Mark Hahn Photography

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Category: Art

Ramblings About Photography and A Kodak Retina

Me With a Kodak Retina Ib

So taking a somewhat winding road to get here, and shooting everything between small format film (Minox and 110) and large format (6×9 120 and 4×5”), I am back to shooting 35mm b&w film in a big way. I’ve always contended that 35mm wasn’t the best film format, but that it probably was the best compromise format optimized for practicality, size, and quality. While I was concentrating on my Leica IIIf and Red Scale Elmar, this camera developed a capping issue (even though I recently had new curtains installed in it). After I sent the camera in for further adjustment, a pushed ad from (highly recommend!) popped up hawking a Kodak Retina Ia for $37 with free shipping. Since I’ve also been getting back into biking, a quality small inexpensive pocket camera seemed like a good thing to add to my collection, so I ordered it.

When You Keep Passing the Same Place, It Either Means You Are Completely Lost Or You’re Already There. Kodak Retina Ia, f11

It’s not perfect, but after cleaning the lens and viewfinder it’s been a mostly reliable camera. Quality of the photos are easily on par with the Leica–no surprise since both are products of fine German engineering and optics. Unlike my Kodak Retina IIa, the Ia has no rangefinder, but instead is only scale focusing (guess), but stopped down, I haven’t spoiled a photo yet because of bad focusing. Also, I am finding the simple viewfinder without integrated rangefinder lends itself to concentrating more on composition. This made me realize that one of the first things I was taught when I started studying photography–that you needed an SLR for serious work–was definitely wrong. The reason given (aside from no parallax issues) was that you were looking through the taking lens. Unfortunately, as a young student, composing through a wide open lens with shallow depth of field made everything basically look better and almost magical while composing, but in ways that didn’t automatically transfer to the prints you were going to make in the end. The distracting bits that were hidden in the blur were often way more evident in the print, or on the other end, important details were less sharp than you expected. All of this works itself out with experience, but the same can be said for a rangefinder camera.

A Lonesome Déjà Vu. Somewhere in NM. Kodak Retina Ia, f11

There are many different types of shooting, and when I was shooting more portraits back then, I would use long lenses with fairly wide apertures for a classic shallow DoF look, but for maybe the last 10 years, I’ve shifted much more toward deep focus landscape/scenic photography, so a simple Galilean viewfinder gives me a much better view to compose from than that of a shallow DoF SLR with a fast lens. Parallax is only an issue with close focus, so rangefinder/viewfinder cameras really are not an ideal choice if this is what you need to do, but I find this limitation, more often than not, forces me to take better photos because I retain context.

The old adage (attributed to Robert Capa), “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough” can be taken to extremes and when you put a nice macro lens on my camera, I often end up getting closer and closer and ending up with mostly (interesting?) abstracts. Nothing wrong with this, but personally, I’m looking to build my abstractions and art on top of and from contextual reality. Kind of similar to my personal philosophy for getting by in life—don’t deny reality, but find the magic within it and in spite of all the imperfections.

Study in Grays. Kodak Retina Ia, f11

One thing I noticed getting back into film work is how much film prices have increased over the last ten years that I have shot (color!!!) digital exclusively. Tri-X is now nearly $10 a roll for a short roll and this is starting to seem prohibitive to me so I started looking for alternatives. In medium format, I had been primarily shooting Fomapan 100 (mostly because it is the only film I can read the numbers through a ruby window) and I was getting fine results. Fomapan is a fine film, but for the speeds, it is a bit grainy from what I’ve seen. Then I read about Kentmere Pan 100 which is made by Ilford (really!) and decided to give it a go. It took a few tweaks from what is published in The Massive Developer Chart before I was happy with the results, but now I am consistently getting stunning results using it in Tmax Developer 1:9. I’m finding Kentmere Pan 100 for around $75 per 100’ roll, which ends up being less than $4 per roll when I bulk load. With my quality Russian made steel re loadable cartridges, the added effort is minimal. The new plastic ones from Adorama and B&H are garbage.

This Path Doesn’t Lead Anywhere. Kodak Retina Ib, f11

When I was younger, I always shot 400 speed film, “just in case” I needed those two extra stops for handheld shooting, but now, I feel the much finer grain that can be had when shooting 100 speed film is much preferable. It doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the aesthetics of Tri-X in D-76, it just means that what I’m shooting now benefits from the finer grain and smoother tonal gradients from a finer grain film. I also shoot much less candid “people shots” and prefer stopping down and using a tripod for my low light work instead of trying to get away with a 1/15th or 1/30th low light handheld shots. For most people, even 1/60th handheld, while “acceptable,” is really not ideal for image quality. I believe Ansel Adams once said something like, “If your lens isn’t sharp enough, buy a tripod.”

Waiting On the Wrecking Ball. Kodak Retina Ib, f11

Another reason I am loving these little Retina cameras, other than size, absolute quality, and low cost, is because they are one of the few pocket 35mms that are fitted with a 50mm lens. By the end of the 60’s, pretty much every quality fixed lens small camera had a 35mm lens (Contax, Minox, Olympus, etc.)! This is fine, and I know many people prefer them, maybe more than those of us who like a 50mm field of view, but for me, I find a 50mm lens ideal for a one focal length solution. 35mm lenses always feel awkward and sloppy to me.

