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I built my own camera with a Raspberry Pi 4

And still can’t speak Python

It’s always been a dream of mine to put my vintage camera lenses to work again, so when the Raspberry Pi Foundation put out a camera system that supported C- and CS-mount lenses, I knew I had to get one and turn it into a custom digital camera. There was only one thing standing in the way: my total and complete lack of coding knowledge.

My plan was to put the new Raspberry Pi High Quality Camera inside the body of a toy 35mm camera I had, giving me a way to use my vintage lenses without having to pay for processing film.

The Becca Cam: a camera made with the Raspberry Pi HQ Camera mod.
I used a 3.5-inch touchscreen for the viewfinder.
The USB-C power cable comes out of the top, next to the mini push button switch used for triggering the shutter.

The Raspberry Pi is a super tiny computer that is highly programmable. People have used these to program everything from smart mirrors, to portable arcades, to COVID-19 case counters, and even super smart, super techie greenhouses. They are tiny boxes that — if you know how to code — can do pretty much anything.

For my build, I used the $50 HQ Camera Mod, a Raspberry Pi 4 computer, a USB-C portable 10,000mAh charger, a 3.5-inch touchscreen, jumper wires, a mini push button switch, the body of a Ninoka NK-700 35mm camera, and two vintage C-mount lenses.

The Raspberry Pi HQ Camera mod with the C-mount lens.
A Raspberry Pi 4 computer.

The plan was simple: plug in the HQ camera board to the Raspberry Pi, program the system to take photos using a button, and then place all of the components into the gutted body of a toy, 35mm camera I found in my basement. Carrying out the plan was, well, not as straightforward.

The official Raspberry Pi Camera guide is free online and filled with code for programing different functions like stop-motion photography or setting up a security camera. But I quickly realized that, for an amateur like myself, copying and pasting code into a terminal was a game of chance, and one in which I had very little luck. Most code returned error messages, and on the off chance the code yielded the results I wanted, I had absolutely no idea how or, more importantly, why it worked.

After phoning many friends and reading the HQ Camera’s user manual upward of 50 times, I was able to program my camera to take photos using a button, which allowed me to assemble the camera’s hardware and ultimately get me out in the world taking photos. I added an external battery pack to power the system and a 3.5-inch touchscreen for previewing and operating my camera’s software.

But even that didn’t go to plan. Tune into the video for more setbacks and my rapid decline in self confidence.

Outside of the hellscape that is coding as a complete beginner while also creating a nine-minute video alone during a pandemic, Raspberry Pi’s HQ Camera mod is extremely capable for its size and the $50 it costs. There are endless possibilities with these tiny computers, but for now, I’m happier seeing what everyone on Reddit comes up with rather than trying to create something of my own.

Photography by Becca Farsace / The Verge