DIY 6x17 Panoramic Film Camera




Introduction: DIY 6x17 Panoramic Film Camera

One of the interesting things about 120 medium-format film is that there are a range of cameras which shoot varying size images with it. 35mm film cameras normally shoot a 24mm x 36mm frame size, but 120 can be 6cm x 4.5cm, 6cm x 6cm, 6cm x 9cm, or even 6cm x 12cm. Its a very versatile format. However, there's no reason you can't go even bigger than that! This Instructable shows you how to build a camera that uses a wide angle large-format lens to expose a 6cm x 17cm frame. That's an image with a nearly 3:1 image ratio, and a 100 degree view. At that size, it only gets four shots per roll!

This Instructable is to help you if you are interested in building our own 6x17 panoramic camera. The basis of this camera is pretty simple; a light-proof box that holds the lens the correct distance from the film, and a simple film transport system.

The lens I used is a Schneider Super-Angulon 90mm f8. This is a large format lens, which usually have an integrated shutter and aperture so this helps make the build process much simpler. Focal plane shutters are much more difficult to make large enough for a negative this size.

Head to the next step to see the design.

Step 1: Design

The design uses a lot of sheet metal and wood, as these were easy materials for me to work with (I no longer have milling machines and laser cutters at my disposal) and I had a bunch of material sitting around getting rusty. Luckily I had access to some sheet metal tools so it made it easy to work with the 18 gauge steel. You could achieve similar results with a band-saw and belt sander if you don't have access to a metal shear and brake.

My design uses a Schneider Super-Angulon 90mm F8 lens/shutter/aperture combo intended for 4x5 large-format cameras. This lens has a coverage of 216mm at the focal distance, so this will cover a 6x17 frame without issue. According to Schneider the flange focal distance of this lens is 98.8mm, this means that the lens must be held in parallel with the film and the distance from the surface of the film to the front face of the lens mount must be 98.8mm for optimal infinity focus. This number is a little bit flexible and I will admit that mine is not perfect. The image is slightly out of focus at f8, but the depth of field at f22 is high enough to make it a non-issue. My lens is probably pretty close to the hyperfocal distance of this lens, which is a good thing.

This camera opts for a simplified fixed-focus design, as I intend to use it for landscape and architecture photography only. At f22, the nearest object in focus will be about 10 feet away, which is perfectly fine for my purposes.

The film transport mechanism is just two knobs which turn a metal key that sticks into the top of a 120 film spool. The film is pulled from the supplying spool and rolled onto the receiving spool after each shot. Having two knobs makes it easier to roll because you can relieve the tension on the film by turning the supply spool and pull the film using the receiving spool. If you advance the film too far, you can always roll it backwards, too.

120 film uses a paper back which has numbers printed on it to tell the user what frame they are on. This camera uses the 6cm x 4.5cm markings but uses every fourth number only, starting with 2. Since the images are so wide the camera only gets 4 shots per roll, at markings 2, 6, 10, 14. I included extra windows to see the markings for 6cm x 6cm and 6cm x 9cm as well, in case I ever want to make a mask and use a smaller frame size in the camera. Many old 120 cameras had this feature built in.

Since the camera has a very wide angle view, I used a peephole from a door as a viewfinder. The finder is masked with some dark stickers to match the image frame.

Step 2: Using a Different Lens

If you have a lens already and want to make a camera that can use it, or you find the Schneider I used is too expensive or hard to find, that's no problem, but you're going to have to be prepared to do some design work.

Any lens can be used if you adjust the distance between the lens mount and the film plane to match the flange focal distance of the lens you have. The only crucial piece in designing a camera like this is that the film and lens are parallel to each other, and the correct distance apart. The rest can be done however works.

You don't have to make a camera from scratch, either. If you can find a suitable box you can use that to make it from.

If you have a lens and want to know more about it, the giant lens chart of modern lenses might help you out. Also take a look at the 6x17-specific lens chart. If you don't have a lens in mind, it might also help you select one to buy.

Step 3: Making the Steel Parts

The majority of the camera is made from 18 gauge steel sheet. Aluminum can be a substitute if you're looking to save weight and make the work easier. Most of the pieces are flat and pretty simple. The film plane piece is the most difficult, it has some fairly complex bends and needs to be fairly precise, otherwise the film and lens won't be parallel. Many of the holes are countersunk to make the screw holes flush with the surface, which is crucial around the lens and the screws that go below the grips.

By printing the templates on the Design step, its pretty straightforward to layout and make these pieces.

