Wednesday, August 09, 2023

ABQ Box Camera Testing in the Park

I've been interested in the "Afghan Box Camera," also known as the "Cuban Polaroid," the "Kamra-e-Faoree" (Instant camera in the Farsi dielect of Dari), and just "Box Camera Photography" by Lukas Birk (a notable proponent of this form of picture-making), that uses light-sensitive photo print paper exposed and developed in a large box-like camera.

I built my first version almost a decade ago, and dabbled with it intermittently. The traditional version uses trays of conventional paper developer & fixer in the box, after the exposure, to produce a paper negative; then the negative is placed on an easel in front of the camera and rephotographed, the result being a positive print. In my first version, I was using grade 2 RC paper for the negative and multigrade paper for the print, aided by darkroom contrast filters over the lens to fine tune the finished print's contrast. Having only one paper safe box, it was a trick to manage selecting the correct paper just by feel, while not fogging the paper with light or ruining it with wet fingers.

Always a sketcher and tinkerer, I eventually rethought the layout of the device and envisioned a more vertical configuration, more like a PC tower computer box in shape, with the lens, focus screen and rails in the top third, arm sleeve in the middle, and vertical slot tanks and paper safe in the bottom. After I met Ethan Moses, who runs Cameradactyl Cameras, I eventually introduced him to this idea and he got interested enough to design his own laser-cut plywood kit version. Last year he cut me a kit and I constructed it into a finished prototype. I made a four-part series of camera build videos, here, here, here and here.

Here's one of the lenses I used with this camera, harvested from a Speed Graphic and rejuvenated with lighter fluid and alcohol:

The view through the rear door used for setting focus on the subject:

The focus screen and paper holder slide fore- and -aft on ballbearing rods, with the exact position of focus set with a metal clip on one of the rods. After focus, the lens is closed, all the doors closed and the holder pushed to the front so it can be loaded with paper from the paper safe. After loading, the holder is pulled back to the focus position, found by means of the metal clip on the focus rod, and the exposure is ready to be made.

Last week, Ethan and I met at Laurel Circle Park in the Ridgecrest Neighborhood in ABQ, along with members of the NM Film Photographers, to try out our ABQ Box Cameras (our nifty name for this novel design) on club members and the general public.

While the traditional version is a "positive/negative" process, requiring the making of a negative first, then rephotographing via an easel in front of the lens to make a positive print, Ethan and I wanted to try this new camera with the more recent citric acid/peroxide reversal process. As such, Ethan didn't design his kit camera with a front easel for making positive prints from negatives; instead, it was designed from the beginning to use either a reversal process or Harman Direct Positive paper.

Since I hadn't used the camera since last year, some testing and refamiliarization was needed, and so I conducted a test run the week prior to our event. Shooting in harsh, direct sun, my first results were soot-and-chalk with few middle gray tones. This one was about the best I could manage that day, that also missed the sodium sulfite step, hence the brown stains:

This reversal process starts by exposing the photo paper at an amount greater than if you were making a paper negative; while with Arista Grade 2 paper I'd use ISO 12 for creating paper negatives, for this process the speed is much slower; I ended up using 1/2 second at F/5.6 in shaded summer daylight. The paper is developed in standard paper developer (Dektol) for a minute or so; then I used a quick water rinse (to preserve the life of the next solution), followed by 3 minutes in a citric acid solution.

Here's a view inside the box, with the paper safe to the front, followed by developer, rinse and citric acid slot tanks:

The slot tanks are laser cut from acrylic plastic and solvent welded.

These steps (developer and citric acid) must be done under safe light or dark conditions, inside the box. The rest of the process can be done in normal light. The 1st developer creates a metallic silver negative image, while the citric acid acts as both a stop bath (due to its acidic pH) and also prepares the developed silver image to be dissolved by the peroxide.

For the remainder of the process I used my three-drawer cube stack, set up on a folding table in the comfortable shade of the park. The top drawer was 12% H2O2 (acquired at beauty supply shops), the middle drawer is a sodium sulfite solution (to prevent stains on the print) and the bottom tray is the 2nd developer (also Dektol):

Once removed from the camera, the image is very dark, appearing as if over-exposed. The print will begin to fizz in the peroxide, after a minute or so of agitation, as the etching starts, with bubbles beginning to evolve off the surface of the paper. Under indoor room lighting the print will eventually clear to nearly paper white, but under the strong UV of daylight, even under shade trees, the remaining undeveloped silver halides in the paper (which have a "virtual image contour" that's a negative of the original negative image) will begin to autodevelop simultaneously as the negative image is being dissolved off, creating a faint blue/gray positive image. Once the original negative image is fully etched away, the paper is briefly rinsed in water (we brought a large quantity of water for rinsing), then placed in a clearing solution of sodium sulfite, to prevent brown stains. After three minutes, another quick rinse and then the print is placed in the second developer, where it rapidly creates the finished positive image. This last step happens very quickly, and is the "magic" that is fun for the portrait subject to watch unfold.

After a few false starts in the park, struggling to find the correct exposure times under direct sun, I made this still too-bright print of Mike C.:

Then I moved the camera under the shade of the park's mature trees, and the results began to improve dramatically, with the image seen at the top of this article, the exposure being 1/2 second at F/5.6. Then I made several more, as the exposures remained consistent:



Like the traditional Box Camera Photographers of old, I'd like to continue to create these portraits in a public setting. Using the convenience of shaded daylight, at least in the warmer months, and exposure times less than a second long, it promises to be a novel way to create these one-of-a-kind portraits.

Ethan will soon begin to offer DIY kits, so you too can make your own version. I look forward to seeing what other people will do with this process.


Blogger Ted said...

Very nice results! I was wondering when you'd get back to the box camera that you worked so hard on (:

3:00 AM  
Blogger Bill M said...

Great to see the all in one camera/darkroom at work.

One day I need to try some of that paper in my Speed Graphic.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Richard P said...

Some of these look really fantastic. Always appreciate following your experiments.

3:44 PM  

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