Sunday, March 9, 2014

Building a Moustrap Camera

This year marks the 175th anniversary of photography. One of photography's inventors, William Fox Talbot, used various small cameras to record his photographic studies.

William Henry Fox Talbot, by John Moffat, 1864

From Heilbrunn timeline of art history:

As his chemistry improved, Talbot returned to his original idea of photographic images made in a camera. During the "brilliant summer of 1835," he took full advantage of the unusually abundant sunshine and placed pieces of sensitized photogenic drawing paper in miniature cameras—"mouse traps," his wife called them—set around the grounds to record the silhouette of Lacock Abbey's animated roofline and trees. The pictures, Talbot wrote, "without great stretch of the imagination might be supposed to be the work of some Lilliputian artist."

Mr. Talbot's inventiveness was the inspiration to create a mousetrap camera of my own. I contacted Roger Watson, curator of the Fox Talbot Museum. Mr. Watson helped explain how to make these cameras: 
"...find a focal length and build a box around it. Talbot used a simple meniscus lens (flat on one side and curved on the other)... Talbot had almost 80 different cameras in all different sizes so anything you make will be close to the size of one of these cameras."
I've built a few cameras here and there, and have a tackle box full of camera building materials. Luckily I saved an old meniscus lens from a broken box camera, and this would be the lens I would build my camera around. The lens is about 18mm across, and with the help of a rubber washer and a piece of coiled wire, it is held snugly in place inside a piece of copper 3/4 inch water pipe (left over from a plumbing repair).

I still had no idea what focal length this lens would be. I focused the lens on the window across the room, and as it drew a faint image into focus on the wall I measured that distance with a ruler.  It was somewhere around 3-4 inches in focal length.

I made a rough box out of foam core and used wax paper as a focusing screen. After playing around with this for a bit, and focusing it on different objects around the house, I decided to build a little mousetrap camera. With the lens between 3-4 inches in focal length,  I built the camera 3 inches in height and width, and 3.5 inches in depth. The copper pipe/lens assembly is held with pressure at the front  of the camera,  and can be pushed and pulled in and out to aid in focusing.
A view through my small mousetrap camera, showing the lens assembly.
 Talbot used a cork on the front of his cameras, and he would peer through the front of the camera to see what was in focus, and then re-cork the camera before loading it with sensitive paper. I found this to be rather awkward, so I took a page from modern cameras and used some wax paper to make a crude focusing screen. I could focus the camera outside and set the lens, and then return to the darkroom and load it with sensitized paper.

This is my little mousetrap camera built out of black foam core and duct tape. The waxed paper focusing screen (right) snaps in the back of the camera to focus the image.

A view of the trees across my yard through my little mousetrap camera. Like all view cameras the image is upside down and backwards on the focusing screen.

Taking a photograph is a multi-step process. First the camera is taken outside and the focusing screen is used to frame up the subject. The lens is pushed and pulled until the image is in focus. The camera then goes into the darkroom and a piece of photo sensitive paper is placed and sealed inside the camera. The camera is taken back outside and the image is made. Finally, the camera returns to the darkroom, the paper removed and developed.

I used sticks to outline my camera. This way I could tell exactly where the camera should go after focusing and then later returning with the camera loaded with photo sensitive paper.
Here is the darkroom, complete with coffee-based Cafenol developer (left). Finished images are sitting in the fixer tray (right).

The 2.5 inch square paper negatives hang out to dry.

 Talbot used special sensitized drawing paper he made himself. I had the luxury to use regular enlarging paper in my cameras to make negatives.

After the negatives were developed and dried, I scanned the negatives and inverted them in the digital darkroom to make positive images. Overall I was very pleased with the results. The negatives were a little flat and lacked some contrast. Luckily that could be fixed with the help of Photoshop. The lens was never intended to be shot wide open, it had a much smaller stop inside so that only the "sweet spot" in the center was used, and the outer corners with swirls and light fall off were never seen. In my camera, the lens is used almost wide open, so you can see all the effects of a simple meniscus lens when it is used to make photographs. Images were all about three seconds in exposure, and developed for about 1.5 minutes in the Cafenol developer.

You can see the light fall off in the corners, and the out of focus areas o the outside of the frame.
The lens recorded the trees, grass, and the bank of leftover snow quite nicely.

I tried a macro type photo through a small grape arbor looking out towards my garden. The lens was pulled almost all the way forward to focus.

So what is next? Now that I am comfortable with the focal length and design, I would like to build my mousetrap camera out of wood instead of foam core and duct tape. I would also like to learn Mr. Talbot's sensitized paper formula, and make more images of course! I can't wait for the weather to get warmer, so I can get out in the garage and start building my camera, and making more images.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Caffenol, developing negatives with the power of coffee!

Over the last 25 years, I have used a lot of different cameras, developers and film.

With all the digital technology available, I am still most comfortable shooting with a film camera.  I enjoy shooting with the most basic of manual operating cameras, over the sophisticated and mulch-dialed cameras of today.The process of loading a limited amount of frames or holders, going out into the environment, using a light meter and your gut to determine a good exposure is pretty fantastic. I find the slower I work, the better my photos are. In digital you may cull the best image from a group of 20. Heck 4 more frames and you've shot an entire roll of film!

One thing that I have been more conscious about is what happens to all the chemicals that are used in developing film. I have always been an environmentalist, and it is nice to know what you are putting down the drain.

Photo developers are all mostly pretty nasty, they contain harmful chemicals that can effect fish and wildlife. I started using Eco-Pro developer about two years ago. It is a lot more environmentally friendly developer.  I haven't had the time to shoot multiple rolls of film lately, so the mixed developer would go bad before I had a chance to use it up.

