Homemade 35mm Box Camera





Introduction: Homemade 35mm Box Camera

Ever thought about taking the Pin Hole camera to the next level? Well now you can!

Coming some day: The camera works so well I've decided to upgrade the shutter so it will be able to shoot in broad daylight. 


When I first started this project, the plan was to make a really nice Pin Hole camera. But after doing a little homework I quickly realized that the problem with pin hole cameras is that it's very difficult to figure out how long you need to let light enter the hole in order to get a proper exposure. I started to think, which in my case is very dangerous, and needless to say at this point, I got more than a little carried away. The project went from making a Pin Hole camera all the way to a home-made Box Camera with a real lens. All because I wanted to be able to figure out the shutter speed based on a known aperture. What on EARTH was I thinking? Many hours of head scratching went into the design and even more hours went into the build. But guess what? It worked! It not only works, but it takes remarkably great (sharp) pictures, supports interchangeable lenses, shoots 35mm film, and is easy to use. About the only draw back worth mentioning is that the shutter design doesn't provide speeds fast enough for photos in the bright sun. Indoors, shaded areas, early morning and evening are all doable. I encourage you to design a faster shutter design and add it to this Instructable. ;)

I would rate this project as moderate to advanced if you plan on using power tools to make it. It doesn't require power tools, nor do you have to use all the same tools I used, but it will certainly make the task easier if you do. This simple, classic design is all original, I didn't borrow any ideas from other home-made cameras I saw on the web or anywhere else. It's a little complex so I took a lot of pictures, hopefully the entire build process will be clear enough in this Instructable that you can build one yourself, but I will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Step 1: Materials and Tools

Materials List:
1/2" Plywood
Wood Screws
Black Masking Tape
Small Piece of Neoprene
Thin Sheet of Plastic
A Broken Film SLR Camera and Lens for Parts (The camera is optional but you'll need a lens and way to mount it.)
Empty Film Roll (Courtesy of any Photo Lab that processes film) 

I chose 1/2" birch plywood that was left over from another project to build my box with. I got the sheet of plastic out of the bottom of one of those reusable shopping bags, and the small piece of neoprene was cut out of one of those pads you put in front of your keyboard to rest your wrists on while you type. The only things used in the making of this camera that I didn't fabricate, are the tripod mount, which I took off a broken film SLR camera, the lens mount, which I could have used off  the same broken camera, but I happened to have a lens adapter that I was able to take the threaded (M42) sleeve out of, which I only preferred over the one from the broken camera because I have a better selection of lenses for it. You guessed it, zero investment so far, and it's a pleasure to get some use out of my old Pentax lenses again.

Tools Used:
Table Saw
Powered Miter Box
Fine Tooth Hand Saw
Drill and Counter Sink Bit
Hack Saw
Coping Saw
Razor Knife
Screw Driver
Dremel Tool

If you don't own or know how to use all of these tools, it's OK, I'm certain you could do this using only hand tools. If you wanted to tackle this with a hand miter saw and a sharp chisel, I'm sure you could, it will just take a lot longer.

Step 2: Design Elements 1 of 2

Image 1:  Outside view of the side panel. Both side panels are identical, from the outside you can see the film slot where the film enters and exits the camera. The film slot was cut by hand with a hacksaw blade broken in half with a masking tape handle (see materials photo). 

Image 2: Inside view of the side panel where you can see the film slot and the shutter curtain groove. Note how close the shutter is to the rear of the camera (film plane). This will all make a lot more sense in a minute. The groove was hand cut with a regular, fine tooth hand saw.

Image 3: The front and rear panels measure 3" x 3" square and the finished outside dimensions of the camera are roughly 4 x 4 x 2.25 inches. The lens hole was cut by hand with coping saw, I drilled a small hole to slip the blade through and then attached the handle to cut out the hole. The recess cut for the lens mount ring was made with a router. If you made your box the correct depth, you would be able to avoid the recess cut altogether. I didn't get it right because I failed to take into consideration that I was going to recess the film into the rear panel, so I had to make up the distance by recessing the lens the same amount. I will explain this at length later, but the short version is the lens has to be an exact distance from the film plan so that three things will happen, the lens will be able to focus close up, the lens will be able to focus to infinity, and the distance meter on the lens will be accurate.

