Feature Friday – PPP Cameras

by | Feb 26, 2021 | Interviews & Features | 0 comments

As an absolute film camera nerd, nothing excites me more than seeing the internals and mechanics of a camera. I started following Pierro early last year and I’ve consistently been fascinated watching his stories, seeing amazing cameras in pieces and then beautifully repaired/put back together. PPP Cameras have built up a strong reputation within the film community so naturally we wanted to know more about their operation.

(This isn’t an ad in anyway, just a recommendation based off several glowing reviews!)

Hello Pierro! I understand you’ve been repairing cameras since you were 15, how did you get started and what services does PPP Cameras offer?

Hello, Yes, it was at the age of fifteen when I first started opening cameras and practicing repairs, so I guess this was where it all started. It began mostly because of the amount of cameras I would see being thrown away — parts of history being discarded and forgotten, just like that. That’s when I started salvaging camera parts and would practice bringing them back to life. It took several years before the pile of broken cameras turned into working cameras again, as it takes time to refine your repairing skills and also a lot of patience as it cannot be rushed. The more time I spent reverse engineering cameras, the more I began to see the technological progress inside each camera. I began repairing cameras from the 1920s and slowly moved through the years. This was a great way to learn as I could see how each company developed their technology through time, allowing me to build my understanding of the mechanisms, inside out.

Another reason I got into camera repairs is because from the age of fourteen I was building pin hole cameras, 4×5 cameras from lego as well as custom equipment. To refine my custom camera creations further, I knew I would need a deeper understanding of how cameras were built, how they functioned, and what limitations they might have. The knowledge I have gained from reverse engineering cameras has enabled me to develop my custom built cameras which has heavily informed my art practice alongside my Masters studies at the Royal College of Art (www.pierropozella.co.uk).

PPP Cameras now offers a wide range of services and customisations such as bespoke illustrated leather art, which takes illustrations made in collaboration with artists and engraves them onto camera leather. We also create titanium colour finishes, using a chemical process rather than most recolouring services who opt for paint-based processes.The benefit of this is that the camera metal is chemically changed so any drops or scratches will not effect the overall finish. Making spare parts and other resources is a really important service we provide as it is ensures a modern replacement can be made, as well as the survival of film cameras for many years to come. We also take commissions from a range of clients, to develop bespoke equipment for them which will assist them in the field. We are continuously developing new concepts, with plans to offer additional services.

How big is the PPP Cameras team?

We started expanding in 2020 to be able to work on a larger range of projects. I started PPP Repairs by myself, focusing on getting old cameras back to work, and now PPP Cameras is a collective consisting of myself, Dan Rubin (well known in both the design and photographic industries), Phillip Quiza (a specialist in coding and strategy), and Luigi Pozella (a wiz with CAD and 3d printing), focusing on new ideas, products, and experiments through research, design, and engineering.

Having a team allows me more time to research and develop new spare parts for old cameras, refine the repair experience, and continue to expand beyond camera repairs.

What’s been the highlight of your career so far and how many cameras do you think you’ve repaired so far?

There have been several highlights throughout my career, but a notable one has to be restoring a Leica original, once used to document D-day. The camera showed visible marks, pieces of history it had captured and now contained. I was lucky enough for the customer to share with me some images this camera had taken, many of which had never been seen by the public eye.

Another highlight has been repairing cameras for several famous names. It’s always interesting to see what camera they possess. Most recently, I have moved into a new workshop and have been developing custom equipment for a photojournalist which has been used in subzero conditions on the front line.

The amount of cameras I’ve repaired so far is a hard one to answer as I’ve been repairing for almost ten years now! I would say in the tens of thousands as even during my studying both at undergraduate and postgraduate level, I still repaired every day.

There are a select few who can repair film cameras as well as you do and at a time where there aren’t a lot of people to pass down knowledge, what advice can you give to anyone looking to get into basic maintenance?

