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Craig Pindell

Building a 6x17 Camera

 

 

     In 2016 I decided to back Two Fourths DIY617 Kick Starter project, paying about $185 for a kit that would let me use two lenses on the wood and plastic 6x17 format camera.  I saw this as a point and shoot camera, requiring less effort that the 4x5 and 8x10, and much less expensive than the other 6x17 cameras that are available.  In my photography process, point and shoot still requires a tripod and a light meter, and taking notes for each exposure.

      I can’t really explain why I decided to back this project. I already had a Da Yi 6x17 back for my Linhof 4x5, and a Da Yi 6x17 back for a 5x7 camera, which was to be used with my 8x10 Bomm camera when it was completed.  I suppose I was thinking that 6x17 was my favorite format and no one has too many cameras in a favorite format?   Or maybe I thought the Two Fourths would be easier and more portable than the Linhof or Bomm?  Maybe I thought a $185 6x17 camera was too good to be true? I am just not sure why I did it.

 

     When the kit first arrived, I was truly surprised how much I liked it.  The pieces were cut cleanly (I believe they were all CNC cut) and everything fit together very well when I did a quick mock-up.  I was surprised that screws were used to hold the film rolls in place and the winding knob assembly looked a bit crude,  but I thought if need be I could build something better and it wouldn’t cost much.

      Having too much equipment on hand is one of my many bad character flaws, and when I decided to buy this camera, I knew I had large format lenses on hand that would work well.  The main lens would be a 90mm f/5.6 Schneider Super Angulon.  This will be a fairly wide lens on the 6x17 format, (approximately equal to 22mm lens for 35mm photography),  but having used the 90mm for 6x17 on the Linhof, I knew I liked the look and the lens wasn’t being used, so it was a natural choice.  I also had a 58mm Schneider Super Angulon (approximately equal to 17mm lens for 35mm photography) that I didn’t use much once I purchased a 47mm, so even though I knew there would be some vignetting, the 58mm was going to be my second lens. When I use the 58mm I expect to have a 6x14 useable image rather than 6x17 due to the vignetting.  I also have a center filter for this lens so there is no fall off.

     The Two Fourths kit arrived when I expected it, (May 2017) and like a child, I tore open the packaging and starting test fitting parts and pieces.  In almost no time, I had mocked up the camera.  The design is simple.  Everything made sense to me, so why not go ahead and see what I could do.

The Two Fourths camera mocked up with the 90mm lens Complete with paint stirring sticks for spacers, and tracing paper for a ground glass.

      I was sure from the mock up that this was going to work just fine.  In the early 1980s, I had purchased a 4x5 kit camera from Calumet, and in my haste assembling that, I never did finish the camera properly.  Eventually the cherry wood of that camera cracked and discolored.   Being older and wiser (?) now, I decided to take my time and build this project correctly. 

           

     I carefully determined the best spacing for each lens and then decided to refine the fit and feel of the camera.  This included rounding the edges of the wood portion of the camera.  I marked the areas I thought would benefit from my rudimentary woodworking skills and went to work.

I used my router table with a round over bit, easing the edges that were outside of the lens board mounting areas, and quite a bit of sanding to smooth out everything and remove any fuzzy edges.

     I also opened up the area inside of the camera expecting that using a 58mm wide angle lens may be problematic, in terms of vignetting.  In hindsight, I doubt that would have been the case.  I was careful to not cut, file, or sand close to any edges or holes that might lead to light leaks.

      I decided to use Minwax PolyShade to finish the camera.  This is a combination stain and polyurethane product, that I had on hand, and I felt the polyurethane would help make the camera much more weather proof.  I also decided to add a more finished look to the lens boards, something more fitting a mostly wooden camera.  I found and aluminum kick plate for a storm door that had a brass finish. It was inexpensive and just the finish I wnated. 

     I also knew I needed to make some sort of framing guide so I would have some idea of what I was shooting.  I used the framing apparatus from my Graphlex XLSW and modified it by bending a welding rod to match the 6x17 format.  I attached this to the camera via a hot shoe epoxied to the camera.   I also added another hot shoe to utilize a plastic bubble level to help camera alignment.

      After sanding and a couple of coats of finish, I quickly assembled the camera, following the Two Fourths online instructions.  I took the time to cut and insert the provided black out paper using the provided double stick tape, and to apply the velvet ribbon in all of the places outlined.  Ready for testing!

