View Camera Construction FAQ

LF camera back

This FAQ aims at amateur photographers and woodworkers who are considering building a large format camera. The first version was published in August 1996. Some details in this FAQ will be updated shortly.

  1. What skills are needed for building a view camera? The basic principles of a view camera are simple. The skills needed depend on your design. The design in turn may be adapted to your skills. Example: Advanced woodworkers may dovetail the corners of the front and rear frames; less advanced woodworkers may miter the corners. Average
    woodworking skills will go a long way. Patience and accuracy are vitues that will be reflected in the final object.
  2. What tools are needed for building a view camera? Mainly ordinary woodworking tools: an electric drill (a drill pressis useful, but not necessary), bits for wood and metal, a bench vise,various saws (e.g. backsaw or tenon saw, fret saw, coping saw and hacksaw), probably a miter box, a carpenter’s square (engineer’s
    try-square), straight tip and cross-head screwdrivers, metal files, wood files, clamps (miter or corner clamps are useful but not required), a smoothing plane, a knife, chisels, callipers, a metal ruler, sandpaper of assorted grades. For some designs a soldering iron may be needed.
  3. Should I build a monorail camera or a flatbed camera? Monorail cameras and flatbed cameras differ with regard to features. Flatbed cameras have more limited camera movements than monorail cameras, typically about 18-20 degrees back tilt and swing. Flatbed cameras usually have base tilt of the back (the back tilt axis is at the
    bottom) and base and on-axis tilt of the front. Monorail cameras often have on-axis tilt (the rear frame tilts on the optical axis). Most flatbed cameras fold up into a box; monorail camera do not. Monorail cameras are easier to build, partly because the camera is not designed to fold up.  Monorail cameras may have friction focusing or geared focusing. Collapsable flatbed cameras need rack and pinion focusing. They usually require more metal work than a monorail camera. Flatbed cameras are often referred to as field cameras, though many monorail cameras may be used in the field as well.
  4. How much do the materials cost? The answer depends on your design and your choice of materials. Hardwoods suitable for cameras are cherry, mahogany, teak, walnut, oak,and ash. All wood has to be well seasoned so that it does not warp. Many commercial cameras are made of cherry. Expenses also depend on whether you make a bellows yourself or buy the bellows. In general the materials of a view camera are not very expensive.
  5. How long does it take to build a camera? Your first camera takes more time than your second. The first time you build a camera you will spend considerable time pondering over details and looking for suitable hardwoods or metal parts. This is part of the pleasure of building your own camera. Building a camera may take 50–100 hours.
  6. What are the most critical measurements in a view camera design? The positioning of the ground glass is the most critical detail in the design. The focusing surface of the ground glass has to be in the same position as the emulsion of the film when a film holder is inserted. The critical measurement (the distance from film emulsion to the surface of the film holder) is 4.8 mm or 0.190″. The ANSI standard for the depth of a standard 4 x 5 inch film holder is 0.197″ plus minus 0.007″. Most film has a base of 0.007″ . When film is loaded in the film holder, the depth is 0.190″. This is the measurement used by Sinar cameras. Wisner cameras use a compromise of 0.192″ to allow for wear on the wood and because Tech Pan film, used by some photographers to achieve ultra-sharp images, has a base of 0.004″. The ANSI standard for 5 x 7 and 8 x 10 inch film holders are as follows (film thickness has not been deducted):
    5 x 7″ 0.228″ + – 0.010
    8 x 10″ 0.260″ + – 0.016
    These measurements may be checked with a Vernier calliper gauge or a micrometer (available in some hardware stores). Vernier callipers take measurements to 0.1 mm or less. Film holder formats: http://home.earthlink.net/~eahoo/page8/filmhold.html
  7. What points should I pay special attention to when deciding on a design?
    Camera movements: When choosing a design you should think of how much camera movements you want (tilt, swing, shift, rise and fall). Camera movements distinguish large format cameras from rigid-bodied cameras and make possible control of perspective and depth of field. You may have to choose between on-axis tilt (the frames tilt on the optical axis) and base tilt (the frames tilt on an axis near the bottom). Read about camera movements before you decide on a design.
    Accurate and comfortable focusing: Focusing must be accurate and easy to operate. Friction focusing, i.e. gently pushing or pulling the sliders which carry the front and rear frames, works well with monorail cameras. Flatbed cameras normally need rack and pinion focusing (gears).
    Easy changing from the horizontal to the vertical format: The back should have a lock which makes changing from horizontal to vertical format easy.
    Sturdiness: The optical bench of the monorail camera or the struts of the flatbed camera should be sturdy. Inserting a film holder should not change your focusing.
    Tilt axis: During the construction you should also pay particular attention to accurate positioning of the tilt axis of the front and rear frames.  The tilt axis of the front and rear frames should be level to ensure accurate camera movements.
  8. Should I make the bellows myself or buy a bellows? Some amateur camera builders make the bellows themselves, others buy a standard bellows or have a bellows custom made. Standard bellows tend to be expensive. The most reasonable standard square bellows suitable for a 4 x 5 inch monorail camera, is probably a Cambo bellows. A custom made bellows for 4 x 5 may be about US $ 150.Making a bag bellows for wide wide-angle lenses is easier than making a pleated bellows.Useful instructions for making bellows are found here:
  9. Can I make my own ground glass? Commercial ground glass for 4 x 5 cameras is fairly inexpensive. For larger formats it is pretty expensive. However, for any format you canmake excellent ground glass yourself at hardly any cost. Get some # 600 carborundum or # 500 corundum. Put a piece of glass on a flat surface. Mix about a teaspoonful of carborundum/corundum with water to make a paste. Put the 2 mm piece of glass which is going to be your ground glass on top and move it in small circles as you exert some pressure. Grinding a 4 x 5 ground glass may take 5–10 minutes. An 8 x 10 ground glass may take 20–30 minutes depending on your experience.
  10. Where do I find plans or instructions?

