Recently, I’ve become slightly obsessed with the idea of shooting large format cameras. Those of you who’ve been here before know that I have shot with just about every kind of camera out there (not every make/model, just every category). Film sizes I have shot with include half-frame, 35mm, 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9, and 35mm in 6×6 camera (pseudo-panorama with exposed sprockets). I figured, what better way to experience a new type of photography than shooting with a large format camera? I picked up a supposedly light-tight Omega View 45E 4×5 camera on eBay using the money I got from selling a Leica 9cm Elmar f/4 (I know painfully well how difficult it is to repair a pinholed bellows, thanks to the Polaroid ProPack I bought almost a year ago, which turned out to be beyond repair). The camera arrived in a HUGE package (enough to put 5 USPS large flat rate boxes in), and included 8 film holders, and a Graphic film pack adapter for a type of film package that has long gone out of production.
Like any good used-camera buyer, the first thing I did was to check for pinholes. A quick inspection with a flashlight revealed pinholes in every single segment of the bellows. I wrote back to the seller and got a partial refund (it was too expensive to ship back), and thought about making my own bellows. But first, I tried to patch the bellows up using Loctite black silicone. I stretched out the bellows fully and tried to apply as thin a layer of silicone as I could, to no avail – thin layers did not fully cover the holes, and the outer layer was also peeling slightly. Short of stripping the plastic completely, there was no way to fill out the fabric totally. So instead, I put fairly large blobs on some particularly damaged corners. After one day, I moved the bellows around (I should probably have done that right after application) and found light leaks everywhere. In fact, I think the plastic was just waiting to peel right off. I figured it was probably better to keep the bellows in its current state, as it makes no sense to essentially reconstruct the whole thing with black silicone. This will also ensure that the bellows retains some semblance of physical rigidity and integrity for other options.
Replacing the bellows on many cameras is a fairly straightforward operation – in addition to replacement of damaged components, the bellows are made interchangeable to accommodate so-called ‘bag bellows‘ which are basically light-tight bags mounted onto frames that allow wide angle (i.e. short focal length) lenses to be used. Such bellows are often expensive, however, costing more than 60% what I paid for the camera. Furthermore, the 45E is probably a budget model and does not have that option. Bellows changes are to be handled, according to the Toyo* website, by Mamiya service departments. Therefore, bellows are hard to come by. Plain bellows are also expensive, and since there appears to be different bellows dimensions, it was a very risky option with a high chance of failure.
DIY Bag Bellows – Material Options
Given the limited bellows options, I decided that I can perhaps make some sort of cover for the bellows – a sock that goes over the whole bellows, mounted onto the frame. To do this, I first had to find a suitable material for the job. The material had to be lightweight, yet light-tight, a tall order indeed. The usual suspects included nylon, satin, and some water-proof material from a jacket. I tested the light-tightness using a flashlight, and found that none of the materials were suitable.
I have a black blackout curtain and it worked great. However, the inner lining is white, and appears to be some sort of painted material (it rubs off with pressure). It is also fairly heavy, which I feared may cause the underlying bellows to sag, in turn causing vignetting. Then I remembered that the changing bag I used for the camera is extremely light-tight. Better yet, it appears to be somewhat weather resistant, and not particularly heavy. I bought an additional changing bag for this purpose, but it did not arrive in time for the weekend (I will use it to make a dark cloth. More on that later). So I scavenged some of similar fabric elsewhere, and started work on the bag bellows/sock.
Here are the items you will need:
- Sewing machine – never knew how to use it, but my wife did. She showed me the ropes, and the basics are extremely easy.
- China marker, aka grease pencil – useful for drawing out the required area on the black cloth. I bought a few white ones by mistake (I wanted the red ones for my contact prints) but they are quite useful in this case.
- Large rubber bands – I got these from Whole Foods. They used large rubber bands to hold the breakfast boxes shut. I knew they will eventually come in handy, so I’ve been collecting them whenever the opportunity arises.
- Tools – Scissors, screwdrivers, flashlight, etc.
Step 1: Mark out a rectangle, approximately 23 inches by 30 inches. The longer dimension will be used to wrap around the bellows, while the shorter one will be mounted along the axis of the bellows. The cross-section of my bellows is 6 x 6 inches, which works out to a minimum of 24 inches wrap-around. The 6 additional inches give me some room to move the standards around without tugging the bellows.
Step 2: Fold the sheet in two, so that the two 23-inch edges are lined up. Secure them with pins and, using a sewing machine, sew the edges together.
Step 3: Unscrew the 12 screws that hold the bellows to either standard. I started with the front standard. In addition to the screws, the bellows is also glued onto the standard. This is probably why Mamiya service department is needed to change this bellows. Peel the bellows off the metal frame. This part is slightly scary. But it should be okay. You will find that there are four metal plates on the inside of the bellows, each with three threaded holes for mounting the bellows onto the frame. Essentially, the bellows fabric is sandwiched between these metal plates and the front standard, with the screws creating holes on the bellows material.
Step 4: Pull the sock/bag over the bellows. Gather the front edge of the sock and distribute them roughly evenly around the front standard. Start mounting the sock onto the front standard, with the parts in the following order: back metal plate, bellows, sock, front standard frame. It will be a bit of a tight fit, but it should be possible to screw the assembly back together.
Step 5: There will be a lot of excess sock material that is not tied down properly. This is where the large rubber bands come in handy. Simply remove the front standard from the monorail and put the rubber band around the excess material. This will keep if reasonably light tight. Remember: the bellows is still in place, so most of the light-tightness will be contributed by the bellows! This eases the stringency of the various steps significantly.
Step 6 (Optional): I stopped at Step 5, but you can probably go one step further and apply some black silicone to properly seal up any small gaps that may have appeared.
Final Step: Repeat for the rear standard and you are done!
Here’s what my camera looks like:
* Toyo apparently bought over the Omega operation, and most of the parts made by Toyo are actually compatible with one or more models of Omega view cameras.