Digital photography might be the format of the masses, but there is still a small number of photographers who take delight in using larger format cameras and here's an option, from Camera Bellows that not only lets you dabble in the format, but also take part in your camera's creation!
The Bulldog is a flat-packed product that brings Ikea and MFI principles together to turn you into a budding camera manufacturer. All the individual components to assemble a working 5x4in camera are included, apart from a lens board, lens, film and film holder. Some parts are on pre-laser cut MDF board, others are bagged up.
Now a word of warning: You have to remember Ikea and MFI have both had years practice making self build easy for the masses. This kit is made by Birmingham based Camera Bellows and their instruction manual proves they have a lesson or two to learn from the masters of flat pack (more about this later)
Also, before you consider this project, be prepared for about four or five hours of work, some mess and some frustration.
You also need some extra bits and pieces to complete the project. The instruction manual suggest you buy some PVA wood glue, two part epoxy adhesive, contact adhesive glass paper/abrasive cloth and a 2mm and 4mm drill. No quantities are given, but you need minimal amounts of each. Buy two sheets of sanding paper one for metal and a fine one for wood. You also need a hand or electric drill and to ensure firm adhesion, a couple of small clamps. Also, if you don't feel comfortable using a drill without secure hold, you'll need a vice/workbench. And for health & safety some goggles and protective gloves. As I was brought up in the 70s I didn't bother with any of the safety aspects!
You could take as long as you like to build a Bulldog, but I'm not that patient and don't have much free time. So I picked a day that I could spare to do it all in one go. I also decided to video the procedure. No pressure then! What follows is a step-by-step pictorial review of the process of building the Bulldog. The video is now on ePHOTOzine.tv along with other photography videos or, for your convenience, I've attached it to the base of this review.
Bulldog 5x4 Self Assembly Camera - Build (literally)
The first step is to build the back panel where the focusing screen goes. Each part is pre-cut on a sheet using a laser saw and (I assume to keep the parts from falling out of the sheet) they are not completely cut, so a small bit holds them in the panel. Most parts fell out without any effort but the small parts covering the mortise joints in this step were difficult to punch out. So much so some had to be done with the force of a flat ended screwdriver. I was concerned that I may split the wood removing these plugs. It may be cheap to buy the camera but I was suddenly beginning to feel that I could make a simple mistake that would void the whole project and render my camera only worthy of the bonfire.
Part two involved attaching the side panels. These stages, like the previous one, are done using the PVA wood glue and the mortice and tenon joints all fitted snuggly.
The next step is to screw the tripod mount to the base and attach that to the frame. I would have liked screw holes for the three screws used to secure the mount here.
Then glue the runners to the base plate on both sides. It took me a while to work out which parts the runners were. Stage five adds the top runners again slight confusion on which parts these were. And also it this point it's important that the runners are place the right way round. There are two pilot holes that you use as reference but it may not be clear from the instructions which way if you are unfamiliar with large format. The front of the camera is the part nearest us in this photo (above left).
Above right is the assembly of the focusing screen holder. The diagram in the booklet for this needs careful studying, also potentially more part confusion. It's these single bars of wood that are confusing. Still I managed this with little trouble.
Stage 7 involved gluing the crossbar to the frame and here's where I made the first big gaff. The step, and the illustration in the book doesn't make it clear that the bar should be mounted on the thin end of the rectangular frame. To be honest I hadn't even noticed. I glued it and then, as suggested, left the cross bar to dry. It wasn't until I reached stage 13b that it became clear the crossbar was on wrong.
The metal bars needed epoxy resin to glue them and they didn't hold in place. Luckily I had two small clamps that I used to hold them until the glue set (above right).
Stage 11 was to drill 4mm holes on the focusing screen holder to accept the metal rods. How deep these needed to be wasn't stated. Did the rods need to be flush to the outer edge, protrude or what? Clearer instructions at this step would be nice or, better still, pre-drilled holes would be useful.
