My name is Ethan, I make cameras at CAMERADACTYL. I 3D print film cameras and ship them all over the world. If you haven’t heard of me before, here are some links to articles I’ve written about some of my previous projects, the CAMERADACTYL HOMONCULUS 69, OG 4×5 and 4×5 Field Camera.
Now that we’re acquainted, I want to write about the newest camera I’m releasing: the CAMERADACTYL Brancopan, a 35mm wide format camera that makes 20x 24x58mm frames in a 1:2.4 aspect ratio on standard 36 exposure 35mm film.
This article will cover camera specs and features, a bit of how it works and how to use it, some pictures I’ve taken with the camera, but it will also talk about the process of designing and prototyping the camera, as well as the business economics of running a small camera company, and what I am trying to do differently with this project. Here’s how it breaks down:
I’ll also be putting together a thorough review of the camera in a companion piece on 35mmc.
How the project started
A while back I made a medium format camera that took Mamiya Press lenses and Mamiya RB67 or Graflex backs. I surprised myself a handful of times during that design process, and ultimately produced a camera that I genuinely love, and love to use, and I think lots of other people do too.
I won’t go into that camera in this article (see above link for the full blah blah on that), but it sets the backdrop for the Brancopan.
I had a lens mount that worked really well, was super sturdy and took lenses that covered big negatives. How well it came out was one of the things that really surprised me. I even started selling that lens mount by itself to homemade camera builders (people who just wanted a great Mamiya Press flange to mount on their most excellent homemade cameras).
I have a friend that all photographers and cinematographers should know, Eric Branco. We grew up across the street from each other in the Bronx. We have the same favorite pizza joint. I was Eric’s wedding photographer almost a decade ago. I’ve done a stint both as a boom mic operator and an extra with a donut smeared all over my face in an AA meeting in Eric’s first feature film. I’ve been a fan of his since we were 13. I’ve watched Eric go from a grip on sets to directing and DP-ing real feature films. Last year, Clemency, a film he shot, won the grand jury prize at Sundance, and its been super fun watching his meteoric rise. I guess all this lead to him getting to shoot his next feature on film. Tens and thousands of feet, and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of it.
Eric called me when he got the job. I call him when I need to know about video and audio gear, and he calls me when the questions are about analog film gear. He was looking for a panoramic camera to shoot some test shots for the movie on Cinestill BwXX, location scouting and such, but also in general, because he thinks in cinema aspect ratios. Always has.
Hasselblad XPans are expensive, and Eric uses and destroys delicate gear. I once watched our friend borrow his camera to take a picture of us, and proceed to press the lens release button instead of the shutter and drop a rather nice M-mount lens right off the front of the camera and onto the floor.
There are also kludges of all sorts, I even tried to convince him to spool 35mm film in an RB67 back with a mask in the Homonculus. All of those options worked but none of them were what you’d call slick.
The popularity of the XPan and the relative rarity of dedicated panoramic 35mm cameras, and particularly the total lack of still cameras that shot cinema anamorphic 1:2.4 standard aspect ratios, all were in the back of my mind.
So if my friend Eric, Big Time Hollywood DP, was too good for my camera and some cobbled together masking back, I would show him.
It’s kind of a project I just fell wholly into. I almost never know what I am getting into as I start a project, there are too many unknown unknowns, and I tend to err on the side of expecting fewer. I figured that I already had a working lens mount for a great lens system that would cover a panoramic format, how hard could the rest be?
I spent a week designing, printing, testing and modifying different ratchet mechanisms. I could have just made a wind knob. I could have done that in a few hours, but that wouldn’t be good enough for me, let alone Mr. Hollywood. I needed a ratchet scheme that would be durable enough to spool thousands of feet of film, one frame at a time. In the end, I used a very similar design to some mountain bike parts.
I researched patents and designed a totally unique mechanism for disengaging the wind-on gears so that you can rewind the film back into the canister. That trivial little latch, or sprung button on the bottom of your camera, the one you press to rewind the film, that took someone weeks to design.
I designed an entirely separate gear train, that would be pulled along by the film, metering out the distance between sprockets, and stopping the winder at just the right spot for even frame spacing. Eat your heart out 1990’s Kiev Camera Export models! I added gears and a dial to that mechanism to add a frame counter to the system.
All this is to say that much like car transmissions, and the hearts of men and women, small camera gears take more wear and stress as they begin or end their interactions with one another.
