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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
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
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
eye has an accommodating aperture – the aperture can enlarge or shrink. In
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
others. A few
large scale camera obscuras have been built in
The First Pinhole Photographs
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
A few links to the use of pinhole cameras in science:
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
(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
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
semi-circular box. Film or paper is taped to the circular wall of the box.
Many pinhole photographers also make
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
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
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
Making a Pinhole Camera
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 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then make the pinhole plate. See above.
Tape the pinhole plate to the front of the cylindrical box.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Get a 4 x 5 in. film holder.
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.
Square moulding is glued to the internal angles in the camera to make the
construction stronger. Sketch x.
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 ...).
A groove (F) is made in the back piece for the film holder's locating
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
Two leaf springs (H) are made of a flexible sink drain (available at a
reasonable price in some hardware stores).
Each leaf spring is kept in place by a small piece of wood (I) screwed on to
the side pieces.
A hole (J) is made for the pinhole in the front panel.
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.
A pressure panel (L) for the film holder is made of wood.
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.
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
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.
sketch of a wooden box camera for paper 18 x 24
cm. Polaroid pictures of some of my cameras:
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 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
"Pinhole Photographs 1997–98".
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
Lord Rayleigh's formula for subject distances above 1 meter may be written as
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
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
Best aperture diameter
Exposure factor for f/22
Focal length (mm)
Pinhole diameter (mm)
Focal length (mm)
Pinhole diameter (mm)
Exposure factor for f/16
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.
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.
 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).
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.
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,
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:
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.
Dobson, Michael. "Pinhole Power". Amateur Photographer, 23 March 1991,
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
Martyn, Roger. "A Hole in One". Practical Photography, August 1992, pp.
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.
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.
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
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Knuchel, Hans. Camera obscura. Baden: Verlag Lars Müller 1992. 72
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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.
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