Introduction: Low Cost Adjustable Rail 4x5 View Camera

As I have stated in past Instructables, Photography can be an expensive hobby but it doesn't HAVE to be. Today we will be building a 4x5 large format view camera that is fully adjustable with rise, fall, swing & tilt adjustments.

All materials are sourced from thrift stores and common hardware store materials or stores like Walmart or Amazon inexpensively. Total cost is about $50.

The thrust or drive behind this was "how low can I go" in tools needed. I am certainly not a professional woodworker or carpenter with a CNC router , milling machine, lathe etc. I have a hacksaw blade, drill motor & some bits, a palm sander, screwdriver and ruler. I challenged myself to a build to see if some relatively disadvantaged person with basic craft skill and a tight budget could make a working camera.

The finished camera is extremely light weight--maybe 3lbs so it doesn't demand a beefy tripod. It's rough appearance doesn't attract theives. Component parts are modular and easily replaced or rebuilt

Build materials

2 – 8x8x1.75” unfinished cigar boxes

3– 1x2x24” finish grade pine or birch

1 -5ft section of “Hanger Strap” steel

7 – 1/4x20 threaded furniture repair inserts ( inserts at all pivot points)

8- ½” broad head wood screws ( for the standard base)

20 small #12 wood screws 3/4” long (to mount bellows and as anchor screws for standard reinforcements and film holder cradle)

2- ¼”x20TPI x 2.5” pan head bolts, nuts & washers

2- ¼” x20 TPI x 6” threaded rod

6- ¼” x20tpi wing nuts and fender washers

8- ¼”x20TPI nuts

3 threaded stud posts #10 and 3 wing nuts #10 and small fender washers for film holder

Roll of hockey stick tape (black)

Small bottle of wood glue

Black poster board 20x24”

8 popsicle sticks or other pieces of small thin balsa wood

1 piece ½”x1/2”x24” balsa wood or basswood

1 piece 4x5” plate glass

600 grit sandpaper or polishing grit

Black spray paint

Wood stain/ Danish Oil

Screen window tabs- 1 package of 8 with screws

1 sheet of black felt

Barrel lens or lens with shutter 8" /203mm focal length advised

1 4x5 film holder that can be sacrificed for a ground glass holder--one with cracks/splits or light leaks is preferred

Tools Needed (if you don’t own see if you can borrow from a friend)

#2 phillips screwdriver

1 Hacksaw blade

Ballpoint pen

Drill motor with assorted bits

Set of Allen wrenches

Palm Sander

Angle grinder

18” ruler

Step 1: Raw Materials Before Assembly

In the first photograph we see 2 unfinished cigar boxes. These will be the standard bodies to which we will attach the lens, bellows and film back.

The 2nd photograph shows the wood slats that we will cut to make the rail and standard bases along with the screws, inserts, wing nuts, 1/4"nuts, washers and threaded rod we will use in assembly

The 3rd photo is the Hanger Strap material that we will use to make the risers for the standards.

Step 2: Preparing the Standards

Open the cigar boxes and along the edge of the 2 sides glue in a small 2" long cutting from our stock wood on each side on both boxes. These will receive threaded inserts that have a 1/4"-20 thread so that when we set a position they lock down in place. This will consume 8"total of the wood. Apply a bit of wood glue to the bottom & side and drill a small pilot hole off to one edge and use a wood screw to help anchor the wood in place while the glue dries. Remember to keep the center clear for the larger hole we will be drilling for the threaded insert

Step 3: Cut Holes for Lensboard & Bellows

With a ruler go corner to corner diagonally and draw a line towards the center. Go to the other diagonal and repeat. Where the lines converge is the center. For a 4" lensboard measure 2 inches from center in each direction and make a mark. From those marks connect for a square. Drill a few small connecting holes in a corner and inset a hacksaw blade and make your cut. Repeat drilling in each corner and cut out the board hole.

Flip the box over and repeat but this time it's a 5 1/2" hole for the bellows (the bellows will be a little over 6" in size so well have a bit of a lip overhang)

The edge of the lensboard hole will be backed with some thin slats of wood that will form a recess for the board to sit in as shown by the photo with the clamps--the slats will go on all 4 sides of the lensboard hole.

Save all the cuttings from the lensboard hole, bellows hole and film back hole. We will use that wood to make the lensboards.

