In this special blog post, Merle Henkenius, a veteran photographer, and Rockbrook Camera customer, takes the term “low budget retirement project” to a new level with his handmade 11×14 view camera.

Hi All:

As I mentioned to some of you last week, I finally finished building my big wooden camera, and now just need to order film from NY.   I made the camera to accommodate 11×14-inch sheet film—oriented either vertically or horizontally—which I’ll contact print in my darkroom.  Since I won’t be enlarging these prints, there won’t be any loss in detail, which should yield spectacular tonal range and sharpness.  This camera is basically an in-studio view camera, which I’ll use for table-top still lifes and perhaps a few portraits.  I’ve been using smaller view cameras for 35 years now, so the learning curve shouldn’t be that steep.  Most of my product and lead photos for Popular Mechanics Magazine were shot with my 4×5-inch view camera.


Homemade Camera by Merle

A few technical considerations:
Large-negative cameras need many times more light than small-format cameras owing to the distance between the lens and film-which creates several procedural problems.  If you shoot with the lens wide open, to gather-in the maximum amount of light, you’ll severely limit your depth-of-field, meaning only a small percentage of the picture will be in focus. Perhaps as little as two or three inches.  If you then stop the lens down to place more of the subject in focus, you’ll have to compensate with a slower shutter speed.

But with a camera this big, the shutter speed you end up needing may be many seconds long, perhaps even minutes long.  So in practical terms, when shooting my still lifes, I’ll likely shut-off the room lights, open the lens and film back, pop several flashes into the scene, then close the camera and turn the lights back on.  For PM, most of my product shots ranged between four and 20 strobe pops, and this camera will likely take more.

So why would anyone want this hassle?  Because of the superior image quality in black & white, because even multiple pops won’t always be enough if you want everything in focus. Finally, because these cameras allow you to change the shape of the subject by changing the shape of the camera.  So, view cameras have movements, which explains all the knobs on my camera.  I won’t bore you with all the details, (sorry if it’s too late for that) but you can control the depth of field and subject shape by swinging, raising, lowering, tipping or pivoting the front lens standard and/or rear film standard.

Here’s the classic shape-change situation:  If you stand on the ground in front of the state capitol building and shoot upward, the building will appear to be falling away from you in the picture.  By raising the front standard a little and tipping the top of the rear standard toward you, you’ll pull the top of the building toward you in the image.  In effect,  the edges of the capital will now be parallel, top-to-bottom, with the edges of the film and print, which is often desirable.  Similarly, if you wanted to shoot a ¾ view of a long picket fence, and needed the entire fence to be in focus, near-to-far, you’d set up on a tripod, focus normally, then swing the front standard toward the fence a little, refocus and take your shot.

While Photoshop will do some of this in postproduction, allowing you to shoot with your digital DSLR, I think you’d still have trouble with that picket fence.  Digital cameras do wonderful things, including allowing us to fix mistakes and correct for a camera’s inherent limitations.  At least 90% of what I shoot is digital, but I still like film for black & white, still love the darkroom.  By the way, view cameras are still made.  They’ve never been out of production.  Art photographers tend to use them most.  Digital scanning backs can even be used in place of film, but these backs are old and slow and aren’t used much anymore.

Keep in mind that this was a low-budget retirement project, so all the hardware you see was salvaged from 80-to-100 year-old junk cameras, which I collected from various email sources 15 years ago when I first became interested in this project.  I’ll use the attached photographs to explain the process a little more.


Camera 1:

Here’s a camera side view.  It will stretch out to about 42 inches for close-ups and will shoot an object full size with about 32 inches of bellows draw.  Every bit of extension beyond 20 inches requires more light.  It’s a mathematical formulation, which of course, will be hell for me.  I’ve mounted the camera on my 9-foot studio stand, and there it will stay.  The larger bellows, by the way, was taken off a defunct print-shop stat camera, then cleaned, patched and sprayed with rubber to level its canvas like surface.  It now matches the front bellows.  That steel stat camera weighed a couple of hundred pounds, so I sold most of it to a scrap yard.




Camera 2:

Here’s the back of the camera, with ground glass and adjustment knobs visible.  It is challenging to compose on ground glass.  You need a dark cloth and magnifying loupe to focus, and even then the subject appears upside down and reversed, left to right.  One benefit of this tedious process is that imposes on me a discipline that I don’t always have without it.  I’m afraid I’ll always be more butcher than a baker.



Camera 3:

Here I am swinging the front standard toward my digital camera.  I’ve exaggerated the swing for demonstration purposes.


Camera 4:

Here’s the back with a film holder slipped partially in behind the ground glass.  In order to be focused accurately, the plane of the sheet film needs to end up exactly where the surface of the ground glass was.  I have it within 1/32 of an inch.  Modern film holders cost $475, so I bought several broken old film holders, one of them for glass negatives, to make one good holder.  I have about $40 invested.  Even then I had to make a couple of wooden pieces.  I replaced the back’s warped hard rubber dark slides with sheets of 1/16 aluminum and painted them black.  So, I have just one working film holder, which holds two sheets, but that’s enough for studio work, especially with film running $10-to-$20 a sheet.  I’m going to compose and expose very carefully.  No practice shots, if I can help it.



Camera 5:

Here’s a side view with the lens standard tilted forward, to add depth of field to a horizontal subject.  I also have the rear standard racked back a bit.  As before, I’ve exaggerated the standard tilt, for demonstration purposes.  It wouldn’t actually work to stretch and tilt this much.  A ten to 15-degree movement is often enough.




Camera 6:

Here’s the front standard with nameplate.  I made this camera in my Davey, NE shop/studio, hence the Davey reference.  The lens is a 1950’s Kodak Ektanon, 20-inch process lens, f10-to-f45, again from a defunct stat camera.  It does not have a shutter since a lens and shutter large enough for this camera would run around $900.  I paid $215 for this one and may upgrade later.  I won’t need a shutter for long exposures and can just use the lens cap as a shutter when doing continuous-light portraits.  I also have an old air-bulb Packard shutter I could use if needed.  Packards were designed in the Civil War era and identical new ones are made today.  Some models feature an electronic flash sync, but they’re all a pain to use.



Well, that’s all I know.

Best, Merle


About Merle:

I was born and raised in northeast Nebraska and have lived in Lincoln most of my adult life.  I’m happily married 40 years and have three grown children.  I spent close to 30 years as a freelance writer and photograph for numerous national magazine and book publishers.  Nearly all writers making a living wage specialize, and since I worked in the building trades early on, my specialty became home-improvement articles and books, plus some landscaping and gardening pieces.

While I wrote for numerous publications, ranging from Readers Digest, to Popular Science, to Random House and the LA Times Syndicate, I worked mainly for Popular Mechanics Magazine and its affiliated Hearst Corporation book division.

I’m now retired, but of course, continue to write, shoot pictures and build things. I can’t seem to free myself from these endeavors and don’t really want to.  I think a lot about the creative process, about what works and what doesn’t, and about how the process changes you as you grow up and then old.  For what it’s worth, I taught myself to write and shoot, but I wouldn’t recommend that approach.  It just takes too long.