Introduction: Mama Don't Take My Fotochrome Awayyyy!

Criminy! You already have taken my Kodachrome you want my Fotochrome??? Not in my universe Baby!

There are a lot of funky cameras in the world, but they don't get much funkier than the "Amazing Fotochrome Camera!" This abomination was built in 1965 specifically to use Ansco direct-positive color print material. I guess it was not a horrible idea...cut out the negative and cut the costs. It did cut the costs, but the biggest problem with this business model; Polaroid had been doing direct positive for years and nearly instantly (you still had to send the Fotochrome material for special processing). It looked like a Polaroid and cost less, but didn't have that quality Americans love...instant gratification. Other problems: very slow film ISO (10), selenium cell responds slowly, and the build quality was notoriously crappy.

We all know the story...huge corporate flame-out complete with lawsuits and huge lots of unsold cameras. Well, Fotochrome's loss is your gain!

In this Instructable, we will resurrect a Fotochrome camera and make it play nice with 120 size film.

Update: Stephen Connolly has done a great job bending the Fotochrome to his own devices.....see it here.

Step 1: "A Cyclopean Disaster"

The Fotochrome camera is among the strangest looking cameras of all time. In fact, Jason Sneider called it one of the six ugliest cameras of all time. It is also number 7 in Australian Photography's "Top 10 Weirdest Camera Designs of All Time." August 2009 issue of Popular Photography called it "The Future [of photography] that Bombed." So much hate!

Although they seem to be sought after for camera collections due to the sheer strangeness of design, they still do not command high prices on the secondary market. You can find new, old stock for $10 to $20 on eBay (it was new stock in 1965 and cost $45 [$330 in 2012 dollars]). Some of its features:

1. By definition, a medium format camera. The film is positioned on the bottom of the camera, so the image is reflected 90 degrees via a first surface mirror. Since the film is direct positive, the mirror bounce was necessarry to avoid reversed images.

2. The shutter is single speed and the aperture is controlled by the selenium meter around the lens. Since there was only one film the camera is designed to accommodate, there is no ISO adjustment.

3. The film is positioned by a hole in the film that is felt by a registration pin. If you are familiar with 126 film, it is the same concept. The film counter counts down from 10 to 0 when set properly.

4. The flash takes common M-3 flashbulbs. The socket is hidden by the reflector. When you deploy the reflector, a yellow filter is automatically put into the light path of the camera. Probably for color correction.

5. The film came in a special two part cassette. It consisted of a supply chamber with the film and the take up chamber that interfaces with the film advance. Mine came with one and was key for getting this camera shooting film again. If you want to try this, make sure it comes with at least one film cartridge. It will make life a lot easier.

Step 2: Challanges, Not Problems!

OK, to get this camera working with modern film, we'll have to overcome some camera specific problems challenges. Below is a list of "Challenges" and how I intend to overcome or work around them. At the end of the Instructable, I'll review what worked and what did not. The "best practices" of hacking this particular camera if you will. I'll include all my flagellations
so you can decide what will work best in your case.

1. Camera deterioration.

a. Seals. Since this camera is a few years older than I, some natural deterioration can be expected. I'm use to scraping out gooey old foam light seals from old cameras, but the seals on this camera passed the gooey phase and have turned into powder. Scrape them out with a pick or some other thin tool. Replace the seals with thin bits of felt, or my favorite, simple black yarn. Glue them in with white school glue, but don't saturate them as you want the yarn to be slightly resilient. (I didn't replace the seals at first resulting in some "Lomoesque" light leak artifacts you can see on some of the sample photos)

b. Selenium cell. This device control the aperture on the camera and can be seen as a ring that circles the taking lens. I'm use to these things being long dead as they deteriorate with exposure to light. Happily, the new "old stock" cameras are usually found in boxes with the lens cap on which preserves the selenium cell. Mine works flawlessly. What happens if the cell is "burned out?" Don't worry too much, the camera is designed for 10 ISO film and even in bright sunshine, the aperture closes very little if at all.