Image 4:  The rear panel, which also serves as the film plane. If you look close you can see that the thin plastic sheet, which protects the unexposed film and creates a 35mm window frame, is flush with the wood. I did this just to make sure the shutter wouldn't run into it and get hung up. I used a router to make this cut but I suppose you could do it with a sharp chisel. There is another cut behind the plastic that is very shallow that creates a track for the film to slide behind the plastic sheet. See the next image for a close up.

Image 5:  Close up of the rear panel showing a piece of leader film sliding under the recessed piece of plastic.

Image 6: Shutter Curtain/View Finder, which is made from the same thin plastic used on the film plane. The thin piece of wood glued (epoxy) on at the bottom serves two purposes, most importantly it prevents me from pulling the shutter curtain right out of the camera when I take a shot, and it also stops the shutter in the open position as soon as the film window is uncovered to prevent any unnecessary travel. This is important because in some cases you'll want to open and close the shutter as fast as possible. I put a little paraffin wax in the grooves to help make the shutter slide smooth and operate without any binding, which helps avoid camera shake.

Step 3: Design Elements 2 of 2

Image 1:  Top Panel, outside (top) view, the neoprene seal is approximately 1/4 inch thick and has a razor cut down the entire length except for the ends. I aligned the cut in the neoprene over the cut in the wood by having the shutter (thin piece of plastic) sticking up out of the cut, which allowed me to slip the seal over it and hold it in place while the glue set.

Image 2:  Top Panel, inside (underneath) view, here you can see the cut that the shutter curtain slips through so you can grab the top of it to open and close the shutter curtain.

Image 3: Bottom Panel, outside view, here you can see the Tripod Mount.

Image 4:  Bottom Panel, inside view, shutter curtain groove was cut with a fine tooth hand saw.

In the next step you'll see how the panels assemble, how the shutter curtain seals off the rear of the camera (film plane) in between shots. All the design elements will come together and make sense if they haven't already.

Step 4: Assembly

Image 1: The side panels are attached to the rear (film plane) panel and you can see the how the slots for the shutter curtain are right in front of the rear of the camera and film plane.

Image 2: Shutter test fit. You can already see how the shutter fully seals of the rear of the camera and film plane so you can safely advance the film after taking a shot.

Image 3: A different angle so you can see the shutter in the open position. Note how the window frame cutout only allows light to fall on a 35mm section of film, this protects the unexposed area of the film so there is very little waste between shots.

Image 4: With the bottom panel on and the shutter in the closed position, you can see how the shutter slips into the groove at the bottom, creating a light proof curtain so the film can be advanced and be ready for the next shot. Just to play it safe, I keep the lens cap on in between shots.

Image 5:  With the top panel on and the shutter fully open you can see how the piece of wood on the shutter curtain limits the upward travel to only what is necessary to expose the film.

Image 6: With the front installed you can see how the lens opening is aligned with the 35mm frame opening on the film plane.

Step 5: Final Touches

Image 1:  Black masking tape seals up any possible light leaks at the seams and here you get a good look at the neoprene seal that prevents light leaks at the shutter curtain, which doubles as a simple view finder. The shutter is actuated by quickly pulling it up till it stops and then pushing it back down till it stops.

Image 2:  Here you can see how I used an empty roll film from a disposible camera (courtesy of the local film lab) as the take up reel. I simply taped the film coming from the new roll of film on the other side to the little tail of film sticking out of the empty roll with clear tape. Then sealed all the way around with black masking tape to prevent light leaks. The camera is now loaded with film and I probably wasted around 2 or 3 more frames than you might with a store bought camera. The little spring metal tab you see serves two purposes, it prevents the spool from spinning backwards while you're trying to advance the film for the next shot, and it also allows you to count clicks so you can accurately advance the film with no waste. I figured out after the first roll, that less clicks are needed as you make your way through a roll of film, I didn't think it would be that significant but it is, in the beginnng it's about 12 clicks and buy the end of the roll it's closer to 9 or 10. It will make the difference of at least two extra shots. Waste not, want not!