Aside from the rangefinder versions of the Retinas (II, IIa, IIIc, and IIIC) which have an f2.0 taking lens and an integrated rangefinder, all the “lessor” models have some form of a Tessar lens (Kodak Ektar 50/2.8 or 50/2.8 or 50/3.5 Schneider Kreuznach Zenar lens are the most common). Tessar lenses are known to give very good results when stopped down a bit and by f/8, I cannot see any corner lack of sharpness or vignetting at all on images from any of my Retinas.

Grain Elevators – Conway, TX. Kodak Retina Ia, f8

Tessar lenses just have a wonderful classic look to them. They aren’t magic, but instead just look right to most people. Perhaps it’s the fact that many many famous photos have been taken with Tessar lenses. Many early press corps used Rolleiflexs or Speed Graphics fitted with a Tessar lens and while most people don’t look for lens signatures, they do seem to subconsciously notice them. We see something enough and it becomes something we expect to see. For 60-70 year old lenses, these are quite fine performers.

Aside from the Kodak Retinas, other pocket 35’s with a 50mm lens include the Barnack Leicas when fitted with a collapsible Elmar lens, and other folding cameras like the Balda Baldinette, Welta Welti, and Voigtlander VITO series of cameras. There are others as well, but somehow, the German made Kodaks excite me the most, and except for some of the rarer ones, all are basically the cheapest. The Retina Ia that I have represents about the cheapest Retina you can get, rarely going for much more than $50 for a fully working and near mint copy.

Every Sunrise is Followed by a Sunset as Every Happiness is Followed by Its Own Hangover. Kodak Retina Ia, f11

Regarding pocketability, life changes when you have a real camera with you at all times. I don’t like walking around with a heavy full sized camera slung around my neck at all times. It gets in the way and it actually starts hurting my back after a couple hours, but shoved in a pocket, my Retina never gets in the way and is always ready to capture something that strikes me as remarkable. Someone in one of the forums I often post my photos to commented that they liked how I “document the things everyone passes by everyday, but doesn’t notice.” I don’t really think I’m a documentarian, but more an artist creating something from what I see, but since photography is rooted in (trapped by?) reality, I think it is more seeing something that offers potential to convey an emotional message and capturing it in the best possible way. You don’t have to travel around the world to do this, you can even find things to shoot in your own back yard. The biggest challenge is translating the emotional content onto the film while managing all the imperfections and awkwardness of reality.

Sometimes It’s Hard to See Past the Moment. Kodak Retina Ia, f11

Depending on how you look at it, all Retina cameras are fully manual, even if it is one of the newer models with a builtin selenium meter, which is good, because it is always a crapshoot whether an old selenium meter will still be functional. It also avoids the problems associated with specialty or impossible to find batteries. I could say I was a purist and won’t shoot auto exposure (only) cameras, but I’m not. If someone like Minox had made a camera like a GL with a 50mm lens, I would love to shoot it. Even though you dream up situations where the focal length limitation would impact what you’re able to shoot, one of my fundamental thoughts regarding photography is, “There are infinite photos to take, so don’t worry about the ones you can’t take.” Focus on what you can create with the gear at hand.

That Boat You Stashed in the Bushes, Many Years Ago, Thinking It Would Be Your Way Out of Here, Isn’t Taking You Anywhere Today. Kodak Retina Ib

For those that have noticed that I haven’t been keeping up on my blog here very well, part of that is because I have gotten much more active on Instagram. If you are over there much, check me out and follow at I am very actively posting there (almost everyday).

Bench. Kodak Retina Ib, f11

The Omicron Set – Or How I Ended Up Falling In Love With a Kodak Tele-Ektra One 110 Camera

It began on a Saturday, even though I was unaware of what was happening to me, but I went to a favorite thrift store and started feeling peculiarly detached. I ended up digging out this very plain and common Kodak 110 camera. Even though I have shot the higher end 110’s in the past like the adorable Pentax A110 SLR and the stellar Rollei A110, I never bothered with the bargain bin 110 cameras like this one. So why was I fixated on this homely and low-spec camera? I really couldn’t tell you, but here I was snapping the shutter and playing with the film sensor to see if I thought I could get it to work with some reloaded film.

For those unfamiliar with the way 110 film works, frames are pre-burned into the film and small notches are cut out for the film advance sensor to feel when the film is aligned in the filmgate. While it presents the reloader with some difficulties, as a simple system meant for easy to use and cheap film cameras, it really is fairly ingenious. Because of this feature, many 110 cameras cannot easily be used with reloaded cartridges because the film lack lacks these notches. But playing with the film sensor, I was reasonably sure I could get the camera to work without the notches.

