Exploring a landscape with handmade cameras

'Surrealism has always courted accidents, welcomed the uninvited, flattered disorderly presences. What could be more surreal than an object which virtually produces itself, and with a minimum of effort? An object whose beauty, fantastic disclosures, emotional weight are likely to be further enhanced by any accidents that might befall it?'¹

Toy cameras are surrealist tools. Their crude plastic bodies are housings for unsophisticated mechanisms, requiring little to no input by the user, effortlessly producing images with artefacts that prompt unexpected and spontaneous results.

Though I am not a Surrealist, these qualities that move beyond reality and predetermined modernism are attractive to me as a photographer. They serve as a reminder that ‘photography is not bound by any obligation to reality; like any other art, it is a set of resources which can be put to a variety of uses, and out of which a style can be forged’².

Shifting this surrealist unpredictability from the toy to the handmade camera is an exercise in problem solving by working within the basic parameters of photography. An understanding of the integral theories behind the photographic medium are applied to practical and physical attributes: a light tight box, a means to prepare the recording medium (sensor, film or plate), an operational shutter, and an aperture to allow light to enter the box.

Cameras are tools, a means of capturing a scene on to a photographic medium. It follows that the handmade camera is a customised and specialised tool to meet the individual photographer’s needs. Just as an artist may use a handmade brush, material or tool to create a unique look and style, a photographer looking to create a unique representation or interpretation can do so through the act of making the tool.

Seeking to explore the landscape of the British countryside with a surrealist undetermined nature, which underlines the toy camera and lo-fi imagery, took the form of a four month final major project building two cameras and shooting with them.

Camera one started life with the premise of creating a wooden toy camera. It is a simple box camera made from 3mm balsa wood, housing a roll of medium format, and a 6x6 mask. An Agfa compur-rapid shutter sits at the front, of which the original lens elements are replaced with a meniscus element suitable for a 21mm focal length. The original plan was to implement a viewfinder, however the wide focal length made it easy to compose with. To load the camera, the top plate comes off, and film can be slid inside, similar to the Leica cameras.

The camera, rushed in design and construction to meet deadlines, suffers from fundamental issues and faults. One major flaw is that the lens barrel on the shutter is too long for the wide focal length, creating a deep vignetting and a frame size closer to a 4x4 rather than a 6x6. With the wide focal length, the original aperture markings became invalid as the f32 became an f8. The narrowest aperture of f8 meant that distortions were not tamed enough and the resulting images, can in some cases, have distracting artefacts. A curved film plane, like that of the fujipet toy camera, was later added to diminish a curvature distortion. During the time using the camera, a minimalist centre focused composition was adopted to take advantage of the sharp centre and blurred distorted edges.

The benefit of adapting a shutter to the camera body allowed for relatively accurate and controlled exposure timings. The slow shutter speeds on the compur-rapid shutter allowed for the capture of movement, which was used to capture waterfalls.

The fastest shutter speed, a respectable 1/400th of second, allowed for the capture of a snow covered landscape in bright conditions. The low contrast of the below image was created by a pull development process as a high speed film was accidentally loaded into the camera when a slow film was needed. Rather than scrapping the film, it was decided, in Sontag's words, to court the accident. The unusual diamond shape and uneven exposure could be the result of cold temperatures making the shutter sticky.

The outcomes of the camera are interesting however, the images lack the surrealist spontaneity that the toy camera has. The shutter, with its range of speeds, insinuated a preference for perfection. Toy cameras have little to no options in the way of control, let alone shutter speeds. This is where camera two came in.

Camera two is a TLR camera made from a wooden box and a balsa insert box. A modified Holga shutter and a 50mm convex lens intended for science experiments are the basic photographic elements, while a mirror, fogged perspex, and an identical lens were used to create a rudimentary viewfinder. These devices were almost entirely housed within the insert box, while the main, larger, box housed the film and winding mechanism.

Camera two is not a work of art, it was constructed in a toy camera fashion -a rushed and slapdash manner so that a lo-fi look could be achieved from the beginning. In the way of mechanisms, it is possible to focus the camera by moving the insert-able box back and forth, however with a fixed aperture of f8, any immediate subjects are in clear focus making the need to focus redundant. This is nothing new in the realm of the toy camera as Holga and Lomography photographers are known to forget the focus and just shoot.

With a fixed f stop and shutter speed, results became more comparable to lo-fi with surreal results beyond that of the toy camera. Below is a pictorial pastoral scene which is similar in tone to George Davison's onion field. The blurriness is similar to that of the pinhole camera, without the long exposure times.

Below, is another another murky-painterly pastoral scene with just enough clarity to make out the immediate path and its details.

The light leaks and jagged edges come from a cardboard mask which was modified and experimented with over time. These artefacts were more prominent in bright conditions and subdued with tape and black matte paint.

The uncoated simple lens produces a low contrast that complements dense fog and defused light.

The lines in the below image are caused by the cardboard mask becoming too coarse and scratching the film as it travels along. It adds a texture that is eerie and horror film like. In most cases the scratches are hard to see.

In bright conditions, the uncoated simple lens performs well enough for the intended purpose. The below image is absent of flares and has enough contrast to produce a stark depiction of a single tree. 

All of the negatives were scanned and processed digitally. The darkroom could have provided further alternative processes, enough for a whole other project. Deadlines meant I could not pursue this. The post processing attributes applied -slightly burning in vignetting and adjustments to contrast, would be applied in the darkroom.

