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Pinhole Photography

History, Images, Cameras, Formulas by Jon Grepstad, 1996


Pinhole photography is lensless photography. A tiny hole replaces the lens. Light passes through the hole; an image is formed in the camera.

Pinhole cameras are small or large, improvised or designed with great care. Cameras have been made of sea shells, many have been made of oatmeal boxes, coke cans or cookie containers, at least one has been made of a discarded refrigerator. Cameras have been cast in plaster like a face mask, constructed from beautiful hardwoods, built of metal with bellows and a range of multiple pinholes. Station wagons have been used as pinhole cameras – and rooms in large buildings. Basically a pinhole camera is a box, with a tiny hole at one end and film or photographic paper at the other.

Pinhole cameras are used for fun, for art and for science.

Designing and building the cameras are great fun. Making images with cameras you have made yourself is a great pleasure, too. But in serious photography the pinhole camera is just an imaging device with its advantages and limitations, special characteristics and potentials. By making the best of the camera's potential great images can be produced. Some of the images could not have been produced with a lens.


Pinhole images are softer – less sharp – than pictures made with a lens. The images have nearly infinite depth of field. Wide angle images remain absolutely rectilinear. On the other hand, pinhole images suffer from greater chromatic aberration than pictures made with a simple lens, and they tolerate little enlargement.

Exposures are long, ranging from half a second to several hours. Images are exposed on film or paper – negative or positive; black and white, or color.

Pinhole optics, by the way, are not only used in photography. There is one animal in nature which uses a pinhole for seeing – the mollusk Nautilus. Each eye has an accommodating aperture – the aperture can enlarge or shrink. In this drawing, originally taken from a book published by Arthur Willey in 1900, the eye is the oval opening to the upper right.


Early Observations and Experiments

The basic optical principles of the pinhole are commented on in Chinese texts from the fifth century BC. Chinese writers had discovered by experiments that light travels in straight lines. The philosopher Mo Ti (later Mo Tsu) was the first – to our knowledge – to record the formation of an inverted image with a pinhole or screen. Mo Ti was aware that objects reflect light in all directions, and that rays from the top of an object, when passing through a hole, will produce the lower part of an image (Hammond 1981:1). According to Hammond, there is no further reference to the camera obscura in Chinese texts until the ninth century AD, when Tuan Chheng Shih refers to an image in a pagoda. Shen Kua later corrected his explanation of the image. Yu Chao-Lung in the tenth century used model pagodas to make pinhole images on a screen. However, no geometric theory on image formation resulted from these experiments and observations (Hammond 1981:2).

In the western hemisphere Aristotle (fourth century BC) comments on pinhole image formation in his work Problems. In Book XV, 6, he asks: "Why is it that when the sun passes through quadri-laterals, as for instance in wickerwork, it does not produce a figure rectangular in shape but circular? [...]" In Book XV, 11, he asks further: "Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, such as a plane-tree or other broadleaved tree, or if one joins the fingers of one hand over the fingers of the other, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth? Is it for the same reason as that when light shines through a rectangular peep-hole, it appears circular in the form of a cone? [...]" (Aristotle 1936:333,341). Aristotle found no satisfactory explanation to his observation; the problem remained unresolved until the 16th century (Hammond 1981:5).

The Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen, experimented with image formation in the tenth century AD. He arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images were formed only by means of small holes and that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall. From his observations he deduced the linearity of light. (Hammond 1981:5).

In the following centuries the pinhole technique was used by optical scientists in various experiments to study sunlight projected from a small aperture.

The Renaissance and Post-Renaissance

In the Renaissance and later centuries the pinhole was mainly used for scientific purposes in astronomy and, fitted with a lens, as a drawing aid for artists and amateur painters.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) describes pinhole image formation in his Codex Atlanticus (Vinci, Leonardo, Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy, Recto A of Folio 337), and Manuscript D (Manuscript D, Vinci, Leonardo, Institut de France, Paris, Folio 8). These descriptions, however, would remain unknown until Venturi deciphered and published them in 1797. The following translation from the Codex Atlanticus, in German, is by Eder (1905:27): "Wenn die Fassade eines Gebäudes, oder ein Platz, oder eine Landschaft von der Sonne beleuchtet wird and man bringt auf der gegenüberliegenden Seite in der Wand einer nicht von der Sonne gotroffenen Wohnung ein kleines Löchlein an, so werden alle erleuchteten Gegenstände ihr Bild durch diese Öffnung senden und werden umgekehrt erscheinen". [1]

In 1475 the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Paolo Toscanelli placed a bronze ring with an aperture in a window in the Cathedral of Florence, still in use today. On sunny days a solar image is projected through the hole onto the cathedral's floor. At noon, the solar image bisects a "noon-mark" on the floor. The image and noon-mark were used for telling time (Renner 1995:6).

In 1580 papal astronomers used a pinhole and a similar noon-mark in the Vatican Observatory in Rome to prove to Pope Gregory XIII that the spring equinox fell incorrectly on 11 March rather than on 21 March. Two years later, after careful consideration, Pope Gregory XIII corrected the Julian calendar by 10 days, thus creating the Gregorian calendar (Renner 1995:7).

Giovanni Battista della Porta (1538–1615), a scientist from Naples, was long regarded as the inventor of the camera obscura because of his description of the pinhole (lensless) camera obscura in the first edition of his Magia naturalis (1558). His description has received much publicity, as did his camera obscura shows, but he was by no means the inventor.