I suppose part of the allure this camera had was that there was absolutely nothing special about it in anyway and it didn’t even have the pretension of being a crappy “toy camera,” (letting me pretend that I was relying on the “so bad it’s good,” shtick). While no photo enthusiast would consider this camera a serious tool, probably many millions of consumers bought the camera for capturing important personal events with. A quick internet search tells me that the camera sold for $32.50 when it was released in 1980—that means it cost around $117 in today’s dollars! And here I was wondering if the camera was worth the princely sum of $3 which is what it was marked as. I was thinking it should have been priced at $1!

In my fixation with this camera, I estimated that the aperture was around f11 and the camera was fixed at somewhere around 12’ to nail the hyperfocal distance. I also guessed that the shutter speed would have been optimized for ISO 100 film and good light. Thinking of the shots I am mostly concentrating on, this seemed like it would cover maybe 90% of what I am shooting, so I took the camera home with me. While technical details are somewhat sketchy for this camera, one site lists the aperture as f9.5 with a shutter speed of 1/125th of a second. This is close enough for ISO 100 film and Sunny-16 conditions and gives a little leeway for shadows. I’m guessing the focus is closer to 10’ as subjects at infinity are pretty blurry, even if only intended for a 4×5” print size.

So by the next day, I was feeling much more sick than the day before and it was definitely something I couldn’t ignore so I took a rapid COVID test, but it came back negative. Since Delta had already ripped through my house and I didn’t get it, I figured between my vaccines and exposure that I was probably somehow immune. I stayed home in bed sick and the only thing I managed to do was to crack open the old 110 cartridge that came with the camera and reload it with some slit down Ilford FP4+ b&w film. The bigger trick was foiling the camera’s film sensor. I was able to accomplish this by simply jamming the sensor in and to the side and forcing it into place using a flat toothpick (then snapping it off as pictured below). The only real subtlety was that with a single advance, the camera cocks the shutter and locks the advance, but has only actually advanced the film a little more than half a frame. My workaround is to advance once, cover the lens, fire the shutter, and then advance again for the actual picture taking shot. You lose some frames doing this because of the spacing, but it works.

Modifying the Kodak Tele-Ektra One Camera For Shooting Reloaded Cartridges

Aside from having the normal 22mm lens, the biggest feature for this camera is that it has a builtin 2X tel-converter (hence the “Tele” in the name). I haven’t tried it since I’m not using the camera for portraits, but I’ve seen some examples online that look fairly charming using it.

Waking up Day 3, I was as bad as the day before so I decided to go to Sprouts, our reasonably priced natural foods market, for some herbal remedies. I always joke I spend too much money on their curatives just for the placebo effect that I get from them (whatever works, right?). But being in an altered state and still being fixated on nothing but this camera, I decided to take it out and try to shoot a test roll. I knew of a block or two that I pass all the time that looked like it would offer some photogenic opportunities, so I parked and slowly stumbled around in my near delirium shooting photos here and there wherever the light seemed interesting. The camera performed flawlessly! Below is a selection of the first roll taken with this camera. I love the edge effects and the overall feeling the photos have.

By the nighttime, it turned out that one of the two people I gave this disease to tested positive for COVID. Then I took a second test myself and I also was positive. Crap! I followed CDC guidelines from then on, but I felt pretty bad for giving it to at least two people, and maybe more. The good news is that we are all doing fine now and have all mostly recovered. The only real thing I’m holding onto after getting this disease is this set of photos and this oddball little camera. Not too bad a price to pay for something that has pretty much impacted every aspect of all our lives for the last two years.

Having no control over any settings seems like a limitation, but if you are like me and are shooting in good light (and when isn’t it good light in AZ?), a fixed focus camera setup for 12’ and Sunny-16 conditions can let you do almost anything. The simplicity can be very liberating. Also, the simple design makes this camera very reliable. I bet you could drop it off a cliff and when you pulled it out of the dirt at the bottom that it would still work. Also, no batteries to worry about! Back in the 70’s and 80’s, Kodak and other manufacturers used some now impossible to find batteries (have a source for 4v K batteries anyone?) or require the dreaded mercury cells to work properly.

The one secret way to get a little adjustment out of the camera is to trick it into thinking it has a Flip-Flash attached to it. There is a little pin in the flash attachment socket that drops the shutter speed to 1/60th when pushed, so if you cut down a piece of wood or something to push this pin down, you could get an extra stop for shooting in lower light or shadows. I haven’t tried this yet because I haven’t needed to so far since the camera already over exposes by around 1.5 stops from Sunny-16, but for full shadow though, the lower shutter speed would probably be helpful.

I was showing my film student son some of these photos and asked what he thought (worth pursuing or just a waste of time) and he mentioned Gabriel Figueroa’s contention that deep focus was inherently a “more democratic” representational strategy than one reliant on montage or selective focus because it gave the viewer a choice. While I had rejected selective focus (bokeh driven) images some years ago, I had never thought of it this way (and am embarrassingly unaware of Figueroa’s work!). Seems like an interesting way to view this. Regarding being worthwhile, my son thought the images definitely worthy of pursuing as a side project, so now I’m in the middle of a whole series of photos based on this camera.