2. Film speed. The camera is designed to use 10 ISO photographic material (I guess you can call it film). This is really slow, even in an era of slow films when this camera was introduced. If we are going to use modern films in the camera, we'll have to do some work arounds. Here are a few:

a. Use slow film. Most modern 120 film is at least 100 ISO and you can easily get 400 ISO as well. Far too fast for this camera. One workaround is to use some "laboratory" films used for special purposes. These are generally slow and suited to the exposure system of the camera. Its no secret that I like microfilm for this purpose. It comes in 105mm rolls that can easily be slit down to 120 width. Using microfilm comes with its own set of challenges covered here. The microfilm I use here is Kodak Imagelink FS. I normally expose it at 25 ISO, but 10 ISO will work just fine.

b. Use modern film and pull. Pull processing is the opposite of push processing. It simply means that in this case you will overexpose the film (by 3 stops for 100 ISO and 5 stops for 400 ISO film) and underdevelop the film to make up for this overexposure. The downside is that there are no exact formulas for this kind of manipulation so you will have to go through some film to get the combination of film, developer, time and temperature correct for your workflow.

c. Use the latitude, Luke! Much like the "Force" some films have amazing supernatural ability to give you a nicely printable or scannable negative even with large over and under exposures. Photographers call this the film's "latitude" although I think the "Force" would have been much cooler term. Some films have more latitude than others. Generally speaking, black and white negative has the most and color slide film has the least. However, a popular outlier is Kodaks Portra series of color negative films. They have a wide latitude and may be a good candidate for this camera.

d. Filter your light. Since this camera will meter for 10 ISO film, you will probably have too much light for your modern film. One way to reduce that is to put a filter somewhere to cut down the light entering the camera. The trick here is that the normal filter threads for a screw on filter include the taking lens and the selenium cell. As I mentioned before, the cell does not vary the aperture much anyway (unless you are doing solar photography that is), so you can probably safely do this and ignore the low light warning that the camera will give. You can also put the filter just around the taking lens, in back of the lens (there is plenty of room in there) or even at the film plane if you have a big enough gel type lens.

3. Film transport. Moving the film through the camera presents its own challenges.

a. The cartridge. The original film cassette has a proprietary interface with the camera. The easiest way to get modern film into the camera is to load it into old film cassette. In fact, you do not even need the supply chamber, just the takeup portion that has the special reel that will pull the film across the film plane.

b. Cassette maintenance. The old film cassettes are just as old as the camera and require a little maintenance as well. I had to reglue the felt light seals back on the cassette as the adhesive gave up being sticky some time ago. If yours has the old film in it still, it is easy to open up the cassettes and remove it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that the company was reusing the cassettes for new film. Easy since you had to send it back to Fotochrome to get the stuff developed anyway.

c. Registration. Like the 126 cameras that shared this era, the film is positioned with a hole cut into the film that is felt by a registration pin. In the past, I tried defeating this mechanism and only succeeded in destroying the camera. Instead of fighting this feature, I've embraced it and will punch my own registration holes. How? I am the proud owner of an old comb binding machine. It can punch holes at nearly any interval you select by pushing and pulling switches on the face. You will have to punch all these in the dark, so it takes some practice to get the hang of the machine. I've noticed that these machines are ending up in thrift shops more and more as the need for hard copy quarterly reports diminish. The specimen I'm working with cost $10.

Step 3: Prepare Your Film

Any 120 or 220 film can be used in the Fotochrome camera, however as I mentioned before, the camera is geared towards 10 ISO film. You would be hard pressed to find such low speed 120 sized film. However, using higher speed film can be done, but we'll cover that in later steps. I'm using black and white film here, but the lens is "Color Corrected" so there is no reason color film can't be used.

Microfilm. This microfilm (Imagelink FS) is rated around 25 ISO, but 1 stop overexposure should be just fine. Since 120 width is not a common size for microfilm, we'll slit it from 105mm microfilm stock (that is standard Microfiche size). I built a crude rig that will slit the microfilm to roughly 120 width (with 127 width left over for your Yashica 44). It was easy to assemble and use, but you have to have complete darkness as the film is sensitive to all colors of light. Once you have the correct width film, all you have to do is punch the registration holes and load into the supply cassette. You can make the film as long or as short as you like, but I'd stick to 220 lengths so you can develop it easily on 220 reels.

