Pinhole photography is a fun and old fashioned way to capture images; read on as we bring the technique into the 21st century and show you how to use your modern DSLR as a pinhole camera.
Why Do I Want Do This?
Pinhole photography is fun. The results are unique (and often surprising), they’re rich with character, and the whole process of manipulating the pinhole camera is very interactive. Traditionally, however, you need to jump through a lot of hoops to enjoy film-based pinhole photography ranging from proper film handling to camera selection and often developing the film yourself. If those elements of the photographic process are what bring you pleasure, then by all means continue enjoying them.
For those of us that enjoy the ease of practicing with (and reviewing the results of) digital photography, however, it’s possible to adapt the pinhole process to the modern age. You get all the fun of playing with a pinhole camera, messing around with exposure times, and producing creative images without all the fussing. For a process that requires as much trial and error as pinhole photography does, the ability to adapt it to a DSLR so you can modify your technique on the fly is invaluable.
What Is Pinhole Photography?
If you’re all fired up to do something new and fun with your camera but you’re not exactly sure what you’ve signed up for yet, this section of the tutorial is for you.
Pinhole photography is a type of photography wherein there is no glass lens but instead only a tiny pin prick in an opaque screen of some sort. Where as a traditional camera has a lens that is composed of a series of optical elements that focus the scene before the camera onto the plane occupied by the film or digital sensor, a pinhole camera relies on some pretty nifty physics to achieve the same end with nothing more than a tiny hole in a light blocking material like plastic or metal.
How can you have a lens with no glass? With a traditional glass lens, the optical elements are shaped and polished so that the lens is able to collect light over a wide area and pass that light through the barrel of the lens onto the focal plane of the camera body (where the film or sensor is located), while preserving the image without distortion. With a pinhole “lens” the same effect is achieved, but through different means. Because the opening, or aperture, or the pinhole lens is so very tiny it allows only a very small amount of light to pass through it. The rays of light and the tiny amount that passes through the pinhole opening stay almost perfectly parallel with each other (a feat the glass-based lens needs carefully machined and polished elements to achieve).
If you make the pinhole too big, you allow too much light in and your lose the rays-in-parallel effect (and your image becomes very blurry because now all those rays of light bouncing off your subject are overlapping each other on the focal plane). If you make the pinhole too small then not enough light is able to enter the camera body and your image cannot be properly exposed.
One of the many neat things about this whole arrangement is that you can scale the entire operation. You can turn an entire room into a type of pinhole camera by covering all openings in the room with opaque material and then pricking a tiny point in the opaque material covering one of the windows. Through the tiny hole the view of the outside world will be projected onto the opposite wall. Long before the advent of film, people were using this technique, camera obscura, to safely view solar eclipses and other natural phenomenon.
In fact, the largest photograph in the world was taken using this room-as-camera technique. In 2006, a group of artists built the world’s largest pinhole camera out of a decommissioned airplane hangar–the finished print is seen above.
Whether you’re using a building, a coffee can, or a shiny new DSLR, you can harness the power of the pinhole camera to create prints with more character than you could beat off with a stick.
We’re about to get into the practical side of actually building a pinhole cap and taking the photos, but if you’d like to read more about the history and science of pinhole photography we’d recommend checking out the following links:
- The Pleasure of Pinhole Photography
- Pinhole Photography History, Images, Cameras, and Formulas
- The Pinhole Photography Day Foundation’s Collected Resources
Now that we’ve learned a little about how a pinhole camera lens works, let’s get our hands dirty. First, we’ll show you how to make your own for next to nothing. Then we’ll show you where you can buy pre-made pinhole camera caps (and why you may wish to do so, despite the ease of making your own).
What Do I Need?
For this tutorial you’ll need a few things, including:
- A body cap for your camera body (e.g. like this Nikon body cap)
- A remote trigger/camera bulb (e.g. like this Nikon shutter release)
- A tripod (pinhole exposures require a steady surface)
- A power drill with a 1/8″ bit
- A soda can
- Fine grit sandpaper or fine gauge steel wool
- Black electrical tape
- A sewing needle (the smaller the better)
- Needle nose pliers or a hemostat (locking forceps)
The materials list above is, for the most part, pretty flexible. You don’t have to use a 1/8″ drill bit for example (you could use it’s sibling the 7/64″ bit), we used the aluminum from a soda can because it was cheap and easy to work with (you could use any thin metal you have laying around), and we used a pair of locking forceps (also known as a hemostat) we had in our tech toolkit to hold the needle because it made punching the pinhole so much easier. You could just as easily use a pair of pliers or attempt it by hand.
The must-have components of the list include the body cap (you need it to form a nice clean light proof seal) and a remote trigger (you could try to use your camera’s delay timer with some success but an actual remote trigger/bulb is so much more useful when it comes to playing with exposures).
The nice thing about this entire process is that almost every step is reversible or completely redoable with no penalty (one soda can and roll of electrical tape, for example, will yield enough material for dozens of attempts).
