For October’s feature from PhotoTuts+, we’ll be learning how to create our very own pinhole camera in detail!
Written by: Cameron Knight
Why spend $3,000 on the newest and greatest camera when you can make one at home and at the same time participate in a centuries old tradition of image making? Well, you can, and to start you should ask yourself one question. What is a camera? At the most basic level, a camera is a light-tight box with the means of transferring light in a controlled manner from the outside world to a light-sensitive medium producing an image. That sounds like a bit of a complex definition, but when you break it down, its pretty simple.
In this tutorial, you’ll learn what pinhole photography is, the history that led up to pinhole photography, differences between lens photography and pinhole photography, and you’ll be shown how to make your own pinhole camera!
What is Pinhole Photography?
Pinhole photography is fairly simple to explain. It is like any other kind of photography, but instead of using a lens, a very small hole used to project the image on the film or other light sensitive material. There’s not much else to it. Pinhole photography isn’t limited to a certain kind of subject, although some are easier to shoot than others. Pinhole cameras can look like any kind of camera. Large format cameras with bellows can be fitted with a pinhole instead of a lens, the same applies to SLR cameras. But because no lens is involved, pinhole cameras can also be made out of oatmeal boxes, paper, scrap wood or other household items.
People familiar with photography may have heard of the “camera obscura.” This was the first pinhole image maker. But it really wasn’t a camera as we know it. A few hundred years ago, we discovered that light travels in straight lines. We also discovered that because of this if you put a small hole in the wall of a dark room, an image of the outside would be projected on to the wall opposite the hole. Painters began using this technology to project images of landscapes and people on to their canvases allowing them to quickly and easily trace the image. It was a like a copy machine and it revolutionized the portrait painting industry.
A little while later, we discovered how to make light sensitive plates that could hold on to an image projected onto them. The technique was then able to be applied there. But pinhole photography has always played a secondary role, because we had developed lens technology before we developed film technology. The image below could be the first published illustration of a camera obscura and is of Gemma Frisius observing the solar eclipse in the year 1544.
Now before you think you’ve stumbled across the money-saving deal of the century, bear in mind that there are some big differences between the lens and non-lens camps in photography. Exposure is the biggest difference between the two. But there are also some other benefits involving depth-of-field and distortion.
The first thing you have to consider is exposure. Imagine a camera lens with it’s aperture stopped all the way down to the smallest diameter. That partially resembles a pinhole. All things being equal, when you shoot with a small aperture opening, your shutter speed has to be longer. With a pinhole camera, this effect is amplified even further.
For most pinhole cameras, exposure in bright sunlight can take 5 seconds or more. In darker situations, the exposures can take 15 minutes or longer. If you buy a pinhole camera, the manufacturer should supply you with the exact aperture of your camera. But if you make your own, it’s not as easy to tell. There are mathematical formulas for determining the aperture, but you can shoot a roll of test roll of film, which I find a little easier and more fun.
A good way to start testing is to take a light meter or a camera with a light meter and determine what your shutter speed would be at f/5.6, then multiply by 1000. So if your meter tells you your shutter speed is 1/125 of a second, then your pinhole exposure would take 8 seconds. If you do mathematically determine your aperture by using the distance of the pinhole to the film and the physical size of the pinhole, you’ll need to factor in “reciprocity.” The term in photography refers to the idea that exposures longer than one second don’t exactly follow the rules. If all the math points to the exposure being, say, 10 seconds then the exposure should actually be longer than that.
Again, the math is very complex to determine this exactly. But if you do some trial and error, do it this way. Pick a scene with a constant level of light. Determine the shutter speed with a light meter or another camera at f/4 then multiply the shutter speed by 1000. Then do the same thing up through the apertures, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, etc. Once you get your film developed you can determine what the best exposure is and you’ll always be able to easily replicate it. On a side note, most pinhole photographers use slow films like ISO 200, ISO 100 or even slower. The longer your exposure, the more forgiving the process will be. The photo below took close to 20 minutes to expose in a dark theatre:
With exposures so long, any movement is going to cause significant blur. This means that pinhole cameras really can’t used for typical snapshot photos. Most of the time, you need to have the camera stabilized with a tripod or something similar. You can take photos of people, but they need to be very still. Street scenes can be interesting because anything that is moving essentially disappears. You also have to be careful with landscapes because the wind can also cause movement.
That said, movement isn’t always bad thing. Motion blur can create some really interesting photographs. The following photograph looks like a double exposure, but happened because the camera bumped in the middle of the exposure. The movement of the bump wasn’t recorded because it happened very quickly in relation to the time of the exposure.
With a lens camera, the smaller the aperture, the greater the depth-of-field. The more depth-of-field you have, the greater the range of distance is that things appear in focus. A shallow depth-of-field would mean that if you were focused 9 meters away from you, things might be in-focus from 8.5 meters to 10 meters. If you had a deep depth-of-field, things from 6 meters to 12 meters might be in focus.
With a pinhole camera, everything is in focus, or more accurately everything is focused the same amount. If your pinhole isn’t small enough or is shaped poorly, everything will look equally out of focus. This eliminates the need to adjust focus in relation to the distance to your subject. It also means that if you photograph a scene with objects very close to the camera and objects far from the camera, all of them will be in focus.
When you look at a photograph taken with a wide angle lens, you’ll notice that lines of walls or stairs or anything straight appears to be curved. This is due to the shape and circular nature of lenses. This phenomenon is called barrel distortion. A fisheye lens is the extreme of barrel distortion, but pinhole cameras do not produce any barrel distortion. All of the straight lines remain straight. This makes architecture a great subject for pinhole photographers. Architecture photographers use very expensive software to correct this problem, but with your pinhole camera, you’ll be armed to compete with them.