Step 4: Wood Pieces

I cut the bevels on the wood pieces using a table saw with the blade tilted 45 degrees. The holes in the edge are easily done by clamping the wood between the top and bottom plates, using them as a template. Some clearance was required for the rear element of the lens, this was done using a drum sander attachment for a drill press.

Once those holes are done the steel plates can be countersunk so the heads of the screws are flush with the surface.

Step 5: Test Assembly

Before doing any surface finishing, now would be a good time to test that the camera is going to work properly. Assemble the main body parts and attach the lens, then put some strips of scotch tape across the film plane. With the shutter and aperture open on a bright day you should be able to see an image projected onto the tape. This is just like the ground glass in a large-format camera.

Step 6: Painting

The steel pieces are cleaned of rust and painted with flat black paint all over, and then a hammered finish black on the outside surfaces for durability and a nice appearance. The flat black will help minimize light reflections inside the camera which could cause anomalies in the image.

The wood was stained and sprayed with clear lacquer on the outside surfaces, and hand painted with flat black acrylic paint on the inside surfaces.

Step 7: Finishing and Assembly

All of the edges need to be light-sealed as well as the internal separations that protect the film spools from exposure to light coming through the lens. I cut craft foam to size and sandwiched it between all the edges. I checked the light-tightness with a bright flashlight in a very dark room, looking for any light leaking through.

The inside of the back is lined with foam, and some extra foam is placed on the camera side as well. There is a thin piece of aluminum, painted black and glued to the back foam that serves as a pressure plate. It helps keep the film flat and in the right place during use. If the film isn't flat, the image can be distorted. The back also has some blue plastic over the film counter holes. Red is the ideal color but I didn't have a gel for that. Right now it serves better as a dust cover than a proper light filter. A big flat fridge magnet makes a great cover on the steel back.

I glued a 2-way spirit level to the top of the camera to help with getting the horizon level in landscape shots. A level with separate axes would be useful too.

The viewfinder attaches with guide pins and magnets to the steel top plate. The original one was fastened with screws and nuts, but I was having problems with it. The fixed viewfinder sticks up too far and the camera won't fit into any camera bags I have like that, so I made a removable one that uses the same mounting holes but uses magnets instead of screws to stay on. The guide pins that go into the holes make it return to the correct position repeatedly. The bracket itself is made of 1/8" thick, 1" wide aluminum bar, bent with a gentle 90 degree at the bottom. The magnets and guide pins are press fit into it.

Step 8: Finished

This is the finished camera. I don't know what else to say about them so I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Using the camera is really easy. Just meter the scene, set the aperture and shutter speed on the lens and cock the shutter, look through the viewfinder and release the shutter with your thumb. On the Schneider lens the shutter release is perfectly placed to let you hold the camera from below with your right hand and press the shutter with your right thumb. The total weight is just over 1 kilogram.

I'd be more than happy to answer any questions (best I can) for anyone who is working to build their own camera.

Step 9: Photos From the Camera

The first roll I shot was pretty bad. There were a lot of light leaks and reflections inside the camera, so the negatives came out almost black. I was able to pull some images back in Photoshop but it was a struggle. After adding some more foam to the camera to properly seal it from external light as well as light getting into the film spool areas, the results were much better.



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    42 Discussions

    Matt, You wanted to know when I got done with my 3D printed camera, well it is done and details can be found at:

    Your design was very helpful but I ended up using a different film advance configuration, similar to that on my RB67 to help get a flatter film at the image site. You can follow some of the other links to get more details about the build.

    Again thanks for posting your build as it really got me headed ing the right directions. If you have any questions on my build please do not hesitate to ask.


    1 reply

    Hi John, looks like you did a fantastic job on it. I'm glad to hear you managed to make use of the information I provided.


    Is the 90,8mm focal distance from the front lens element or from the back element to the film?

    How did you got the lens fitted in your "body"?

    Thanks for sharing this!!!

    Greeting from Belguim

    2 replies

    Neither. It is from the front face of the lens board.

    The lenses come apart for installation on the lens board. Look at this link for details:

    That is the distance from the face of the board that meets the lens to the film, so the thickness of the lens board is included in the distance.