Crafting Your DIY Pinhole Camera Cap
Before we proceed, let us assure you of one thing above all else: we tested everything so you don’t have to. In our efforts to create the easiest/cheapest pinhole camera setup for you, we tried making pinhole lens out of everything from electrical tape to paper, using red-hot needles to pierce plastic sheeting, and all manner of related experiments. What you see here is the takes-less-than-ten-minutes and doesn’t-involve-fire version. Have all the parts and tools ready? Let’s get started.
Reduce the shine on the cap. The first thing you need to do is to prepare the inside of your camera cap. Generally the molded plastic used to make camera caps is very reflective. If the outside of the cap is shiny, it matters very little. If the inside of the cap is shiny, you’ll want to take a moment to use either fine grit sandpaper or fine gauge steel wool to apply a matte finish to the inside of the cap.
Drill the hole. Carefully line up your drill bit with the center of the cap. Make sure you’re not drilling directly over anything that will be damaged by the drill bit (like your counter top) as the drill will pass through the thin plastic of the cap quickly.
Make sure you have a very firm grip on the cap as, once the drill bit catches, it will tend to spin the cap out of your hand. Drill a slowly but firmly down through the center of the cap.
Clean up the cap. At this point, you will want to do two things to clean up your cap and keep debris out of your camera. First, use your finger tips to brush away any obvious plastic burrs created by the the drill bit. Second, either using a damp paper towel or running the cap right under the stream of water from the faucet, wash away all the fine power from the sanding process in step one. You really don’t want that ultra-fine plastic grit to get into your digital camera, as electrostatic charges will pull it right to the camera’s sensor.
At this point we have a clean cap with a rather big hole in it. Too big to use as a pinhole camera (you could take a photo using it and a very fast exposure time but it would be one big blurry mess). In order to get on with the business of actually taking pinhole photographs, we’re going to need a pinhole (not a 1/8″ hole).
Cut strips from the soda can. Assuming you drilled the hole in the cap without drilling a hole in yourself, this is the only other step in the whole project where you can potentially injure yourself. Work gloves wouldn’t be a bad idea, and definitely use appropriate caution when handling the cut aluminum.
One of the easiest ways to get the maximum amount of aluminum from a soda can without tearing your hands up is to push one of the scissor blades (or the tip of a kitchen knife) carefully into the top of the can just below the rim and into the bottom of the can just above the bottom edge. Using those two holes as starting points, cut around the can using scissors as if you were trying to cut the top and bottom off. This will leave a cylinder of aluminum you can cut right down the side and unroll into a sheet about 3.5″ x 6″ or so. It’s much easier to work with it this way than to try and cut clean pieces off the intact can.
Once you have the large sheet, carefully cut it into roughly half inch strips. After cutting the strips, snip a half inch off the end of one of the strips. This 1/2″ x 1/2″ square of aluminum will be your pinhole blank.
Secure the pinhole blank to the camera cap. Using four small pieces of the black electrical tape, frame the edges of the pinhole blank (graphic side of the can surface facing up) and secure it to the outside face of the cap. Looking from the inside of the cap all you should see is the hole you drilled and very small patch of bare aluminum through that hole.
Note: If you find putting the tape and aluminum sheet on the outside of the cap to be aesthetically horrifying, you can tape them to the inside. We opted against this method because we didn’t like the idea of putting the tape and taped on pieces inside the camera. As long as you tape it securely, however, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Pierce the pinhole blank with the pin. This is the trickiest part of the whole operation. Remember, if your pinhole is too small you won’t be able to expose the image properly, and if the pinhole is too big the image will be very blurry. Since you can always enlarge a hole but you can never shrink it (without replacing the blank and starting over), proceed with a very gentle touch.
We recommend using some sort of tool to hold the pin as it makes it much easier to manipulate and to avoid using too much pressure. A small pair of clamping forceps from our toolkit worked wonderfully for the task. Once you’ve secured the pin in some fashion, place the cap face down on a surface that will provide good resistance against the pinhole blank. We used an old wine cork, but anything that is firm and that you can press up against the cap will work fine. You want to keep the little piece of aluminum stable as you push the needle into it (without the cork behind it, we found that the slow steady pressure of the needle started to push the tape up).
Push the needle into the aluminum just enough to pierce the metal with the very tip. Don’t attempt to pass the entire body of the needle into the metal as even with a thin needle you may end up making the hole too big. (You can always widen the hole if you find it too small.)
At this point, your pinhole cap is complete. Go ahead and attach it to your camera body (remember this is a body cap intended to be mounted directly to the body in place of a traditional lens).
Taking Test Shots and Having Fun
Now, as you may recall from our guide to manipulating Depth of Field, the aperture number or f-number is a ratio that indicates how large (or small) the opening of the mechanical iris of the lens is in comparison with the focal length of the said lens. A portrait lens with a wide open aperture (say f/1.4) has a very narrow depth of field and, because the opening allows so much light in, doesn’t require a very long exposure time. A general purpose lens with the aperture cranked down (say f/22) has a very broad depth of field and, because the aperture is so small, requires longer exposure time.
