphic vision, but I guess that’s probably neither here nor there in terms of usefulness, and it feels kinda weird. I wouldn’t recommend it.

These came out so simply and nicely, I’ll offer a collection of viewfinders for any camera, and make custom aspect ratios/focal lengths (angle of views) on request. I’m pretty sure that I can do it inexpensively, and they’re shoe mount (the OG has 3 cold shoes on the top), so they should be useful to a bunch of people with all sorts of cameras.

It’s pretty cool to come up with an accidental offshoot product in the process of designing a related project. It reminds me of a shutter tester that I built for the purposes of calibrating a camera I modified to have manual shutter speeds.

 

Focus locking and tab

Another improvement is the use of metal screws in this model, not that there are all that many. There is just one lock screw focusing tab, so you can lock the focus down at any point and when unlocked, use the screw as a focus tab.  I also use a bunch of M3 hex machine screws to hold all the parts together nice and tightly.

I’ve also switched to fabric elastic cords for the spring back. I have some metal spring stock for my 8×10 project, but wanted to keep this thing really light, and more importantly, small.

The cords are really durable and stretch quite a bit if pulled, you can fit a rollfilm back under the spring back if that’s your bag. That’s also something I’d like to tinker with a bit in the future.

 

 

Built for a beating

The entire camera is very light but very durable. My personal camera, with a 127mm f/4.7 Kodak Ektar, shutter, cable release, viewfinder, light meter, accessory rangefinder, and one loaded Fidelity Elite film back weighs 2lbs, 10 oz (1,190g). You could kick it down a flight of stairs and it would laugh at you (but maybe wood stairs and not concrete).

The body plus lens cone for my 127mm lens weighs 1lb, 10 oz (~740g). It’s a bit more for a 150mm cone, and a bit less for a 90mm lens cone. It’s not the lightest camera of all time, but it’s almost the lightest and very sturdily built.

You could kick it down a flight of stairs and it would laugh at you

Given how I use things, my personal preference is to make things very strong and as light as they can be, rather than as light as possible and as strong as they can be given the weight.

 

 

What’s next?

The CAMERADACTYL OG 4×5 hand camera will soon be available at cameradactyl.com with a few different nose cone/finder, ground glass, and of course color options. I’ll have separate finders up for sale too, and for a while at least, I’ll be trying to take custom requests to build out the lens range that people can use with it.

CAMERADACTYL OG 4x5 - pieces of the puzzle
CAMERADACTYL OG 4×5 – pieces of the puzzle

If these are successful, I’ll be adding a panoramic roll film back, and dedicated panoramic roll film cameras of a very similar style to the lineup pretty quickly…

…and then pour my newfound riches into other zany color changing and glow in the dark photographic endeavors, so the internet can continue to love and hate me.

I can’t help myself, it’s the camerabedies.

~ Ethan


 

 

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14 COMMENTS

  1. Looks like a well thought out camera. I’m one who supported the KS project for a similar item, the Travelwide. Unfortunately after a two year wait the focusing just never worked and the creator of that KS campaign was just too exhausted to take care of defective products. This one looks like it’s built much heaver with a thicker focusing ring. Too bad I’m not currently in the market for such an item. I finally just built my own handheld 4X5 out of hobby plywood and one of those made-in-china focusing helicoids.
    Mine is ‘serviceable’, as they say, but no where near as elegant or sturdy as yours.

  2. Terrific article, Ethan. I have enjoyed following your projects on FB and Instagram (@david.vs.camera) for awhile now. I really think you’ve hit a home run with this camera. I really like the color combinations.

  3. I enjoyed reading the article, and it is evident that you took great pleasure in writing it as well. The project is fascinating and I hope to be able to support it. A portable 4×5 handheld camera such as this one is something that I have been looking for, and the colors are an embellishment and detail that help to personalize it. I love the fact you have incorporated a grip as well. If you can, please post a few high resolution sample images taken with the camera, and thank you, hopefully in the future you will be both anonymous and rich. By the way, the reason I found out about Cameradactyl OG was because Nico of the weekly photography show spoke about it yesterday (January 15th), and as soon as I heard about it, I knew I had to look you up. Best wishes!

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