Updated: May 29, 2022
Relying on the principle of the camera obscura, the pinhole camera is one of the most ancient ways of capturing images.
Putting aside the sheer technical prowess and desire for experimentation that this technique awakens within every pinhole enthusiast, I have always found that these handmade cameras allow for extra layer psychological depth, producing eerie, distorted images full of mystery and magic. The blurred ectoplasmic charm and lo-fi aesthetic of some pictures open up space for ultradimensional thought, aural landscaping and inner reflection.
If you're in need of some cheap, unconventional, lens-less fun, then take a roller coaster ride on the never-ending learning curve of pinhole photography.
Check out our Open Call for Creative Camera Creators curated by the amazing Brendan Barry! Happy #WorldPinholePhotographyDay from the Alternative Processes team!
A few simple steps:
1. Find the right container for your camera
And by right, I mean anything. Over the years, we have seen truly amazing concoctions, from Justin Quinnell's "Mouthpiece" project - featuring pictures taken with a pinhole camera nestled deep inside his mouth - to the boundary-pushing work of Brendan Barry, who has managed to create functioning pinhole cameras inside loaves of bread, pumpkins, pineapples and even camper vans. If you're a pinhole rookie, however, I suggest you start with the basics: coffee cans, sardine tins, shoe boxes and the like should do the trick and get you hooked on this fascinating practice.
Justin Quinnell, image from the iconic 2006 series "Mouthpiece"
Make sure the container is clean and in good conditions - any light leak or dent will compromise your image. Paint the inside of the chosen photo-vessel black, as to not reflect light. Spray paint is better than acrylic or tempera, since it won't rub off on your images in time. Make sure that your seal is light-tight and use black masking tape on the corners of your camera for extra protection. At this point, you will have to cut out a small square opening where you want the front of your camera to be.
2. Create your pinhole
This is what can truly make or break your DIY camera. Although it is true that any pinhole will create an image, when approaching the pinhole-making process you must have a clear idea of what kind of aesthetic you are aiming for because it all depends on the size and shape of your pinhole.
A selection of photographer Elisa Norcini's DIY pinhole cameras (bottle not included!)
First off, you will need to know the focal length of your camera, which you can determine by measuring the distance between the pinhole and your photosensitive material. At this point, you can head over to the always-helpful MrPinhole website to calculate the precise diameter you will be needing for your pinhole.
Most sewing kits provide needles ranging between 1 to 12, 1 being the largest. Bear in mind that a smaller hole will allow you to obtain sharper images - if that is your goal. Beading needles are the best, especially the ones measuring 0.4 mm in diameter.
Most people use common baking tinfoil to make their pinholes as it blocks light and is thin so you can easily pierce it with a clean circle. You can also use backing paper from 120 film rolls as well as 2 mil copper or brass foil. This part of your pinhole should measure 0.5 x 0.5 inches (12x12cm). If you want your pinhole camera to be even more state-of-the-art, I suggest perusing ebay user fireseller66's item list for high-precision laser-cut pinholes of all shapes and sizes.
When using metal, once the hole has been made sand it smooth (600 grit sandpaper will do fine, although 1000 is better). Remember to blow through the hole to remove any dust.
Tape the pinhole to the square opening of your camera, being careful to secure it on both sides with masking tape.
Place a piece of black duct tape or black cardboard over the pinhole and use it as a shutter.
3. Paper or film?
When it comes to choosing the right photosensitive material to work with, perhaps the easiest starting point would be paper. Film certainly offers more variety in terms of colors and settings but the mechanisms involved can be quite complicated.
Keep in mind that most common photographic papers have a film equivalent rating between 3 and 25 ISO. Ilford Multigrade paper, for example, has a ISO rating of 6. The surface and structure of the paper will also affect the quality of your images. Glossy paper, for example, when scanned, offers a better tonal range and contrast than its matte-finish counterparts but it must be avoided using it inside curved pinhole contraptions (i.e. cans) because of its reflective surface.
Thomas Hudson Reeve creates "papercam" pinholes by using only photo-sensitive paper
Load the paper in complete darkness, one sheet at a time. In order to secure it to the back of your container, you can either use tape or build a negative tray. Make sure it adheres snugly to the backing of your pinhole camera before sealing it shut. At this point you can shoot your picture! Download a light-meter app that allows spot metering and low ISO settings and bring a tripod with you to sustain long exposures.
The B&W paper produces a negative, so once you have captured your image, you will have to develop it in the darkroom and invert it either via photoshop or by making a contact print (which is always a bit trickier). Always keep a lightproof film-changing bag at hand - this will allow you to unload and protect your photographic support at all times.
Here's a selection of artists who have chosen pinhole photography as their main practice.
New York-based No-wave musician and visual artist Barbara Ess began building and using pinhole cameras in the 80s, producing large scale images of liminal landscapes and hauntingly beautiful bodily fragments. The artist passed away last year, leaving an astounding body of work behind that, in her words, captures "the basic issues of human life on earth — sex, death, relationships, discovering who you are, being hurt and confused”.
In her photographic series "Transmutation", Florence-based experimental photographer Elisa Norcini uses pinhole photography to explore the process through which the destructive elements of our animal being are changed into those belonging to our divine nature. For Hermetic philosophy, the "mental transmutation" is the art of transforming or changing states, qualities, or mental conditions in others. It is a transmutation of human consciousness, from negative to positive, from bad to good, from "lead" to "gold", from ignored to known.
"As I un-wrap my cameras in the dark room, a childlike wonder emerges in me. Through the Pinhole I can view the world not as I see it, but as I hope to see it; a curious, imaginative, and somewhat strange world". Fascinated by the pinhole camera's lack of viewfinder control, Sharon Harris's art defines new forms of iconographic symbolism and personal mythology. Vignetting and wide angle distortions convey otherworldly qualities to her images.
Suggested reading list:
Chris Keeney "Pinhole Cameras - A Do It Yourself Guide" (Princeton Architectural Press, New York)
Eric Renner "Pinhole Photography - From Historic Technique to Digital Application" (Focal Press; 4th edition)
Barbara Ess "I am not this body - photographs by Barbara Ess" (Aperture)
Justin Quinnell "Build Your Own Pinhole Camera: Print Out and Make Cool Paper Cameras to Take Amazing Photos: A Complete Guide to Making Your Own Camera & Taking Photographs"(Ilex Gift)
Justin Quinnell "Mouthpiece" (Dewi Lewis Publishing)