Image 3:  Nothing but the finest optics, lenses by Takumar a.k.a. Pentax. I'll be shooting with a 35mm f/2, a 50mm f/1.4, and a 75-260 f4.5 zoom. I don't think the zoom will be very realistic at much above 70mm due to the lack of a through the lens viewfinder, but I might just try it ;)

So, do you want to see some pictures I took with it?

Step 6: Sample Photos

These were all from the first roll of film. Fourteen of eighteen shots came out. The night (time lapse) shot was 15 seconds, all the rest were between 1/3 of a second and 2 seconds.

On the last step I will explain in detail the importance of getting the distance from the lens to the film place accurate and how to do it, and how you can figure out what your shutter speed capabilities are.

Step 7: Important Notes

If you're a Pro Photographer or have a really deep understanding of how a camera works, you can probably skip these notes. I am a novice (at best) so I learned a lot. I truly think I'm a better photographer as a result of making this camera.

Notes on the distance of the lens to the film plane:

I mentioned earlier that the distance from the lens to the film plane has to be accurate, stating that the lens has to be an exact distance from the film plan in order for three things to happen...

1) The camera to be able to focus close up.
2) The camera to be able to focus to infinity.
3) And the most important of all, the distance meter on the lens to be accurate.

If you want your camera to be able to use the entire range of focus the attached lens is capable of, especially the camera's ability to focus infinity, then this step is critical. I measured this distance two ways, one with a hand held test by holding the lens an inch or two away from a white piece of paper and then moved it back and forth until the upside down image was in focus on the paper, then I measured the distance from the lens plate to the paper, the distance was a little over 1 3/4". Then I took my already broken film body (not knowing if the distance is exactly the same for all types (brands) of 35mm cameras and lenses) and measured the distance from the front of the lens mounting plate to the film plane, and again, it was just a little over 1 3/4 inches. I was pretty sure at this point that using a distance of 1 3/4 inches for my camera would was a safe bet.

I ended up having to make a few adjustments to get it just right, I had to use a router to counter sink the mount into the wood a little bit in order to fine tune the distance from the lens to the film plane, one pass (very tiny shave cut) at a time, and then re-test the focus in between each pass, until the depth was perfect. Testing was easy at this point, I taped a piece of white paper to the film plane, held the lens to the front of the camera, held the camera an exact distance from a subject, set the distance meter on the lens to match the distance to the subject, and looked to see if the image was focused on the film plane.  By the way, the "exact distance from the subject" is measured from the aperture ring (blades) of the lens, not the front of the glass or the film plane of the camera.

When I got mine right, the distance meter on the lens was incredibly accurate, accurate to within an inch at 15 feet, and a half inch at 2 feet. And since I will be shooting at f/16 most of the time, there will be enough depth of field that I will only have to use a tape measure for close ups, anything more than 10-15 feet away and I can ball park it. You have to remember, there is no "through the lens" view finder, no fancy prisms, and and no trap-door mirrors that can flip out of the way in fractions of a second. This is old school, you measure (or guess) the distance to the subject you want in focus, and you use the distance meter on the lens to focus. You don't get to "see" that your shot is in focus, you just know that it is because you can trust the distance meter. Now all you have to worry about is exposure, as in shutter speed. On that note...

Notes on Shutter Speeds:

If you know anything about cameras at all, you probably looked at the shutter design and asked yourself something along the lines of  "How on earth can anyone open and close that shutter curtain fast enough with their hand to take a picture?" Well, that's a darn good question actually, and I'll be honest, it's not possible with the current design to take a shot in full sunlight unless you're going to add a filter as dark as welding goggles on the front of the lens. However, like I stated in the overview, it is possible, and quite easy in low light actually. You DEFINITELY want to use a tripod, it's a given. Now, with all that said, let's talk reality here so you know what to expect and how to figure out the shutter speed you'll need in order to take quality, colorful, contrasty photos.

I was able to determine how fast I could comfortably open and close the shutter curtain by simply operating the shutter in front of my computer while recording. You can just use my results as a guide, or if you're so inclined, you can do this test yourself. Any audio program that let's you record a wave file and look at the visual representation of the wave file will work. You just start recording and operate the shutter once or twice in front of the mic. The click sound that the piece of wood makes as it hits the top and bottom of the camera will show as pretty sharp spikes on the wave file.

