Pinhole Photography

Pinhole photography is an old, elegant, simple technology. Images are created, as the name implies, by a tiny pin-sized hole that lets light into a camera. Light reflecting from a scene travels through the pinhole, creating an image on the side of the camera opposite the hole.

If you want to experiment pinhole photography yourself - and I strongly encourage you to give it a try - the first thing you need is a light-tight container: This is your "camera." Almost anything will do - I used empty pop cans. Second, you need photographic paper or film to record the image. It's possible to modify a digital camera to use a pinhole aperture, but that's a whole other world. I wanted to stick to classic pinhole simplicity.

For my project, I first tested my cameras using black and white photo paper, because photo paper is easy to process in a darkroom with a safe light. Once I had my cameras calibrated, I switched to medium-format black-and-white film, which has to be loaded and processed in total darkness. Finally, you need a cover for your pinhole: This is your "shutter." When you uncover the pinhole you start the exposure, and when you cover the hole again your exposure ends. I devised paper flaps with a small patch of black tape to cover the pinhole on the side of my cameras, but I have seen many creative and effective solutions for this.

Pinhole Photography

Keep in mind that pinhole photography has a few distinctive characteristics:

  • Everything is equally in focus from close-up objects to the distant background.
  • It is possible to achieve very long exposure times, even in bright light. I made exposures from two seconds to more than a half hour for a few images shot indoors. People, animals, and vehicles in motion can appear as ghosts.
  • If you use a cylindrical container as your camera, then focal length changes as the photo paper or film curves inside the cylinder. I used pop cans; cardboard oatmeal cartons are also popular. The result is that horizon lines bend, and objects at the center of the frame appear closer than at the sides of the frame.

Here are a few final tips for your own pinhole photography adventures:

  • If you have access to a darkroom, start with photo paper, so you can process it using a safe light. If you don't have access to a darkroom, use a standard-format film that you can have processed at a lab.
  • Make sure your pinholes are perfectly round. I cut out squares of aluminum foil, and using hard cardboard as a work surface, I smooth the squares out flat and push a pin into the foil, then spin the foil around the tip of the pin. Check for roundness using a loupe or other magnifier.
  • Get creative! The design possibilities for your camera body and shutter are almost limitless. Get creative!
Pinhole Photography

Each ray of light travels straight through the tiny hole, creating an image that is upside down and reversed inside the can.