      The test didn’t go so well.  I expected a light leak or two, but the first rolls were horrible.  The frame edges were uneven and there was velvet ribbon fur all along the film edges.  Portions of the image were in focus and portions were out of focus.  When I saw the first images, I thought the project was a bust.  So I did what any stubborn fool would do.  I went to work to fix it.

       For me, the logical course was to fix one problem at a time, and to start with the easiest problem.

      First, I removed the velvet ribbon in any area that could be included in the frame.  The adhesive on the ribbon was messy and took longer than expected.  In some places there is still a bit of the adhesive. 

      As I worked on the velvet ribbon I realized that it was also contributing to the issues with film flatness.  In places, especially at both ends, the ribbon was causing the film to bow as it passed over the ribbon.  I was concerned that the film dragging on the plastic of the camera would cause scratches, so I wanted there to be something soft.  A trip to the sewing store helped me to find a much thinner and softer velvet ribbon that exactly fit the area the film passed over.  Problems solved!

      Another test showed that I was much too optimistic.  There were still focus issues and light leak issues.  Also the new ribbon I had installed was too large and showed in the negative.  The adhesive from the removed ribbon had threads that showed in the negative as well.  The light leaks were even worse than before.

     At this point I had invested several months in this project, not full-time of course, but still a lot of time and effort.  I had exposed and developed quite a bit of film.  As my frustration level was quite high, I put the project aside for a few months.

      A few of the photographers from Colorado were getting together for breakfast and a photo walk, and I decided to try to use the Two Fourths.  I cleaned and cleaned the adhesive.  I took the camera into the darkroom and using a bright flashlight, I tried to block every light leak I could find.  During this process, I removed all of the construction paper, and painted the inside of the camera with liquid electrical tape. In the past I had used the liquid electrical tape for emergency bellows repair on view cameras. It is flexible and opaque and easy to apply. The next test roll showed a vast improvement, but still not perfect.

       I added some of the wide velvet ribbon to the camera back where it touched the film transport paper.  This seemed to fix the film flatness/ focus issues.

        Back into the darkroom with the flashlight, more determined to figure this out.  As I was shining the light on every single seam, over and over, I found that the multiple plastic sheets that formed the areas that held the film were actually allowing a faint amount of light to pass through.  This helped me understand the overall fog I would sometimes have. This fog seemed to happen most often when there was time between exposures. 

        There was no way to fix this with the liquid electrical tape, so I had to find a new cure.  I wrapped the exposed part of the plastic sheets with a black vinyl electrical tape on the outside of the camera.  This mostly solved the problem, except for an area between the two plastic sheets closest to the camera back.  Because of the film guides and transport areas, these two sheets were cut differently and allowed leaking.  The electrical tape did not solve the problem.  I happened to be in the auto parts store and decided to see if there was a more opaque tape that would work.  I found some ¼ inch metallic pin striping tape that was opaque and added a nice finishing touch to the camera. 

         The photo walk was a great time and I was able to make a few photos I liked, but there were still light leaks, although fewer light leaks when I used the 58mm. 

     I felt that the 90mm had more layers of spacers so the light leaks had to have been coming from these layers.  I put extra coats of liquid electrical tape on these areas, but it had no effect.  No matter what I tried, I just could not find the source of the leaks.

      I also still had occasional issues with overall fogging on negatives, but it did not match the frame edges, so I knew it was from the film area not the lens area.  I searched all of the areas around that part of the camera but could not sort it out.  I finally removed the lens from the camera and installed the back, then shined the flashlight all around the back.  It only took a few moments to figure out the screws holding the film guides in place were keeping the back from fitting into the correct position.  The screw heads had scratched the back enough that I could see where I had to remove some of the material, and after just a few minutes on the drill press, that problem was solved. But now a new problem appeared.

     Something was causing lines in the lighter areas of the negatives.  I tried changing the velvet ribbon, I tried removing the ribbon entirely, I changed the foam I had put in the keep the rolls tight, even though it only touched the paper side and not the film side.  I suspected that correcting the interference issue with the screws holding the film guides in place had somehow changed the pressure on the film, and was creating the lines on the film. I didn’t see scratches, but there were definitely lines in the prints and scans.  After several rolls, I decided this was the end.  I had invested more than enough.  I had worked on this camera from May 2017 to February of 2018. 

     Once I put the camera away, I didn’t give it much more thought.  I had my 6x17 back for the 4x5 camera and in September 2018 my Bomm 8x10 arrived and it had a custom made 5x7 back so I could use the 5x7 DaYi 617 on it.  In the grand scheme of things, while it would have been fun to have been successful, it was not the end of the world.