Step 12 (above right) is to attach the international back slide locks. Your drill is needed again to make 2mm holes. Pre-drilled holes would be useful here too.
Stage 13a is a simple step to attach the spring clips to the ground glass holder and then the ground glass can then be inserted. It is here where I came stuck. The screen would not fit and I realised I'd done step 7 wrongly. I had to prise the wood off which split the surface leaving i attached to the frame, and the crossbar without a skin. This needs some chiseling to remove the glued surface and ensure the frame was flat again. I also sanded down the crossbar to make that smooth. I glued it back in the right place and proceeded to fit the screen.
Stage 14 needs some more drill work and guess work because it's not mentioned that drill is required to mount the metal plates to hold the back in place. The diagram was clear though. I marked positions drilled the holes and screwed the four plates into place. (above right and below left and right)
Stage 15 is the front lens panel assembly and 2mm pre-drill again. We're adding the lens panel lock and the height adjustment strips and base panel. All clear and easy to follow now I'm getting used to these minimal instructions.
Step 16 is to attach the focusing spindle. This took a fair amount of effort. Drilled holes needed to allow the spindle to poke through the chassis. Above centre shows my lack of work bench approach (don't do it like this at home kids!) Gaff number two The illustration shows two knobs. So I attached two to the spindle (one at each side. One went on really easily. the other didn't So I started to file the spindle to fit the second. I eventually made the knob slip over the spindle and glued it. Stage 18 made me realise the next error of my ways!
Stage 17 was a pleasant change and a Blue Peter moment - sticking down four strips of foam to make a light trap and ensure a snug fit for the back.
Stage 18 Oh dear, the reason that focusing knob didn't fit is because it was intended to be used here. Only one focusing knob was required at step 16. The other wasn't a focusing knob but the knob that holds the lens board to the focusing board. Doh!!! Luckily the glue hadn't set and I recovered from the error. I still have a usable project...the fire can still wait!
Stage 19 and 20 bring the focusing board and front panel to the body. Now the project is starting to look like a camera.
Stage 21 is the focusing screen holder and film holder assembly. It's here where it's clear how far the metal posts should stick out. I got this bit right. Flush to the outer edge.
Stage 22 (above right) using the contact adhesive to glue the bellows to the body. The instructions don't say how much glue to use or where to put it but common sense takes over here.
Attach the bellows to the front and rear panels making sure the glue adheres by pressing firmly all around the edge. Then lock the focusing screen assembly in place and the job is done.
You end up with a working large format camera that has all the functionality of a standard 5x4 camera. It has movements to allow rise, fall and tilt along with an international back for roll film, Polaroid and sheet film holders. The camera requires a Linhof Technica style lens panel and suitable lens. 150mm is standard on one of these and you can pick one up on eBay for around £50 to £150 depending on make, condition and specification.
Bulldog 5x4 Self Assembly Camera Verdict
Camera Bellows are not the first to develop a self build large format camera, several have been before and no doubt a few will follow. I really enjoyed building this and there's always a large element of satisfaction when you see the project complete. Apart from a few hiccups in building errors caused by poor instructions or my lack of attention the whole thing went smoothly and actually took less time than I expected. I've yet to try the camera as it doesn't have a lens or film back, but the kit gets a thumbs up and even if you never use the camera it's a wonderful looking thing. It's not much more expensive than some luxury model aircraft kits either, so if you're that way inclined this could be your next kit. Highly recommended for those crafts people among us.
Bulldog 5x4 Self Assembly Camera Plus points
Low cost 5x4 camera
Simple assembly parts
Looks good when built
Fun project for those who enjoy Airfix / MFI building
Bulldog 5x4 Self Assembly Camera Minus points
Instructions could be clear
No lens panel provided
Some pre-cut parts difficult to remove
The Bulldog 5x4 Self Assembly Camera costs £151.57 and is available direct from Camera bellows here