The first published picture of a pinhole camera obscura is apparently a drawing in Gemma Frisius' De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica (1545). Gemma Frisius, an astronomer, had used the pinhole in his darkened room to study the solar eclipse of 1544. The very term camera obscura ("dark room") was coined by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). At his time, the term had come to mean a room, tent or box with a lens aperture used by artists to draw a landscape. The lens made the image brighter and focused at a certain distance. Thus this type of camera differed from the pinhole camera obscura used by Frisius in 1544. In the 1620s Johannes Kepler invented a portable camera obscura. Camera obscuras as drawing aids were soon found in many shapes and sizes. They were used by both artists and amateur painters.

During the 19th century several large scale camera obscuras were built as places of education and entertainment. The meniscus lens, superior to the bi-convex lens, improved the quality of the the projected images. Several buildings or towers with camera obscuras remain today: The Camera Obscura at Royal Mile, Edinburgh; the Great Union Camera at Douglas, Isle of Man; the Clifton Observatory at Bristol, England; the camera obscura at Portmeirion, North Wales; the Giant Camera at Cliff House, San Francisco; the camera obscura at Santa Monica, California, the camera on the Mount Oybin in Germany, and others. A few large scale camera obscuras have been built in the 20th century.

The First Pinhole Photographs

Sir David Brewster, a Scottish scientist, was one of the first to make pinhole photographs, in the 1850s. He also coined the very word "pinhole", or "pin-hole" with a hyphen, which he used in his book The Stereoscope, published in 1856. Joseph Petzval used the term "natural camera" in 1859, whereas Dehors and Deslandres, in the late 1880s, proposed the term "stenopaic photography". In French today "sténopé" is used for the English "pinhole". In Italian a pinhole camera is called "una fotocamera con foro stenopeico". In German "Lochkamera" and "Camera obscura" are used. The Scandinavian languages tend to use the English "pinhole" as a model – "hullkamera"/"holkamera"/"hålkamera", though "camera obscura" is also found, and is the term preferred by myself in Norwegian.

Sir William Crookes, John Spiller and William de Wiveleslie Abney, all in England, were other early photographers to try the pinhole technique. The oldest extant pinhole photographs were probably made by the English archeologist Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) during his excavations in Egypt in the 1880s. Two of his photographs are reproduced in Renner (1995:39,40). It should be noted that Petrie's camera had a simple lens in front of the pinhole.

Pictorialism and Popular Pinhole Photography

By the late 1880s the Impressionist movement in painting exherted a certain influence on photography. Different schools or tendencies developed in photography. The "old school" believed in sharp focus and good lenses; the "new school", the "pictorialists", tried to achieve the atmospheric qualities of paintings. Some of the pictorialists experimented with pinhole photography. In 1890, George Davison's pinhole photograph An Old Farmstead (later called The Onion Field) won the first award at the Annual Exhibition of the Photographic Society of London. The award was controversial and led to a schism in the Photographic Society of London (soon to become the Royal Photographic Society) which resulted in the formation of the well-known pictorialist group, the "Linked Ring". George Davison's picture is reproduced in Renner (1995:42), and in some histories of photography, e.g. Michael Langford's The Story of Photography (Oxford: Focal Press 1992. p. 106), The Magic Image. The Genius of Photography, edited by Cecil Beaton and Gail Buckland (London: Pavilion Books Ltd. 1989. p. 79), and Naomi Rosenblum's A World History of Photography (New York: Abbeville Press, p. 310).

In 1892 the Swedish dramatist August Strindberg started experimenting with pinhole photography. About one hundred of Strindberg's photographs are preserved, of these three or four are pinhole images.

Pinhole photography became popular in the 1890s. Commercial pinhole cameras were sold in Europe, the United States and in Japan. 4000 pinhole cameras ("Photomnibuses") were sold in London alone in 1892. The cameras seem to have had the same status as disposable cameras today – none of the "Photomnibuses" have been preserved for posterity in camera collections. Some years earlier, an American company had actually invented a disposable pinhole camera, the "Ready Photographer", consisting of a dry glass plate, a pinhole in tinfoil and a folding bellows. Another American company sold "the Glen Pinhole Camera", which included six dry plates, chemicals, trays, a print frame and ruby paper for a safelight. The very first commercial pinhole camera was designed by Dehors and Deslandres in France in 1887. Their camera had a rotating disc with six pinholes, three pairs of similar sizes. Pictures of these cameras are found in Renner (1995:43).

Mass production of cameras and "new realism" in the 20th century soon left little space for pinhole photography. By the 1930s the technique was hardly remembered, or only used in teaching. Frederick Brehm, at what was later to become the Rochester Institute of Technology, was possibly the first college professor to stress the educational value of the pinhole technique. He also designed the Kodak Pinhole Camera around 1940.

The Revival of Pinhole Photography

In the mid-1960s several artists, unaware of each other, began experimenting with the pinhole technique – Paolo Gioli in Italy, Gottfried Jäger in Germany, David Lebe, Franco Salmoiraghi, Wiley Sanderson and Eric Renner in the USA. Coincidentally, many of these artists were working with multiple pinholes. Wiley Sanderson was a professor of photography at the University of Georgia and taught pinhole photography from 1953 to 1988. During that period his students built 4356 pinhole cameras (Renner 1995:53).

Two scientists were also working with pinhole photography, Kenneth A. Connors in the USA and Maurice Pirenne in Great Britain. Connors did research on pinhole definition and resolution. His findings were printed in his self-published periodical Interest. Pirenne used the pinhole to study perspective in his book Optics, Paiting and Photography (1970).

In 1971 The Time-Life Books published The Art of Photography in the well-known Life Library of Photography and included one of Eric Renner's panoramic pinhole images. The June 1975 issue of Popular Photography published the article "Pinholes for the People", based on Phil Simkin's month-long project with 15,000 hand-assembled and preloaded pinhole cameras in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (People came into the museum, picked up a camera, made an exposure. The images, developed in a public darkroom in the museum, were continually displayed in the museum.)

