One Photographer’s Reflections on Making His Own Instant Photo Press Camera

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One of the most important decisions a photographer can make is picking a camera, and with all the different kinds out there, everyone has options. You can look up reviews, talk shop with colleagues, and take your time in the very subjective process of picking out the best camera for yourself and your needs.

But what about building the best camera for yourself?

I grew up in a very poor household in rural Louisiana, where buying something new was a rare occurrence and hiring a repairman for the house or car was out of the question. Most things we owned were homemade and maintained by ourselves so inventing and building are two passions that came to me naturally.

Even now, the habit of doing something myself has stuck in most aspects of my life. Pursuing a career in photography, it was only a matter of time before I started building my own cameras.

My camera is a hodgepodge of different designs I thought of throughout making it. Whenever I start a project, I spend weeks researching to come up with the best possible design before I even set foot in the workshop. Even so, I always have to make changes on the fly or even scrap entire projects. Nonetheless, it’s a passion, and I have fun putting in the hours.

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This camera was originally designed to be a 4×5 monorail which would replace the first camera I built, but after completing the front and rear frames, I decided to do a complete redesign and make a handheld instant press camera. If it hadn’t started the way it did, it wouldn’t be the unique Polaroid camera it is today.

After scrapping the monorail design found in traditional large format cameras, I invented my own, more compact, system for aligning the frames. For focusing I have a lead screw connecting the two frames and for stability I made telescoping guide rods that attach onto the top of the camera. This system allows for the bigger negatives that you’d find in a large format camera, but at only 5.5 pounds and slightly larger than a standard DSLR.

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There aren’t any tilts or shifts, but that’s a conscious decision for efficiency. The Polaroid back is one of three parts of the camera I purchased, and is similar to what you would find on a Land camera. The other purchased parts are the Fujinon 90mm lens which see some use in press cameras, and on the top is an external mechanical range finder, which is essential for focusing.

The unique design of my camera means composing an image with it is complicated, and difficult for photographers other than myself to do. My camera doesn’t have a viewfinder, so there’s a large amount of practiced guesswork involved with my camera.

Focusing is done mathematically using this formula:

F = (\frac{1}{0.0111}-\frac{1}{D}) - 4.4

On the back of the camera is a laminated sheet with some common distances, but the more I began to use my camera, the less I needed it. To get the picture I want, I hold the camera close to my body and since I trust myself and understand my camera, I get what I’m looking for every time. It’s much more an extension of my body rather than a machine I’m controlling.

Sure, simple tasks like metering for exposure and focusing are much more complicated than on any other camera, but that’s part of what makes it mine. I feel something really special when I turn the handmade lead screw and feel the action as the bellows expand and the guide rods extend. It’s a feeling that makes the final images of places I’ve lived and friends that I’ve made that much more important to me.

When I say this is my camera, it’s not just a camera that I own; I have a bond with it that you just can’t get with a brand name.

When I first started building this camera as an instant press, I thought I’d be doing portraiture, but found that it’s best suited for landscape photography. The first photos I took with this camera were mostly of friends, with a few landscapes thrown in.

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I liked the initial portraits and spent much more time with them at first, but they didn’t excite me very much. It wasn’t until I revisited the landscape photography that I saw where my camera’s strengths lie, and what kind of shoots to bring it to.

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Because the landscape photos hadn’t been touched for so long and since the FP-100C film my camera uses is so vulnerable, the images took on the heavily distressed look you see. Being used to the Ansel Adams approach to landscapes where everything is microscopically perfect, I initially hated the imperfections and spent hours trying to fix the damage in post process.

I eventually came to the realization that this was a natural part about my camera that would always happen with it, and while I do touch up and clean some images, these imperfections are part of how my camera interacts in composing an image.

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This camera has made an unexpected impact on my photography and myself as a photographer. I feel that photographers can make better pictures when they carefully pick the right camera for the right situation instead of relying on one camera to take photos that are well and good, but don’t play to what the subject matter calls for.

This camera has a lot of limitations, which is a big reason why it does so well in its best applications. I don’t use this camera every day, nor do I try and make every project I work on fit with its style. It’s forced me out of my comfort zone and into new ways to approach and appraise my art.

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I even used to hate some of the pictures I would now call my favorites. I put a lot of care into the design and construction of my camera, but I never thought it could do so much to affect myself as a photographer.


About the author: Lucus Landers is a photographer who recently graduated from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He works in Oklahoma and Brooklyn, and is passionate about both making cameras and taking pictures. You can visit his website here.

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