      Fast forward to September 2019, and during a Twitter conversation about the problems Ilford had with Pan F+ film, I had a ”light bulb moment”.  I knew I had some of the defective film, and had found problems with it when I was using the 6x17 back on my Bomm camera. I pulled out one of the defective negatives, and compared it to my last negatives from the Two Fourths camera.  This image is from the Bomm, the image above was from the Two Fourths.  Both on Pan F+ film.

     The lines in the sky on both somewhat match.  All the time I was thinking the problem was with the film transport on the Two Fourths it was the film!  The project was back on! I replaced the velvet ribbon I had removed and exposed a roll of TMax and there were no lines.

      When I was trying to fix the problems with the light leaks between the layers on the 90mm lens board, I had thought that a helicoid focus device would eliminate some of the seams and would also allow me to focus the camera, somewhat.  I found a device I thought would work, and purchased it in 2017.  I installed the device in the lens board and using the same tracing paper for a ground glass, I sorted out the correct spacer arrangement so the helicoid would focus at infinity.   Again there were a couple of light leaks, so I applied even more of the liquid electrical tape to the interior of the lens board.   

          

     I also replaced the wire view finder with a Fotoman Professional 617 optical finder.  It is much smaller and easier to use.  I added another hotshoe to the end of the camera so I could utilize my Voigtlander light meter.  I expect to use this camera as more of a point and shoot camera, so spot metering each scene wouldn’t always fit that spontaneous method very well.  I am happy with the results at this point.

      The focus system with the 90mm allows me to focus from 10 feet to infinity.  At f/22 everything from 4 feet to infinity is in focus. In the photograph above, the closest rock (on the right) is 5 feet from the camera.

     With the fixed focus 58mm, at f/32 everything in in focus.  At f/11, everything from 6 feet to infinity is in focus.

     In the end, this camera has come to be a pleasure to use.  I find I don’t use the focus adjustment for the 90mm lens very often.  It is mostly at infinity.  I have gotten used to the winding knob on the left rather than the right of the camera.  I am also getting used the Fotoman view finder, as well.  It isn’t exact framing, but for this sort of camera, I do not find that to be a problem at all. 

     One thing that is becoming annoying the more I use the camera is the way the back is attached to the camera.   The 6 wingnuts that hold the back in place have to be removed and replaced each time you change film.  With only 4 exposures per roll, I find myself going through this painstakingly slow procedure often.  I have not lost a wingnut yet, but I am sure it is only a matter of time.  Sometime this winter I will engineer a new system for this, maybe using Velcro or springs or rubber bands.  As you can see in the photo of the back of the camera, I have cobbled together a tape “door” for the film number advance window.  I am not sure this is necessary, but it is one of the many things I tried when eliminating light leaks, and it also keeps dust and debris out of the camera, so I continue to use it.

      You’ll also notice a label with the numbers “2, 5, 8, 11” on it. This is not a PIN/winning lottery combination. Rather, the frame numbers that the film needs to be advanced to. Here:

Frame 1: wind to “2” so 1, 2 and 3 are present at the film gate.
Frame 2: wind to “5” so 4, 5 and 6 are present at the film gate.
Frame 3: wind to “8” so 7, 8 and 9 are present at the film gate.
Frame 4: wind to “11” so 10, 11 and 12 are present at the film gate.

 

     The Voigtlander meter has been a convenient addition, as is the three-way bubble level. I am actually surprised how often I use the level.  This may be a carry-over from using my Bomm 8x10 camera that has an attached two-way level.

     For the price, this camera is a terrific deal.  I did invest quite a bit of time working out the issues, but if I were to buy another kit and do it again, I suspect I would have a light-tight working camera on the first try. I have researched on line and have tried to contact the Two Fourths folks when I started writing this article, but I do not think they are still making this kit, and that is unfortunate.  For photographers who enjoy building and a bit of a challenge, this project can be a lot of fun. 

     My timeline was far too long, partially due to my stubbornness, and partially due to my mistakes when analyzing the problems I found in testing.  

     The images I make with this camera are very satisfying on several levels.  Technically, the images are in focus and fog free, and due to the climate where I live, this camera’s aerodynamics are a big plus.  Aesthetically, the pecan finished wood and brass look lens boards fit the nature of this camera. Photographically, the format is terrific and the wide lenses have a special look that suit my eye, and overall, this camera is quite easy to use.  Personally, I enjoy when folks ask where I got the camera, and the look they have when I tell them I built it. It is a great source of pride for me.

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