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The Definitive Guide to Pinhole Photography: Part 2

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Welcome to the second installment of designing and building your own pinhole camera! In this part, we'll be looking at alternative camera shapes and how to digitize your photos without darkroom chemicals. The build requirements and theory were all in part one, so if you need a refresher, check that out!

Now, without further ado, let's continue where we left off yesterday.


1. Camera Two, a Curved Back

This camera is made in essentially the same way as the first camera, but it's a little harder in the cutting out process. The results, however, are well worth it. This has been my favourite camera to shoot with.

In order to work out how big to make it, you need the interior circumference of the curved section to be the same length as the width of your photo paper, and you need to work out how wide you want your angle of view. I went with 150 degrees, for quite an extreme fish-eye look, the polar opposite of the flat-back camera:

If you design your camera before building, even roughly, it'll help you stay visually organised

If you design your camera before building, even roughly, it will help you stay visually organised.

I used a 40mm front to be able to fit the pinhole sheet on. In order to calculate the length of the sides, you'll need to use a little bit of basic trignometry:

An enlargement of part of the design page.

An enlargement of part of the design page.

Don't worry if your design doesn't transfer perfectly to the cut-out sections. Once you start adding curves and angles to a box, it becomes much harder to keep track of thicknesses and spacings. Just be prepared to cut a few ~5mm pieces off the sides of where you cut out the main pieces to add on when you're gluing.

I had to do that here for the top and bottom, for example, where I hadn't allowed for the thickness of the back:

The struts were much easier to glue on than a whole panel would be!

The struts were much easier to glue on than a whole panel would be!

It turns out this was a happy accident as it was quite hard to hot glue, and being able to see what I was doing with these thin curve pieces made life much easier.

The curved back is created by cutting the right size of back for the paper (180x130mm in my case), but then scoring it every 10mm through one paper side, and through the foam, but stopping short of the second paper side which acts as the hinge. This allows it to curve:

The Stanley knife has a depth setting that happens to be perfect for scoring this thickness of foamboard.

The razor knife has a depth setting that happens to be perfect for scoring this thickness of foamboard.

I calculated the ideal pinhole size on this one to be somewhere in the region of 0.28mm, but I decided to have some experimental fun with this camera instead, and punched a 1mm hole with a thumbtack (yes, it turned out to be exactly 1.0mm). This allowed me to get a scannable image in a single sunny afternoon.

About 4-5 hours of exposure before sunset, pointing west. Note the curvature of the (perfectly straight) road!

About 4-5 hours of exposure before sunset, pointing west. Note the curvature of the (perfectly straight) road!

Because I put the pinhole foil on the outside of this camera, it was very easy to remove the 1mm hole and replace it with a 0.6mm hole for slightly sharper images.

Quick and easy pinhole changes.

Quick and easy pinhole changes.

That's about all there is to it, really. Once you've made the flat back one, the curved back one isn't really significantly more complex.


2. Camera Three, a Drinks Can Camera

This is the easiest of all, and very quick to make if you're short on time. Even with taking the step by step photos, it only took me around 10 minutes or so.

First, measure the can. Your photo paper has to be able to fit inside it! The Monster Energy can I used is just under 7cm in diameter, which gives it a circumference of around 22cm. That's easily enough for the 178mm wide paper plus a pinhole. The height of the flat part is just barely 130mm, though, so it's going to need careful cutting.

Not much room for error on cutting this can open with 128mm high paper!

Not much room for error on cutting this can open with 128mm high paper!

To cut a can, place it on a flat surface. Next to it, get a razor knife and put it on top of some books at the correct height on the can, making sure the pile isn't wobbly. Then simply hold the knife against the can and rotate the can against the blade, scoring through the metal a little at a time.

The can is rotating clockwise, over the tip of the blade.

The can is rotating clockwise, over the tip of the blade.

After maybe 20 rotations, part of the can should be thin enough to pop the knife through. Once you have a slit, you can use pressure on it to widen, following the score-line you just made:

Pressing on the can right here shears the metal apart at the score line.

Pressing on the can right here shears the metal apart at the score line.

Turn over the top of the can, and put a piece of duct tape around the widest point, most of it sticking up. Then flatten both sides down until you have something like this:

The folded-down single wrap of duct tape.

The folded-down single wrap of duct tape.

This is your lid, and shouldn't interfere with the paper because of its shape.

Now measure half-way down the can and stab a hole with the smallest sewing needle you have. Like my curved back camera, the focal length is around just under 7cm, so the ideal pinhole size should be around 0.28mm. If you're doing a very long exposure, that's fine, but if you're just looking to experiment, it's no big deal. The smallest needle I have is 0.6mm, so that's what I used.

Within a couple of millimetres is good enough.

Within a couple of millimetres is good enough.

Sand down the burrs on the inside of the can. It's a good idea to sand it down a little on the ouside too, mainly so that you can clearly see where your pinhole is from the scratches while setting it up to shoot.

Load it with paper, put the lid on and duct tape it tight, pop a little piece of duct tape over the pinhole, and you're ready to shoot!

The can loaded and ready to go.

The can loaded and ready to go.

Because of the extreme curvature of the rolled paper inside the can, you should be able to create some crazy distortions with this little camera.


