Basic Instructions for Pinhole Photography

If you are looking for something a little different to try out in your darkroom, now could be the perfect time to try making a pinhole camera. The sun is out, and many of you have a bit of time to experiment with something new. If you have a digital camera, you can also use it for pinhole photography, see the digital section below to find out how.

Pinhole cameras don’t require a lot of fancy equipment, you can probably find the materials around your house to make one. Read the steps below and start making your own pinhole camera! Participate in Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day on April 26th! See below for details.

1. Find a container that is light proof.
The container you choose is part of the creative process of pinhole photography. Some people are as interested in the look and shape of the container as they are the final image it produces. It is helpful and will require less work if you find a container with a tight fitting lid that is easy to remove. The lid needs to give you a big enough opening to be able to load the camera with paper through it.

The shape of the container affects the look of the final image. A longer distance between the pinhole and paper will generally act like a telephoto lens, and a short distance will be a more wide angle view.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to paint the inside of the container black, especially if it is perfectly light tight, but it can help a lot to prevent fogging if there are any light leaks. Spray the inside of the container with matte black spray paint and evenly coat all sides. You could also line the container with black paper if you don’t have spray paint or can’t get outside to spray. Don’t forget to spray the lid.

If your container has light leaks through seams or corners, use black tape to cover them. Black paper glued to the container will also work. Do whatever you can to make it light tight.

2. Make your pinhole.
If you have thin brass sheets (usually from a hobby or craft store) this is the ideal material to make a pinhole out of. It is thin yet strong enough that you can create a very small, clean hole. If you don’t happen to have brass hanging around, you can also use the aluminum cup that tea lights come in, pop cans (be careful if you cut up pop cans, they are very sharp and a bit difficult to work with), and in a pinch, aluminum foil. You only need a piece that is about 1″ square.

The cleaner the hole – meaning that it has smooth, not torn edges – the sharper your image will be. The size of your hole will also affect the sharpness. There are formulas that will help you calculate the optimal pinhole size, but it isn’t necessary to be this precise to create interesting images. Generally if the distance between the pinhole and the paper is less than 5 inches or so, then make the hole the size of a pin pushed through the material. If the distance is over 5 inches, the hole should be a bit larger than this.

To make the hole in a harder material like brass, push the pin into the surface and spin it between your fingers to make an indent, and sand the other side with very fine sandpaper. Then push the pin further into the surface, which might go right through, and sand the other side again. Doing this several times from each side and sanding in between will give you the cleanest hole. You can look at the hole through a magnifier (looking through a lens from the mount side, using it like a magnifying glass, will work if you don’t have a loupe) to see how rough the edges are.

Don’t worry if you don’t have sandpaper, or a hard material like brass, just pushing a hole through tinfoil with a pin, or drilling a very small hole in a small square of pop can will also work. This is what makes pinhole cameras interesting, you can use things you find around the house to make them.

3. Attach the pinhole to the container.
Decide where in your container you want to put the paper, and the pinhole will go opposite to this. Cut a small hole where the pinhole will go, making it just smaller than the piece of material your pinhole is in. Try to make this as clean as possible. If there are rough torn edges of box sticking out, it may block the image from reaching the paper. Tape the pinhole to the container. You can put it on the outside or inside, it doesn’t usually matter which.

You need to make a shutter! Use a piece of black tape and put it over the pinhole on the outside of the container. If you give it a tab it will be easier to pull off when you make the exposure.

4. Load your camera.
You need to do this in your darkroom with a safelight! Matte black and white paper usually works best, but if all you have is glossy, that is just fine. You can use tape to hold the paper in place. Painter’s tape is easiest because it won’t tear anything when you take it off to unload the camera.

5. Make the exposure.
There are formulas and measurements you can do to determine the best exposure time, but unless you are someone who loves the technical, mathematical aspect of photography (if you are, try searching ‘pinhole formulas’ and you will find quite a bit of information) it is easiest to use the trial and error method. After some experimentation and time with your camera, you will become very good at guessing the exposure times. If you have a very small pinhole and a distance between the pinhole and paper of 3 – 4 inches, try starting at around 20 seconds in bright sun. Shorter for less than 3”and longer for over 4”. Prop your camera somewhere stable and slowly open the shutter. Time your exposure and close the shutter.

