Some Assembly Required: Giles Clement's 16x20 Ambrotype Camera

This series focuses on those who take the making of pictures a step or two further, creating their own photographic tools.

 Giles Clement and his 16x20 ambrotype camera.

Giles Clement and his 16x20 ambrotype camera.

Giles Clement, Nashville, TN

Giles Clement’s hauntingly beautiful ambrotype portraits are made with a 16x20 camera that he built himself. The current version was derived from an earlier camera that he sketched on a bar napkin and constructed over the course of one day with $172 worth of hardware store lumber and scrap plastic. The first iteration served Clement well for a year and a half but as demand for his large one-of-a-kind portraits increased, he set out to make a second, more professional looking version.

Clement initially intended to have his sketches for the second iteration of the 16x20 ambrotype camera drawn into CAD by a friend, but instead decided to purchase the software and taught himself to design the parts that were later professionally machined. Proving to be a fast learner, the camera went from sketch to functioning in just under six weeks.

Wanting the camera to be beautiful and lightweight, Clement constructed the parts mostly from aluminum and carbon fiber. In an effort to keep costs down, the milled parts were kept to a minimum and the majority are water jet cut flat stock screwed and epoxied together. The large bellows were made by CameraBellows.co.uk, which has been manufacturing bellows since the 1800s. Although he primarily photographs ambrotypes on glass, Clement designed the camera to be versatile and could easily produce images on sheet film or paper. In the spirit of versatility, Clements’s camera is compatible with several lenses including a 1918 Goerz Dogmar 500mm f/4.5, a super wide 14 inch f/16, and a 27 inch f/8 Anastigmat.  

The resulting photographs contain all of the mystery that we love about portraits made with historic photographic processes, but at a size unique to contemporary practitioners—showing Clement’s skill in every detail.

 Casey with her ambrotype.

Casey with her ambrotype.

View more of Clement’s work on his website.

Have you made or modified your own photographic equipment? Let us know at info@donttakepictures.com