Alley Shots – Leica IIIf, Elmar RS, on Tri-X

These images were all shot with my Leica IIIf and a Red Scale Elmar lens. Both are approx. 70 years old. While the Elmar has a real following, I don’t find it to be magical or even that special, but it is quite capable (giving an antiquated rendering) and most importantly, makes the IIIf so compact that when the lens is collapsed, that it is truly a pocketable camera. The film is Tri-X developed in Tmax and scanned with a Plustek scanner.

And just to illustrate how compact the IIIf with Elmar package is, here is a snap shot of it in my back pocket:

One Camera – The Leica Way?

"Read Dial" Leica IIIf With "Red Scale/Diamond" Elmar Lens
Both From Around 1952

In conversations on social media and in real life, I’ve been discussing how I’d like to simplify my photographic life and only settle on one camera. When I started as a photography student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I only owned a basic Pentax K1000 (SLR) with the standard 50mm f1.7 lens. It was really all I felt I needed and really all I even wanted at the time. Yes, I kind of was jealous of my friends who had the much more expensive Nikon SLRs, but I didn’t really see much need for the extra features. A fast 50 and a built in match needle light meter were basically all I thought any “art photographer” needed. Sure, I could see that journalists and wedding photographers would need more, but that was never my calling and I never found the Pentax lens to be lacking either–it got the job done.

Fast forward to now and I have a lifetime of buying selling and collecting and shooting all kinds of cameras. Because, other than being an avid photographer, I am also a pathological camera collector. The two sides of this seem to be opposed to each other, but perhaps they aren’t. While shooting many different cameras can get in the way of getting to really know one well, in the big picture, all cameras have a lot in common, so there are things you can learn no matter what camera you are shooting.

But back to exploring the concept of one camera, I’m trying to push myself into concentrating on shooting the Leica IIIf (pictured above). How I ended up with this camera was kind of a stroke of fate, so if there is something to the idea of “what is meant to happen is what happens,” then maybe I should just go with it. To set about finding the one camera would be very daunting, since there are so many to choose from, having one dropped in your lap, almost as if from the Gods, makes the choice a lot easier.

Before the end of my marriage and the financial calamity that followed in its wake, I was mostly shooting Canon Pro bodies, L-lenses, and their stellar TS-E lenses, along with a small kit of Leica R gear (for manual work). But in the eight years it took me to dig my way out of this crippling financial debt, pretty much all my belongings of value were sold off… all the Canon L lenses, the Leica R, my large format gear, and a modest Leica rangefinder kit (Leica IIIc with some lenses). I wasn’t that drawn to the old Barnack rangefinders back then, especially for a user camera, even though it was hard not to appreciate their classic German design.

Even without any world class cameras left in my bag, I still managed to get by and kept going out shooting photos. I guess part of me also doesn’t mind using modest gear, even perhaps taking it on as kind of an enjoyable challenge (“I don’t need no stinkin’ Leica to take good photos!”). One night when I took my kids to Bookman’s (a local used bookstore) I spied the Leica IIIf (shown above) from across the store poking out of a completely thrashed case. Once it registered what it was, I almost broke into a run across the store to make sure I was the one who got their hands on it first! Once I saw it up close, I knew what it was and was almost afraid to turn it over to look for the the price (Bookman’s is known for sometimes being ridiculously overpriced!), but to my surprise, it was only $25! Yes, the shutter curtain was cracked and the lens pretty much frozen up, but it was all there! $25! This is almost that once in a lifetime find that all junkers and collectors dream of!

It took a number of years to get back on my feet financially, but when I did, I sent the camera in to Youxin Ye and he fixed everything for what I thought was a really fair price. Everything works perfectly now. Just a joy to hold and and shoot! Smooth and silent!

Even though I had sold my Leica IIIc during my bankruptcy fire sale, I did keep a few lenses for the camera for some reason. None of them worth that much at the time, but from the only roll of film I shot with the Voigtlander and a set of photos that I had enlarged from this roll to be included in a local group show, I had the sense that the low production Color-Skopar was somehow special.

Industar-26M, Voigtlander Color-Skopar, and Jupiter-8 LTM Lenses

Besides the Voigtlander lens, the other two are low end Russian lenses. The first, the Industar-26M is predecessor to the often praised Industar-61 L/d, both very good performing f2.8 lenses. The second, the Jupiter-8 is a Zeiss Sonar copy. I wish I could say it was a stellar bootleg of the legendary Zeiss lens, but it’s pretty soft and pretty low contrast. My son liked adapting it to his Micro Four Thirds camera for a while and shooting it wide open for the effect, but while I can be a “bokeh snob,” I’m not really a fan of razor thin depth of field anyway, so other than just having a fast prime for the camera, I doubt it will get much use.

I came on the Color-Skopar as kind of a fluke reading about it online and seeing a closeout sale price of around $239. It seemed like an interesting LTM lens at a bargain price. While my Leica IIIf sat in my camera case unusable, the Voigtlander sat in a drawer completely orphaned by the lack of body to use it on. During this time I watched used prices of the lens soar, now somewhere between $500-600!

