Further Signs, Wonders, and Disruptions in the Camera World

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TechCrunch recently reported on what appears to be the first camera built entirely from 3D-printed parts. Yes, even the lens:

[Designer Amos Dudley] actually printed it out using a high-quality transparent resin, and sanded it down with a custom machine. Then a dip in liquid resin fills in the tiny valleys and flaws, making the lens, if not optically perfect, at least functional. It’s spherical, so there’s problems towards the edges of the frame, but with the aperture limited and other factors accounted for in the body of the camera, it works!

–Devon Coldewey, TechCrunch

Amos Dudley's finished product
Amos Dudley’s finished product

While this may barely raise an eyebrow in our age of signs, wonders, and disruptions, a couple details about Dudley’s engineering master stroke caught our attention.

The first is how the newly-printed machine isn’t so future-forward as you might think, but a fascinating chimera of digital and analogue. Yes, it was basically produced in a Replicator, but it shoots film. And the design for the shutter mechanism is from, wait for it, a camera made in 1885. Take that, Jonathan Ive.

Then there are those “problems towards the edges of the frame,” which look awfully familiar to a certain segment of photographer who knows what a Holga is, and doesn’t confuse Dianas, Sprocket Rockets, and Spinner 360s with marital aids. This vignetting is caused by the light leaks and lens imperfections you’d expect in a plastic camera you can buy for less than the price of a pound of halibut. And that who-knows-what-you’re-gonna-get effect, dear readers, is exactly the point.

Test image from the 3D-printed camera
Test image from the 3D-printed camera

Because while Dudley’s project has unwittingly (we’re only guessing here) transported us back to the future, he lands us there among an already-established community of like-minded souls, the photo equivalent of vinyl collectors.

Whatever, they say, for the megapixels and Photoshop perfection; these folks revel in the creativity, spontaneity, and sloppy experimentation of cheapo boxes with roots in Hong Kong and the former Soviet Union. Their worldview, aesthetic (and ecommerce) can be found through organizations like Lomography, which takes its name from a nearly-discontinued, six-degrees-from-Vladimir-Putin camera (it’s a long story, but well worth it).

It’s been suggested (who knew?) that these cheap analogue cameras saved film photography. It’s been pointed out that Instagram (well I’ll be, it’s true!) works pretty hard to replicate their problem effects. It’s been argued on one side that these are just another accessory for mannered, backward-looking hipsters; but then serious (like, for the White House) shooters win awards with them. A recent Kickstarter campaign for a Polaroid-like version blew past its goal by %600 in its first few days; Leica is rumored to be releasing an instant camera as well.

Image from the Lomo Instant Automat
Image from the Lomo Instant Automat, currently enjoying great success as a Kickstarter project

We say: Bravo, and invite you to spuriously shoot something from the hip. With whatever you’ve got handy.

If you’d like to take the long road, and try your hand at printing out your own camera, you can find the 3D models and specs here.

If you’d like to try your hand at analogue/plastic/toy camera photography, this is a great resource.