The 5th photo shows the 2 standards with all holes cut. Take note that the standard on top in the last photo has the hole cut for the film holder cradle cut slightly off center. I'll go over the hole for the film holder in the next seperate step. After staining the wood don't forget to paint the interiors flat black (not shown in this step)

Step 4: Making the Film Holder Cradle

Layout a film holder on the unfiniished wood and draw an outline. As you notice, this is not exactly center in the wood. I have it so the film holder just overhangs the edge to allow easy removal of the dark slide. Remove the dark slide and center it in the first outline and outline that making note of the 4x5 limit areas (as the darkslide is a bit longer.) I use a drill to drill a few holes that connect to where it will fit a hacksaw blade. I cut out the 4x5 area defined by the dark slide outline. I place the film holder back on it's original outline and make a 3-sided cradle of 1/2 inch hobby balsa wood. I glue the wood in place and drill pilot holes for wood screws and make sure the cradle fits tight to the film holder, I line the inside edges with black felt from walmart for light-tight and paint black. I also put down some hockey stick tape around the edges for more light-tight. In the 1/2" balsa wood I insert threaded studs that screw into the wood and supply threaded posts at the edge of the cradle. With wing nuts & slightly oversized washers I can lock down the focus glass or a loaded film holer. Early in the build I tried some small flip tabs like I used on the lens board but found the wing nuts to be a better method. You may see some photographs in this instructable that show the earlier flip tabs.

Step 5: Making the Focus Ground Glass

Go to your local hardware store and buy a sheet of 10x12 thin glass--I believe it's 3/32". Mine was $2.68 at Lowes. Most hardware stores cut it for free. Have them cut it into 6-4x5 pieces--this gives you plenty of spares. They may even give you a piece of scrap glass for free--it just needs to be 4x5 inches.

Take it outside with a palm sander, paper plate or piece of cardboard and a teaspoon of 600 grit carborundum powder. You can find the grit on ebay for a few dollars from lapidary/rock tumbler suppliers. Add a dribble of water to make the grit into a wet black slurry and use the palm sander to polish it on ONE side. It should take about 5-7 minutes. This is a messy proceedure & thats why it's best done outside.

Rinse off the grit and you have the ground glass as we see in the 2nd picture.

Take your crappiest film holder and remove the end opposite where the dark slide gets inserted. Remove the septum in the middle. apply a bit of glue to the groove where the septum was and insert the ground glass--clean up any excess glue that gets on the glass. When the glass gets inserted the side you buffed goes TOWARDS the lens. The side thats still reflective faces YOU. In the 3rd picture we see what it would look like for focusing when the lens is open.

Step 6: Making the Bellows

This is no doubt the "crafty" part of this build. Get a 20x24" piece of black poster board from walmart. Cut out 4 6x14"pieces. I laid out marks at 1/2" intervals on both sides and then drew a straight line firmly with a ball point pen to "score" the surface of the paper. Get a roll of 1" wide black Hockey Stick tape (about $5 at Big 5 sporting goods) and lay down a piece on the table about 15" long sticky side up. Place the first sheet so it sits on 1/3 of the tape. Take the next scored panel and line up the lines on the far 1/3 of the tape leaving a gap of exposed tape in the middle. Take another 15" piece of tape and lay it down so it's aligned with the first one. You will have 2 panels attached at the edge of the tape with a middle section of tape-on- tape and the scored lines should line up. Repeat with the remaining sides. You will need to stand it up on the last piece to make a square tube of line scored paper all taped at the seams.

Take the first side fold at the top and fold it away from you on the scored line, turn the tube to the next side and fold it toward you, turn and fold away, turn and fold towards. Repeat this as you go down the square tube alternating the to and away folds.

The first picture is simply a test section of the folds. The 2nd picture shows the aligned scored paper sections taped to each other and the last shot is the folded bellows with ribs lined with hockey stick tape to cover the score lines that may leak light and thin wood slats glued on for mounting on the standards.

Step 7: Preparing the Body Rail

Cut 1 of the 1x2x24" into 2 12" sections. Cut 4" off the other 1x2x24. Set a 1/2" gap between the 2 long slats and put the 4" piece across the 2 slats in the center of the 12" length. Use some 2 1/4" x 1/4" pan head bolts to mount that cross piece to the slats. This is where we will set the tripod socket. Take one of the threaded furniture repair sockets and drill a slightly undersized hole in the bottom of that cross piece. Smear some glue on the outside of the threaded insert and use the appropriate allen wrench to drive it into the slightly undersized hole. The insert will cut the threads the rest of the way into the wood and be tight.