Everything I’ve read explaining the rise in prices points to a nearly cult following of the lens among Japanese photographers. If you look for examples from the lens on flickr or similar sites, they do feature a lot of (really nice) work by Japanese photographers. American photographers seem to be more drawn to the extremes in lens design–super fast apertures and biting sharp resolution. To my eye, many modern lenses are too sharp. Giving a too “clinical” look. And as I’ve already said, super narrow depth of field is not at all my thing either. I always read that the Japanese have a different sense of aesthetics than most Americans and I think I can it appreciate it as well. My shared appreciation for this Voigtlander lens fits in with this. While the character of the lens is somewhat subtle, there is something to its rendering properties that I really love, and besides that, it works really well on my IIIf! Pairing the old with the new!

Voigtlander Color-Skopar on a Leica IIIf

So between the Elmar collapsible lens both making the camera fully pocketable and giving a classic older lens rendering, the Color-Skopar giving the camera the ability for more modern, but still distinctive look, and the Jupiter-8 for more “artsy” wide aperture work, the camera can be used for many types of photography.

And what’s really the point of this all? For me it’s to have fun, so in that vein, below is a photo of me goofing around with the camera!

Me With My Leica IIIf

Some New Model 150 Polaroid Land Camera Shots From Around Town

I’ve been taking the Model 150 Polaroid Land Camera out with me when I’ve been shopping and doing errands. You never know when you will find an interesting environmental emotional study that needs to be captured. Once thing I like about shooting sheet film cameras with paper is that you can shoot a single image and then quickly develop just that one image without much effort. Here are a few recent shots taken with my modified Polaroid Camera on Fomaspeed Variant 311 RC paper and developed in Tmax 1:9. Many people claim this paper is super fast (for paper) and can be exposed as ISO 25 or 50. I’m finding that the best I can do is ISO 6 at midday and ISO 3 in the late afternoon (including a yellow filter).

A Small Office Park – Seen Through a Kodak Bausch and Lamb Rapid Rectolinear Lens

So I’ve taken out my Burke and James 4×5″ Orbit camera into the more urban setting. This time fitted with my Kodak Bausch and Lamb Rapid Rectolinear lens. It is much brighter than the Kodak meniscus lens and a bit sharper in the corners and edges, but still not exactly up to modern standards. Again, I was shooting Ilford MC RC paper rated at ISO 6 (developed in Kodak Tmax film developer). Of the four shots I took in this small office park, these three were exposed pretty perfectly. A fourth was under exposed and couldn’t really be rescued. It is quickly becoming apparent that paper negatives are very sensitive to any under exposure. I’ve been using my Sekonic Twinmate meter for all my shots to try and get more reliable exposures.

I’ve shot all these photos with the lens set to f32. Stopped down this far and shooting after 5:30 pm, gives very long exposures–these mostly around 4 secs. On a windy day, like this one, you can see a lot of motion blur in the trees and foliage. I think I like this effect.

Between the motion blur, the paper negative giving a more old fashioned orthochromatic film look (being mostly sensitive to blue light) and the hundred year old Rapid Rectolinear lens giving a less than sharp image from corner to corner, these photos have what I think is a somewhat unique (and might I add, “romantic”) look.

Burke and James 4×5″ Orbit View Camera, First Impressions and a Few New Photos

Taking the Burke and James Orbit out for a little alley shots. I have it fitted with Kodak meniscus lens. Shots are all done at f32 on paper negatives (rated at ISO 6). I’m starting to get used to shooting this giant old beast! Though it is hard not to make occasional mistakes (such as: forgetting to close the shutter before pulling the dark slide, forgetting to stop the lens down before shooting, or pulling the rear facing dark slide instead of the forward facing one!) I’m sure I’ll make other mistakes as time goes on, so good thing paper negatives are cheap and nothing I shoot is ever really a “once in a lifetime” shot! I’m happy when I get a good image.

The low end hundred year old Kodak lens is pretty adequate for these large negatives so long as they aren’t enlarged too much and you aren’t too critical of the corner sharpness. The lens has a pleasant look to it, but for my next shots, I’ll be trying out a Kodak Bausch and Lamb Rapid Rectolinear lens, which is supposed to be much better (especially based on modern expectations) even though it too is another hundred year old lens.

The Zen of Camera Design

When I was in elementary school, I watched Jimmy Stewart in Carbine Williams. In it, Williams (played by Stewart), a convicted moonshiner and murderer, passes the hellish hours in prison designing innovative firearms in his head as a way of preserving his sanity. I was always a fan of Stewart and his soft, thoughtful, and yet forceful persona in his movies. In Carbine Williams, Stewart makes you both forgive his past and respect the mental escape he found in inventing his rifle. I could identify strongly with this premise as I was often caught passing hours and avoiding life’s difficulties by concocting complex plans for different inventions in my mind—one of the main subjects being cameras and related photographic devices.

