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How-To: Build your own field camera

Photography & Video
How-To:  Build your own field camera

British camera restorer Rayment Kirby has a cool tutorial on how (and why) to make your own antique-style field camera from wood and brass. Mr. Kirby seems to follow the convention that the “Field” of “field camera” is an eponym and should be capitalized, whereas the Wikipedia article does not. Can anyone clarify? Was there a “Mr. Field?” Or a “Mrs. Field?” (Please, no cookie jokes.) [Thanks, Billy!]

14 thoughts on “How-To: Build your own field camera

  1. alandove says:

    My understanding was that a “field camera” was so called to distinguish it from a “studio camera.” The former folds into a sturdy wooden box with no fragile parts exposed, so the lens won’t break when your mule scrapes past a tree. The latter is a more finicky device that would only be used indoors. That would make it a small “f.”

    However, my only reference for this information is my Dad, who taught photography and worked as a wedding shooter for about 30 years. He also amassed a small but interesting collection of antique photo gear, including a couple of large-format cameras.

  2. Voik says:

    Ironically, Mr. Kirby doesn’t capitalize his own name in the header of his web page.

  3. Stunmonkey says:

    I second the notion on the small “f”.

    The terms “field” and “studio” denote two different general categories of basic purpose and function, with a whole lot of subtypes throw in for good measure, and a lot of hybrids that might be easily considered either or both.

    It is a general descriptive term, but just like the argument of exactly where “medium format” stops and “large format” begins, there isn’t an exact delineation.

    Pedants love eternally debating the topic on the internets. I haven’t checked in to actually determine which category mine are considered to be by the ‘experts’, I’m too busy using them to actually take pictures.

  4. Eddie Edwards says:

    I wondered about this – why would it be called a “field” camera?

    Turns out that patent 1934178 circa 1933 by one John Field covers a camera looking suspiciously like this one.

    I strongly suspect, therefore, that it is called a “Field camera” because it’s the camera invented by Field.

    I love old patents :)

    (Can’t submit to Wikipedia, of course, as this is “original research”.)

    1. alandove says:

      1933 is very late in the game for originating the f(F)ield camera; US Civil War photographers used field cameras more than half a century before this patent was filed. Also, the patent isn’t describing what I’d call a field camera at all. Instead, it’s a roll film camera that looks like it was patterned on Kodak’s original Brownie. I gather Mr. Field was trying to get more exposures on a roll, using an approach that anticipates the original 8mm movie camera design: expose frames along one half of the film, then reverse the roll to expose the other half.

      There are lots of people named Field, so it wouldn’t be hard to cook up a rationale for naming the field camera after one of them, but in the absence of a more compelling story I’m sticking with the lowercase form.

  5. Rob Cruickshank says:

    As a user of a camera with bellows, I’m constantly being asked if it’s a Land camera. For many people, the Polaroid cameras named after Edwin Land are the only modern cameras they’ve seen with bellows. Perhaps people are confusing “field” with “Land”, since a field is a chunk of land. It’s definitely small “f” for field camera, though.

    Now if people on Craigslist would just stop spelling “lens” with an “e”, we’d be all set.

  6. says:

    I think making your own camera is a neat idea, but having used many large format cameras, I would discourage anyone from building a camera before getting experience with large format cameras.

    Unless you have actually used these cameras for some time, you don’t really understand what you will need, or not need. It would be like building a custom bike when you have never ridden a bike.

    When budgeting keep in mind that you need to buy a lens and film holders. Sheet film holders typically hold two sheets of film, so you’ll probably want more than one. Everyone expects a lens to be expensive, but newcomers are often surprised that film holders are not cheap, and buying used sheet film holders is asking for trouble in the form of light leaks.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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