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canon 1Ds with homemade lensThe wonders of bad lenses

Can you take great photos with anything?

During my 'day job' I'm a commercial photographer. Technical expertise and image quality are two of the ways I try and differentiate what I offer from all those other competent photographers out there.

However that doesn't mean that I don't take photos just for the hell of it... or that all our articles have to be about serious expensive kit.

In my wanderings about the web, I come across a lot of technically dismal photography. I also come across a lot of technically great, but uninteresting photos.

But what about good photos taken with technically poor equipment?

I don't think anyone would argue that it's not possible - I'm just inclined to believe that the better the camera equipment is, the wider the range of circumstances that you can get good results.

I'll leave arguments about the merits of cameras like the Holga, and what passes for a camera on my iPhone for another day...

Here I'm just describing how I recreated the 'cheap camera look' with a home-made lens on an old digital camera...

digital black and white logoFYI: I run a LinkedIn group (~7000 members) for people interested in any aspects of Digital Black and White photography: Digital Black and White

A few techy details...

First up I'm using a full frame (35mm) digital camera that was, at one time, the top of the range of DSLRs.

It's my old Canon 1Ds - Only 11MP, but 11MP of very good quality pixels. It cost a lot when new, but today you can pick one up for well under the cost of a new EOS 60D.

Indeed I often recommend looking at an older camera like this for people looking to explore more of their photography. There are loads of lenses available and who really cares if you've no live-view or video ;-)

The camera is the same one I used for making a DSLR adapter for a 5x4 large format camera and a digital pinhole camera.

The raw materials

I've long been interested in optics, electronics and taking things apart.

As such, I've several drawers full of 'stuff' - or 'too good to throw out' sorts of things.

assorted optical bits and pieces

I've also of goodly collection of cardboard tubes. It turns out that if you collect them over a while (I've only one box full of them) that you find some fit quite snugly into others.

The black tube below is from when I made a pinhole adapter from a lens cap.

I've also got several EF lens adapters for using old lenses on Canon cameras.

tubes for lens construction

If you haven't got the metal adapters, then a camera body cap is just fine for this too.

planoconvex lens for cameraUsing hot melt and clear model making glue makes for easy experimentation and you can even clean up metal adapter afterwards...

Here's the lens I decided to use.

You can also see two concentric rings of cardboard tube, the inner one going into an old lens adapter.

This lens has got a focal length of around 55mm, so to focus at infinity, it need to be some 12mm in front of the camera lens mount.

You can try this out by just holding the lens in front of the camera body and seeing where you need to hold it to get an image of a scene.

This particular lens is plano-convex and formed the best quality image with the flat side facing outwards.

It's useful to project an image onto a bit of card before mounting the lens, since different lens shapes work better in different orientations.

This lens has no coatings and quite a few small scratches - all of which are going to contribute to its eventual 'look'

lens body construction

More cardboard engineering, ready to fit the lens.

1Ds with lens fitted in placeAfter gluing the cardboard together, I've temporarily mounted the lens (3 blobs of hot melt glue)

For final use, I'm going to paint the tube matt black on the inside and out.

With this bit of glass, there is more than enough scattered light, without adding to it with light reflected off the tube.

Matt black spray paint was just fine - this is where the -temporary- attachment of the lens is important.

Here's the black version.

lens body painted

The tube slides in and out for focus.

The aperture or F number is given by the focal length divided by the aperture, and in this case is about f/2.5

The 55/2.5 in use

55mm and f/2.5 - sounds quite impressive.

There is a reason that 'real' lenses have loads of internal elements and sophisticated coatings...

Here's the view out of my bedroom window.

  • All of these shot have been taken with manual setting of shutter speed - metering set using internal meter, just for guidance. Images are processed RAW files that have only been altered for black/white levels and WB.

window view at f/2.5

Yes, the lens was clean

Here's me in the mirror

fuzzy f/2.5 lens

A quick reduction of aperture to about f/5

reduced aperture to sharpen image

A bit better

sharper view at f/5

Now down to ~f/8 - the version of the lens I decided to try out.

reduced to f/8 - sharper view of Keith Cooper

A view out of the window

harrow road at f/8

Some samples at f/8

The view at the bottom of our street

narborough road empty shop

...and a 100% crop.

I've increased the contrast slightly here, to make it easier to show the level of detail

image detail

Oh, and here's a local chip shop...

chip shop in Narborough road. leicester

What next?

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The lens works and I can use it to take photos...

It does give a certain luminous feel to bright colours on a sunny day - I'm assuming that a hefty mix of lens aberrations are contributing in this respect.

The distortions are all probably quite easy to reproduce in Photoshop - I'm not sure I could see why I'd want to though :-)

I will go out and take some photos with the lens, but I can't help feeling that I'm one of those people that sees a lens like this as going out with one hand tied behind your back, rather than 'opening wondrous creative opportunities' :-)

Perhaps I can get an idea what attracts people to Holgas - more than likely not...

I'll leave with an image that sums up many local residents' feelings towards a big new supermarket that is going to open up nearby - and probably lead to even more run down and empty small shops in the area.

abandoned supermarket trolley

Go away - you are not wanted here...

Some other experiments

The views in this article represent those of Keith Cooper.
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