Making Your Own
There are dozen of tutorials online that cover how to make a pinhole camera out a shoebox (or similar). All of these can produce images, but most are seriously flawed. Many of them rely on photo paper as opposed to film. Photo paper is much harder to deal with than film and is much harder to obtain. Many of the designs online only shoot one photo before you have to take them apart and develop the paper or film and, in my opinion, most of them have serious durability issues.
I wanted to create a cheap but more advanced camera, that had a reliable shutter, used 35mm film, could be loaded and unloaded in bright light, and could be used a lot without falling apart. So here it is!
- A large piece of 5mm thick foam core board
- A 2cm x 2cm flat piece of thin metal from a tin can
- Three 35mm spools (ask your local developer for spent rolls that you can pull the spools out of)
- A tubal, plastic, cheap ballpoint pen (the tube will be cut and used in the camera)
- Black acrylic paint
- A strong craft glue
- A sharp knife for cutting the foam core board
- A metric ruler
- A needle
- A fine-grit sandpaper
- A flashlight or electric torch
- A metal straight edge to aid in cutting
Constructing the Outer Shell
The camera, once completed, can be pulled apart into two main pieces. I’m going to call these pieces the pinhole side and the outer shell. Below are two images. The first is a not-to-scale pattern for all the pieces of the outer shell. The second images show the completed outer shell with all of the individual pieces labeled. All of the pieces of this project are connected with glue.
Constructing the Rewind Knob
This knob can be completely separated from the camera when the outer shell and pinhole side of the camera are separated. But the rewind knob slot, as shown in the construction of the outer shell keeps the rewind knob in while the outer shell and pinhole side are together.
Constructing the Pinhole Side
This is the most complex piece of the camera. The initial construction resembles the outer shell, but then the take-up spool, the pinhole itself, and the shutter. The images below show the not-to-scale pattern for the pieces needed for the initial construction, and the pieces assembled and labeled.
Installing the Take-up Spool
This is the trickest part of the entire construction. You have to glue two pieces together through a hole in the pinhole side of the camera. Use the glue sparingly, because you want the spool to be able to rotate freely in its hole. You don’t want to accidentally glue the take-up spool to the camera itself.
Making and Installing the Pinhole
In the 2cm x 2cm piece of metal, you’re going to need to use the needle to poke a small whole. You want this hole to be as small as possible. If you’re using a standard sewing needle, this means you just want to put just the very tip through the metal. Use a small hammer and be sure to place something underneath the metal to protect your work surface. Once you make the hole, sand both sides of it with the sandpaper. This not only evens out your hole, it makes the metal thinner, which also is good. After that, glue the metal on the inside of the pinhole side of the camera between the two spacers completely covering the square hole completely.
Making and Installing the Shutter
The first image below shows the not-to-scale pieces needed for the image. The two small, curved spacer pieces and the ring will be glued onto the camera. The shutter itself is not glued to anything. The shutter and the two spacers can be from a circular piece the same size as the ring, but remember to leave a tab on the edge for the handle. After gluing the edge pieces and the ring on, let the glue dry before sliding the shutter in. If the shutter is tight, feel free to trim it slightly, or squeeze it hard to make it thinner. The second image shows the shutter installed on the camera with the piece labeled.
Finishing the Camera
Take your flashlight or electric torch and your camera into a darkroom. Use the light to check all of the joints you glued together. Chances are light will shine through at least a few of them. Don’t worry though. Use the black paint to fill in cracks and cover light leaks. It make take several coats. For extra big cracks, use some of your glue to fill them in before painting them.
As you can see I also decorated my camera. I am very loyal to a particular brand of camera, therefore I added a little signature of their company on my pinhole camera. You get bonus points if you can identify the brand in the comments!
Loading the Camera
To load your camera, place the pinhole side of the camera ring-side down with the top facing away from you. Place a roll of 35mm film in the left side with the flat side of the canister facing up. Pull the film across to the take-spool and use tape to secure it. Give the take-up spool a couple of twists to make sure it’s working. Insert the rewind knob, making sure that the notches are engaging with the roll of film. You should be able to pull some of the film back into the canister by twisting this knob, and when you wind the film with the take-up spool knob, the rewind knob should spin.
Place the pinhole side of the camera into the outer shell, and you should be ready to go. When you done shooting, you should be able to pull the film back into the canister using the rewind know. If there is a lot of friction when advancing or rewinding the film, try rotating both knobs in the direction you’re trying to go.
Shooting Your Camera
You can attach this camera to a tripod using string or rubber bands. You can also just rest it on a sturdy surface. For short exposures, pulling the shutter out will shake the camera enough to really affect your image quality. In situations like these, grab the camera from the top covering the pinhole opening with your fingers. Remove the shutter. Get your camera into place so that when you let go, it won’t shake. Then quickly get your hand out of the way. To stop the exposure, reverse the process.
In doing this, you’re basically using your hand as the shutter. Advancing the film the proper amount between each exposure can be tricky, but I’ve found that if you twist the take-up spool knob one and a half turns, you should be alright. The frame spacing won’t be exact and will become larger as you progress through the roll, but it shouldn’t overlap.
I’ve put a dot on my knob, so it’s easier to see how far I’ve turned it. If you go to advance the film and it’s very easy to turn the knob, it means you may have to take up some slack in the film before it starts advancing, just keep this in mind when working with your camera. The photo below shows the hand covering technique.
Now get out there, have fun, and give it a try!
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