Tinned Photos: How to Build a Pinhole Camera – A Tutorial by Community Member @manu2021.


When it comes to pinhole photography, especially if you're dealing with it for the first time, you can't do much except rely on the advice of the experts and follow the instructions. In this article, Spanish member of the Community @manu2021 explains how to build your own pinhole camera from scratch and gives useful tips to make the most of this incredible technique!

© manu2021. Left image: July 2022. EL TORO, icon of Spanish roads. In this case, on the N211 towards Zaragoza from Lérida. // Right image: June 2022. THE TOWER of Sant Miquel de Fluvià, in Girona.

The pinhole of a stenopeic camera, (better known as pinhole camera, stenopeic coming from the ancient Greek stenos + opè , "small hole") allows a beam of light to enter the camera and an inverted image of what is in front of the hole to be projected inside. If, in addition, we put sensitive paper or photographic film in the background, the image is printed on it.

To build a pinhole camera, you will need the following material:

  • A needle.
  • Scissors or cutter.
  • Sandpaper, coarse-grained.
  • A can of beer or any beverage.
  • Photosensitive paper (the one used to print negatives).
  • A nail and a hammer.
  • Black duct tape.
  • Adhesive tape.
  • A spray can of matte black paint, number 94, the kind used for graffiti.
  • A tin box of chocolates or cookies. Better if with clean walls. Square or round. In the latter case, you will get panoramic photos.
  • Last but not least, a lot of desire to experiment.

It is very important that the hole is as small as possible to obtain clear images, as shown in the following image.

© manu2021

After many tries, making holes with thumbtacks or sewing needles and getting horrible results, I discovered that tattoo artists use 0.3 mm diameter needles that are perfect to make the pinhole. So if you wish to tune your camera properly, stop by a tattoo store. They surely have needles that they will sell or give away if they are out of date.

Building the Camera

Since Youtube is full of tutorials, I will be very brief. Even so, I will explain that, normally, I make the hole with a nail and a hammer in the center of the lid of the can. This makes it very easy to pass the sandpaper so that there are no burrs and to avoid a "weird" vignetting on the negative. Still, if you feel like trying, you can get interesting results.

With a pair of scissors, cut a 3×3 cm sheet from a beer can or any other beverage can. Flatten it well with your hand and pass a little sandpaper over it to make the sheet thinner. Then, pierce it with the 0.3 mm needle without tightening, turning it around and with little force. Once the hole is made, you have the pinhole. Sand it well to remove all the burrs. With duct tape, stick the pinhole on the outside of the can that you have drilled, taking into account that it must be concentric to the hole you have made with the nail, as you can see in the previous image.

Now it's time to paint the can. Go outside the house, put on disposable gloves and spray the black paint in the inside, including the lid. No space should be left unpainted since you would obtain light beams that would burn part of the negative. Once dry, pass the needle through the pinhole again to clean it of impurities. Check all of the interior to make really sure that there is no shiny part left. You can give it a second coat of paint if you like.

In the darkroom and with a safety light, with tape hook the photographic paper on the opposite side to where you have made the pinhole. Close the box and seal it with duct tape. It is VERY IMPORTANT that no light enters.

Now your research to find out the exact times of your camera begins. So, take the TRIPOD, go outside and attach the can to the tripod. I have found myself a good magnet, although you can do it with elastic bands. The important thing is that the box is well secured and still on the tripod. If you live in areas where it's not windy, you can always place your camera on a surface so that it doesn't move during the exposure.

Another very important thing! The SUN must always be at your BACK. If not, the results will not be good or, most likely, your negatives will be burned.

How to start

© manu2021. Two different types of cans. The one on the left is 160 mm high, the one on the right is 74 mm high. The measurements are always taken from the part where the pinhole is towards the part where we are going to place the photosensitive material.

These are my first two cans, manufactured in the summer of 2021. They work great, as you can see in the following pictures.

© manu2021. Left image: Made with the 160 mm box from the previous image. // Right image: Made with the 74 mm box from the previous image.

The first thing you see is that different heights or depths give you different results. The deepest acts like a 60 mm lens, while the shallowest acts like a 35 mm lens, more or less. You will notice this when you will get the first results and you will be able to compare them with a conventional camera and lenses.

The first thing you do is to find the f. focal length of your camera. What you do is to divide the distance between the pinhole and the photosensitive material by the size of your pinhole. That is, for the 160 mm deep box, I get an f. of 533.33 (160/0.3), while for the 74 mm deep box, I get an f. of 246.66 (74/0.3). What this tells me is that the lower the f., the shorter the exposure time, while the higher the f., the longer the exposure time. You can round off the f. for each camera. So, for the deepest I consider it to have an f. of 512, while for the shallowest, I consider it to have an f. of 256.

