I've never made a conventional pinhole camera before, but I tried solargraphy for the first time this fall. A solargraph isn't much different from a normal pinhole camera, but it's made to track the movement of the sun.
Unlike other cameras, solargraphs need an exposure time of a few months to capture the desired subject matter: the sun’s trails as they move across the sky. Because they’ll be outdoors all this time, they need to be built very durably. I just collected the results from my first solargraph and this tutorial is the product of me making a few more for the summer.
What you’ll need:
- A container to be the body of your camera. I used a 23 oz soda can but any size will work so long as your paper will fit.
- B&W RC photographic paper. I used Ilford 8×10. (The final image will be in color. I have no idea how that happens.)
- Opaque tape – duct or electrical tape
- Small amount of cardboard
- Scissors or a box cutter
- A pin
- A darkroom (with dim red light if at all possible!)
- A scanner
- A location for your finished solargraph: an open view facing the sun
How to assemble:
1. Cut the top off your container. Since I’m using an aluminum can, I placed tape around the sharp edges to protect my hands and the photo paper.
2. Pierce a hole with the pin about halfway up your container. It should be about 3mm wide, but don’t worry too much about being exact.
3. Cover the pinhole with tape. This piece will serve as the shutter, so it’s important that it’s fairly opaque (I also covered the entire can with duct tape. Just an aesthetic choice; if your container is opaque this is not necessary). I ran out of black duct tape halfway through and ended up using teal — much more garish, but still effective. I’d stay away from white or yellow, though.
4. Make a “lid” for your camera. I just traced the top of the can onto cardboard and cut that out. If you have access to something waterproof (like plastic?) it might be better, especially if you’re leaving it out through winter. I put a few pieces of tape atop mine so it’ll be easier to place later.
5. I was using 8×10 photo paper, so I knew I would need to trim it down before it would fit in the solargraph. I recommend experimenting with a piece of regular paper before going into the darkroom. The paper should be about as tall as the container, and its circumference should be slightly less so that the paper doesn’t cover the pinhole. My can was 8 inches tall and had a 7.5 inch diameter, and I used paper that was 7 × 6.5.
6. Time to go to your light-sealed room. If your photo paper needs to be trimmed down, do that now. Since you’ll be using scissors or something else that’s sharp, and need to make exact measurements, now might be a great time to invest in a dim red light. It’s not impossible to trim the paper in total darkness though.
Once your paper is ready, roll it up EMULSION SIDE INWARD and slip it into the camera. If you’re in a darkroom that has dim red lights, you can look inside the can to make sure the paper isn’t covering the pinhole. If you’re in darkness, you can touch the inside of the can and feel a rough spot where you make the pinhole. If the emulsion side is not facing inward, or if that pinhole is covered, you won’t get an image after months of waiting!
7. Once the paper’s all set, put on the cardboard lid and tape it down. Don’t stop with the two pieces of tape we put on earlier though — really wrap a ridiculous amount of tape around the top. No light or water should be able to get inside.
8. Your solargraph is now complete! Congratulations. Your next mission is to find a location that’s perfect for the camera. You need an open view of the sky that faces the sun. If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, this is South, and if you live in the Southern Hemisphere, face North. I duct-taped mine to a railing on the roof of my dorm. Make sure it’s secure and won’t move around over time. Remove the tape shutter.
10. Wait. Mark your calendar so you’ll know when to collect the solargraph.
11. Collect the solargraph. Cover the shutter with tape again before you move it.
12. Processing the solargraph is really easy. Cut through your lid in a dimly lit room, dry the paper with a blowdryer if necessary, and scan the image. You’ll have to invert the colors using a digital editing program.
Words of Wisdom:
I chose to cover my entire container with tape, even though this isn’t necessary to the function of the camera. I wanted it to look as unassuming as possible, rather than resemble a discarded pop can. This won’t be necessary for everyone, but if your camera will be living somewhere frequented by other humans it’s probably a good idea. I also wrote a short note on the side of the can, explaining that it was a photo experiement and should not be removed. I even left some contact info just in case it caused a problem, or someone else wanted to know how to make a solargraph!
Scenery! This photo need not be just about the sun. My solargraph overlooked a part of the roof that frequently was rained on or had a large puddle, and the sun’s reflection is visible. A view over a lake, pool, or just a puddly road would be awesome! Having a beautiful cityscape, treetops, a landmark, would be a beautiful addition.
An artist named Tarja Trygg collects solargraphs from around the world. Once yours is complete, why not submit it to her website?
Keep the sun in mind! Each day it will be lower or higher in the sky. It peaks on the Summer Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the Winter Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere. Its lowest is the opposite solstice. So, if you leave your camera open from one solstice to the other, for six months, you’ll have captured its highest and lowest paths, and everything in between. From that point on, there are no different paths and it’s redundant to leave the solargraph out longer.
Since there is a digital component to “developing” a solargraph, play around with the level of detail you can achieve. I’ve yet to strike the right balance of color and scenery. Here’s a few different versions of my solargraph from last fall: the freshly-scanned negative and two versions of the positive. I usually present them as a group.