Cezary Bartczak is the man behind the beautifully-made Vermeer Cameras. He makes every component in his workshop in Wroclaw and is proud to be able to share his love for film photography with countless other enthusiasts all over the world. We managed to squeeze into his busy schedule for quite an insightful interview and we are excited to share it with you today.
Hello Cezary, and welcome to the Magazine! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Hello! My name is Cezary Bartczak and I'm a camera maker and photographer based in Wrocław, the western part of Poland. I build wooden cameras named Vermeer Cameras. The name is a kind of homage to painter Johannes Vermeer, who ingeniously captured light in his paintings, and as specialists would say: it looked like he used a camera obscura for his sketches and paintings. All cameras are handcrafted and are made in small series. Made-to-order cameras are also available. I make mostly pinhole cameras, medium format and large format. Sometimes I also make 35 mm film cameras upon request, but my interests in camera building are larger. I also make panoramic cameras with large format lenses like 6x12 cm and 6x17 cm frame sizes.
How did you start as a camera maker?
I started with simple pinhole accessories like attachments for SLR cameras with installed pinhole or zone plates. The first cameras I made were from Kiev 88 camera film back magazines. I had in my head a design for 6x6 and 6x9 cm wood pinhole cameras, but in the beginning, the equipment of my workshop was very modest. In fact, I had no workshop, only a workbench in the basement and a kitchen table for precise work. I had a few hand saws, a sander, and a drill too. Nevertheless, I made my first prototypes.
A colleague who owns a commercial carpentry shop helped me make the first series of boxes that became the bodies of my cameras. So, I assembled a couple of yellow 6x6 cameras and listed them on eBay. I still remember my first customer—it was a guy from Paris that was the owner of a wooden toy factory. We exchanged many emails later and he sent me lovely sample pictures of his work.
After that, I rented my first space for my workshop, purchased some more tools, and launched a webpage.
What made you want to work on cameras?
That was a long process, which started from a few coincidences. Almost 20 years ago while reading the Polish magazine Foto, I found an article with a tutorial on how to convert a plastic 6x6 camera "Ami" into a pinhole camera. I remember the sample pictures, they were a few long exposure shots taken at an old cemetery and they were mesmerizing. By then I decided to make a camera that could take the same pictures. After doing a few conversions on my camera, I quickly realized that sometimes it is easier to build a camera from scratch than to alter it. Making your own camera also opened more possibilities. This was also the time I found the fantastic forum about film photography: F295.org.
I discovered the creations of other members from that forum and was fascinated. I soon realized that homemade cameras can be more than just make-shift photo gear that you build in your basement. Sure, some people made cameras from cardboard and old boxes, but others shared exquisite designs made from wood and brass. Both types of cameras work, but I very much liked the latter. That was a very interesting experience for me because people also shared the technical details of their projects. That's when the idea of making my own wooden cameras started.
What is your favorite thing about it?
I love it when I see people use my cameras. It's a great feeling, especially when I receive feedback like sample shots, page links, and when people upload pictures they took using my cameras. I also appreciate ideas and suggestions on how to upgrade the cameras I make.
A lot of people become repeat customers after getting their cameras from me and I really appreciate it. They want a new one and they often have their own ideas for customization or ideas for new cameras. The fact that I'm creating something that I love and earning money from it is amazing to me.
Please share your favorite cameras with our readers. What makes them your favorite?
It's very hard to pick only one camera. I very much like my ultra-wide 6x4.5cm pinhole camera. It has been my travel-mate for many years. The camera body is very small and flat (with a focal length of around 28 mm), which allows me to carry it in my jacket pocket. The viewing angle is really wide at 106 degrees, which is the equivalent of a 16 mm lens in a full-frame SLR camera. Despite the very short focal length, there is no vignetting because of the precise laser-drilled pinhole. The camera has a sliding shutter and two tripod sockets. The default frame is vertical and I have to remember to use a tripod socket on the side for landscape shots.
I also like the 6x13.5 cm curved plane panoramic pinhole camera that I made for myself. It's a very light travel version made from plywood bent in hot water. It has a half-cylindrical shape and was so time-consuming to build during the prototype stage. That's why I didn't put it up for sale along with my other camera builds. It's still one of my favorites since I love panoramic photography and it's so light and compact—a perfect add-on to your photo equipment when traveling.
How does your creative process work? Where do you get your inspiration from?
It works in a few ways. I like to browse forums about photography and groups for camera makers on Facebook, Flickr, and Pinterest. There are a lot of people all over the world, who are making and upgrading cameras and other photo equipment and it's fascinating and inspiring. Sometimes I just enter the phrase "pinhole camera", "wooden camera" or "diy camera" in my browser and look at the images that pop up.
