Silverbased.org is delighted to present our inaugural DIY project: Converting a cheesy focus-free 35mm into a pinhole camera!
Eighty-cent thrift store fodder becomes intriguing creative tool
This installment, Part One, covers choosing and disassembling your plastic camera. The same steps can be used for other hacks besides pinhole conversion (such as flipping the lens, or reaming out the aperture stop). Later, Part Two will cover the pinhole modification.
Why Do This?
In decades past, it seems that every every Scout Troop in the country showed kids how to build pinhole cameras out of a Quaker Oats carton. That is a fun project—and actually, any light-tight container will work. But you only get a single shot; and as fewer and fewer people today have darkroom access, that camera style has become a bit impractical.
Taking a cheap plastic camera and re-using its film transport lets you try pinhole photography, but keep the convenience of roll films—far easier to load and develop.
Hacking a Holga into a “Pinholga” is a popular project. Yet even 120 film can be challenging to locate and get processed in some towns. But 35mm film and developing are still ubiquitous. By gutting a simple 35mm “trashcam,” you can shoot pinhole images of standard frame size and spacing—making developing easy and accessible for anyone.
Thrift stores and rummage sales are often awash in unwanted film cameras today. But for pinhole purposes, you need to choose carefully. You don’t want an autofocus point-and-shoot; you don’t want a camera with a zoom lens. You don’t want an Instamatic (the 126 film format is nearly extinct).
You want the most ultra-basic, 100% plastic, 35mm camera on the shelf. The words Made in China are your friend here. Focus Free is good. The camera should have no adjustments whatsoever—even the sunny/cloudy setting of the ubiquitous TIME camera makes things too complicated for us.
The essential feature we desire is a little plastic flap which swings into place to cover the lens. We’re going to remove the original lens and shutter; so we will use this flap instead to begin and end exposures.
Our hacking candidate
Avoid cameras with built-in flash, for two reasons: first, the flash is useless (with a pinhole’s tiny f/stop, it would only expose correctly a few inches from the subject). Secondly, if the capacitor happens to be charged when you take apart the camera, you can get a nasty shock.
If you open the backs of a few cheapie cameras, and you’ll notice many have a slightly bulged film gate. This helps mitigate the optical flaws of their 1-element plastic lens. But a flat film gate usually means the camera has a 2-element lens—whoo, high tech! A bulged gate results in slightly curved lines in pinhole images, so I prefer the flat style—though perhaps it’s a shame to sacrifice the “nicer” crapcams this way…
Many Chinese cheapies use an odd winding mechanism, where the toothed wheel doesn’t pull on the film to advance it; the teeth are actually pushed by the film’s sprocket holes to cock the shutter. Thus, no film—no cocking. If you didn’t know the score, you might even think the camera was broken. But don’t worry, that style will work fine.
Don’t get too hung up finding the perfect camera to hack, or one matching my photo. They all have different minor advantages and annoyances, so just roll with whatever you can find.
Oh—and don’t spend more than a dollar or two. Even as intact, functioning cameras, they’re barely worth that. You may want to bring home a couple of different types, in case you run into a snag with your first one.
Disassembling the Trashcam
You’ll need a fine-tipped Phillips screwdriver to remove the front shell of the camera (here, the silver part).
After disassembling a few of these cameras, you’ll realize there’s a very strong family resemblance between them— they all seem to come from a small number or Chinese factories. It’s easy to adapt these instructions to different designs, just using a bit of common sense.
It’s almost universal for these cameras to be held together with two screws near the film door hinge, and two more inside the film supply compartment. The screws are tiny, and all too easy to lose. Usually all four are the same size; but if yours don’t match, keep track of which went where.
With some trashcam styles, you can remove the front without removing the rewind knob. For others you’ll need to disassemble that too.
The camera pictured has a screw under its flip-up crank. In another common style, it’s between the prongs which engage the film cassette; you unscrew it from inside the film compartment.
The last obstacle to removing the front is often the rewind release button on the bottom of the camera. Click in the button (if you can); you may also need to gently pry the bottom of the shell outwards, to ease it over the button.
Once you manage to take the front shell off, you might be greeted with a shower of unidentifiable plastic parts flying everywhere. Don’t worry, you haven’t wrecked anything! (But it’s a good idea to work over a towel or a tray, so you don’t lose something vital).
One loose part will be the shutter button. For safe keeping, you can put it back in place in the top of the front shell then tape across it to hold it there.
Also, a couple of lens-cover parts may have fallen out: A pivoting flap and a slider. (The slider has the finger-tab which emerges through the front of the camera.)
The slider often has three click-stop detents: one for closed, one for open, and one which allows it to be pulled out of the lensboard. The flap piece should have a hole which fits on a pivot post, and a peg which engages the slider.
Using my illustrations as a guide, take a moment to understand how the lens-cover parts fit together and operate . For your pinhole camera, this will be the only “shutter,” so it needs to be working properly.
(With a few camera styles, the lens-guard assembly is fastened to the front shell; if so, set the whole thing aside and ignore all this.)
If a wiggly, serpentine piece of plastic falls out, this is a spring which engages the back latch. Examine it and locate the small hook, which mates with a matching hook on the film door. This should help you re-orient it correctly. (Note the camera shown here has a different latch style.)
The last few parts which may come loose are the wrist-strap (eh—who needs it?), and possibly a clear plastic window from the film counter.
If you really do end up with a chaotic mass of stray parts you can’t put back together—don’t despair. Quietly put them into the trash, kiss your dollar goodbye, and start over with a fresh camera.
Lens and Shutter
Set aside your lens-cover parts. We’ve finally reached the tender innards of the trashcam—the lens, lensboard, and shutter. And we’re ready to rip out its heart!
It’s common for the plastic lenses in these cameras to be held in place behind a little retaining ring.
The ears of the ring click under two tabs on the front of the lensboard (arrowed). The ring can be removed by twisting (clockwise for this one) and pulling it forward, letting the lens drop out.
If your camera doesn’t look like this, the lens may be glued into place from the back of the lensboard. (To remove this style of lens may require some violence, like drilling or hammering a nail through it).
Removing the lensboard itself can be tricky: This is an area where the various cheapie camera designs differ quite a lot.
For some, you remove one clearly visible screw, and the lensboard lifts off some pegs. Another common style clips the lensboard in place with four plastic latches around the sides; these need a gentle touch with a narrow tool to pry each loose, so the lensboard can be worked free.
But the style shown here is the one most likely to stump you: besides one plastic latch to the right, it also uses a hidden screw—in a deep recess just below the shutter-button slider (left arrow). Unscrew that, and the lensboard can be pulled free.
We now reveal the original shutter blade, and its spring . Please take a moment to savor its low-tech ridiculousness. A little plastic finger flicks it open; the spring pulls it shut again. And yet somehow it works!
Up until this point, if you so wish, you could re-assemble your camera—restoring its original function in all its plasticky glory. But we’ve reached the crossroads. Next, we will begin trashing parts and carving into plastic.
And for that, we will continue in Part Two….