I was looking for a one shot environmentally safe photographic developer. After searching the internet, I finally found what I was looking for: Caffenol!

 According to Reinhold G, author of "The Caffenol Cookbook Bible," coffee based developers have been around since WWII. In 1995 Caffenol developer became an alternative means to traditional photo chemistry. The addition of vitamin C and washing soda has made it a better and more stable developer. For more history on Caffenol check out this link.

So what exactly is Caffenol developer? There are many different recipes, but the basic formula is four ingredients:

Washing Soda
Instant Coffee
Vitamin C

That's it!

Here are the ingredients for making a batch of Caffenol C-M all weighed out and ready to be mixed together.

Since I mix a lot of chemistry for different process (wet plate, cyanotype etc.) this was a breeze. Add the three ingredients one at a time, let it sit for a few minutes and then use it as a developer.

Caffenol developer all mixed and ready to use.
 The only drawback is the pungent odor that comes from mixing coffee, washing soda and vitamin C together. It is, well, a strong fishy smell to describe it best.

I took a test roll of 35mm Ilford FP4-Plus (125 ISO), put it in a beater of 35mm camera a Mamiya/Sekor 1000 DTL, and shot away.

The results were very surprising. The Caffenol developed the 125 ISO film to look more like Tri-X 400 ISO film. There was a little more grain than I expected, but overall the film came out great. The old Mamiya camera has seen better days, and the shutter curtains do not sync anymore. So I had 3/4 frame developed negatives rather than the full 24x36 mm frame that usually comes from a 35mm SLR. Accidents are sometimes nice, and because of the shutter problem the images have a Holga-esque look to them.

Snow, trees and the Salt Fork river behind my house. I love the way film renders all the different gradations of lights and darks, and does not blow out the highlights or block in the shadows.

A close up of one of my prairie plants.

I am very happy with Caffenol, and will be using it to develop film from now on. I need to tweak the developing times, or possibly try one of the many formulas available, to find the right film and developer combination. Other than that, I am glad that I found an environmentally friendly developer that can do the job of other more expensive commercial (and more harmful) developers on the market.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Scanning vs. Printing in a digital world

A photo of Kera Padget shot with my 42 year old Pentax SPII on Ilford FP4-Plus.
I love to print photos in a darkroom. It is a magical place where the red safe lights glow, the radio plays, and the photographer becomes a choreographer of sorts - waving hands, adding light, and making pictures appear out of trays of chemistry.

It is so relaxing and at the same time one of the most satisfying experiences to have. Sadly printing is not done very much anymore, and photos are made with zeros and ones in the digital world, shaped and prodded with software behind a large monitor in a room.

As much as I love to print, I have come into a long stretch lately where I am just not able to get the time to make it to the darkroom. I may have a half hour or an hour of spare time here and there between tasks. I have an enlarger and trays and could convert my bathroom into a darkroom. Unfortunately it takes longer to set up and tear down than to actually make a print.

I have access to a darkroom, but it is in the next town. So in between running errands, working, sleeping, eating and the other things that fill my life I have been scanning and using a digital darkroom.

It is a love hate relationship. I have been involved with Photoshop since version 2.0. I am as comfortable behind the computer monitor as I am behind the lens of a good enlarger. I can scan just as well as I can print.

Amanda Jacobs captured with a 100 year old Box Brownie and 120 film.

The real justification for scanning vs. printing for me is to finally get the work seen. The one factor that links printing and scanning is the fact that I still love to shoot film. I feel comfortable behind the lens of a film camera. I don't need the instant gratification of a LCD screen to tell me that I was able to get the shot I wanted. Although sometimes I tend to find myself looking for that screen when I have a difficult lighting condition or am shooting in an unknown location. It is a damn crutch. This digital world of instant gratification.

That is when I remember that for years before digital I did just that: shot film in any location, under any lighting at just about any time. State basketball finals-  film. Big bank fire - film. First baby of the new year - film. No LCD. No playback. No 1000 photos to cull out a good one. Only 36 exposures (or maybe a few rolls or even less with 120) to capture the moment.

Lyosha Svinarski shot with my 42 year old Pentax SPII on Ilford FP-4 film.

Developing negatives is such an amazing experience. Getting the chance to confirm that I actually was able to get the photo that I saw in my head is absolutely one of the most soul satisfying moments.

So my work is a hybrid of old school film and new technology in the digital darkroom.  My friend and former coworker Tom Sistak said that "You can't put the genie back in the bottle."  I may not be able to stop the march of photography from analog to digital, but I am using the technology I have available to make it possible to continue to still shoot film in this digital world.

Shooting with film makes me a better photographer. It makes me think about lighting and composition, and with the limited frame count it also makes each frame special and not just a series of clicks until getting the right one.

So.... I am scanning.  At the end of the day, for me anyway, I am still shooting film. That is what counts.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Boneyard Arts Festival - mini tintypes

Boneyard 2013

I will be part of the Boneyard Arts Festival this year, making mini 35mm tintypes! I will set up my wet plate chemistry in the darkroom at the Urbana Museum of Photography making tintypes from 10 am to 2:30 pm both Friday April 12, and Saturday April 13th.

A 35mm sized tintype I created last summer for a series titled "Intimate Treasures."
Stop by to see some of my other work, and learn a little bit about the wet plate collodion process. With all the ether, collodion and iron sulfate developer being used, the museum should smell like a bonafide 150 year old wet plate studio. As my friend Allie Tomkie would say, "Wet Plate: Free Smells!"