120 Film. The only preparation needed is registration hole punching and winding back onto the reel. There is no need to use the supply cassette as the reel fits nicely into the supply chamber of the camera.

220 Film. The same prep as 120. 220 is nice as it will give you 16 exposures instead of 8 with the 120 film.

Step 4: Punch and Load Your Film

This is the most difficult thing to do to get the Fotochrome shooting again, but with practice, it just takes a few minutes. For 120 and 220 film, you can do many in one sitting as they have the paper backing for protection. The most difficult part is punching the film in the dark.

1. Get the spacing correct. Takes some old film or paper and determine how far apart the registration holes need to be. It is 10 cm between the perforations or abut 4 inches.

2. Adjust your comb binder. On mine, you need to enable every seventh hole and disable the rest. This will give you 3 perforations on your film. You will have to move the film along and punch 2 more iterations for 120 film giving 9 perforations. You will only get 8 exposures though. For 220, you will get 18 holes with 16 actual exposures.

3. Punch your film. Put all your supplies in a familiar pattern so you can easily get them in the dark. Turn off the lights and make sure your room is as dark as you can get it. Unwrap the film until you can feel the actual film and fit it into the binding machine. For 120 film, you will punch through the backing paper and film, with 220 you will punch through just the film.

4. Re-roll. Re-roll the roll of film in the same configuration as the fresh roll of film came. Once the film is wrapped up again, you can turn on the lights and put a rubber band around the film to keep it together. Film without backing paper must be loaded into the supply cartridge that hopefully came with your camera.

Step 5: Shoot!

If you are using low speed film, you can just go and shoot. For higher speed film, you will need to attenuate some of the light reaching the film.

I'll be using Artista.Edu 100 ISO film for some of these test exposures (along with microfilm), so ideally I'd need a 3 stop neutral density filter. However, all I could find was a 30mm, 2 stop neutral density filter off of some mirror lens. The film should handle the 1 stop overexposure just fine. Since there are no threads for just the taking lens, I secured the filter with plastic putty designed to hang paper and such.

Some tips for taking photos:

1. The shutter speed is slow, maybe 1/30 of a second? Fast moving subjects will blur unless you are good at panning. A tripod would also be a good idea.

2. The "light meter" is a simple go/no go affair. You will see a red dot through the viewfinder if there is not enough light. Clear dot means there is the correct amount of light. There is no interlock, so you can take the photo when the meter says there isn't enough light. Once you get the hang of reading the light (or have a good light meter), you can use higher ISO film in darker situations.

3. Practice you zone focusing! Many of my photos were blurry due to poor range estimation. Happily, it is a skill you can get better at when you practice.

4. If you can get the M-3 flash bulbs, you can take flash photos. Keep your subject no more than 10 feet away though.

5. For additional tips, see the manual at Mike Butkus's great camera manual site. Toss him a few bones if you finally find that long out of print manual you have been looking for.

Step 6: Develop!

No real trick here. The film is easily extracted once it has gone through the camera and can be loaded onto reels for development. If you send your film out for development, it should get developed just fine although your photo finisher might wonder about the holes. If you are getting prints, make sure they know that the negative is 6x9 cm. Some other tips:

1. Lightproof your cartridges with black gaffers tape and ensure the felt light trap is in place. You will see in the sample photos what will happen when you don't! If you like the Lomoesque aesthetic, by all means don't fix the light leaks.

2. No real trick to scanning either. Use your medium format 6x9 template if you have one. If not, place the emulsion side of the negative against the flat bed and scan with a plate of ground glass on top.

3. Store your negatives in medium format negative savers.

4. Pull your development if you have "over-speeded" (used 100 or 400 ISO film) the camera.

Step 7: Enjoy!

With practice and a little bit of work, shooting your Fotochrome can be a fun and funky experience. Be prepared for people stopping you on the streets and asking if that thing around your neck is the latest digital wonder camera or some throwback to 1960's space technology.

So enjoy your newly revived Fotochrome camera.....and don't let anyone "Take Your Fotochome Away!"