The frame counter is interesting in an odd-ball way that really tickles me. In most film cameras with which we are familiar, the frame counter will advance just 1 detent each frame. The way this is done is with some sort of an intermittent motion gear set. If you want to know more about intermittent motion mechanical systems, there’s a ton of great info out there in clock and watch design. I also know a thing or two about cars. Lots of intermittent motion machines require engaging and disengaging pieces or sectors, or standing pins on gears.
Generally when you break a car transmission, it’s not while the transmission is engaged, it’s damage and wear caused by meshing and un-meshing of gears. All this is to say that much like car transmissions, and the hearts of men and women, small camera gears take more wear and stress as they begin or end their interactions with one another.
I designed the frame counter dial gears and the film spacing mechanism gear that mates with it to never disengage. This keeps the entire mechanism moving smoothly because there are no mesh points to encounter. Because of this feature, instead of the frame counter ticking over one detent, it rotates a full turn plus one detent each time you wind a frame. It’s not something I think the average user would notice, let alone think about, but its something just a little different that has a purpose. It’s just a little trick I used here to get plastic to do the job of metal, without the strength or precision of metal parts.
I designed a door with a built-in light baffle, a hinge, and a sprung latch that can be opened with the press of a button, but also locks tightly and most importantly: doesn’t leak light.
I originally designed the camera to use two small springs from a supply of HVLP (high volume low pressure) spray gun repair parts that I had bought as part of a truckload of equipment in a deal years prior. Eventually, I destroyed half a dozen Bic pens to harvest and test their springs, so that I knew everyone would have access to camera springs. One for the door latch, one for the frame spacing mechanism.
I repositioned them onto one side of the body, but I stole the super sturdy beefy strap lugs from the Homonculus.
I designed a big sturdy body with inner and outer plates that hold all the gears in place. The gears and latches and ratchets are all printed oversized, meant to be tough above all else.
I usually design individual mechanisms outside of a camera first. It’s just much quicker to build and test an arbitrary block with a ratchet in it, rather than a camera. Once I have a bunch of working mechanisms, I will begin to integrate them into a camera body and get them all to play nice with each other.
It took me 3 tries to get everything to go together inside a body. That means 26-27 hours of print time for each body alone, or 60-70 hours of print time for each set of parts. Each time a set of parts would come off the printer, I would trim and assemble them, measure them, work a mechanism back and forth and feel and look closely for pinch or wear patterns. I would make notes, then modify my model, print, repeat.
The first time I printed a Brancopan, I made 5 pages of notes.
All checkbox, to-do lists of engineering and tolerance changes. The second time I printed and tried to assemble a camera, I think there were only two or three pages of changes. I got to body #4 by the time it all fit and everything moved well. Body #5 or #6 was the first camera to assemble as a camera and also function like one. It had light leaks and other issues, but it was very close. I think I went a few full time, round the clock, printer tending months, to get to about 9 bodies together before I started building working cameras.
I guess I’ve gained a bit of confidence through experience, that mechanical interactions exist in the world, and so they can be worked out again, that gears and levers and cams and such, can be made to do my will. I don’t know if I would have ever gone this far even a year ago, given my initial failures. Now it really seems weird to call them failures, just gathering data, part of the prototyping process, something to be worked through.
After a few months, I made a Brancopan for myself in CAMERADACTYL PRO™ colors – pink and baby blue – and shipped Eric an all-black camera with his name on it, just before he started shooting his feature on film. Only about a month and a half more than I originally had thought it would take me.
Now I’ll give some details about the camera, and then I’ll get to a bit of my experience using it, and then what I plan to do with it, businesswise.
Broncopan technical specifications
The camera takes 35mm film, in any standard 135 cassette using a standard film leader. It takes Mamiya Press lenses, which are available in focal lengths ranging from 50mm to 250mm. I love the 90mm on the HOMONCULUS, but for the Brancopan I really like the 65mm. It’s an f/6.3 as it comes, but there’s a little plastic tab that limits the aperture, which you can pry off. If you remove the tab, the lens becomes an f/4. I wouldn’t point it at any point light sources like the sun or a bulb at apertures below f/6.3 though, as it will flare unreasonably.
The camera shoots 24x58mm size images, which is 1:2.4 or Cinema Anamorphic aspect ratio, a really common cinema format. I really hope that the camera will be adopted by cinematic panorama shooters. I’m really waiting for someone to make some great use out of it with a color cine film like Cinestill 800T, I have visions of neon alleyways and trenchcoated detectives at dusk…
The camera has a frame counter and a lock at every frame. It also counts in both directions due to its unique design.