In the 1970s pinhole photography gained increasing popularity. Multiple pinholes became rare. Many pinhole photographers experimented with alternative processes. A number of articles and some books were published, among them Jim Shull's The Hole Thing: A Manual of Pinhole Photography. Stan Page of Utah, a leading historian of pinhole photography, collected 450 articles on pinhole photography published after 1850. In the USA, however, critics tended to ignore pinhole photography in art, whereas Paolo Gioli and Dominique Stroobant received more attention in Europe. In Japan Nobuo Yamanaki started making pinhole camera obscuras in the early 1970s. Although pinhole photography gained popularity, few of the artists were aware of the others' images. A diversity of approaches and cameras developed.

In 1985 Lauren Smith published The Visionary Pinhole, the first broad documentation of the diversity of pinhole photography. The first national exhibition of pinhole photography in the USA was organised by Willie Anne Wright, at the The Institute of Contemporary Art of the Virginia Museum in 1982. In 1988 the first international exhibition, "Through a Pinhole Darkly", was organised by the Fine Arts Museum of Long Island. Cameras and images from forty-five artists were exhibited. A second international exhibition was organised in Spain the same year, at The Museum of Contemporary Art of Seville, comprising the work of nine photographers. A third international exhibition followed at the Center for Contemporary Arts of Santa Fe in New Mexico, also in 1988. According to Renner (1995:94), James Hugunin's essay "Notes Toward a Stenopaesthetic", in the catalogue of the Santa Fe exhibition, represents the most thorough analysis of pinhole photography in the 1980s. Eric Renner's book Pinhole Photography – Rediscovering a Historic Technique, published in 1995 (second edition 1999), mentions a large number of pinhole artists active in the 1980s and has samples of their work. References to some contemporary German pinhole artists who are not included in Renner's book, are found in the list of literature below.

According to Renner (1995:90) at least six commercial pinhole cameras were manufactured in the 1980s. In December 2003 there were at least 48 cameras on the market, from 18 manufacturers in the US, Europe, Australia and Asia.

The Pinhole Resource, an international information center and archive for pinhole photography, was founded by Eric Renner in 1984. The first issue of the Pinhole Journal appeared in December 1975. The archives contain more than 3000 images. The journal has published work by over 200 pinhole artists from a number of countries.

With the advent of the World Wide Web pinhole photography went online. One of the first artists to publish his work on the Internet was Harlan Wallach. By January 1995 Richard Vallon of Louisiana had established the Pinhole Resource on the net. Today a search on the net will return a large number of URLs. In April 1997 the Pinhole Visions web site was launched to support pinhole photography as both an art form and a learning activity. It is now probably the most important pinhole web site, with news and events sections, gallery, links to resources, directory of pinhole photographers, web based discussion forums and a discussion list.

The first Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD) was held on 29 April 2001. 291 participants from 24 countries contributed images. On the second WPPD in April 2002 903 images from as many different pinhole photographers from 35 countries were uploaded to the online gallery. On the third WPPD in 2003 the corresponding figures were 1082 images from 43 countries.

Pinhole Photography in Science

In the late Middle Ages the pinhole was used to study the projection of light through a small aperture. In the 16th century and later it was used in astronomy to study solar eclipses. In the 1940s pinhole cameras found their way into nuclear physics. It was discovered that pinhole cameras could be used to photograph high-energy X-rays and gamma rays. Pinhole cameras were deployed in space craft by the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 60s to photograph X-rays and gamma rays from the sun. The first soft X-ray pinhole of the sun was made on 19 April 1960. The photograph is reproduced in Renner (1995:18). In the 1970s scatter-hole X-ray pinhole cameras were made. Today's pinhole cameras on space vehicles use multiple pinhole optics. The last 20 years the pinhole has also been used widely by nuclear physicists to photograph high energy in laser plasma (Renner 1995:21).

A few links to the use of pinhole cameras in science:

Other Uses of the Pinhole

Pinholes are also used in surveillance and spy cameras and are used in combination with a lens for photographing miniature models, e.g. model trains or architectural models. The pinhole increases the depth of field radically. Some photographers experiment with pinhole enlargers with one pinhole or multiple pinholes. And there are pinhole magnifiers and pinhole glasses.


Basically a pinhole camera is a light-tight box with a tiny hole in one end and film or photographic paper in the other.

A few commercial cameras are available – e.g. the 4 x 5 Rigby camera, the 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 Leonardo Cameras, and the Zero2000 pinhole cameras (various formats). There are at least two cardboard kits on the market – The John Adams Pinhole kit in the UK and the kit made by Richard Merz and Dieter Findeisen in Germany. Most pinhole photographers, however, make their cameras themselves. The construction is simple. Commercial cameras in hardwood or metal tend to be expensive – some are very expensive – and they do not produce better images than a homebrew camera.

Pinhole cameras may differ with regard to (a) focal length, (b) pinhole diameter, (c) number of pinholes, (d) image format, (e) flat or curved film plane, (f) type of light-sensitive material, and (g) other characteristics.

(a) Strictly speaking pinhole cameras have no focal length. They have infinite depth of field. But for practical reasons the term "focal length" is used here to refer to the distance between the pinhole and the film or paper. Pinhole cameras may have short, normal or long "focal lengths"; they may be anything from ultra wide-angle cameras to long telephoto cameras. It should be noted that as the focal length increases, the apertures decreases. In other words, exposure times get longer (see Formulas below). (The formula for calculating the f-stop is f = v/d, where f = aperture, v = distance from pinhole to film or paper, and d = pinhole diameter.) Pinhole cameras produce fascinating wide-angle and ultra-wide angle images. Unlike lens photographs, ultra wide-angle images remain rectilinear. Straight lines are not curved at the periphery of the image. Beginners should start by making a wide-angle camera.