By comparison to that portrait lens and general purpose lens, our pinhole camera has a tiny aperture. Literally, a pin prick. The f-number of a properly constructed pinhole camera is generally greater f/100 (and depending on the camera and size of the pinhole could even approach f/500). Keeping that in mind (and what we know about shrinking apertures and increasing depth of field), our little pinhole cap will yield a nearly infinite depth of field, where everything from the subject right off the camera face to the building spires across town will be in focus.
In addition to being aware of your new and tiny aperture, also be aware that you’ll be using your camera in manual mode from here on out. You’ll lose your through-the-lens metering, and the camera will believe that there is no lens attached (since the plastic body cap isn’t, our pinhole modification aside, actually a lens).
Let’s look at two sample photos to highlight a couple things you should be aware of when using a pinhole lens:
What two things are immediately obvious from looking a this photo? It’s blurry and there are some serious dust specs present.
This was one of our early attempts, and we made the pinhole too big. There’s no saving it. The hole is too big, too much light is getting into the camera body, and it will simply never produce a sharper image. The pinhole being too large explains the lack of focus, but what about the dark spots everywhere?
The dark spots are particles of dust on the sensor of our digital camera. We’ve been pretty rough on this particular camera lately, and obviously a bit of dust and debris has gotten onto the sensor. Why does it look so obvious when we’re using a pinhole lens as oppose to any other kind of lens? Remember how we discussed, earlier in the tutorial, how the pinhole beams a path of nearly parallel rays of light down onto the sensor? The smaller the aperture the harder the shadow the dust particles cast. There’s an excellent visual aide on this topic available here.
We can fix the focus issue by making a new pinhole plate for our cap, but we can’t fix the dust issue without cleaning the camera (that’s a tutorial for another day, but given how filthy our sensor is, expect it soon). Let’s take a look at the same bottles photographed with a more carefully crafted pinhole:
Forgive, if you will, that we moved the tripod during the rebuilding/rephotographing stage and didn’t realize the pictures were framed slightly differently until it was too late to match them perfectly.
Notice how, in the second photo, things are much sharper (by pinhole camera standards, that is). The dust, as you’d expect, is still quite noticeable. While we’re definitely going to get around to cleaning the camera sensor soon, it does give the pinhole cameras a 1960s toy-camera feel, which is fun.
Now that we’ve established we have a working pinhole lens with an acceptable focus, let’s head outside and test it out:
Why the serious face you ask? Exposures with a pinhole setup can range anywhere from 1-2 seconds up to minutes depending on the available light. No one was confident I could smile for that long, so we went for a serious look.
Jest aside, those long exposure times offer a neat window in which to get creative with your photos:
The photo above was a 4 second exposure. I sat on the bench for half the exposure (I just got up and walked away after 2 seconds). As a result the photo was half exposed with me in the frame and half exposed with me out of the frame creating a ghostly image where you can see the trees through my body.
Another interesting way you can take advantage of the long exposure times provided by pinhole cameras is to manually cover the pinhole with a piece of black cardstock, lifting the card stock when you want to expose the image. Using this manual open-close-open technique you can do neat things like have the subject stand next to themselves, create light paintings using LED key chain lights or glow sticks, or otherwise play with photography in ways typically unavailable when using standard lenses.
Purchasing a Commercial Pinhole Cap
Normally, when we show off a DIY technique, we often only point to the commercial version to say “Sure, if you want it right now and you don’t want to DIY, go ahead and buy it.” However in the case of pinhole photography body caps, there are two distinct benefits that come with purchasing a commercial product.
First, the commercial models are prepared with laser cutters. This means you can order extremely precise pinhole caps where, when they say the opening of the pinhole is 0.24mm you can rest assured it is in fact 0.24mm. The opening will also be perfectly round with no distortions.
Second, unlike a traditional body cap, the commercial pinhole caps extend into the body of the camera–see the photo above that shows the back of the Wanderlust Pinwide cap. Why does this matter? The closer to the film/sensor you get the pinhole, the wider the angle of view. If you want to capture more in the frame, purchasing a commercial cap with a recessed pinhole is the way to go.
With that in mind, you may wish to consider the caps:
- Wanderlust Camera’s Pinwide (4/3rd cameras only)
- The Holga Pinhole Cap for Nikon and Canon Bodies
- The Lenox Laser Pinhole Cap for Nikon, Canon, and Pentax Bodies
While we’ve heard great things about the Wanderlust Pinwide and the Holga Pinhole Cap is a classic tool, the only products we can directly vouch for with field testing are the Lenox Laser models.
Before we leave the tutorial all together, we’ll leave you with a parting gift: a pile of interesting pinhole photography photos to inspire you. Photo by Tea, two sugars.
- A Showcase of Pinhole Photos at Smashing Magazine
- The Pinhole Photography Group on Flickr
- Pinhole Photos on Flickr Sorted by Interestingness
- The Pinhole Gallery
We’re confident you’ll find more than a few shots in the above galleries you love and that inspire you to go capture buildings, abandoned cars, and everything in between with your pinhole rig.
Have some photography wit, wisdom, or tips to share? Jump into our discussion forum below and share the wealth.
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