Conclusions drawn from this project

Intending to explore the landscape with a surrealist lo-fi undertone has resulted in processes at the fundamental level of photography. The basic tools created to produce the outcomes could have taken many forms in varying mediums. The choice of medium format as a recording medium seemed natural given that the majority of toy cameras use it. Medium format is also used by British landscape photographers, Micheal Kenna and Fay Godwin, of whom are personal influences and heroes of mine. Additionally, though the project was not about perfection, it could have been achieved, if desired, by  mounting a medium or large format lens. The cameras built for the project were successful for the purposes of looking beyond the toy camera and exploring the broader fundamental attributes of photography.

The pursuit of capturing the landscape with a simple camera over traditional and conventional equipment is synonymous with Edward Weston's statement that 'richness of control facilities often acts as a barrier to creative work' and that 'the task can be made immeasurably easier by selecting the simplest possible equipment and procedures and staying with them'³. Photographers can be addicted to the pursuit and acquisition of equipment rather than the photograph and message they wish to convey.  I am guilty of this at times -the zeal of shiny brass Leica. Using a simple camera, whether a toy, pinhole or handmade camera, removes the focus from equipment and to the creative semiotics and message.

The landscape photographs in this project, and others such as my Holga work covering the Peak District, are people-less, sublime, and unsentimental. Non-photographers will often use the word moody to describe the work, identifying the sublime visual signifiers as dark, eerie, and bleak. I see the work as a reminder that under the facade of the social construct: British countryside being a picturesque idyllic tidy garden, there lies a wilderness under layers of centuries old management and manipulation of the land.

A gallery of images from the project can be found here.

This article can also be found on a wordpress site here.


Sontag, On Photography. Page 52.

Scott, C. (1999). Spoken Image: Photography and Language. Page 22. 

Weston, E. (2003). Seeing photographically. In L. Wells (Ed.), The Photography Reader. Page 107. (Original work published 1930)

Ladybower reservoir with a holga

I have made additions to my peak district / holga toy camera project. You can view the complete project here.

FMP on display

My documentary project, using the iconic holga, came to a close with 10 digital hahnemuhle prints. They were on display at Lincoln college final show.


I am now actively posting on rjcalow.wordpress.com for short photo essays, adventures, and sometimes ramblings on cameras and photography. 

The link is now added to the main navigation links.

Thank you all.

Polaroid 320 + FP-100C

Since starting home developing, which has so far been traditional black and white, I have had an interest in instant film; the appeal being instant colour analogue shots to space out the monochrome work. After debating impossible project and instax, I went for FP-100c peel apart film. I found a Polaroid automatic 320 land camera, bellows and all on ebay for £10.

This camera takes an obsolete 3v battery that are expensive and hard to come by so I had to modify the battery compartment by wiring a 2xAAA holder, making it fit inside by snapping a few plastic bits off. The compartment just closes.

I also had to modify the back of the door, taking the metal pins out that were once needed to tension the old polaroid metal film cartridges. Fuji FP-100C has plastic cartridges and even with the pins bent back I jammed the film, taking them out with pillars fixed the issue.

The lens seems to be plastic with a swirly bokeh like that of the lubitel. Not the sharpest in the world, but that’s just character.

paddy and his nose stained window

FP-100C doesn’t just produce a contrasty full colour photo, it also leaves behind a negative that once bleached of the black coating can be scanned like a large format negative. Sloppy bleaching also gives colour shifts and bleeding edges that I really like.


Colour film developed in B&W chemicals

Experimented this week in developing pound shop C41 colour film in B&W chemicals for an upcoming pinhole camera project for my scout group. The film is Agfa vista 200, and is close to, if not re-branded, fujicolor C200. There's no official word on this, but it's made by Fuji that's for sure.

Developing C41 film in traditional B&W developer is referred to as cross processing. Like the popular form of cross processing that is E6 slide film developed in ordinary colour film developer, colour film can also be developed in B&W developer. The only problem is the orange mask that is on most colour films.

Before I started, a number of sites were useful such as Filmdev.org. I found a recipe there for C200 with the developer I had, ilfosol 3. Also this Flickr group 'COLOR Films developed in B/W chemicals' is full of useful information

I followed the recipe, which is nothing out of the ordinary for black white film, only the C41 colour film needs a long time in a fixing agent. 7 Minutes of fixing was required at the end. I scanned the negatives as colour negatives, this lets the scanner software deal with the orange mask and gives a usable sepia image. Then I used my favourite opensource workflow Darktable to convert them to mono.


The images don't look like real black & white shots that films like Kodak Tri-X can produce, but they have a look to them. One or two actually remind me of old black white photography. The process isn't strictly 'traditional' or ideal for prints, but it will allow me to introduction kids to pinhole cameras and traditional photography on a low budget. 

 All the shots were taken on a Olympus xa2.

A visit to shed brewery

Shed Brewery is a non-commercial nano brewery run by Colin Tweed, a qualified beer and wine judge. The Shed is a fully-functioning brewery producing beer that has clinched Colin the national master brewer award twice in succession.

Colin walked me through the brewing process while brewing a brown ale from a recipe he developed himself. He goes the extra mile, and buys fresh whole grains and processes them right before brewing, emphasising freshness. Several varieties of hops grow over and around the shed giving the place an apt theme as well as fresh hop cones in late summer.

I sampled several enjoyable beers including an amazing coffee vanilla stout prototype developed and brewed to be sold for charity at a local beer festival.

As a passionate national beer and wine judge, Colin is not permitted to sell his produce, something he is not upset about, preferring to enter competitions, raise money for charity, and give talks.