Thank you, that’s very kind. With the recent surge of interest in the industry since the rebirth of film, many repair masters have come back to the game. This is great because they have all the knowledge and are masters of their craft and field, which keeps more and more cameras alive to an exceptional standard. The continued growth of the analogue industry has also created new interest /repairers who have specialised skills in areas such as coding, CAD, and more which were not around with the first generation of repairers. This is a great benefit to the industry and has allowed a new generation to bring new life to the analogue world, such as developing reliable shutter speed testers that are more accessible, along with having the skills to replicate parts using technology that has only been available over the past decade. This is the perfect time for both old generation and new repairers to come together in sharing knowledge, which will help the industry to continue to progress and learn.

Despite many master repairers returning to work, few are willing to pass on their knowledge. This is understandable as it takes decades to teach such a refined skill that they have spent decades learning and continuously refining. There are, however, a few companies that are now offering residencies and opportunities to learn basic maintenance skills and pass down some beginners repair knowledge.

I would say do not let this put you off if you would like to get into camera repairs. When I first started out, I was told “don’t bother, it’s a dying industry”, “it’s pointless to learn as you’ll never learn such a refined skill without a master”. This is not true and I will explain why. If you are trained by a repair master this is great, you learn how to complete the repair task from start to finish without making a mistake, you instantly learn all the ways of the camera, the tricks of the trade, and how to repair the way they where trained. By learning through reverse engineering, though it takes longer to learn as you learn from your mistakes, the benefit to this is that you understand the breaking points of every part within the camera and therefore the limitations of each individual component. I would say just go for it, take your time, be patient, and start with the most basic camera before working your way up.

With a limited amount of cameras in circulation, do you face any challenges sourcing spare parts and what advice would you give to anyone that has a broken film camera?

Original spare parts are becoming a challenge to source, however there are many people now working on developing new parts (including the PPP Cameras team) which is a crucial advancement in the industry, making repairing film cameras more sustainable into the future. To anyone with a broken film camera, my advise would be to check the basics first such as the batteries, then get in contact with a repairer to help diagnose the issue and they can suggest a relevant solution.

Are there any cameras that you would consider to be super reliable and tough?

Any mechanical camera is reliable, take the Box Brownie for example. A simple mechanical box, and even after 100 years, 9/10 of them still work well. There are the classics that are considered super reliable and tough such as the Nikon F, especially Don McCullin’s Nikon (which even took a bullet), Leica, Hasseblad, Olympus OM1 — the list goes on.

How did you find it when you first started developing your own film and would you encourage others to start self-development?

I first started developing film when I was fourteen, after being introduced to a darkroom technician who was responsible for developing the Formula 1 photographs for a car magazine. I’ve been experimenting with film development ever since, from 35mm ,120, 4×5, and even wet plate collodion. I have even developed my own light sensitive emulsion to make a 10 metre print. I now develop black and white, C41, and E6. I would encourage anyone to start developing their own film as it’s not as scary as you think. There are also so many kits available now which provide an easy process, making them almost fool-proof — especially for black and white film. If you’re just getting into developing, black and white is always a good place to start and with the recent development of Cinestill’s DF96 single bath process, you have negatives in just a few minutes without any hassle. Combine this with tanks such as Paterson or Arsimago which allow you to develop film in daylight, you have no excuses not to try it! There are also a wide range of scanning options available now, allowing you to use your current digital cameras with a film holder and light box so it’s a lot more accessible and affordable for everyone.

What do you prefer, repairing the cameras or shooting them?

I really enjoy repairing as I become lost inside the camera, fascinated by every design as they vary widely – even within the same model if it was developed during a later year. Repairing also allows me to continuously gain knowledge to help progress the development of my own camera designs within my art practise. This has allowed me to develop cameras which are able to see beyond human capabilities, seeing light spectrums beyond our own to capture a hidden world right before our eyes. I also enjoy shooting the cameras I have repaired as it allows me to feel all the gears and movement working in harmony again. I would like to shoot more as it allows for more creativity and a sense of freedom, however at this moment my time is predominately taken up by repairs.

And finally, what’s been your favourite camera and film stock to shoot with?

My favourite camera to shoot with is my 1900s Thornton Pickard reflex with a Carl Zeiss Jenna ƒ2.9. I first started practising repairs on 1900s cameras, so have a soft spot for these classics. Combine this with slide film and the result is something really special.

Thank you to Felix Hall @felixhallclosestudio for the photographs

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