Drill similar undersized holes in the sides of the cigar box standards where we set the reinforcement wood from the earlier step and place the same threaded inserts there. Seal all the seams with hockey stick tape.

We have one piece of wood 20" in length--cut 2 8" long pieces. In the center of each drill a slightly undersized hole and also insert one of the threaded furniture repair sockets in each.

Take the hanger strap and cut it with an angle grinder into 4- 14" sections. Fold it so there is a short 2" bend at one end on each piece. Drill small pilot holes and mount the straps to the 8" wood. Take the angle grinder and grind out the areas between a few of the holes to make a groove on each one. Be sure to remove any sharp burrs.

In the build we have some 1/4"x20 threaded rod 2 6" sections. Take the first one and cut it to 1.5" length (4) and insert into the cigar box standards. Put a 1/4"x20 nut down flush to the box on each. Mount that through the slots you ground on the hanger straps. add a washer and wing nut to mount each side.

Take the last 6" threaded rod and cut in half. Place that in the inserts in the bottom of the 8" slats--double nuts on top and a wing nut and washer underneath. The threaded rod goes through the 1/2 gap we set and the entire standards glide back & forth and lock down with the wing nuts to set focus as well as swing. The wing nuts on the cigar box standards control rise/fall/tilt . Wrap the tops of the metal risers with hockey stick tape to cover sharp edges

Step 8: Attaching the Bellows and Lens

Apply a small bead of black silicone sealer to the wood slats we have on the bellows (auto parts store-normally used for water pumps or thermostat housings) and place the bellows centered on the hole. Drill a small hole in the wood slats at each end and use a small wood screw to anchor the bellows. Seal all edges with hockey stick tape. Repeat on the other standard.

Take a piece of the cutouts and cut it to 4" and drill a suitable hole in the center for your lens/shutter. Stain it, paint the inside black and mount the lens. I used these little screen window tabs to hold the lens in place and be interchangeable. I opted for a 204mm / 8" lens and old ball bearing shutter as well as an 8.5" barrel lens no shutter. Either Lens was less than $20 on ebay

Also, at the end of the long slats I added a small metal bracket spanning the 2 slats

Step 9: Using the Camera

Check for light leaks--remove lensboard and take camera in a closet or windowless room and shine a bright flashlight through the lenshole. Have a film holder in the cradle. shine it all around and look for light leaking out. check for pinholes in the bellows from untaped score lines and especially the film cradle edges. use tape as needed or add more felt to cradle too. Remove the film holder and mount the lens--check lensboard area for leaks as well as the bellows. A handy thing to have besides the remaining hockey stick tape is black Liquid Electrical Tape. This is a brush-on thin black latex that does a good job of covering shiny screws or small light leaks and it's flexible

Attach to tripod

Insert the ground glass film holder--set focus by sliding standards while looking at ground glass with a loupe lens wide open--lock in place with wingnuts.

set aperture and shutter speed (unless its a barrel lens) close lens. remove ground glass film holder and put in loaded one. Lock down the wing nuts on the film cradle

remove dark slide, expose film

develop & enjoy

test shot was on expired xray film and cell phone scan of the neg. 105 year old lens & ball bearing shutter

Step 10: Odds & Ends and Camera Movements

Starting with the first shot we have the underside of the tripod mount area and one of the standards with the wing nut that control lock down.

2nd shot is the post contruction modification of a small cap-piece of steel spanner at each end. They help hold the 1/2" gap fro the standards to slide for focus and supply an end stop so they don't tumble off. I originally had small pieces of the wood but they blocked some of the travelling distance for focus.

The remaining shots show the rise, fall, swing & tilt of the camera

Step 11: Adding Precision Focus--or at Least a LOT More Precise Focus

One observation from contructive criticism from a Facebook group I frequent was, "How accurate is the focus lock or do you have to fight to get it locked in place?" I did find myself dinking around a bit and decided to do something about it. I acquired this little shaft-drive rod , bearing blocks and brass shuttle and knob from Amazon for about $12, These are replacenet parts for a 3d printer.

I attached a wood block to the rear standard, and drilled a hole where the shaft would go through level with the hole in the bearing blocks. The bearing blocks stay on stationary wood mounts in the center and rear of the camera.

By setting the front standard fairly close to being in focus I lock that down. Loosen the rear and dial the shaft to move the rear standard forward or back to set sharp focus then lock it down.