How Photographers Can Go Retro With Pinhole Cameras

flickr/Ronan_Cflickr/Ronan_CAlthough the concept behind pinhole cameras --an inverted image passing through a very small hole into a light-proof chamber-- has existed since the 11th century, it was only until 1850 that a Scottish scientist by the name of Sir David Brewster took the first photograph using this technology.

The pinhole camera is basically a sealed box in which a piece of film is placed. Light enters the box through a tiny hole and exposes an image onto the film. As basic as that. Due to its simplicity a pinhole camera can be constructed from a shoe box, cereal box, matchbox, coffee can, oatmeal can, you name it. Examples range from the fairly expensive --birch wood cameras with $450 price tags-- to the bizarre --a human skull with a pinhole drilled into the forehead and film placed inside the cranium.


Technical Considerations For Pinhole Cameras

There are several factors that determine the kind of image we will get, and how much time we will need to invest into it. The smaller the hole, the sharper the image will be, although exposure time will be longer. Exposure times of several hours are not unheard of, although faster films may cut exposure times down to seconds or minutes. The focal length is determined by the distance between the pinhole and the film plane. A shorter distance, using a matchbox camera for example, will result in a wide angle field of view, while putting pinhole and film on opposite sides of a can of Pringles will give you a telephoto field of view. There is no need to focus, since depth-of-field is infinite on pinhole cameras.

The technical considerations mentioned above are precisely what do-it-yourself photographers find most interesting about pinhole cameras. The satisfaction of building a camera with your own hands and experimenting with different film speeds, pinhole diameters, camera sizes, exposure times and other variables is hard to obtain any other way.


Products To Help You Build A Pinhole Camera

Any of the following items will have you shooting pinhole images in no time. You decide how deep you want to dive into the building process. From making a camera out of cardboard to leveraging your existing digital equipment with a minimum of fuss.


Build Fun Paper Cameras Book ($19.95)

This book gives you instructions on how to build pinhole cameras and use them to get artistic images in many different environmental conditions. The included CD contains seven templates to make the cameras. Just print on cardstock, color with crayons or markers, get the glue stick and put them together. Great as a project to do with your kids. 


Pinhole Camera Kit STD35-e ($28)

If you don't want to be bothered with printing and hand-coloring templates this pinhole camera kit is the way to go. The Sharan STD-35e is made of durable black cardboard, with plastic advance and rewind spools. It can be assembled in less than an hour with no tools or glue. Follow the easy to understand illustrated instructions and you'll be shooting in no time. 

4M Pinhole Camera Kit ($11) 

Get this pinhole camera kit if you want something a bit sturdier but still want the thrill of building a camera with your own hands. The camera is made of snap-to-assemble plastic, so no glue or tools are needed.

Pinhole Body Cap For Canon ($25) 

If you're not the do-it-yourself type, and just want to get the pinhole look without a minimum of fuss, then slap this body cap onto your Canon and start shooting. Will work on any Canon SLR camera, analog or digital. If you've already jumped on the Micro Four Thirds bandwagon you can get the Wanderlust Pinwide Digital Pinhole Cap ($40).

As you can see, getting started with pinhole photography can be very inexpensive. Part of the fun is that you're never really sure what you're going to get, so there's a lot of experimentation involved. The instant gratification that digital cameras provide can be a good thing, but sometimes you need a change of pace. Now build, shoot and have fun. 

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