There are 2 cold shoes, one tripod mount (3/8″ standard large tripod screw, which can be adapted with a metal adapter to 1/4″), and two super heavy duty strap lugs.
The camera can be printed in an uncountable number of colors and uses only 1 size (M3) cap head hex screws in a few lengths. It can be assembled and adjusted with just 1 allen key. I keep one in my wallet, I’ve only needed it once. The camera requires 1 to 2 bic pen springs, depending on model (some are long enough to cut two springs out of, some are too short)
There is 1 laser-cut part, the film counter dial, which is not necessary, but I think it makes the camera look much cleaner and easier to read. The full spec is as follows:
|Camera name||CAMERADACTYL Brancopan|
|Camera type||35mm point and shoot|
|Format||20x 24x58mm 1:2.4 aspect ratio images per roll of 36 exposure 35mm film|
|Viewfinder coverage||Magic (interchangeable viewfinder masks)|
|Shutter||In-lens Seikosha leaf shutter (Mamiya Press lenses)|
|Lens||All Mamiya Press lenses from 50-250mm
|Focusing||Manual zone focus (focus calibration possible)|
|Accessories||2x cold shoes
1x 3/8" tripod mount
Printable viewfinder frames
|Weight||1000g (body only)
1300g (body + 65mm f/6.3)
|184 x 127 x 76mm (W x H x D - body only)
115 x 75 x 65mm (W x H x D - body + 65mm f/6.3)
These are the tools I’d recommend for a first time assembly:
- An X-acto knife.
- Both coarse and fine-grit sandpaper (80 & 200 grits about).
- A microcutter / diagonal cutter.
- A small file.
- An allen key.
- I’d also recommend a good electric screwdriver with a hex bit.
The allen key in my wallet has come in handy once and is fine for adjustment but it would take forever and my hands would fall off if I had to put in and adjust 40 long but fine thread screws each time I assembled a camera. I bought my electric cordless screwdriver for $12. Nothin’ fancy.
I think that just about covers what the camera is and does, I’ll try and answer any specific technical questions that anyone has in the comments, and maybe do a FAQ page for the camera too.
I’ve used my Brancopan for a few months now. I’ve taken it to the continental divide, left it outside in the frost, got a minimal amount of sand in it in the Bisti Badlands in New Mexico, flew with it to Montreal, and New York, and all over Spain. I don’t use a camera bag, I just throw it on top of my backpack amongst my other things and go, or throw it over my shoulder and bang it around on busses and trains and bird scooters and such. It has really taken the beating well. It’s a relatively simple design, and it’s oversized in a way reminiscent of a Duplo block, both of which contribute to its ruggedness.
I do get questions from time to time asking if its an underwater camera. I assume this is because of the colors I chose and because I look super-pro. It is NOT AN UNDERWATER CAMERA. DO NOT SUBMERGE IT. You’d probably rust your lens and ruin your film. That being said, I built mine with stainless screws, so you could just dry it out, throw a new lens on and some fresh film, and keep shooting. It’s all plastic.
It does attract a lot of attention on the street. Probably again because I printed mine in those super pro colors, lots of people want to know what type of camera I’m using. It’s been interesting, not something I thought much about when making it, but it certainly makes a case for Eric’s black camera. I think only the camera department on Eric’s movie have really noticed his. To the casual observer, not necessarily engaged in career camera maintenance, I think it just looks like a black brick, just like any other camera that’s not your cell phone. I, however, while lurking about on street corners in three different countries, looking for scenes that make me giggle, have met photographers and photography professors, a few fancy Instagrammers, countrymen abroad, all because of my hot pink and baby blue CAMERADACTYL™ Brancopan Pro.
Here are a few photos from my travels:
I’m not going to go into detail of what it’s like to shoot with the camera here. I’ll do that in the proper review on 35mmc as a companion to this piece. Suffice it to say that I really love shooting with it. I’ve been using it whenever I can to take street photos, scale focusing at f/16, and aside from the occasional interruption by curious and like-minded enthusiasts, it’s been fast to use, and stealthy, in a hot pink, barbie dream car, kinda way.
You can print one too
Now I’m at the point where I’ve printed final production versions, taken pictures, made some videos and product shots, and it’s time to release this beast. Business has changed for me over the last year though, and I thought I would give something new a try.
Traditionally I have made money by designing, printing, assembling and shipping cameras. I recoup a very little bit of all the lost wages that I spend designing products each time I manufacture and sell one. It’s worked out well. So well in fact, that it has altered what I do with my time these days.