I like vintage cameras very much as they are also a source of inspiration for me. I like places like the Technikmuseum in Berlin, which houses a large collection of vintage cameras. Some of them are displayed in glass cabinets, but they also have cameras that you can touch to check out how they work.
I also get inspiration when someone asks me to build something new, whether it's weird or just custom. Some ideas are doable, while some are too time-consuming. When I have an idea for a new camera, I first make a simple hand sketch and put in the known dimensions like focal length and frame size. Once I'm sure that there will be no difficulties, I make a wooden camera body and the inner elements from plywood. On the other hand, I make a frankencam when I'm still unsure of what it will look like. It's a prototype made from plywood, cardboard, and lots of tape. I do that just to check if it will work properly. After that, I can make a drawing for the laser cuter. Usually, they're for shutters and film guides, and sometimes other inner elements.
What are the most used tools in your workshop?
Different tools are required at different stages of making the camera. Some of them I do not use so often, but they allow me to work quicker and bring more possibilities during the crafting process. I have a couple of electric saws, which are very helpful. I have a bandsaw to cut larger pieces of wood, a big table saw to cut boards, and a smaller circular saw. I also use a mini circular saw for cutting small elements. I especially like hand saws—I have a few Japanese saws which are very sharp and have thin blades. They are really good for custom-made elements.
In my workshop, there are also a few different sanders, small milling machines, and drills. But my most used tool is the Proxxon multi-tool and laser cutter. The laser cutter is excellent for making repeatable and complicated elements like film guides in curved plane cameras. The drill machine and disc sander are also often in use in my workshop.
Do you have any plans for new projects in the near future?
I have a couple of ideas and plans. The only issue is my lack of time. First is a 4 x 5-inch pinhole camera, old-fashioned style. Black painted wooden frame, cone covered with red canvas, and a natural leather strap. The other one is a flat plane 6x24 cm camera with an LF lens. I made a few dozen 6x17cm cameras but never tried to make a 6x24 cm with a lens.
If you were to build your dream camera, what would it look like?
I have one idea in my head. It's not fully ready but I hope to make it someday. This will be a modular field camera, maybe in a 4x5-inch size. This size provides really good image quality while the camera remains portable. The camera will be made from very good quality wood like mahogany or teak wood with brass elements. I'm planning to build a few film holders—one for cut sheet 4x5-inch, a second for wet plates, and a 6x12 cm roll film holder. Lenses will also be interchangeable. My "must have" set is a pinhole lensboard, a wide-angle large format lens, and a portrait lens — something like a Petzval lens.
Where do you see film photography in the next ten years?
Maybe I'm living in my own social media bubble, but I have the impression that film photography will become trendy again. This medium has its own limitations but its aesthetic makes it unusual. Of course, film photography will never come back to the sports photography area or reportage, but they find a niche in other areas—like portrait, landscape, and artistic photography.
Film photography will be in use as a "noble" medium by photographers, artists, and other enthusiasts of this technique. A few days ago I've read in Petapixel article about the Kodak factory in Rochester. They are back manufacturing color photo materials. Ten years ago they were almost at the edge of bankruptcy but they managed to pull through and are now working 5-day shifts again per week. Now Kodak is hiring 300 technicians and engineers. Their production line is working 24/7 on three shifts. So, I think film photography will not die.
What advice can you give to aspiring builders and makers out there?
First, don't give up. But seriously, it's much easier now to start building cameras than ten years ago. 3D printers and CNC laser cutters are much more affordable now than when they were first introduced. Although it's not necessary to buy such equipment at the beginning. Many people and companies offer services like CNC cutting or 3D printing. Many plans for cameras and technical files can be downloaded for free from pages like Thingiverse.
Start with something easy, like a one-shot camera. It only requires a light-tight container and a pinhole as a lens. Before you start building your own camera from the scratch, you can try converting a camera first. There are a lot of low-budget rangefinder cameras on eBay and other sites. Using a plastic medium-format camera is a good place to start.
What does a perfect day look like for Cezary Bartczak?
I don't like to hurry. I like to work in my own rhythm. So the perfect day will start early morning. I'm eating a sandwich and going downstairs to open my workshop. I turn on the computer and set my favorite station with classical music. Work goes smoothly because I have everything in stock and don't have to rush.
At midday, I take a break and go for coffee and lunch at the bar on the corner. After the break, when current orders are ready, I have time to design new cameras and make prototypes. The courier comes on time to pick up the parcels. Then I'll be finishing my work day in a good mood and will be driving out of the city for a long walk through the forest and meadows. I have with me one of my cameras, just in case, to capture some interesting landscape or some other subject.
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