(b) For any focal length there is an optimal pinhole diameter for image sharpness. A number of formulas and charts have been produced. Generally a smaller pinhole will produce a sharper image than a larger one. If the pinhole gets too small, the image becomes less sharp because of diffraction. See Formulas below.

(c) Pinhole cameras may have one pinhole or several. Multiple pinhole cameras produce overlapping images or, with certain designs, panoramic images. Beautiful images made with a multiple pinhole camera are found in Knuchel (1991: cover, p. 35). The beginner should start with a camera with a single pinhole. My own experience is from single pinhole photography exclusively. Some advanced pinhole photographers sometimes use a slit instead of a pinhole. For a beautiful picture made with a single slit camera, see Knuchel (1991:53).

(d) Pinhole cameras have widely differing image formats. Cameras are made from match boxes, 35 mm film canisters, baking soda containers, oatmeal boxes, cookie tins, bags or suitcases, big wooden cases etc. Vans or station wagons have been used as pinhole cameras, and rooms in large buildings.

Some cameras were made to take a 126 film cartridge, a format which was discontinued by Kodak in December 1999, but which is still available from Ferrania or Film for Classics. There are pinhole photographers who use 35 mm film (e.g. by removing the lens of a 35 mm SRL, taping or gluing a pinhole plate to a lenscap, and replacing the lens with the modified lenscap). A cheap 120 twin-lens reflex camera (e.g. a Russian-made Lubitel), an old 120 (non-collectible!) folding camera, a 120 box or a Polaroid camera may fairly easily be turned into a pinhole camera. Some pinhole photographers use a large format camera, 4 x 5 in., 5 x 7 in. or 8 x 10 in., and replace the ordinary lensboard with a lensboard with a pinhole plate. Some make a lensboard with a pinhole turret, i.e. a disc with a circular configuration of pinholes in various sizes.

Most pinhole cameras, however, are made from an ordinary box or container, with a pinhole plate in one end and a simple mechanism for holding the paper or film in the other. Often the film or paper is just taped to the inside of the box. Many pinhole photographers start out with an "oatmeal box camera", a camera made from a cylindrical container in cardboard or metal.

In my view, best results are achieved with medium or large format film or with photographic paper in similar sizes or larger. In many areas 120 roll film is more easily available than sheet film.

(e) A pinhole camera may have a flat or curved film or image plane. If the film plane is flat, there will be some light fall-off or vignetting at the corners in a wide-angle or ultra wide-angle pinhole camera. The image may be overexposed at the center and underexposed at the corners. This vignetting, however, may be exploited consciously as an esthetic effect. If one wants to avoid the light fall-off, the film plane should be curved so that the film at any point is roughly at the same distance from the pinhole. A pinhole camera may be made from a round ("cookie") container cut in two to form a semi-circular box. Film or paper is taped to the circular wall of the box. Many pinhole photographers also make "oatmeal" box cameras with curved film planes. In my own pinhole photography I use flat film planes.

With flat film planes a pinhole has a usable circular image of approx. 125 degrees. The image diameter is about 3 1/2 times of any focal length. The image will fade towards the edges because of the increasing focal distance. With curved film planes a pinhole camera may have a larger circle of coverage (approximately 160 degrees).

Some photographers experiment with complex film planes. Examples are found in Knuchel 1991, which is an interesting source for studying the relationship between image and camera, and also one of the most interesting European portfolios I am aware of. The book has parallel text in German and English.

(f) Pinhole cameras may take film or photographic paper. Black and white film and color film for prints have more exposure latitude than chrome film. XP-2 for black and white (available in 35 mm, 120 format and 4 x 5 in.) has extraordinarily wide exposure latitude and may be exposed as anything between ISO 50 and 800. The latitude makes it ideal for pinhole photography. Photographic paper for black and white has a low ISO rating. In my own pinhole photography I have used mainly Fujichrome 50 and Fujichrome Velvia, XP-2 and Ilford Multigrade III RC. Some photographers recommend mat-surfaced RC paper for curved image planes (paper curved in an "oatmeal box camera") to avoid a reflected fogged strip. Glossy paper may be used in cameras with flat image planes, where light will not be reflected. Some photographers use Ilfochrome paper with great success. An 85B filter (sometimes in combination with an 81 or 82 series filter) may be used to change tungsten light to daylight. Because of long exposures reciprocity failure will often have to be taken into account when calculating exposure both for film and paper.

(g) Pinhole cameras may also differ with regard to other characteristics.

Cameras are made from different types of material: cardboard, wood, metal or other. For the beginner a camera made of cardboard may be the best choice. Cardboard is easy to work with.

Some photographers use a grey neutral density filter to increase exposure times when using film where exposure times are short. Filters may also be used to control contrast in multigrade papers, or to control color when using color film or Ilfochrome paper.

Many homebrew cameras have only a plastic flap or a piece of cardboard for "shutter". This is my own choice for most of my cameras. Hardwood cameras may have a simple moveable shutter. With short exposure times it is important that the shutter opens easily without vibrations.

Some photographers make a viewing frame, e.g. by cutting a window the same size as the pinhole image in a piece of cardboard. A wire frame attached to the camera is another solution. The viewing frame is held at the same distance from the eye as the distance between the pinhole and the film in the camera. Pinhole photographers who use a large format camera sometimes use a larger viewing pinhole when composing the image. In my own pinhole photography I never use viewing frames. I tend to work for longer periods with the same camera and find I get a pretty good feeling of the image field.