When I did my test, the distance or "time span" from open to close was a remarkable, blazing speed of 3/10 of a second. Remarkable and blazing both being sarcasm, as this is remarkably slow compared to fixed speed of even the cheapest disposable camera. Cameras don't have a direct translation for 3/10 of a second, the closest translation would be 1/3 of a second, which is certainly close enough for film.

I don't own a light meter, at least not a reliable one, so here's how I figure out my shutter speeds. I bring along a somewhat modern SLR camera that supports Aperture Priority mode, I set the aperture to f/16 and compose my shot, press the shutter button half way and look at what the camera says it is going to use for a shutter speed if I press the rest of the way. If the speed (reading) is much faster than 1/3 of a second, I know that a shot is not possible. I make a point of only only trying to take photos in places where there is low light, in most cases I get readings of a full second or more, which are super easy to do. Film has a lot of latitude, which means it's forgiving, anything even close is going to work. Sometimes I even have to open the aperture up a little to keep it in the one to two second range. For those shots I just open the shutter, count "one thousand, two thousand' and close the shutter. The shots I took at the marsh were just before, during, and after sunset. I started shooting when my SLR gave me reading of "4" which is 1/4 of a second, even though I knew my fastest hand movement without violent shaking was 1/3 of a second. They came out fine.

If you have a Digital SLR then life is really good, you can do an actual test shot for every shot, and under or over expose to get the shot (exposure) you want. This is extra handy when you go for time lapse stuff where you're going into speeds most cameras don't support, such as longer that 30 seconds. You can use "Bulb" mode and test your shot digitally, once you know how many seconds it takes to get the exposure your after, you take your Box Camera shot knowing it's going to come out.

Unless you can design a faster shutter, any kind of hand held photography is probably out of the question, and you'll probably have to take most pictures in low light, but trust me, it's a lot of fun and well worth the limitations. Now turn off your computer, go make a camera, and go shoot some film flying entirely by the seat of your pants.

Have fun and keep shooting film, Rick



    • Water Contest

      Water Contest
    • Creative Misuse Contest

      Creative Misuse Contest
    • Clocks Contest

      Clocks Contest

    42 Discussions

    Hello bro could you tell me about the shutter mechanism you had been talking about. Even a few pointers would help. And also where did you do the research from while making this. Thanks.

    2 replies

    Hi, and thanks for checking out the instructable. I actually made the shutter mechanism I talked about and will one day make and post an instructable for it. It is very similar to a guillotine style shutter that I added to the camera you see here. The guillotine itself is simply a flat piece of spring loaded metal (blade) with a slit cut in it that slides through the body of the camera. The current shutter is still used as a dark slide to keep the film from getting exposed while I cock the shutter but then left in the open position to take a shot. The camera suffers a bit from what is called recoil, aka "vibration," which is the result of there being nothing to buffer the jolt of the shutter at and after release, hand holding the camera is somewhat unrealistic and I had to reinforce the tripod mount significantly. This was no surprise as the entire design is very rudimentary and if it weren't for the somewhat modern lenses I mount on it, the entire camera would not be dissimilar to other early camera designs. The size of the slit was a total guess but using a homemade shutter speed tester I found it was 1/160th of a second. Making extra blades with varying widths would be one way to have other shutter speeds but I have not done that yet. Due to time constraints I haven't done any work on in quite some time.

    I didn't do much research but whatever I did do was done on the web, most of the design came from my head and was just a matter of simplifying a regular 35mm camera. In fact, I actually used the exact focal plane to lens mount measurement of a Spotmatic camera to make sure the distance scale on the M42 lenses would be accurate. The new shutter design was a completely original idea and again was out of a desire to keep it simple. Any complex mechanisms would not only prohibit me from success, it almost certainly rule out anyone without a lot of fancy tooling.

    Best, Rick

    Thanks for the fast reply. I was almost dreading this was a dead page and you wouldn't reply. This helped me quite a bit. I am definitely having a go at it. Will post pictures. Thanks again.

    Okay so yesterday i was thinking, how about I build a nice wooden box camera and make it out of glass, wood , and metal all from scratch. Im glad I saw this.