A Note About Depth of Field:
Pinholes can give you unique images because of the very deep depth of field the tiny apertures can produce. Try putting your subject both very close to the pinhole (as close as couple of inches) and far from the lens in the same frame. Make sure the close subject doesn’t totally block the farther subjects. You will see that all subjects have the same sharpness, as long as nothing has moved during the exposure. This can result in some very interesting perspectives in your images so take advantage of it!

6. Process the paper.
Process your paper as usual. If it starts to go super dark right away, don’t take it out of the developer! Leave it in for the correct time. This part of the process has to be consistent, there are too many other variables you have to deal with so don’t add to them.

Troubleshooting:
Once washed, take the paper into the light to look at. If it is very light, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It means there isn’t enough time and you need to increase your exposure time. It also probably means that you don’t have any light leaks, which is a good thing. If it went dark and foggy looking, you probably have a light leak. (See the image of the wheelbarrow below to see a fogged negative. All is not lost however, you can still get a positive image from a fogged negative.) Check your camera for any possible leaks and tape them up. If you see an image but it is just very dark, your exposure is too long. Try your exposure again based on the results. If it was very light, going from 20 seconds to 30 won’t really make that much difference, you should go to 40 seconds or maybe a minute. If you can go a bit too far the other way, you will have a window of time that contains the correct time. Keep in mind that if you move from the sun to the shade, or if it gets cloudy or later in the evening, you will need to adjust the exposure. I have done exposures up to an hour in pinhole cameras! Keep trying and you will get it.

7. You now have a negative!
You can either do a contact print in the darkroom to get a positive image, scan it and invert, or just enjoy your image as a negative!

There is a wealth of information online about pinhole cameras. You will find that people have made them out of all sorts of crazy containers with great results. A quick search showed me cameras made of potatoes, eggs, driftwood, a tea pot, LEGO, a sardine can and more. Get creative, maybe the camera is also the art. Share with us what you’ve built and the images you’ve produced.

Making Pinhole Cameras with Digital Cameras.

You can use a digital camera for pinhole photography so don’t feel left out if you don’t have a darkroom! I’ve always found that digital cameras give a softer image than most of the analogue cameras I’ve made, but will work well, and the instant results make it easier to figure out an exposure time.
It is helpful if you have a spare body cap for your camera as you will be drilling a hole in it to make the pinhole. Otherwise, you can use a thick piece of black paper, or card stock painted black and cut into a circle and taped onto the front of your camera body (without the lens). Be very careful using this method that nothing gets into the way of the mirror, or drops stuff onto the sensor if you have a mirrorless camera.
1. Make sure you can use your camera without the lens on.
You will probably have to set it to manual (or shutter priority, which might just auto expose your images for you) to have it release the shutter when you push the button.

2. Drill a hole in your spare body cap, or make a hole in the round piece of cardstock you’ve cut for the camera. A 1/2” hole should be fine.

3. Make your pinhole.

See step 2 above.

4. Attach the pinhole to the body cap or cardboard with tape.

5. Put the body cap on the camera.

If you are using the cardstock, use gaffer tape (or some other tape that won’t leave an adhesive residue on your camera) to attach it to the body.

6. Take photos.

Experiment with ISO settings and shutter speeds to get a good exposure. You can also use this body cap on film cameras, just without the instant exposure feedback.


Pre-made Pinhole Options

We do have some pinhole camera options that will let you get pinholeing right away.

There is a pinhole body cap with a laser cut pinhole already in the cap. We’ve only got one for a Canon EF right now, but may be able to special order one for your camera. The Canon EF pinhole body cap by Rising Pinhole is $37.99.

Holga makes several different pinhole cameras that will take 35mm or 120 film. One of the advantages here is that film is much faster than paper so your exposures will be shorter.

Holga 135 pinhole camera – $33.83
Holga 120 pinhole camera – $27.64
Holga 120 wide pinhole camera – $78.73

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

The last Sunday of April is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day! This year, that is on April 26th. On this day, everyone who wants to participate takes out their camera and takes pictures. These are then submitted to the website and a gallery of everyone’s images goes up on their website. Here is a link to last year’s gallery – https://pinholeday.org/gallery/2019/

Their website seems to be having some issues right now, and the home page isn’t working the way it should, but the gallery seems fine. It is fun and inspiring to browse through and see the range of results. Get your camera ready and go take some photos on the 26th with all the other pinholers around the world!

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