Some pinhole cameras are beautiful objects in themselves. The Swiss pinhole photographers Peter Olpe has made cameras from cardboard in the shape if small castles and buildings (Olpe 1992). The cameras are themselves objects of art and have been exhibited as such.

I suggest the beginner starts by making an "oatmeal box camera" or a cardboard camera.

Making a Pinhole Camera

The Pinhole

The most important part of a pinhole camera is the pinhole itself. Precision made pinholes may be bought. You will find a list of sources for pinhole sheets here. For most purposes, however, there is no reason why you should not make the pinhole yourself.

The hole is made in a thin piece of metal, brass shim (available in some car supply stores) or metal from the lid of small box or glass container (bought at a supermarket ). Some use aluminium foil from a disposable baking pan. Ordinary aluminium foil is too thin. My own experience is with brass shim and thin metal from container lids.

If the metal is taken from a container lid, it should be sanded carefully with ultra-fine emery paper (e.g. # 600) to remove any paint or varnish and to make it thinner. The hole is made with a needle. The edge of the hole should be sharp. The optimal diameter depends on the focal length of the camera, i.e. the distance from the pinhole to the film or photographic paper. Some formulas and charts are reproduced below. In general: the smaller the hole, the sharper the image. If the hole is too small, however, the image gets less sharp because of diffraction effects (light is bent around the edge of the pinhole).

Place the piece of metal on top of some hard cardboard. Carefully poke a hole with a needle taking care that the hole is as round as possible. The needle may be put through a cork to make it easier to handle. Or you may put masking tape on the head of the needle. Hold the needle steadily in a 90 degree angle to the surface. Turn the piece of metal and sand the back side carefully with fine-grained emery paper to remove the burr or debris where the needle point has penetrated. (The edges of the pinhole should be sharp). Then place the metal on the cardboard back side up and cautiously spin the needle in the hole to make sure the hole is round. The hole can be checked with a magnifier or an enlarger. You can also use an enlarger or slide projector to check the diameter of the pinhole.

Can Cameras

Pinhole cameras can be made of many kinds of light-tight containers. A cylindrical cardboard container, e.g. an oatmeal box or a herb tea container, is easily converted into a pinhole camera for pieces of 120 roll film or photographic paper.

  1. Start by making a cardboard film holder. The film holder is made of two pieces of cardboard which fit the internal dimensions of the cylindrical box ( Sketch). One piece (A) serves as the back of the film holder. The other piece is cut in two, one small piece (B) which is glued to A and a larger piece (C) with a cut-out window (D) for the film or paper. Use some good tape (electrical tape or other) to attach piece C to B. The film holder will be loaded in a darkroom by placing a piece of 120 roll film or photographic paper between A and C.
  2. The film holder fits into a groove on either side of the box. The groove is made by gluing cardboard strips to the insides of the box ( Sketch). You may make a supporting back (E) for the film holder by gluing a piece of cardboard in the groove. This will make it easier to slide the loaded filmholder into the groove.
  3. Spray the insides of the box (including the lid), and the outsides of the cardboard film holder, with flat black spray paint. Make sure the lid is not translucent. If necessary glue some black plastic lining or cardboard to the lid to make it opaque.
  4. Make a hole in the front of the box. The "optical axis" should extend to the center of the window in the film holder – provided you are not looking for special off-center effects.
  5. Then make the pinhole plate. See above.
  6. Tape the pinhole plate to the front of the cylindrical box.
  7. Make a simple shutter by taping a flap of black plastic over the pinhole, e.g. plastic from a photographic paper package. The flap may be held in place by a rubber string. When you take a picture you remove the string, open the flap for the necessary exposure and close it.
  8. If you want a tripod bush or socket for your camera, use some araldite to glue a 1/4" or 3/8" nut to the bottom of the box.
  9. Since this camera has to be loaded in the darkroom, it will be practical to make several cameras. The cameras are easily carried in a bag.
  10. If you want a curved film plane for your camera, the cardboard film holder is left out. Film or paper is taped to the inside of the camera.

A polaroid picture of some "oatmeal box" pinhole cameras which I made in 1990, my first pinhole cameras, and a portrait made with one of the cameras on Ilford Multigrade III RC paper. The negative was scanned and then inverted by a photo editing program on my computer.

Some descriptions or pictures of "oatmeal box" or "cookie tin" cameras on the net:

4x5 in. Film Holder Cameras

Some commercial cameras are manufactured for 4 x 5 in. or 8 x 10 in. sheet film. In my view, these cameras tend to be somewhat overpriced.

Making a camera yourself is easy. The camera can be made of wood or cardboard. I build my own cameras from hardwood, mainly because I like woodworking and enjoy making beautiful objects in wood. Plywood or other materials may be used as well and require less effort. Cardboard is probably the easiest material to work with.

A cardboard camera may be made from scratch from sheets of cardboard cut to the right dimensions and assembled to form a box which will take a 4 x 5 in. film holder. It may also be made from an already existing cardboard box. The basic component – apart from the pinhole plate – is the film holder. The back of the camera is designed to accommodate a standard film holder. The inserted film holder may be held in place by a rubber string. Make sure the camera back is light-tight. Near the top the film holder has a locating ridge which is to fit in a groove in the camera back. The groove may be made by gluing strips of cardboard to the back. Some simple sketches of a 4 x 5 inch film holder camera made of cardboard:

I usually use 6 x 30 mm oak strip (1/4" x 1 1/4") as the basic material for wooden camerasfor 4 x 5 in. film holders. The strips are glued together to form 6 mm sheets. The sheets are sanded carefully, cut to the right measurements and glued together to form a box with a simple spring back for the film holder. The following is a general description of the construction of a wooden 4 x 5 in. camera.