    Simple yet elegant!

    Reading through the comments I had a thought about the shutter and the speed of it. I have created an image which may help visualising my suggestion : )

    You will need to work out how to mount the parts and finnesse the mechanism, but in theory it should work.

    Mount a small wooden shutter at 45 degrees in front of the film, between the start of the lens and the film ( can you picture it yet?).
    From the top of the shutter is a small wooden protrusion at 45 degrees to the shutter so that the protrusion is parallel to the bottom oh the camera housing.
    Mid point of the shutter is an attachment for a small spring which is attached to the camera base at the bottom of the shutter pivit point which would be the top of the shutter.( ie, directly below the point that the wooden shutter would pivot up). With me so far?
    Next, a hole is drilled in the top of the camera housing. (WHAT!!?????) Light leak alert!!!
    Don't panic - that problem is about to be addressed.
    Make a shutter button that can be inserted into the kole so that it can be pressed down from the top but CANNOT be pushed through the hole from the inside. THEN, glue a small piece of thin (1mm thick ?) flexible rubber over tho whole on the inside of the camera body.

    Directly below this, mount a small pushrod with a return spring attached so that it is above the shutter extension.
    A small notch is carved into the side of the pushrod so that it pushes the shutter extension down until the pushrod goes down far enough that the extension goes into the notch. At this point the shutter is no longer being help open and the spring pulls it back down. Some leeway needs to be made so that when the shutter release button is released, the pushrod is allowed to return back to it's original position above the shutter WITHOUT getting caught at the notch position.

    I hope the image uploads too so that it aids in visualising my suggestion. This process should allow the shutter to operate at a fraction of the speed that you could manage manually, while acting like a proper shutter, plus being *relatively* simple to build.

    Any and all thoughts on this are welcome.

    Best of luck, Kroner.

    1 reply

    Wow, Kroner, this is awesome! I really wish you had stopped by and thought this up before I came up with a different way of doing it. I literally just finished a shutter design and I'm almost finished with the instructable. Maybe I'll try this for Ver 3.0.

    Funny you should ask, I'm literally working on the instructable for version 2.0 of this design right now. The work is finished, I have added a mechanical shutter and a couple of other enhancements. I will probably need a couple of days to finish the instructable and I still haven't developed the first roll of film yet either, so I don't even know if the new design is a success or not. We shall all find out soon. Thanks for the complement and for taking the time to comment.
    Best, Rick

    question. could you construct this camera the exact same way BUT instead of using the real camera lenses, drill a actual "pin hole" and make a cover to act as your shutter?

    7 replies

    In a word yes, but that said I seem to remember that with pinhole cameras there is an ideal distance from pinhole to film plane if you're looking to get as sharp an image as is possible. If the plan were to use 35mm film, then this box could probably be used as it is, but I think if I were going to make a pinhole camera from scratch I would plan on using medium format or larger (cut) film and make it so that each shot would be loaded individually instead of using roll film and make up some slide in inserts with dark slides so that film changes would be possible in the field.

    ok. i made a "practice" box camera. and its literally a wooden box with out a back. for the back i have a wooden "door" (for lack of a better word) and it is on a hindge on the back of the box. it has a slot to put the film in. (one 2" strip of 35mm film at a time.) so do i need to put the shutter in front of the film or infront of the lens? (it is actually just a view finder off of a disposable camera) this is just my first attempt of a camera and i really just wanted to see how simple i could make it so im jsut asking for some tips/ oppinions && btw its 6 and a half mm in depth

    If you're planning to put film in the camera one 2" strip at a time, I do hope you realize you will have to pull the film out of the roll, cut the strips, and load them in the camera in absolute complete darkness, right? Assuming you knew that and are still prepared to move forward, as long as there are no light leaks it really doesn't matter if the shutter is in front of the film or in front of the lens, if you can work it out so that the shutter blocks out all light until you open it and cut off all light after you close it, you're good. The key is to only expose the film to enough light to take a picture and not be under or over exposed, but the location of the shutter mechanism isn't important. As for the depth and the viewfinder lens, I'm not good with mm but my recommendation would be, if you've sacrificed a disposable camera for this first attempt, I would use the actual lens as apposed to the viewfinder to play it safe, and I would try to make it so the distance from the lens to the film is the same as it was in the disposable camera, that should achieve acceptable focus. Please let me know how you make out. Best, Rick