Due to a number of unforeseen financial burdens, I was recently dealt, buying a new large format camera would not be responsible at the moment. I used to own a nice Speed Graphic which would have been a good experimental platform to play with now, but I sadly sold that years ago. So, since I’ve always thought about building a large format camera, it has me rethinking this project. Also, I’ve been shooting semi-large format (616) roll film in a couple old Kodak Brownie box cameras. Somehow, once you start shooting larger formats, you want to shoot even larger. The next logical step is of course 4x5” sheet film.

So now I’ve found myself obsessively imagining the details of a custom built 4x5” camera. Starting with the lens. After a few weeks of coming up with preliminary design ideas, I managed to sketch them out on paper (above). I am collecting the detailed measurements in a working lab book to refer to while developing my detailed design.

For the modeling work, I’m using an open source parametric modeler called FreeCAD. 25 years ago, most of us couldn’t have even dreamed of the power such a 3D modeler had to offer. Couple this with an inexpensive 3D printer like my Ender 3 and you become practically your own rapid prototyping service.

For my lens design, I’m starting off with a Wollaston Landscape Lens mostly because of its simplicity, but also for its classic “pictorialist” imaging properties. It’s comprised of a single positive meniscus lens with an aperture placed in front of the lens at an optimized distance (I’m using 1/6th of the focal length as my starting point) to improve image quality. It was first designed and patented in 1812, predating even the invention of photography, but was used widely in early large format cameras and later in the more inexpensive box cameras like the Kodak Brownies.

I read once that Edward Weston shot many of his iconic photos using simple meniscus lenses that he modified to have extremely small apertures (ignoring the diffraction effects that this would introduce—absolute sharpness is not always everything in a photo!). Weston’s Pepper No. 30 image was reported to have been taken at f240 with an exposure time of 4-6 hours!

There are more complicated two and three element classic lens designs that I can play with too, or I can simply find old cameras with interesting lenses and modify my modularly designed large format camera to accept them. Edmonds has many “experimental grade” lens elements that sell for only a few dollars. My first build it going to be around a 42mm diameter 195mm lens I bought from them—a slightly long “normal” lens.

One detail I’ve struggled over and have decided to simply ignore in my first prototypes is a shutter. The reason I’m ignoring this feature is that it greatly increases the complexity of the design while not necessarily adding a needed feature since I plan on starting out using paper negatives rated at ISO 4! Coupling this slow negative speed with a small aperture of around f32, I’ll be shooting on a tripod even in sunny conditions outdoors—and I can easily convince myself that sounding out “one-thousand-and-one” gives a perfectly precise one-second exposure.

Early 19th century large format banquet cameras often didn’t have a shutter built into the lens and the photographer controlled the exposure by taking off the lens cap, or more commonly, used his black hat as a shutter. Given that I primarily shoot photos out in the local alleys, I think choosing the appropriate black hat for myself will be almost as important as the details of my lens design!

Basic Pinhole Photography Concepts

Although there are many good sites devoted to pinhole photography, I felt it would be useful to outline the basic pinhole photography concepts that I have found to be important.

In a nutshell, a pinhole camera does not have a lens, but instead has a small pinhole that lets light into the camera to form an image on a piece of light sensitive material.  Pinhole images are much "softer" than images formed by cameras utilizing a quality system of lenses, but have nearly infinite depth of field.  Pinhole cameras can be made from anything that is light-tight and can hold film behind a pinhole.  Many pinhole cameras have been made from old cookie tins, oatmeal canisters or precision built large format cameras.  For many "pinholers," building their pinhole camera is part of the pinhole "art." For me, there is something very satisfying about building such a low-tech piece of gear that can actually be used to produce pleasing images.

I require that all my pinhole cameras accept either cassette, roll-film or large format film backs so I can go out in the field and conveniently shoot multiple photos.  The easiest way to do this is to cannibalize an existing camera and install a pinhole in place of the lens.  Argus A's and Lubitels are good candidates for this because they are both practically worthless as actual cameras and have all the features required for pinhole cameras. This essentially means having a shutter with cable release that has a bulb (B) or time (T) setting.  The Argus has a bulb and time setting which is very useful for long exposures.

Technical Details   
Once you have settled on a camera, you have to decide on the focal length that you plan on using. This is simply the distance from the pinhole to the film.  If you are after the sharpest images possible from your pinhole camera you have to use a pinhole that balances being as small as possible, but not being so small that diffraction starts to degrade your image.  Lord Rayleigh presented the following formula for the optimum pinhole diameter  (do):

        do = 1.9 Sqrt[lamda*F]                           [Eq. 1]

where, F is the focal length of the "lens" and lamda is the wavelength of light that the camera is being optimized for.  Lamda is generally assumed to be .00055mm (550 nm = the green portion of the visible light spectrum).

There are multitudes of equations for determining the optimum diameter for a pinhole, but for historical  reasons I feel that you should just use Lord Rayleigh's simple formula (especially since his formula agrees well with most modern formulations anyway).

