After testing the waters of camera alteration with his modified Fujifilm Instax Mini and Wide cameras, self-professed "instant film magician" Albertino from Hong Kong took on a more ambitious project: building an instant TLR from scratch. And his main material? Good old Lego bricks! Take a closer look at his newest creation in this interview.
Hello Albert! Welcome back to the Lomography magazine. What have you got in store for us?
This time I have a revolutionary new camera. Using Lego, I created a twin lens camera that uses Instax Mini film. It appears to be the first Instax Mini camera made with Lego. It has a preview screen on the top where you can compose the photo. After that, you can press the shutter in front of the camera to take the photo. The best part is that you can then press the ejection button inside a "secretive" Lego door on the side of the camera. The instant film will pop out from the nowhere on the camera top. You can then enjoy the magical moment of watching an image emerge from the film.
The Lego door is "secretive" as you can see nothing when you open it but there is a button hidden inside. This also prevents children to accidentally trigger the ejection.
People are shocked when they realize that this is a camera. It is strange enough to see someone carry a Lego castle to the street. One time, I carried the Lego camera to a crowded outdoor market place. I was trying to shoot an old shopkeeper who was sleeping. I was interrupted by some other store owners who gathered around me and look curiously at the camera. A Western gentleman tapped my shoulder and asked if it is a camera and where can he buy it.
"It drew me instantly amidst a street market in HK and was visually overstimulated. Seeing this thing you made and experiencing the photograph developing made my whole trip worthwhile, man," he told me afterwards. He is a visitor to Hong Kong and it's the last stop on his long journey.
What was the inspiration behind your new modified instant camera? And why use a twin lens reflex design?
My inspiration comes from my daily live. During those days when I was just working on the camera modification I talked about on my last interview with Lomography, I saw my neighbor throwing away a bag of Lego. I suddenly got a random idea to combine Lego and instant photography. At that point, I envisioned an ejection system placed behind the Lego and a vintage twin lens in the front. I left the idea on my mind for several weeks before I actually ordered a box of Lego to build the camera.
Why it takes several weeks before I started? It is somewhat difficult to foresee what types of Lego and other materials that I'll need for the project. I only have the lens and the ejection system extracted from existing instant cameras. If I have a lot of Lego, I can mix and match them to find the right solution. But I haven't played with Lego for decades. I needed some time to let new ideas pop up before continuing on this project.
I chose twin-lens reflex (TLR) simply because I like the "preview" of composition and focus in the viewfinder. I only have limited shooting experience with it but "previewing" is magic. What is shown in this preview screen will then be transformed into pictures through the magical Lego bricks. It is like an LCD screen without using electronics. I honestly think twin-lens system is a genius design. Even if you don't take any pictures, previewing from viewfinder gives some satisfaction. My two-year-old son likes to peep through the viewfinder. It is the first thing and the only thing he does with a vintage twin-lens camera, after he rubbed the lens with his finger.
The Lego camera is a mystery when people first saw it. The first thing I do is show them how to look through the viewfinder. They will quickly realize that it is a real camera made with Lego. I usually take a picture for them and let them absorb the magical experience of seeing the picture emerge.
Lego camera is an amazing combination of childhood and memory. The visitor I met on the street inspired me. "Each and every boy all over the world play with Lego as a kid. And the last time I watched a Polaroid develop like that was many, many years ago. There is a universality about this Lego camera you made." It strikes me instantly that it is indeed my hidden desire that drove me to create this camera. My love of instant pictures stemmed from my aspiration to record the moments with my son and my family while Lego is a common language to all kids and even adults.
The driving force on my creation is love and family. Creativity or craftsmanship is just a means to express my thoughts. I started taking pictures intensively after my son was born. It is the happiest moment in my life to see my son grow up, learn new things, and start calling me dad. I shot hundreds of pictures everyday with my digital camera to record every moment. Later I found that instant film is the perfect medium for this. Each picture is so unique and precious that can never be repeated exactly after it was taken, which is like every important moment in our life that can never be experienced again. Digital picture, in this respect, is virtual and unrealistic that it can be copied or modified too easily. That may explain why the emotion expressed when seeing an instant picture is far more intense compared to pictures you swiped on your mobile screen.
Picking plastic bricks, which some dismiss as a child's toy, to build your camera is really fascinating. Why did you choose this particular material?
What impressed me with Lego is its versatility. It can be modeled to a wide range of forms with minimal effort. Imagine how the world will look like if everything is Lego compatible? It will certainly lower the entry barrier to be a "creator" or "designer". Lego provides a convenient medium for creation and modifications. It is purely by chance that I applied it in cameras.
I was also inspired by some internet posts that known as "Lego hacks". These posts discuss how to adapt Lego for some creative purpose, such as using it to make small gadgets, decorations, paintings, plants, making a wheelchair for tortoise, etc. I noticed some photographers had tried to use Lego bricks to build large format film cameras. But for Instax camera made with Lego, I think I'm the first one. The existing Lego cameras apparently have not fully resolved light leaks issue. My camera is light-leaked proof after I painstakingly refurbished the interiors. It can also be conveniently carried to take pictures in bright, outdoor environments.
Any feature of this camera that you like the most? What about areas that need improvement?
I like the large viewfinder a lot. I found it enjoyable to preview the composition, even when I do not intend to take pictures.
I also like the Lego interface. It enable me to "edit" the camera quite easily. I can conveniently remove some bricks or add new things onto my camera. Like the traditional TLR, I added a magnifying glass to assist focusing. I can either use Santa Claus to hold it or stack it on a Lego block. I also added an external flash to my camera. It can easily fit in after I incorporate some Lego bricks a s a flash stand.
One potential improvement is to add a zone focus to the camera. The viewfinder focus is a bit difficult in low light environment. Comparatively zone focusing can easily be applied in both day and night. For photo quality, there are not much I can add as it has pretty much achieved the full potential of the lens.
What can we expect next from you?
Research takes time and effort. As a father, a photographer, camera builder, and a magician, I have tried to squeeze all the possible time and resource to breakthrough in the photography landscape. To sustain these creative projects, I start to market these cameras to different people or organisation to fund my further researches. I receive many interesting contacts after I release this Lego camera, not only from photographers, but also people thinking to use it in child education, dentists using it as an ice-breaker with their patients, some planning to use it to impress their friends or girlfriends, etc.
I like these projects as they inspire me to approach certain problem differently, view the world differently and encourage us to share ideas with each other. The possibilities are always there. So I always look forward to work together with passionate people.
I have sold my first camera to a orthodontist (some kind of special dentist) who is always inspired to invent something new. He frequently deliver lectures internationally. He shares similar vision and as passionate as myself. He decided to use it in clinic to inspire more kids about creativity and "joy of boundless imagination" while "sweeping away their fear of seeing a dentist". It is quite interesting and I know he would be a good caretaker of my camera. He is also a father of a new-born baby boy. This unique camera is a perfect gift to his son to record the precious childhood with his beloved parents.
Because of frequent requests by my friends, I rushed to make a second Lego camera which is an upgraded version of the first one. This new Lego camera can be put onto a tripod. It is also a fun thing to put wheels onto the camera base. My son love this feature so much that he treated it as a car. However, it also increases the probability of falling off the table. A more technical feature is that I created a lens mount on the front board. Hence, I can change lens like a professional camera.
Also, my secret Lomo-related project is almost completed. I'll share with you in due course!