  1. Get a 4 x 5 in. film holder.
  2. Make a box of wood (Sketch 1). The internal width should be about 20 mm wider than the film holder. The bottom piece (A) and the side pieces (B) should be about 40 mm longer than the top piece (C). Sand the wood carefully before assembling the pieces.
  3. Square moulding is glued to the internal angles in the camera to make the construction stronger. Sketch x.
  4. The back panel (D) is made of plywood. A window (E) is cut in the back panel, the same size as the film holder's window (dimensions ...).
  5. A groove (F) is made in the back piece for the film holder's locating ridge.
  6. Two strips of wood (G), approximately 6 mm thick, are glued to the back panel, one on the the left side, the other on the right side of the film holder.
  7. Two leaf springs (H) are made of a flexible sink drain (available at a reasonable price in some hardware stores).
  8. Each leaf spring is kept in place by a small piece of wood (I) screwed on to the side pieces.
  9. A hole (J) is made for the pinhole in the front panel.
  10. The pinhole plate (P) is attached to the inside of the front panel. A piece of wood (K) with a hole covers the pinhole plate; the piece of wood is screwed on to the front piece from the inside.
  11. A pressure panel (L) for the film holder is made of wood.
  12. Two strips of 1 1/2 or 2 mm brass strip (M), to go under the leaf springs, are screwed on to the pressure panel.
  13. A handle (N) may be attached to the side panel of the camera.

A piece of cardboard is used for shutter, or a moveable shutter is added (O). For short exposures a cardboard is most practical as removing the cardboard creates no vibrations.

The same design may be used for a 5 x 7 in. camera or an 8 x 10 in. camera. For an 8 x 10 in. camera 8–10 mm board or plywood may be used as the basic material.


Polaroid pictures of some of my hardwood cameras for sheet film holders:

Box Cameras for Photographic Paper

A box camera for photographic paper can be made of a light-tight cardboard box, from sheets of cardboard or from wood. Peter Olpe (1993) has plans for a nicely constructed cardboard camera.

I usually use wood for box cameras for photographic paper. Most of my cameras are constructed for the format 18 x 24 cm (approx. 8 x 10 in.). The focal lengths differ but all are wide-angle cameras. My preferred 18 x 24 cm camera has a focal length of 87 mm. Some of my "Oslo pinhole photographs" were made with this camera.

Although it is easy to make a simple moveable shutter for these cameras most of the cameras have just piece of cardboard which is taped to the camera and opened or removed during exposure. For some of my box cameras I have made a reducing back for 4 x 5 in. sheet film.

A sketch of a wooden box camera for paper 18 x 24 cm. Polaroid pictures of some of my cameras:

Camera for 120 Roll Film

Cameras for photographic paper have to be loaded in the dark or under a safelight. They usually take only one sheet of paper at a time. This somewhat laborious process makes photography slow. The slowness may be an advantage – the photographer tends to plan his images carefully. But if you want to take more than one picture you will have to bring several cameras. Sheet film cameras and cameras for 120 roll film are practical for photographic tours.

Some pinhole photographers modify an existing 120 roll film camera by removing the lens and replacing it with a pinhole plate. Others make their own cameras. Peter Olpe (1993) has plans for a cardboard camera for 120 roll film. The text is in German.

In 1991 I constructed a 120 roll film camera made of hardwood. I used oak bought at a local lumber yard. The camera has a flat film plane. The negative format is approximately 60 x 70 mm, and the focal length 45 mm. I usually use the camera for XP-2 black and white film or Fujichrome Velvia. Many of my "Oslo pinhole photographs" were made with this camera, as were my "Pinhole Photographs 1997–98".

A basic sketch of the camera. A polaroid photograph of my 120 roll film camera and of the camera opened.

A 126 Catridge Camera

A pinhole camera may be made of a 126 film cassette and some cardboard. Descriptions and plans are found in Olpe (1993:16, 28–29).

Other Cameras

A few links to descriptions and photographs of various types of cameras:


According to Eric Renner at least 50 charts suggesting optimal pinhole diameters have been devised in the last 125 years (Renner 1995:118). In my own reading the last six years I have come across about fifteen charts or formulas, a few of which may be derived from the same basic formulas. It should be noted that the diameter of the pinhole is not really critical. But for every focal length there is an "optimal" diameter, i.e. a diameter which produces the sharpest possible image. The word optimal actually is not a felicitous term, since the pinhole photographer or artist may not be striving for the greatest possible sharpness. There are beautiful pinhole images which are intentionally softer than what is technically possible. A good pinhole image is something else than a blurred, out of focus, lens image.

Up to a certain point a small pinhole will produce a sharper image than a larger one. If the pinhole is too small, the image gets less sharp because of diffraction. The hole should be perfectly round, without ragged edges. It may be checked with a magnifier or an enlarger.

Joseph Petzval of Vienna apparently was the first, in 1857, to attempt to find a mathematical formula of the optimal pinhole diameter for the sharpest definition in a pinhole image. The British Nobel Prize winner Lord Rayleigh (John William Strutt, 1842–1919) worked on pinhole diameter formulas for ten years and published his work in Nature (1891). Lord Rayleigh's formula is still one of the formulas used to today. A number of others have been published since the 1880s.

Lord Rayleigh's formula for subject distances above 1 meter may be written as follows:
d = 1.9 * sqrt (l * f),
where d = pinhole diameter, l = wavelength of light and f = focal length or distance from pinhole to light-sensitive material.

For the wavelength of light different average values may be substituted. Often the value of the yellow-green spectrum is used, i.e. 0.00055 mm.

