Thursday, 3 April 2014

Handmade Photography Gear: A Look Into the World of Custom Cameras and ...

The handmade, labor-of-love trend isn’t just for artisanal pickles and custom-sewn shirts from Etsy. A cadre of small companies are hand-building cameras to buyers’ specs, crafting lenses you’d never see from an assembly line, building gorgeous wooden shutter release buttons, and more. Here are a few little brands making amazing things­—and the story of what it takes to create them. 

Have you ever wished for photographic equipment you’ve never seen in a store, or longed to give your out-of-the-factory camera a personal touch? Or just wanted to make a picture but you couldn’t find the gear to do it? These dedicated photographers did. Each of their stories is different but, inevitably, a certain spark—personal or practical—started these artisans on the path to creating their own products and bringing them to market on a small scale.

For Andrew Bellamy, who restores vintage rangefinder cameras (, it all began with a Minolta Hi-Matic 7 that he found sitting in pieces after his father’s death. Bellamy’s father was a camera technician in the 1960s and had been refurbishing cameras after he retired. Using his father’s tools, Bellamy restored the camera, successfully shot a roll of film with it, and, he says, “got the bug from there.”

Initially, Bellamy launched the Ilott Vintage website with images and information about restored cameras “to encourage the use of film and to [champion] the quality of this generation of cameras,” but he was “inundated with requests to buy” the cameras. In 2012, he made them available for purchase online. For a unique and gorgeous modern touch, he replaces the worn leather fronts and backs ?with real wood veneers, turning them into cameras unlike any you have ever seen.

Keith Canham ( fell in love with large-format photography after shooting with a 4×5 camera while at university; by 1983, he had built his own 4×5 camera. Six years later, he launched his company at the advice of Jack Deardorff (the last Deardorff family member to own L.F. Deardorff and Sons). He now designs and builds large-format cameras for other photographers, in incredible sizes such as 12×20 and 14×17.

But Canham is not the only one building cameras from scratch. About three years ago, shortly before he decided to pursue photography full-time, James Guerin built his first panoramic pinhole camera simply because he wanted to shoot images in that format. Around the same time, he was intrigued by a slit-scan photograph on Flickr, so he designed and built a slit-scan camera as well. Now he builds and sells both types of cameras (

Other photographic gear has gone custom, too. For bodyboarder Sean LaBrie (, a financial incentive was the mother of invention. He made his first underwater housing in 1995 when someone told him he could earn money shooting and selling surfing imagery. After posting a housing he had made for himself on Craigslist, LaBrie got his first customer: renowned surf photographer Dave Nelson, who has been buying housings from LaBrie ever since. In 2001 this evolved into a part-time business crafting housings for some of the industry’s top surf photographers and quickly developed into a full-time venture a year later.

Some of these custom photo products are available to all, but others are more difficult to come by. According to Bellamy Hunt (, MS Optical—known for hand-built lenses and lens conversions—started as “more of a hobby” for its creator Miyazaki Sadayasu, “after retiring from his previous job designing telescopes for a famous Japanese toymaker” in 2006.

Miyazaki-san’s lenses are sought after by photographers and collectors alike. If you want one, you’ll need to move quickly—the lenses are produced in limited numbers and often sell out at record speed. Lenses can be ordered from Japan Camera Hunter, where Hunt also supplies his customers with classic cameras and other products—including specially designed soft shutter releases.

Photo: Courtesy of Ilott Vintage

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