There are many ideas how to create a proper pinhole, but I will present my  approach because I have never had a problem easily producing very precise pinholes.  I first set my Vernier calipers to the desired pinhole diameter and place it in my negative carrier (with my enlarger head as high as it will go) and focus the caliper gap onto a piece of paper held flat in my easel and then mark out the gap using a sharp pencil.  Without moving my enlarger head I next proceed to make my pinhole.  I use a common pushpin and poke a hole in my .001 inch brass shim-stock (available at Ace Hardware and hobby stores) with a rotating motion while it is held on a hard surface.  I then steel wool both sides of the shim-stock, blow it out with compressed air and then slide it into my negative carrier and check the hole diameter as compared to the marks on the paper below.  I do this several times until I get the pinhole just right.  You will be amazed at how perfectly round your pinhole will be using this method.  I see no need to purchase laser cut pinholes for use in experimental cameras.

Now that you have your pinhole made you have to attach it to your camera.  There are many ways to do it depending on your camera design, but never underestimate the usefulness of black electricians tape.
The next step is determining your camera's f-stop (f).  This is simply:

         f = F/d                                             [Eq. 2]

where F is the camera's focal length and d is the pinhole diameter.

If you used my method for making the pinhole, this f number will be very accurate.  The only problem is that you probably don't have a light meter that goes past f-100 so the easiest method for determining outdoor exposures is to use the "sunny 16" rule.  This rule states that for general outdoor shots in "bright" sun your exposure time (t sec.) should be:

        t = 1/ASA  @ f-16                            [Eq. 3]

were ASA is the ISO number of the film you are using.

Since your pinhole camera will have a "lens" nowhere near f-16, you have to do some side calculations to adjust the rule for your particular pinhole.  The first step is to determine how many stops (x) you are above f-16.  This is accomplished by solving the following equation for x:

        16 Sqrt[2]^x = f                                [Eq.4]

where f is the calculated pinhole f-stop.
It should be noted that each f-stop is Sqrt[2] times greater than the proceeding one.  This is because the f-stops are defined to represent a doubling of light entering the camera which comes from the area of the "lens" opening, where:

        Area = Pi d^2 /4                                  [Eq. 5]

Note that it only takes an increase in d of Sqrt[2] to double the Area and consequently the amount of light admitted in the camera.

I personally find it convenient to select film that results in a one second exposure for "bright sun" conditions.  This is because I can easily count out "one thousand one" for my exposure time and get fairly accurate exposures.  Longer exposures are not a problem, you simply count longer.  You can determine the required film speed to achieve this condition by using the following equation and solving for ASA:

        2^x/ASA =  1                                        [Eq. 6]

where x is the number of f-stops your camera is above f-16.

Once you know how many f-stops your camera is from f-16 you can use any exposure meter to take precise exposure readings.  The easiest way to do this is to set your meter's ASA setting to that of your film and take a reading from you scene.  You can then just count how many f-stops the scene is from the sunny 16  prediction and adjust your cameras base sunny 16 exposure time by that many stops.  For instance, if you are using 125 ASA film and your meter suggests 1/30 at f-16, you are two stops away from the sunny 16 "bright sun" condition and have to increase your pinhole exposure by 2 stops.  As in f-stops, each "stop" increase in exposure is a doubling of the previous "exposure stop," hence the adjusted exposure (E) is determined from:

        E = 2^z Es                                            [Eq. 7]

where Es is the shutter speed at sunny 16 conditions and z is how many stops the scene is away from sunny 16 conditions.  

For my cameras with a base sunny 16 exposure time of 1 second, my exposure times are:

        Ei = 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, . . .

where Ei = 1 sec. for bright sun, 4 sec. for cloudy bright (no shadows) and 8 sec. for heavy overcast.  Past this you really need a meter for any accuracy.  Note too that this is for an average subject and further adjustments might be required to make a proper exposure; with some practice you get very good at shooting without a meter.  Below I present an exposure chart [Figure 1] for my pinhole camera.

            Pinhole Exposure Chart
        Figure 1.  Exposure chart for my pinhole cameras.

You can simply scale my exposure time by the your base exposure time, for example, if your base exposure time is 1/2 second and you are shooting a scene that requires 4 additional stops you read my required time for 4 stops to be a 16 second exposure which you then scale by your base exposure time of 1/2 and you know that your required exposure time is 8 seconds.

We have discussed all the relevant aspects of building and using a pinhole camera while keeping the discussion completely general.  I suggest that anyone planning on building a pinhole camera contemplate what would make the camera a pleasure to use and then put the effort into building one the way you like.  I will show a couple of examples of my pinhole cameras along with images that I have produced from these cameras on other pages to give you a possible starting point.  As I said at the beginning of this page, there are many other sites devoted to pinhole photography and I suggest that you search out some of the better ones for more in depth information and other people's ideas.  My aim was to present a concise overview of all the concepts, theories and practical steps required to understand fully how to make and use a pinhole camera, now the rest is up to you.