According to Renner (1995: 117) most formulas used today are of the following general form:

r = sqrt (l * c * f)

r = pinhole radius
l = wavelength of light
c = a constant, usually a decimal fraction between 0.5 and 1
f = focal length

Platt (1989:73) provides the following optimal pinhole formula:
d x d = f/k, where k is a constant of approx. 1300

Dobson (1991) provides this formula:
d = sqrt (f)/25

Lord Rayleigh's formula and those published by Platt and Dobson all give somewhat different results. Andrew Davidhazy of the Rochester Institute of Technology lists several other formulas in a posting on the net.

Four, slightly different, charts of optimal pinhole diameters are reproduced below. Some of the charts have been simplified by leaving out references to needle numbers. Holter's chart, published in Norwegian, has been translated by me. Platt's chart differs from the others by consistently giving smaller apertures.

Bogre (1988)

Focal length Best aperture diameter Equivalent f-stop Exposure factor for f/22
50 mm 0.29 mm f/174 63 x
75 mm 0.35 mm f/213 94 x
100 mm 0.41 mm f/246 125 x
125 mm 0.45 mm f/275 157 x
150 mm 0.50 mm f/203 188 x
200 mm 0.57 mm f/348 250 x
250 mm 0.64 mm f/389 313 x
300 mm 0.70 mm f/426 376 x

Platt (1989)

Focal length (mm) Pinhole diameter (mm) f-stop
130 0.33 380
210 0.40 500
260 0.46 550
320 0.50 650
420 0.58 690
550 0.66 800
650 0.74 930
750 0.79 960
1000 0.91 1120

Holter (1990)

Focal length (mm) Pinhole diameter (mm) f-stop Exposure factor for f/16
10 0.14 70 20
20 0.20 100 40
30 0.24 125 60
40 0.28 140 80
50 0.31 160 100
60 0.34 180 125
70 0.37 190 140
80 0.40 200 160
90 0.42 214 180
100 0.45 220 190
150 0.54 280 300
200 0.63 318 400
250 0.70 360 500
300 0.78 380 560
350 0.84 418 700
400 0.89 450 800

Fuller (1992)

It should be borne in mind that for most purposes the diameter is not really critical, as the different values in the charts above may demonstrate.

Larry Fratkin's Online Pinhole Calculators
David Balihar's PinholeDesigner
The Pinhole FAQ (English)
FAQ du sténopé (French)
Lochcamera FAQ (German)


Photographers photograph in varying degree for (a) the experience or for (b) the images. When you photograph for the experience, the emphasis is on the process itself – the pleasure of the making a pinhole camera, the pleasure of planning pictures, and the pleasure of making pictures with a simple device. When you photograph for the images, the emphasis is mainly on the result. The pinhole camera is basically an imaging device with potentials which other cameras or techniques do not possess, e.g. softness of definition, infinite depth of field, rectilinearity.

In photography certain subjects may be better suited for a particular technique than others. Photojournalists, for example, normally use 35 mm SLRs in their work. Portrait photographers often use medium format cameras. Architecture is best rendered by large format cameras. Also in pinhole photography some subjects are better suited than others. Long exposures exclude certain subjects, softness of definition exclude others. Infinite depth of field and rectilinear ultra wide-angle images represent a special potential.

Beginners should start with subjects with clear graphic shapes or bright colors in sunlight. Cityscapes tend to make better pictures than rural landscapes with their soft lines and softer shades of color or grey tones – at least for the beginning pinhole photographer. Portraits may prove slightly more difficult than still lifes, objects, structures, buildings and cityscapes.

[1] English translation: "If the facade of a building, or a place, or a landscape is illuminated by the sun and a small hole is drilled in the wall of a room in a building facing this, which is not directly lighted by the sun, then all objects illuminated by the sun will send their images through this aperture and will appear, upside down, on the wall facing the hole". (Eder, 1945:39).


1 History

Aristotle. Problems. I. Books I-XXI. With an English translation by W. S. Hett, M.A. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1936.

Eder, Josef Maria. Geschichte der Photographie. Halle a. S: Verlag von Wilhelm Knapp, 1905. (Chapter Three: "Zur Geschichte der Camera obscura", pp. 26–38.

Eder, Josef Maria. History of Photography. Transl. Edward Epstean. New York: Columbia University Press, 1945.

Hammond, John H. The Camera Obscura. A Chronicle. Bristol: Adam Hilger Ltd., 1981. 182 pages. ISBN 0-85274-451-X.

Renner, Eric. Pinhole Photography. Rediscovering a Historic Technique. Boston and London: Focal Press 1995. 176 pages. ISBN 0-240-80231-4
Second edtion 1999. 228 pages. ISBN: 0-240-80350-7

2 General (including cameras and formulas)

Adams, Ansel. The Camera. Boston, Toronto, London: Little, Brown and Company 1991. pp. 3–6.

Bogre, Michelle. "Pinhole Revival". Popular Photography, January 1988, pp. 46–53.

Bogre, Michelle. "A Small Window of Opportunity. Pinhole Photography reappears after 50 years". American Photographer, December 1987, p. 18.

Brenner, Paul. "Making your own Pinhole Camera". View Camera, July–August 1996, pp. 58–59.

Brenner, Paul. "Pinhole Cameras". View Camera, September–October 1995, pp. 44–46.

Chernewski, Anita. How-To Make Three corrugated 8x10 Pinhole Cameras: Wide-angle, Normal, Telephoto. The Pinhole Format Co. 1999. 16 pages. # ISBN: 0967914701.

Clerc, L.P. Photography. Theory and Practice. London and New York: Focal Press 1972, pp. 61–62.

Die Lochkameras von Peter Olpe. Ausstellung in der Buchhandlung 'das Labyrinth', Basel/Nadelberg 17, 19. November 1992 bis 2. Januar 1993. Basel 1992. n.p.