    ok! so i need to light proof the box && construct some sort of shutter....i do have a idea though! that will hopefully work lol. && the view finder is the left over pieces from another project. no camera was unnecessarily destroyed in the making of this one :) && oh sorry i meant six and a half centimeters. && yes indeed i do realize i have to cut it in complete darkness! it will be a sight to see hahah && i used the view finder because no matter the distance you can still see everything clearly. it not as much of a "lense" as it is just like a....filter? i guess hahaha. thankyou for helping me with this project! i pray that i am not annoying you lol

    Light proofing is very important. Since this is sort of a test run, you could make the shutter very simple, like maybe even the cap off the plastic film canister, held over the lens with a large piece of tape and just flip it open to take a shot and seal it back up as fastyour you can because your aperture is unknown, but I would guess it is fairly large like around f/4 or larger, so you will have no way of figuring out how long to let light in. My advice would be to take your first test shot in the evening just before it gets dark and try to open and close the shutter as fast as you can if you go with hand actuated shutter similar to my idea.

    ok i will certainly figure out how to get a good "shutter" on there! after i take the first shot. will i be able to see the photo on the strip if film immediately or will i have to wait a second like polaroid?

    No, you will not see a photo on the strip immediately nor after a minute or two. This is a very common misconception about roll film, that it somehow magically develops inside the camera. Roll film must be developed in chemicals in a dark (pitch black) room before you can see anything on the film. A polaroid is a very special kind of film and paper bonded together inside a plastic liner, and there is actually a thin sack of chemical at the bottom, when a picture is taken, the sack is broken and the chemical washes over the special paper film and develops it into a photograph. If you load regular roll film in your box camera, you must load it in complete darkness and remove it in complete darkness, and it must be put into a container that is light proof until it is developed. If it gets exposed to any light other than the very brief moment you open and close the shutter, the film will be ruined, it will instantly be over exposed to the point where it will be blank when it gets developed. I think you should also be aware that most photo labs would not be able to process (develop) film that has been cut into pieces. They use a machine that can only process the whole roll uncut.

    You could make a faster shutter by attaching rubber bands to a sliding board with a hole cut in it, pull it up and insert a pin to hold it, when ready to snap the pic, pull the pin, and the shutter snaps down. You could probably get about 1/250 to 1/500 sec this way.

    2 replies

    SpaceRat, when I last replied I stated "the current design wouldn't allow me to pin the shutter open because the shutter also acts as a curtain that prevents light from hitting the film in between shots." Well, after giving it some thought I realized that it is in fact possible to do this. I will add the new shutter in front of the old shutter (right behind the lens opening in the front panel) and the current curtain will be come a dark slide which will remain closed during shutter cocking and advancing the film in between shots, and left open when taking a photo. I'm working on it now, I'm more than 50% complete, so the idea we both thought of will come to fruition soon. I'm planning on making it so I can change the board, which is actually sheet metal, even with film loaded in the camera, so there will be more than one shutter speed available. Initially I'll only make one to test with, the hole (a vertical rectangle) will intentionally be large enough to only obtain a max speed in the area of 1/125 of a second so it will be usable in a wide variety of light conditions. If it works out well, I make more boards with narrower holes (slots) to increase the shutter speed.

    You read my mind. However, the current design wouldn't allow me to pin the shutter open because the shutter also acts as a curtain that prevents light from hitting the film in between shots. That said, right now I am lifting the shutter up AND pushing it back down. The rubberband design could still be implemented by using them to close the shutter for me. This will have two advantages over the current design, the first is the obvious speed boost, I'm sure the rubber band will be much faster than my hand on the down stroke. In addition, it will be less likely to create a light leak from putting too much force on the shutter on the down stroke, which I think is what happened to me with a couple of shots. I tried to open and close the shutter so fast I think I put undue pressure on the seal at the top and created a light leak. With the bands I could lift it up and let it go like a slingshot. Stay tuned, I think I'll add the bands this weekend and load another roll.