While we have discussed how to make and use a pinhole camera we have completely avoided the question, "why?"  There is of course no really good answer to this question, but as you research the subject you will find that there are many people involved with pinhole photography, there is obviously some some draw to the process if people keep returning to it.  My theory is that pinhole photography puts you back in touch with an original technological form of magic that is very refreshing in this age of impressive auto-everything cameras capable of producing super-sharp detailed images of reality with the push of a button.  From a practical standpoint, we could take "good" photos and just mess them up in Photoshop to produce the same images that we get from pinhole cameras, but then there is no magic.  Further, it has been said that the problem with photography and why it isn't considered "art" by some in the traditional sense is that it just contains too much detail.  Pinhole photography give random and sometime surprising results that can feel more artistic. There is plenty of room for the viewer's imagination to wander and fill in the unstated boundaries of a pinhole print.  Pinhole images are often unpredictable, though all your traditional photography skills greatly improve your chances of producing really good pinhole images.  We are still just capturing light to record an image in front of us, but the unpredictability gives the practitioner a feeling that they are somehow conjuring images out of the air.

Note: This is a copy of a post I made on my geocities page many years ago. Geocities has been shut down for almost 20 years, so I plan on archiving some of my work here.

Target Six-16, the Big Brownie

A selection of Common Box Cameras

Loading up my Kodak Target Brownie Six-16 this morning, I was marveling at the sheer size of the camera. Even though the image goes all the way out to the edge of adapted 120 roll film, the massive 2 ½ x 4 ½ inch negative size pushes it right into the realm of a “large format” camera. I snapped a quick photo of it next to a more “normal” sized 6×9 Zeiss Box Tengor (Type 54/2, intermediate version) from around 1945 and the tiny 127 Kodak Baby Brownie from around 1940. The Target Six-16 is probably from the late 40’s.

The Target Six-16 takes the obsolete 616 roll film, but can easily be adapted to taking six large images on a standard roll of 120 film. The 2 ½ x 4 ½ inch negative size was chosen to give a “postcard” format image when contact printed. Unlike the Zeiss which has three apertures and three focus zones, the Target Six-16 is basically a point and shoot. The only adjustment you get are two apertures. Nowhere does Kodak specify what these apertures are (which is somewhat annoying!), but my guess is they are around f16 and f22 based on film results. With high latitude b&w film, it hardly matters which you use, but in the vintage manual for the camera, Kodak suggests using the smaller aperture when shooting distant scenes (IE. to get greater depth of field). Kodak did market a “portrait” adapter lens that could be pushed onto the camera to take *portraits* of objects 3 ½ feet away. Of course there is no parallax guidance for using the close-up lens. I didn’t have a hard time finding this accessory lens along with a yellow “cloud filter” for a reasonable price on ebay.

Aside from making a clip-on sports finder and 120 to 616 film adapters for the camera, the Target Six-16 is pretty much ready to shoot. Even my custom finder was more a luxury accessory since, unlike the horrible little ground glass finders on the Zeiss, the large “brilliant finders” on the Target Six-16 are very usable. One nice feature of the Baby Brownie is that it is one of the few box cameras to come with a pop-up sports finder.One of my initial concerns was that the camera, like almost all box cameras, has a very slow shutter speed. I measured mine to be between 1/30th to 1/50th of a second. As anyone who studied photography knows, the rule for hand holding a shot is 1/focal length. Most sources suggest that the focal length of this camera is around 100mm, so no way to get to that magic 1/FL guideline. Without thinking too much about it, I decided to just hold my breath and do the best that I could. But since the guideline is really based on shooting 35mm film, not large format, motion blur was not a problem in any of my photos! Reasoning it out, I realized that the assumptions that go into the 1/FL rule are not only dependent on the angle of view, but are also directly dependent on the negative diagonal dimension (enlargement factor). Using these factors, the angle of view is roughly equivalent to a 50mm lens on a 35mm camera and the diagonal is roughly 3 times larger.

Running through all the numbers, a 616 camera like this should be able to be handheld with a shutter speed of 1/16th of a second! Whew! Nothing to worry about! And this makes sense, since the people using these simple cameras in the first place were getting acceptable photos even though most buyers were complete photography novices. The downside of course is that at the low end, 1/30th of a second is hardly fast enough to stop action so even in an otherwise static landscape photo, even with the slightest breeze, motion blur in trees and foliage are to be expected. I’m trying to embrace this a an aesthetic effect.In the future, I plan on making a clip-on finder for the Zeiss since it is capable of taking very good photos, but I cannot reliably using its finders. I’ve used the Baby Brownie once, but I honestly don’t think the relatively tiny and impossible to find 127 film gives much benefits over just shooting 35mm. If I were to go back to a esoteric small roll film format, it would be for 828, but interestingly, never made a box camera using this format.

I think I’ve said elsewhere that my first *serious* film camera was an old Agfa 6×9 box camera that I picked out of the neighbor’s trash one night when I was around 11 or 12 years old. While I didn’t understand focusing or exposure at the time, I did understand that the camera took really respectable photos outdoors. It certainly took better photos than most of what I was seeing from the low end Kodak Instamatics that were becoming popular at the time.I don’t know why this Brownie box camera has become my current photography passion, but aside from a reconnection to my past, the challenge of using something that is both capable and terribly limited coupled to a technology that is very nostalgia is appealing… not to mention the physical elegance of the camera’s simplicity.

I used a photo shot in this camera for the cover image of my youtube song post: