Pinhole photography offers wonderful simplicity, stripping photography back to the very basics. With just a light-tight box, a small hole and a method of capturing the image, pinhole cameras are a great fun way to learn the very basics of photography.
The use of pinhole cameras can be traced back to the fifth century BC, when Chinese scientists discovered that light travels in straight lines and that rays of light passing through a small hole will project an image on a surface on the other side of the hole.
Astronomers and scientists used the pinhole concept when studying eclipses and Leonardo da Vinci used pinhole images as a drawing aid. He wrote in his notebook, “When the images of illuminated objects pass through a small round hole into a very dark room, you will see all those objects in their natural shapes and colours. Who would believe that such a small space could contain the image of all the universe.”
During the 1850s, a Scottish scientist named David Brewster pioneered pinhole photography. In fact, he has been credited for coming up with the term ‘pinhole’.
Jacques Louis Mande Daguerre and Joseph Niece, a French artist and amateur scientist respectively, were the first to capture a permanent image from a pinhole using a plate made from pewter and coated with bitumen. Their first exposure took eight hours!
Niece discovered that silver-plated sheets of copper was a better alternative to pewter plates. After he died in 1833, Daguerre continued to experiment with copper plates coated with silver iodide, and he discovered a way to fix the image using mercury.
Richard Beard, an English former coal merchant, commissioned a chemist to refine the process. He opened the first commercial studio in Regent Street, London in 1841, using the daguerreotype as the basis of producing portrait images.
Not surprisingly, pinhole photography went out of fashion during the 1900s. However, the 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the technique, possibly because artists were looking for new ways of expression. In the 1980s, several international exhibitions featured photographs taken with pinhole cameras.
The concept of a pinhole is quite straight forward, and it is the essence of all photography. Light passes through a hole and is inverted inside a light-tight box. Film or photographic paper is used to capture the image. A pinhole camera can be built from cardboard, wood, or even old tin cans. Laser cut pinholes can be bought commercially, which give an accurate hole diameter for exposure calculations.
One of the advantages of using a pinhole camera is the incredible depth of field that is possible. From a few centimeters to infinity is the norm with this technique.
Of course, another massive advantage is the exposure time. Most of my pinhole images have been shot with exposure times of well over one minute, plus reciprocity time. This creates an amazing ethereal-like image.
Exposure can be difficult to calculate, but thankfully there are several apps for smartphones that help with the calculation. And, remember to add reciprocity to the final exposure time. I use Pinhole Assist, by Le born de la piscine. You simply put in your pinhole size and it gives you an exposure time.
If you don’t want to build your own pinhole camera, there are a few that are commercially available. I use the Holga 120 Pinhole Camera, which uses 120 film. The panoramic 6 x 12 is an ideal format for a super wide-angle view.
Let me know if you have experimented with pinhole cameras. Look out for the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD), which was held in April 2022.
It is incredible that an image can be created using a simple pinhole that projects an image onto a film. Here are a couple of recent pinhole images I took at the local beach. Of course, they are not perfect images, but their creative potential is massive.
Look out for the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day