When I first started making cameras, I had no orders. I spent 100% of my time designing and testing prototypes during that brief time. It was great. I opened a little website just selling some grips and accessories at first, and orders started to come in. I got to spend maybe 10% of my time printing and assembling, shipping and checking in on my cameras and their new owners across the globe. I still spent about 90% of my time prototyping new cameras. That was great too.
It’s just a little more than a very short year later and I have three types of cameras on my website, a few pinhole cameras, grips to fit over 40 classic cameras, a bunch of film cases, a perpetually sold-out light meter… and I’m now spending a little more than half my time printing and assembling and shipping orders. Still great.
I am starting to notice all of these orders cutting into the 10 open projects that I have in my workshop right now, packing slips piling up on top of my Dream Camera Journal of future projects. Really good problems to have, and I am really thankful for them, but I want to try something different with this camera, business-wise, that could really change the way I work in the future.
The Brancopan takes about 60-70 hours to print, and 6-8 hours to assemble. I’d have to sell it for a ton. Yes, it would still be a mere fraction of an XPan in moneydollars, but still, not an inexpensive camera. I would have to sell the thing for somewhere between 650 and 1000 Dollars, to profitably enjoy selling them. That being said, there’s probably $40 worth of nice materials in my camera, and I can print it on a sub $200 3D printer if I had some time, and at least theoretically, you could too.
For less than I would charge to build one, in fact, for less than half, you could buy a 3D printer, some standard screws, some plastic filament, and build yourself at least 4 of them. If you have the most precious commodity of all of course, time.
Which brings me to this, my cost of doing business: time.
I wish I had more of it, boo hoo me. A product like this takes a ton of time. Months of full-time work. Months of part-time work. Maybe a thousand Dollars in prototype materials, maybe something like $500 though, I won’t know until tax day exactly. But time is the issue. I have a bunch of projects like this that I would like to do. I would like to build a film and a paper processor for color negatives and prints. Like a tabletop minilab, using 3D printer parts, and 3D printed parts, using open source programs, and easily sourceable common electronics so that they could be built and repaired forever, rather than scavenging old expensive minilab equipment from the 1990’s.
I’d like to build one with less than $500 in parts. I’d like to make more complicated plastic cameras, and different types of cameras, some of which would work just fine under my standard business model, but some just wouldn’t, they’re too time-consuming at my scale to be worth manufacturing, and too niche to be worth mass-producing cheaply in a factory.
I’m going to test an idea with a Kickstarter to see if people are willing to pay for my time designing things that so many of us might enjoy using. I underpriced this one, but it still feels like a ton of money for a bunch of files, and the most important part to me is to see if this business model might work on other, similar projects.
My Kickstarter asks for a pledge of any amount of money from $1 to anything. If $12,000 is pledged, I will release all of the files to the world for free: first to the Kickstarter backers (of all levels) and then to the general public a few months later. I would also publish three Youtube videos detailing 1. how to print the camera parts; 2. how to assemble and calibrate the camera; and 3. how to use it.
I also threw in a stretch goal of $20,000 to release my original 4×5 folding field camera plans, in the same way as the Brancopan, alongside of it.
And, just so I can feel the searing embarrassment whenever I think of how I managed to raise about $650 in pledges towards this project, every time I look back on this time: I added a $100,000 stretch goal, where I would make monthly vlog updates from the workshop and make everything that I design in 2020 free and available to the world. That would be pretty close to my dream job next year, I know it’s worth something to the community, but I’m not sure what.
OK, am I crazy? Maybe. But not because of this. I might be a little off the mark, but I’m not sure, and that’s the whole point. Since I’ve started this business, what I’ve been most surprised by has been the worldwide community goodwill towards me, and others in the industry and community (so long as they aren’t putting pink grips on german rangefinders). I also think that even if you know I am going to give files away for free, there is some non-zero amount that it might be worth it to you to have the files early, or just to encourage me to make more open-source (or almost open-source, for ransom) photography projects in the future.
I figure that if the Kickstarter result ‘indicates a datapoint that in fact people do not like this’, just that knowledge would be super helpful to know in my business. It’s actually been a burning question since the very first week of my professional camera building career. You can read a bit about it in my first EMULSIVE article about the folding 4×5, where I talk about the power of 3D printing. Also, should the thing ‘fail’ I can always keep the files private and sell some of the worlds most expensive 3D printed plastic cameras. The upside, should it ‘succeed’, would be massive for me certainly, and hopefully also meaningful to the community.
Thank you very much for reading. If you want to learn more about the Brancopan, check out my Kickstarter page.
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