    Grepstad, Jon. Building a Large Format Camera. Second, revisededition. Oslo 2000. 85 pages. ISBN 82-993938-1-7. (Instructions andplans for a 4 x 5 inch monorail camera of hardwood, brass and aluminum.)

    Hoover, Edward A. Simple Large Format Camera Construction. An Illustrated Fabrication Manual. Sanford, Florida 2002. 111 pages.

    Gutierrez, Al. “Build a View Camera”. Popular science do-it-yourself yearbook. 1992. N.Y. : Popular Science Books : distribution by Van Nostrand Reinhold 1992. pp. 111-118. ISBN 0-696-11111-X (Instructions for building a Bender or Bender-like camera.)

    Helm, Peter. Selbstbau einer Grossformat-Fachkamera. Titz-Gevelsdorf: Verlag Peter Helm, 1989. 6th edition. 84 pages. ISBN 3-88673 -000-X. (Basic instructions for making a simple monorail camera of metal.)

    Håkansson, Patrik and Lundell, Kurt. “Bygg din egen storformatskamera”. Aktuell fotografi 7-8, 1988, pp. 64-68. Stockholm 1988. Also see correction in Aktuell fotografi 9, 1988. (Article with sketches for building a 4 x 5 inch monorail camera of wood and metal.)

    Jahr, Wolfgang. “9 x 12-Kamera aus der Hobbywerkstatt”. Foto Hobbylabor 2, 3, 4, 1986. Hamburg 1986. (Series of articles with sketches for building a 4 x 5 inch monorail camera of wood and metal. Also instructions for converting the camera into an enlarger.)

    Layton, John. “Designing and building your own camera”, View Camera, March-April 1995, pp. 38-44. Sacramento, CA. (Article with photographs for building a 4 x 5 inch flatbed camera of hardwood.)

    Layton, John. “Build you own 4 x 5 field-view camera”. View Camera, November-December 1996, pp. 48-56. Sacramento, CA. (Instructions for building a 4 x 5 inch flatbed camera of hardwood.)

    Mönks, Thomas. Grossformatkamera selbst gebaut. Stuttgart: Lindemanns Verlag 1991. 3rd edition. 38 pages. ISBN 3-928126-17-2. (Instructions for making a very simple wooden monorail camera.)

    Partridge, Graham. 5 x 4 Camera. Henly-on-Thames, 1992. 35 pages. (Plans for a simple non-collapsable flatbed camera. Also plans for a tapered bellows.)

    Robinson, Mike. “How to build a camera bellows”. View Camera, July-August 1996, pp. 52-55. Sacramento, CA.

    Romney, Edward H. Bellows making text. 14 pages. Drayton, SC. 1990.

    Romney, Ed and James Tannehill. Build a view camera. 23 pages. ISBN 1-886996-63-6. (Plans for a 2 x 3 metal view camera, expandable to 4 x 5.) Drayton, SC. 1979.

    Spreadbury, S. “Into View. A Home-Made 4 x 5 in Camera”. Amateur Photographer, 13 March 1982, pp. 127-128. (Article and photographs for building a monorail camera made of metal and wood.)

    West, Bert. Build your own view camera. Highland Park, IL: Dogstar Publishing, 1995. 112 pages. ISBN 1-886757-07-0. (Instructions for building a simple 4 x 5 inch monorail camera. Also instructions for making a bellows.)

  11. What sites are there on the net?
  12. Where do I find a forum for cameramakers on the net?
  13. Where do I find thumb nuts/screws, gears or other metal parts for my camera?
  14. Where do I find a reasonable lens for my camera?
  15. Where do I find data about large format lenses?

  16. Where can I have a barrel lens mounted in a shutter?
  17. Where can I get a Packard shutter?
  18. Where do I find information on shutter features (diameters etc.)?
  19. Where can I have bellows made for my camera?
  20. What good sources are there for the history of view camera design?

    Coe, Brian. Cameras. From Daguerrotypes to Instant Pictures. Gothenburg: Nordbok, 1978. 240 pages. ISBN 91-7442-0313Stroebel,Leslie D. View Camera Technique. 5th edition. New York–Boston–London: Focal Press, 1986. 310 pages. ISBN 0-240-51711-3. (The classic reference work on large format photography.)

8 x 10 camera