Now it is time to use the EXPOSIMETER app to know the exposure times.

You must keep in mind that:

  1. In winter or at times of low light, consider the ISO of the paper to be 3.
  2. In summer or in moments of high light, consider the ISO of the paper to be 6.
  3. If you are going to photograph objects with a lot of greys or browns - monuments, stones, medieval enclosures, etc. - you can increase the exposure about 5 seconds.
  4. If you are going to photograph objects with a lot of white or shiny objects -buildings, metal objects, etc. - you can subtract 3 to 5 seconds from what the exposure meter indicates.

Geographical Latitude and Time of the Year

It is very different to make pinhole exposures of this kind in summer or winter, in Barcelona or in Helsinki. The most important thing is that the sun is ALWAYS behind you. At a latitude such as the Spanish geography, the best times depending on the season are:

1. END OF AUTUMN, WINTER UNTIL MID-SPRING: At noon, between 1 pm and 4 pm. At the beginning of spring you can extend this until 5:30 pm. These are the times when the sun is more horizontal, at its zenith, and you will have it on your back.

© manu2021. Left image: Taken at about 5 pm, on June 5, 2022, almost at the end of spring, in Ullastret (Girona) // Right image: Taken at about 4 pm on February 27, 2022, in the middle of winter, in Sant Miquel de Fluvià (Girona).

2. END OF SPRING, SUMMER AND BEGINNING OF AUTUMN: From 9 am to 11:30 am and from 5 pm to 8 pm. The problem with the central hours of the day is that the sun is too high, creating a perpendicular over your head, so you will never have it at your back.

© manu2021. Left image: Taken around 1:30 pm in the afternoon on July 11, 2022, in the middle of summer, in the town of Vinuesa (Soria). // Right image: Taken around 12 noon on July 12, 2022, in the middle of summer, in the ruins of Numancia (Soria). In both images I could not have the sun behind me, so the central point, which receives more light, is very blurred.
© manu2021. Left image: Taken around 11 am on July 12, 2022, in the middle of summer, in Santo Domingo de Silos (Burgos). // Right image: Taken around 7 pm on July 12, 2022, in the middle of summer, in Soria.

You must take into account that the timetables I mentioned are for the longitude of Barcelona. As you go to the west of the Iberian Peninsula you must count 15 minutes more for the longitude of Zaragoza, 30 minutes more for the longitude of Madrid, 45 minutes more for the longitude of Extremadura and one hour more for the longitude of Galicia.

Despite all my recommendations and explanations, the most important thing is that you practice and research. Maybe you will find new methodologies that improve the art of the pinhole photography with paper.

Developing and Printing

Now comes the most exciting and thrilling part of the whole process. Remember that inside the box you have photosensitive paper and the image is dormant. Go into your darkroom, turn on the safety light bulb and unseal the box. Take out the paper and pour it into the developing liquid. At this point you have two options:

  1. Follow the developing time of the instructions of the paper you are using.
  2. Regulate the developing time according to your taste.

Next, put it in the stop bath - I make a mixture of tap water with vinegar - and, finally, in the fixer, for about 2 minutes.

Clean the negative well, as if it were a positive, and let it dry.

IMPORTANT: The magic of the light makes what you had on the right come out on the left in the negative, while what you had on our left, in the negative we have it on the right. The same happens with what is above and below, although it is not so evident.

Once dry and in broad daylight, you will see if your negative is well defined or not. I understand that it is well defined when there is a good scale of greys, blacks and whites and the photograph is clearly visible to the naked eye. You will have a poorly defined negative when there is too much black or too much white. The developing process will be different for one or the other.

In any case, the printing is done by CONTACT. That is to say, in the darkroom and safety light, take a wood or board, put the virgin printing paper on top of it and, against it, the negative you have. That is to say, the emulsified sides must be in contact with each other. Be careful! The negative must be placed on top of the virgin paper. Finally, put a glass so that the papers are well glued.

If the negatives are well defined, once you have prepared everything for contact development, you can use a flash and hit it once or twice, at a distance of about 20 cm. Go through the development process again - developer, stop bath, fixer and wash - and you have your first pinhole image printed.

© manu2021. Examples of a printing from a well-defined negative. Both images were made to test a new box that I made with 4 pinhole prints. They were taken on July 17, 2022 at 7 pm in the province of Girona. The printing was made with the enlarger at 30 cm of height, without filter, aperture of 5.6 and a time of 8½".

