Written by Tom Box
One of the primary lures of film photography over digital is the scope for experimentation. The physical, chemical nature of the film process means you don’t really need any kind of technical skill or special equipment to modify, dismantle, and rearrange camera parts to make your own unique image-making Frankenstein’s monster.
When I first started collecting old cameras, I wasn’t hunting down the rare and expensive, but rather hoovering up any cheap, broken, or just plain ugly cameras I could find. I’ve always enjoyed taking things apart. Old clocks, toy robots, obsolete VHS players… I never had the intention of learning how they work or how to put them back together. I just enjoyed looking at all the tiny parts that made up these objects. When it came to gathering irreparable cameras, it was a natural urge of mine to take them apart and poke around with their insides.
Swapping Out Camera Parts
Many of the cheapest, plastic point-and-shoots have extremely basic shutters that rely on a sliding cover and a spring, firing at one speed with one aperture. Most of these also use a single lens element, often plastic, glued or wedged into the casing.
The Shutter Mechanism
With a couple of broken cameras lying around to provide spare parts, you can easily swap out the shutter spring to speed up or slow down the shutter speed or drill out the aperture to make it wider. On two of my ‘scrap-cams,’ as I call them, I have replaced the shutter entirely, jamming a press shutter from an ancient folding camera into one, and using the shutter from a smashed Diana clone in another.
One of the side-effects (I call them benefits) of swapping out a shutter in one of these cameras is that the interlock between frame counter and shutter is removed. This means the film can be wound as much or as little as you like, creating overlapping images and breaking photos up with haphazard vertical lines.
Replacing the Lens
Most single-speed point-and-shoots use a simple Meniscus lens, often plastic, that you can swap out for any combination of lens bits you can find. Swap lens elements around, flip them the other way, angle them incorrectly, and see what works!
I use a piece of ground glass in the position of the film gate to ‘preview’ the image the lens(es) will produce, but a piece of tracing paper will also work.
Much of the time a random stack of lens elements won’t produce an image at all, or the focal length will be unusable, but trial and error can reveal a suitably swirly, dreamy image or a super wide-angle fish eye effect for example.
You can also remove the lens entirely. Read my article about turning an old tube camera into a pinhole camera here.
Light-Proofing Your New Lens
You can use all sorts of things to light-proof your creation, gluing lens elements inside an old film tub, filling gaps with blu-tac, or just wrapping the whole lot in electrical tape. I sometimes leave one or two holes here and there to add some extra light leak goodness to the party. There’s nothing even remotely high tech to this, it’s all just experimentation and having fun.
If a weird Lomography camera just isn’t weird enough for you, try smashing the front off a charity shop trash camera and taping the middle element from a broken fisheye lens to it. Load it with film that’s been soaked in Lambrini and left in a greenhouse for a year. Overlap all the frames and scan it as panoramic strips. Over the top? There’s no such thing.
Thank you so much, Tom! Tom is a regular contributor here at Shoot It With Film, and you can check out his other articles here. Articles like…
Leave your questions building Frankencameras below in the comments!