3. Shooting

Precision is not really of the essence when shooting with paper like this. Depending on your pinhole size and focal length, you're usually looking at at least a day of exposure time, preferably 3-5 days, but don't worry if you forget about it and leave it out for six months. The paper has a lot of latitude and reciprocity law failure occurs after 30 seconds, so usually the longer the exposure the better.

Obviously you can't look through a viewfinder, so you'll have to approximate. This is easiest with the curved-back one where the shape of the camera gives a clue as to field of view.


4. Scanning

By ensuring you use a long exposure time, you don't need to process the paper in order to scan it. Photo paper doesn't contain sensitive development chemicals, so the light from the scanner barely fogs it because it's such a small percentage of the total exposure on the paper.

Realistically, for this project, you don't even need a darkroom. A dark room, perhaps lit through a crack in the door, will affect the paper very little as long as you don't leave it lying out for hours. I've even unloaded my cameras just after sunset. Don't be panicky with the paper, it's not all that sensitive!

Just pop it in a flatbed scanner, preview it, set it to "scan to file" and make sure it's set to colour at the highest resolution it's capable of, then hit scan. Turn off the scanner as soon as the image appears in the folder you set it to, and put the used print face-down in the bottom of the photo paper box.

The images are rescannable, but only a couple of times before the contrast starts getting lost.


5. Processing

The scanned image will be mirrored, so you'll need to flip in in Photoshop. Go to Image > Image Rotation and use the options to flip horizontally or vertically as required. The colors will also be inverted, so hit Ctrl+I to make the image a positive.

Depending on how you put it in the scanner, it may need rotating as well as flipping.

Depending on how you put it in the scanner, it may need rotating as well as flipping.

Generally there isn't a whole lot to do with these types of images, as the overall process provides most of the styling. The most I've done is add Curves adjustment layers to tweak the tonality very slightly. I like the color process produces without the development chemicals, so I haven't used black and white conversion. You might like it better in black and white through, so feel free to experiment.

Here are the images I've shot over the last few weeks, in order:

The first pinhole pic that exposed properly, as above.

The first pinhole pic that exposed properly, as above.
Another one-dayer with the 1mm hole. The sun's path across the sky, through nicely distorted window screen.

Another one-dayer with the 1mm hole. The sun's path across the sky, through a nicely distorted window screen.
A view of the morning sun's path from the front deck. Left: a brick pillar. Right: the house next door.

A view of the morning sun's path from the front deck. Left: a brick pillar. Right: the house next door.
Not as well-exposed as I'd like... But hardly surprising, given that it was out around 10 days and the calculation said 15 days for the sky alone!
Not as well-exposed as I'd like. But hardly surprising, given that it was out around 10 days and the calculation said 15 days for the sky alone!
Even though it got ruined by a day of heavy rain, I love how this turned out. Looks like wet-plate photography! You can just about make out a tree-trunk in the middle...
Even though it got ruined by a day of heavy rain during its 4-day exposure, I love how this turned out. It looks like (bad) wet-plate photography, and those light leaks look fantastic! You can also just about make out a tree-trunk in the middle.
Also out in the rain, but the curved-back was better-built for weather. You can definitely make out trees, a streetlight, the sun and light trails from the road.
Also out in the rain, but the curved-back was better-built for weather. You can definitely make out trees, a streetlight, the sun and light trails from the road.

Not too many, but since each one takes several days to several weeks, you can't just churn them out like digital, unless you build many cameras, of course!


Getting Building

As you can see, even though there's science involved, pinhole photography is far from an exact science. We've now covered everything from the mathematics of design, to working out how long you should expose, to the building of several types of camera (the can-cam seems to be very much a fine-weather design, or in need of a different lid) for various build difficulties and final image distortions.

For the makers amongst you, there's no reason why you couldn't treat these foamboard cameras as prototypes and build really nice (more weather-sealed!) versions out of wood and brass, or even plastic. You could add film reels and an advance mechanism and shoot 35mm or 120 film instead of paper.

You could even follow the developmental timeline of photography and start adding lenses, whether single or compound systems. If you have fast paper and a lot of Watt-seconds, you could even try using flash for still life or maybe even portraiture.

In essence, this project rekindles the thrill of the primitive tactility and experimentalism that has been gone from photography for so long. No, you can't churn out daily professional work with these cameras, they're over a century removed from being workhorses, but for sheer enjoyment and the wonder of creating images with so little technology, you can't beat them. Pinhole Day is this Sunday, April 28th, so get building.


Special Thanks

Special thanks go to Justin Quinnell, an eminent experimental pinhole photographer, for his excellent input on this pinhole method. This was a big project, and having only done digital pinholing before, his guidance made things much smoother. For more information and examples of his work, check out his Phototuts+ interview.

If you're on the East Coast of the US and would like more information on pinhole photography, Justin has an upcoming tour this summer:

  • New York – May 19th - Lomography Gallery Store NYC. Make a Smileycam (Workshop) at 1:00 p.m.
  • New York – May 20th - Soho Photo. Park West Camera Club presents "Aristotle’s Hole," pinhole photography lecture at 7:00 pm.

  • Washington D.C. - May 25th - Washington School of Photography. 2:00-4:00 p.m.
  • Morgantown - June 1st - West Virginia University. Morgantown Photo Society presents "Aristotle’s Hole," pinhole photography lecture at 7:00 p.m.
  • Washington D.C. - June 5th - Corcoran Gallery of Art. "Aristotle's Hole," pinhole photography lecture at 7:30 p.m.
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