Dobson, Michael. "Pinhole Power". Amateur Photographer, 23 March 1991, pp. 52–53.

Evans, John. "Custom Cameras. Spare Parts". Amateur Photographer, 9 December 1995, pp. 46–48.

Evans, John. Adventures With Pinhole and Home-Made Cameras. Rotovision 2003. 144 pages. # ISBN: 2880467144

Fuller, Tom. "The Pinhole Resource: At the Point of Lensless Photography". Camera and Darkroom, February 1992, pp. 44–49.

Holst, Trond Kjetil. "Hvem trenger elektronikken?" Fotografi, 5, 1990, pp. 48–49. Oslo 1990.

Holter, Tore. "Bygg ditt eget kamera av en kakeboks". Fotografi, 5, 1990, pp. 44–47. Oslo 1990

Howard, Dave. "Painless Pinhole. Small Format Photography Gets Off The Sidelines." Shutterbug, June 1998, pp. 42–48.

Joseph, Cathy. "Through the Pinhole". Amateur Photographer, 8 January 1994, pp. 20–21.

Langford, Michael. The Book of Special Effects Photography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1981. pp. 32–33 and 146.

Laverrière, Sophie. Chasseur d'images. Paris: Editions Gallimard 1974. pp. 88–93.

Laverrière, Sophie. Fotografering er gøy. Oslo: Gyldendal Norsk Forlag 1975. pp. 88–93. (Norwegian translation of the preceding.)

"Make a Pinhole Camera". Photography, August 1954, pp. 46–49 and 90–91.

Martyn, Roger. "A Hole in One". Practical Photography, August 1992, pp. 58–61.

Merz, Reinhard / Findeisen, Dieter. Fotografieren mit der selbstgebauten Lochkamera. Augustus Verlag 1997. ISBN: 3-8043-5112-3

Olpe, Peter. Die Lochkamera. Funktion und Selbstbau. Lindemanns Verlag 1993. 48 pages. ISBN 3-928126-62-8

Platt, Richard. The Professional Guide to Photo Data. Manchester: Mitchell Beazley, 1989. p. 73.

Quinell, Justin. "Make your own 126 pinhole camera". Amateur Photographer, 8 january 1994, pp. 23.

Renner, Eric. Pinhole Photography. Rediscovering a Historic Technique. Boston and London: Focal Press 1995. 176 pages. ISBN 0-240-80231-4

Resnick, Mason and Wolff, Ilan. "Persistently Pinhole". Modern Photography's Film Guide, 1989, pp. 48–49 and 94.

Shull, Jim. The Hole Thing. A manual of Pinhole Photography. New York: Morgan & Morgan, 1974. 64 pages.

Shull, Jim.The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography. Amherst Media. Inc., 1999. 80 pages. ISBN: 0-936-26270-2

Smith, Lauren. The Visionary Pinhole. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., Peregrine Smith Books, 1985.

Talén, C.W. Amatørfotografen. Kristiania (Oslo): Steen'ske Bogtrykkeri og Forlag 1901. pp. 7–10.

The Focal Encyclopedia of Photography. Desk Edition. London and New York: Focal Press, 1969. pp. 1124–1125.

Voog, Geerlig. "Back to the basics. Drie Pinhole camera's van de Lensless Camera Manufacturing Company of Santa Barbara." Camera, 1, 1995, pp. 50–53.

Wernersson, Mats. "Ta bilder utan objektiv". Aktuell fotografi, 5, 1993, pp. 60–62. Stockholm 1993.

Wiklund, Peter. "Den hålögda kameran." Fotografi, 6, 1994, pp. 42–46. Helsingborg 1994.

Young, Matt. "The Pinhole Camera, Imaging without Lenses or Mirrors." The Physics Teacher, December, 1989.

3 Images and Portfolios

Bachler, Thomas. Arbeiten mit der Camera Obscura. Lindemanns Verlag 2001. 95 pages. ISBN 3-89506-222-7. Text in German and English.

Die Lochkameras von Peter Olpe. Ausstellung in der Buchhandlung 'das Labyrinth', Basel/Nadelberg 17, 19. November 1992 bis 2. Januar 1993. Basel 1992. n.p.

Fuss, Adam. Pinhole Photographs. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996. 64 pages. ISBN 1-56098-622-0.

Jasud, Lawrence. "Tom Harding - Through a Pinhole Brightly". View Camera, September–October 1995, pp. 4–8.

Johnson, Lizabeth A. "Rebecca Sexton Larson – Visual Diaries". View Camera, September–October 1995, pp. 22–28.

Knuchel, Hans. Camera obscura. Baden: Verlag Lars Müller 1992. 72 pages. ISBN 3-9067700-49-6

Renner, Eric. Pinhole Photography. Rediscovering a Historic Technique. Boston and London: Focal Press 1995. 176 pages. ISBN 0-240-80231-4

Schröder, Hartmuth. Der Besucher. Magister Hölderlin baut sich eine Lochkamera und macht eine Spazierfahrt in die Zukunft oder Liebst Hölderlin, magst' weiterziehen? Hannover: Hartmuth Schöder 1993. n.p.

Smith, Lauren. The Visionary Pinhole. Salt Lake City: Gibbs M. Smith, Inc., Peregrine Smith Books, 1985.

White, Garrett. "Yasu Suzuka. The Horizon of Time". Camera and Darkroom, June 1992, pp. 34–39.

Zwichenzeit. Camera obscura im Dialog. 20 Fotograf/innen und 7 Textautor/innen äussern sich zum Thema Lochkamera. ISBN 3-928126-60-1

Some Pinhole Photography Links


First published 1996. Last updated 18 December 2003. Copyright 1996 Jon Grepstad

Article created 1996