What happens when you have a poorly defined negative? That is where your art of printing with the enlarger comes in, and you are going to work by zones as if it were a conventional negative. The first thing you will do is a test strip, you will look for the first black or the blacks that you like the most. Then, make a positive from this parameter. It is most likely that the sides will come out very well positived while the center, and in circumference, the greys and shades will be lost until you end up with a lot of white: excess of light in the exposure.

© manu2021. In this image there are two problems: the first one is that the printing should have been done by zones. The second is that the sun was perpendicular and could not be behind me. In this case, the negative is not of high quality and, since I can repeat it any day, I gave the positive as "poorly exposed pinhole".

The Art of Extracting Light

I like to think that the camera, whatever it is, does not "take pictures", nor does it "portray the object". What moves me to go out on the street with my cameras is the fact that I consider it the moment in which I capture the light. Actually, the moment when my cameras capture the light. So, when I go into the darkroom, the magic of the moment is that, what is latent on the sensitive surfaces, gets back the light that was captured at some point.

So, if you are lucky enough to have an enlarger at home, or to have access to one, it is the moment to work by zones, play with the shadows of your hands, the printing times and the filters. Let's see three images and the different treatments I have done to them.

The following images are part of the album ESCAPADE TO NORTH CENTRAL SPAIN of July 16, 2022. The paper used is from FOMA, the "Fomabrom Variant 112, Multigrade, Matt". It is a paper that I have recently discovered and that I really like because it gives an antique touch to the positives.

© manu2021. Image 1

As we can see in image 1, the negative is very dark, but you can intuit some elements. The history of this pinhole is very interesting. At the time I started to take it, it was cloudy. The exposure meter said that I should have spent 3'40" exposing it. However, after 1 minute, the clouds went away and the late afternoon sun came out. This brought the time down to 2'15". Still, too much light came in. But a good Lomographer never gives up! The first enlarger exposure was made at an aperture of 4'15", without filters. The result was good, but intuition and practice in working in zones made me think of the final result we see in the image: 12" with an aperture of 4 plus 5" with an aperture of 4 and a filter of 2.

© manu2021. Image 2

The case of image 2 is more exaggerated. When you develop the negative, the first thought is that you will not be able to rescue anything. This is an example of a pinhole taken in the middle of summer with the sun perpendicular. It was impossible to have it on the back. Although I lowered the exposure time, the image is overexposed. However, the first developed result was the best: 5.6 aperture for 9" without filters.

© manu2021. Image 3

Again, in image 3 you find a pinhole taken when the sun was falling perpendicular over my head. As you can see in the negative, the sides are very well exposed, while as you move to the center, you find overexposure. I treated this image by zones. That is, I left an aperture of 5.6 and gave 8" of exposure to the whole image. Then, without filters and without changing aperture, I posited for 6" plus the center of the photo, using my hands to shade the sides and top of the image from the light of the enlarger.

Let's play!

Well, after all this, all that's left to do is play. The best thing about pinhole photography with cans is that you never know what result you are going to get. Besides, the most interesting thing is that the negative will always be UNIQUE. You can repeat the same scenery and the same exact method thousands of times, but each negative will capture an unrepeatable light.

Thank you @manu2021 for your precious lesson! Check all his works in his LomoHome.

written by ludovicazen on 2022-08-26 #tutorials #pinhole #tipster #pinholephotography


  1. manu2021
    manu2021 ·

    Thanks a lot @lomography for the translation. It's really cool!

  2. hannah_brown
    hannah_brown ·

    this article is brilliant!

  3. manu2021
    manu2021 ·

    @hannah_brown wow!!! Thanks a lot! Really nice words!

  4. klawe
    klawe ·

    Contact print with flash light is very interesting!

  5. manu2021
    manu2021 ·

    @klawe Yes! I forgot to mention that, if you hit the flash once or twice and, once you developed the positive photo, is still not enough, you can improve it with three or four hits of the flash light. As usually, this kind of technique is not mathematics and is related to your taste and practice. Just have fun!

  6. klawe
    klawe ·

    @manu2021 Thank you!

  7. brine
    brine ·

    Great article!!!

  8. manu2021
    manu2021 ·

    @brine Thanks mate! I'm glad you find it interesting!

  9. rolfmg
    rolfmg ·

    @manu2021 Great article indeed - have converted my old Agfa box also to a pinhole camera - just replacing the (milky) lens with an aluminium foil and a 0.5mm hole (0,43mm would have been the correct size in accordance with the pin hole calculator) - but it worked also with 0.5. Fun, even though I haven't used it too much - your article motivates to play again!

  10. manu2021
    manu2021 ·

    @rolfmg looking forward to seeing your playground!

  11. paulmgarger
    paulmgarger ·

    as has already been said, great article! there's a lot of useful information there. thanks!

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