If you’ve been around photography for a while, you’ve probably come across the term ‘pinhole’. Basically, it’s the simplest form of bending-light-into-the-shape-you-need-it-to-be you can possibly do. A well-built pinhole camera can take gorgeous photos, with incredible depth of field, with a wonderful lo-fi look to them.
But what if you can’t be bothered getting your hands dirty with sheet film, developing or even having to build your own pinhole camera? If you fancy having a go at pinhole photography while using your trusty digital SLR, then this is everything you need to know to build your first pinhole ‘lens’.
It starts with a body cap
The first thing you’re going to need is a camera body cap.
You can either use the one that came with your camera (but you’ll be cannibalising this body cap, just like you did when you followed the instructions to create my macro extension tube out of a Pringles can) of you may want to get a second one. They are cheap as chips on eBay these days (I bought 2 of ‘em for £3), so you may as well get a spare…
Now, to prepare the camera body cap, I used some coarse sanding paper to take the logo off, then some finer sanding paper to get the coarseness down a little. There’s no good reason for doing this, other than that it’s a little easier to work with a flat surface than one with the logo of your camera embossed on the front.
If you wished, you could just drill a hole in the body cap and mount the actual pinhole to the inside of the cap instead, but seeing as how I’m planning to experiment with different pinholes in the nearby future, I like the idea of having the pinhole bit mounted on the front – easier to work with that way.
Now, you’ll have to forgive me for the blurriness of this illustration image – it’s tricky to hold a drill and a camera cap and a camera to take the photo all at the same time.
The real reason for taking this ‘action shot’, however, is that I didn’t want to look like a complete amateur, even though I was using a masonry bit in my drill. Of course, going through all the trouble to avoid showing you lot, only to then go ahead and tell you in the body copy anyway is a bit of a waste. You’ll have to forgive me.
Anyway, you end up with a body cap with a hole in it. Finish the hole by sandpapering down the rough edges both on the front and the back of the body cap, and remember to sandpaper the inside a little bit too – if for no other reason than to get a prettier finish.
Now, a very important step: you need to wash the body cap very well indeed. after all the sandpapering, it’ll be covered in black dust, and this is the kind of stuff you really don’t want to be stuck inside your camera – especially not on your imaging chip!
Creating the pinhole itself
Next up, we’re going to create the pinhole itself. There’s tons of way of doing this, but I’m a big fan on using whatever you have to hand. You need a material which is soft enough to work with efficiently, but it needs to be firm enough to be at least a little bit durable.
A coca-cola or beer can is perfect, but since I didn’t have any of those kicking about (I know, it’s mad, isn’t it? I seem to have lots of empty beer- and wine bottles, though, but they don’t make for great pinhole photography), I decided to use the side-wall of a tea light instead.
Drinks cans and tea light are made of soft aluminium, so you should be able to cut them with a pair of kitchen scissors without any problem. Beware that the edges may be very sharp, though, and you don’t want blood everywhere, so be careful.
With a very sharp implement (like a safety pin or similar), push gently into the aluminium. It helps if you have a soft-ish surface like a writing pad (that’s why all the photos are taken on lined paper. Well, that, and laziness). You want to push and turn the needle so you can only just barely see a hole.
Now, using extremely finely gritted sanding paper (I used 1200 paper), polish down the opposite side of where you poked the pin through.
The reason for the sandpapering is two-fold: for one, you don’t want the burrs on the other side of the metal, but you also want to make the metal as thin as possible, because the thinner the metal is, the finer your pinhole photos will be.
There are advanced ways of making the metal thin enough, or if you’re properly hardcore, you can get a professionally laser-cut pinhole body cap (see the ‘further reading’ section below for a link), but as long as you’re doing your best with making the hole a) as small as possible and b) as round as possible, you should be able to start making pinhole photographs soon.
When you think you’ve had a pretty good stab (haha, see what I did there) at making your first pinhole, hold it up to the light. If you can see that it isn’t perfectly round, discard your piece of metal and try again. It should look roughly like it does in the photo. Of course, the size of the pinhole is very important as well, but for now, we just want to make images appear, so this is a pretty good start.
Putting the two together
Now, you’re going to want to mount the pinhole to the centre of your body cap. Measure the centre carefully (or just take a wild guess, it’s up to you, really. I’m firmly in the guessing camp on this one), and simply tape the strip to your body cap. Also, I wish to apologise for the blurriness of this photo – you’d have thought I was capable of taking a sharp macro photo by now, but I guess that’s not the case. I blame my camera, the light, and London Transport Police because obviously, it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with me just rushing things a little bit in my excitement.
Next, use a sharpie (or whatever black permanent marker you might have handy at the time), and black out the front and back of the visual metal. I’m not sure if this is actually good for anything, but it makes me feel better thinking that I’ve at least tried to reduce the refractions on my aperture ever so slightly. That, and it makes the lens cap look more home-made, which is always a bonus.
After the previous step, you’ve actually finished everything you need to do to create a pinhole photograph! I decided to add an extra step, which is to add an additional white cover to the front of the pinhole body cap (because, obviously, if it’s a DIY project you have to add such adornments. And also, it’s a marvelous excuse for me to post a photograph of myself on my own blog), but that’s just me.
Now, it’s time to actually start taking some damed photographs, finally! Put the body cap on your camera, and set your mode dial to ‘manual’. Turn to a low-ish ISO (100 or 200 are good starting points) and a long shutter time. If you’re taking photos outdoors, start with 10 seconds and then adjust.
If you can’t see anything, you need to check if you’ve accidentally put the wrong body cap on your camera, and then select a longer shutter time.
With all the equipment finally put together in a half-way meaningful fashion, I figured it was time to start shooting some photographs…
Time to experiment!
Autopsy of my photos
As you can see, all the photos came out a little bit on the fuzzy side.
One of the big problems you have when you’re shooting digital pinholes is that your imaging chip is absolutely tiny – the camera I was using here, a Canon 450D, has a 22.2 x 14.8 mm CMOS sensor. Compare that to a 36x24mm ‘normal’ negative, or the 60x60mm roll film (or even sheet film) that they’ve got in the analogue world, and it becomes clear that you have an awful lot less leeway.
The tiny sensor also has implications on how precise your pinhole needs to be – both in roundness (which is nigh-on impossible to get right with a safety pin) and in size (which, again, is tricky, although there is a way of measuring the size of your pinhole with a scanner)
However, the purpose of this exercise wasn’t to get perfect, super-sharp photographs, but go get a feel for how it’s actually possible to take photographs without having a lens attached to the front of your camera, for next to no money at all!
Further reading and inspiration
If this article has whet your appetite for pinhole stuff, but you just can’t get the tooling right (or if you’d rather be out there taking photos than actually mucking about with drills and bits of metal), you can buy a specially made body cap with a laser-cut pinhole.
Wikipedia, as always, has a pretty good article on pinhole photography, and in the Pinhole Camera Model article, they go into ludicrous detail of the mathematics and optics behind pinhole photography.
The Pinhole Visions website over on Pinhole.com is a huge and useful resource for learning more about pinhole photography.
For inspiration, I direct you yet again to the awesome Slowlight.net belonging to Katie. Also, hidden deeply inside her site is a list of links (see the bottom of this page) which has links to a ton of interesting pinhole photographers.
You can also try Flickr, where there are a whole load of interesting and quite active pinhole photography groups, like Pinholers, Pinhole Photography, and the oddly apt, considering this article Digital Pinholes
As usual, I’m sure I’ve left off tons of links, but that’s where you guys come in – Got ideas or recommendations? Post a comment!
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