    Very nice build you have given me some great ideas. I personally am looking at a build using a Schneider 90mm f8 Super-Angulon MC lens for weight mostly. I was also planning on printing most of the body on my 3D printer. This will allow me to have light weight and also due to the fact that I do not have the precise metal cutting and metal break equipment required. The 3D printing components can be made very accurate so that the flange focal distance can be as close to perfect at possible. Of course these parts will have to be quite thicker to retain the rigidity needed I will also be looking at the ability to micro-adjust this by printing the final section that will mount the lens. The major change though will be that I would reverse the film travel so that it is analogous to that on a film back for say a Mamyia RB67. This will ensure that the film is flat as the natural curel will be opposted by the winding of the film itself, without the need for a backing plate. I would think that keeping the film plane absolutely flat with such a long surface is the biggest challenge if the film is rolled in the traditional manner as it is in your design and typical folding medium format and even 35mm cameras.

    I do have one question though. I did not see any details on the actual viewfinder you used. Where did you get that?

    Thanks again for a great design and sharing this these great ideas.

    1 reply

    Sounds like a good plan. A body made of 3D printed panels would work well. you could shim it to final precise dimension using paper sandwiched between the printed pieces. if you have trouble making it light tight, look at possibly using rabbet joints like woodworking, and painting the inner surfaces with flat black paint. Reducing reflections inside is important. The viewfinder is a large door peephole from the hardware store.

    Good luck to you and I'd like to see more as you complete it.

    Hi again! So, I am still going to build the camera, but I am looking for a less complex shape. I was hoping I could make it rectangle shaped. Which measurements do you suggest? I was looking at the blueprints and I thought maybe it could be 8" (length), 4" (width) and 4" (height).

    2 replies

    The exterior can be whatever shape you would like but your lens flange focal distance must be precise. I cannot stress that enough. Only pinholes have that "anything goes" mentality.

    Hi, Could you please explain what you did inside the camera? how do I install the spools? where is the shutter? Where does the roll go? etc.

    5 replies

    The spools are held in place by the knob peg at the top, and the wooden insert at the bottom. It's clearly shown in pictures in Step 7.

    The shutter is built into the lens, as is the same with virtually all large format lenses.

    The film goes from one spool to the other. One is the supply and the other is the takeup, same as in any medium format camera.

    Thank you for this tutorial.

    May I ask why you did choose metal and wood at all?

    Wouldn`t it be much easier to make a 3d modell, and print it out on 3d DLP printer?

    It would be so much easier to adjust the model, to print it and to fix it if somethng broke, beside the lower weight.

    I can't imagine a DLP print of this camera would cost less than $400, and be pretty terribly fragile.

    Yeah I didn`t think about that.

    Is there a simple way to modify it to slr?

    I thought about going the way of Mamiya rb 67 system, cuting out window for ground glass, adding a mirror to reflect the image and a dark slide to film back.

    The lens and film have to be 90mm away from each other, this doesn't leave a lot of room for a large mirror. You could build a partial SLR viewfinder on the top, but it would not have total image coverage. 35mm and medium format SLRs have focal lengths designed around the mirror box, but this lens is intended for a non-SLR large format camera only.

    It could be possible to make a film back for the camera, allowing you to focus on a ground glass, attach the film back, remove a dark slide, and shoot. This would allow you to compose the image at the image plane, just like a large format camera. This would be fairly simple to do.

    I find the viewfinder system is pretty accurate. I composed all the sample images using it and it never came out drastically different than what I had planned.

    Hi, I was looking to make a panoramic camera for a school project and I just wanted to ask you, what do you wish you would have known before building the camera?, and do you have any improvements you wish you made?

    1 reply

    I'm not sure what I can suggest as my build went pretty smoothly. I think you should not be afraid to use light-sealing materials. Keep light-tightness at the forefront of your mind when making material choices. Direct sunlight can find a way into the tiniest of cracks and ruin your photos.

    Feel free to ask me if you have any questions, I'd be happy to help.

    This is really very exciting to me! I'm looking at cheap brass turn of the 20th century glass though...old Kodak and Goerz Dagor there a chart like that Giant Lens Chart that outlines the old stuff too?

    1 reply

    No charts that I know of. its not too hard to determine the size of the image circle if you know some things about the camera the lens was meant for. The lens will have a image circle at least as large as the diagonal dimension of the film, also if the camera has any rise/fall and left/right slide movements you may be able to add those in too (only if the camera is meant for one specific lens though). The best thing to do is to test it with the lens in hand but if you are buying online you can't do that.

    Don't forget, turn of the century glass was made with turn of the century knowledge and techniques. It may be cheap because the image quality may not be acceptable to you. Keep this in mind when choosing a lens.