Pinhole cameras more than just a piece of photographic past|
All cameras, from your great-grandad’s Kodak Brownie to the iPhone in your shirt pocket, work the same way. The details vary, but the concept is identical. Every camera, in the history of cameras, consists of a light-tight box with a hole at one end and some light-sensitive material at the other.
Not so long ago, the light sensitive material was film, now it’s more likely an electronic sensor. The hole usually a lens of some sort, focusing the light, making a sharp picture. But it doesn’t have to be. It can be a simple pinhole. The camera can be made of anything, too. It just has to be light-tight. A soda can, a cardboard box, a bread truck — even your mouth — can be a pinhole camera.
In his book “Alternative Photographic Processes,” Christopher James writes that the phenomenon of a small hole projecting a picture on an opposite flat surface in a dark room was probably first recorded by the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu in the 5th century B.C. Later, in about 350 B.C., Aristotle witnessed the phenomenon and included the “camera obscura” [which is Latin for dark room] in his teachings.
These days, pinhole photographers from all over the world make photographs with their lensless cameras on the last Sunday in April and share them online at pinholeday.org. I’ll be taking part in Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day this Sunday April 28, 2013. You can, too. I’ll show you how to make two pinhole cameras: one with your interchangeable lens digital camera and another with a cookie tin.
Because pinholes are small, the exposure times are long, and since there’s no viewfinder to see through, you never know what you’re going to get. It’s a great creative exercise in slowing down and embracing the unexpected. It’s also wonderful to make images with a camera you made by hand.
Things you’ll need
— A box you can make light-tight
— Matte black spray paint
— A soda can
— Shears to cut the can
— The smallest pin you can find
— Needle-nose pliers
— Black tape
— Emery cloth
— Some film
— A DSLR body [or 35mm camera]
— A body cap for the camera
— A sense of adventure
First, cut a small square out of your soda can. Then, using the pliers, take hold of your needle and push it into the aluminum. Don’t push hard. It’s better to use a small amount of pressure and a drilling motion. When the needle starts to go through, turn the metal over and do the same on the other side, making the hole just a bit bigger. When you have your pinhole, use the emery cloth to smooth over both sides. The goal is to make a very small, very round, very smooth hole.
James writes in his book that the Golden Rule of Pinhole Photography is, “fuzzy holes make fuzzy pictures.”
Now, take your camera and spray the inside with black spray paint. This will cut down on light bouncing around on the inside during a long exposure. Cut or drill a hole at the end where you’ll put your pinhole. Make it larger than your pinhole, but smaller than your piece of soda can. When the paint is dry, attach your pinhole using some black electrical or gaffers tape. Put a small length of tape over the pinhole itself. This is your shutter.
If you’re using a DSLR or 35mm camera, drill a hole in a spare body cap and attach the pinhole aperture to the outside with the tape. Make sure to tape it down all the way around, so no light gets under the aluminum.
With the tape over your pinhole, take your box camera into a completely dark room with some film. Using a loop of black tape, stick some film to the opposite end of your camera from the pinhole and close the lid. Before you turn the lights on, tape the seams of the cover to make sure no light gets in.
The tricky part here is the film. If you have to cut up a piece of 120 or 35mm film, it’ll make getting processed by a commercial lab impossible. You could use some 4×5-inch sheet film, but that’s expensive and hard to come by these days. If you have a darkroom, like me, you’ll be good to go.
It’s easier if you’re using a 35mm film camera or DSLR. The film advance mechanism will allow you to use the whole roll, one picture at a time. With a DSLR, you have as many pictures as your memory card will hold, but you won’t get the satisfaction of making your camera with your own hands.
With your box camera loaded, head outside. Rest it on a stable surface, point it at something and take the tape off the pinhole, saying, “Aristotle” or “Mo Tzu” for effect. The exposure time will be by guess-timate only. Try ten seconds in the sunshine and put the tape back on. Unload your film in a dark room, store your film in something light-tight and try it again. Vary the exposure time. Revel in the unknown.
The procedure is the same with a 35mm camera. You can open the shutter using the manual controls, or you can set it on bulb and use the tape as a shutter. Do the same with DSLR and get instant gratification.
These are the very bare essentials. The web is full of resources and excellent examples of pinhole photography. Get your hands on a copy of James’ book or the even more exhaustive “Pinhole Photography: Rediscovering a Historic Technique” by Eric Renner. But, most of all, have fun and make something with your hands that wasn’t there before.