Wartime Camera Workshop

Wartime Camera Workshop

I got talking to the manager of the local museum here in Invergordon about the documentary David Allen and I filmed throughout 2019 called One Shot: Inchindown.  I was planning some local screenings after the premier in November with FLOW Photofest.

Suddenly I noticed a large selection of analogue, wartime era large-format cameras on display!  These had been donated to the Museum a few years ago from a relative of a late local photographer, Mr Privett.  Pictured here teaching swimming in the open air pool in Invergordon.

Thinking that it would be nice to clean one of the cameras up to enable a photograph to be taken, I offered to host a couple of workshops as regards a brief history and demonstration of photography around the time of WWII.


 I decided to take a couple of large-format cameras of my own to demonstrate the purpose of the many movements available to the photographer and also to discuss how modern technology such as 3D printing is changing the way cameras of this type are being built.

One such example of this is no better demonstrated by the Cameradactyl!

In fact, this was the camera that everybody was most interested in and taken with.  The range of questions was brilliant, usually starting with something like “does that take actual pictures”?

As you can see, the cameradactyl 4×5 inch is a large-format field camera that has a lot to say!

Thanks to 3D printing, almost everything can be customised to your exact requirements.  Bright, colourful and vibrant bellows accentuate your taste!

I find that using the Camerdactyl as a demonstration tool extremely useful because it get’s people really smiling and talking about this kind of photography.  It offers such a perfect comparison tool between vintage construction techniques that people might be familiar with the Gandolfi family using and the more modern techniques employed by camera-makers these days.

The Cameradactyl is a fully functioning camera of which I have used many times both out in the field and to shoot portraits.

I most enjoy shooting peoples’ portraits with this camera because it makes people smile as soon as they see it, that’s more than half the battle already catered for!

Spares aren’t really a problem either and what’s more, they won’t ever be!  It can be a very costly business in large-format photography in terms of equipment alone.  The internet shops are full of cameras that don’t function quite right because a part is missing or broken.

With a 3D printed camera, integral parts can be made in minutes.  This got me thinking because none of the Museum cameras were working for that very reason.  I had to literally build my own camera to accept one of the huge brass lenses that had once been donated.

I also adapted a rear standard from an 8 x 10 inch Intrepid camera.  This would enable me to shoot using either 8 x 10 inch paper, film, or plate. 

Intrepid thankfully also make a 4 x 5 back which sits inside the 8 x 10 inch back which enables the photographer to shoot that size too, this is very useful in terms of versatility and cost of film / chemicals.

I set to work, doing just that.  Firstly I built a lens board to accept the James Swift and Sons LTD lens which is very heavy.

Secondly I needed to build a front standard to accept the huge lens.  Because I wanted the same movements any other field camera would have at the front and making something from scratch would be really time consuming I chose to use the front standard of a Sinar Monorail.  This worked a treat.

The front and back standards have a separate tripod each.  The distance from each standard is about 750 mm.  This means that it’s is very hard to focus the lens correctly by yourself, because you can’t reach the focusing controls on the front standard whilst you are looking through the ground glass on the rear standard!  It becomes a lengthy process, to say the least.

Then for the bellows… As you see here, I used some adjustable walking poles and some curtain rails running from each corner between the two standards.

I then used some twin and earth electrical cable to provide support for the bellows.  Circling the cable in this way meant that the cloth bellows did not sag and obstruct light coming in through the lens on it’s way back to the ground glass.

In fact, the ground glass here isn’t glass at all, it’s acrylic made for me by Ethan at Camerdacyl.  Acrylic has the benefit of not breaking as easily as glass.


The bellows were made by simply wrapping some black-out cloth which was black inside the cream coloured black-out cloth.

A bit of tucking in and I had made a light tight box with a lens at the front and some ground glass at the rear – a camera.

All-in-all this took me a couple of hours to put together and whilst I’m not saying this is a superbly portable unit, what it does do very well, is put light on the film or in this case paper negative!

I was so excited to shoot through this lens and no one was around, so I decided to make a self-portrait.  But how was I going to focus on myself?  Hmmmm.


I decided to set something on the chair in-situ of which I could focus on.  In this case I then taped on some climbing cord to the ceiling and let that dangle down to where my focus point was.  This would let me place my eyes on that point just before I was going to take the shot.

Taking the shot entailed putting a cover over the lens attached to some more climbing cord.  I would sit down in the chair, place my nose on the climbing cord hanging from the ceiling and then pull that cord off so that it wouldn’t be seen in the photograph.  Then in my other hand I would pull the cord attached to the lens cap (in this case made out of a 100 mm plastic drain insert).

Because I was shooting onto darkroom paper which is a lot less sensitive to light than normal film, the exposure was a lot longer, which meant that I had to keep still for about 15 seconds.  After which I quickly put the drain cover (lens cap) back on to the lens.

You can see the paper negative above.  Again using modern technology, I took a digital shot on my phone of the paper negative and inverted the image using software to create a positive of the negative.

It is easy to see that there is motion blur in the negative due to me moving, and I also didn’t quite have my eyes the correct distance from the camera, so these aren’t sharp.  The depth of field is incredibly shallow as I shot through the lens wide open at f5 (ish).

I’m really excited to use this set up again to shoot in a more controlled and calculated environment.  The lens is lovely!

Hopefully you will see that it isn’t really difficult to make something capable of a lot with very little. 

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2 Thoughts to “Wartime Camera Workshop”

  1. David Allen


  2. Martin

    Well done and written!

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