Let’s Dive Deep Into Camera Obscuras and Pinhole Cameras
This article on pinhole photography and camera obscuras was written by Hassan Khan from https://www.questionstrivia.com/. I would like to thank Hassan for this article and for his patience (I am sorry it took so long to publish 😉 ). Images were kindly provided by Bonfoton, ONDU Pinhole Cameras and René Vonk. Thank you all so much!
Dear readers: If you would like to share your knowledge or experience about your favorite camera, lens, film, process, or anything else related to vintage photography, please get in touch.
Many people will never have never heard of a pinhole camera, too busy clicking images on their phone, commemorating memories, and posting their pictures without a second thought; we could only hope to come across the term during a fun night of movie trivia. Yet Pinhole cameras are a key stepping stone in the evolution of photography and they are making a big comeback in the analogue scene.
Pinhole cameras are also known as ‘camera obscura’, which refers to the dark chamber. Pinhole cameras are comprised of a light-proof box, film, and a pinhole. This was initially the most rudimentary form of a camera: a dark chamber with a hole.
Sounds interesting? Let’s do some trivia questions, what is this:
How about this image, can you guess what it represents in terms of photography history?
All these images have in common that they not only milestones of photography taken in France, they are also all relying and building upon the camera obscura technique. Utilizing the simplest form of the photographic process, the pinhole camera represents the essence of capturing images. This minimalistic technology gives us insights not only into photography but also human physiology, light physics, mathematics, art and even a little magic.
How does a pinhole camera work?
The essence of a camera obscura is rather simple: imagine a totally black room with, as only light-source, a keyhole. This is basically it. Only that the keyhole has to be tiny and and circular. The image of the outside world will be reflected inside the room. That’s the basic physics photography relies on.
You do not believe me, well have a look at this:
With a lens from Bonfoton and a bit of DIY work you can transform your room into a camera obscura. The outside world will magically be reflected inside. Here is how it works:
The pinhole camera is essentially the same but on a much smaller scale. And of course, you need a support to capture the image (a film strip, plates etc). Cameras with pinhole are quite like the eye. The light falls at distinct strengths in the small hole on the front, then reflects on the film, which captures it. The light is shut, and the box is dark again. The film is drawn and processed afterwards. In theory, the smaller and rounder the hole, the sharper the image will be as it forces every ray of the sun to expose a small point on the film strip, making a crisper image.
The pinhole camera’s focal length is the distance from the hole to the location of the film. The main ‘disadvantage’ of pinhole cameras is that the images are unfocused, and exposure is either a hit or miss. But with a bit of experience you quickly get your head around it and can make truly amazing images that you will hardly be able to reproduce with any other type of photographic process.
Still today, pinhole cameras are the cheapest, most versatile cameras. The best thing is that they can be made from a shoe-box, matchbox, cereal box, soup can, origami, toilet paper tube, Legos, beer can or even concrete. If you want to learn how to create a Pinhole camera and happen to live or pass by Berlin, I highly recommend the excellent alternative photography and darkroom classes offered by Sabine Alex from Mobile Dunkelkammer. Rest assured, if you do not feel like making your own camera, luckily you also have the opportunity to purchase crafted high-quality pinhole cameras, like the ones from ONDU, just select your preferred format and you are good to go:
Even modern cameras use essentially the same technique as Pinhole cameras, except that of course they use a lens instead of a hole. The lens helps correct the image sharpness, concentration of light source, gamma correction, focusing and a myriad of other things. The modern lens also allows more light to enter the camera, resulting in much shorter exposure times. But this is exactly the charm of pinhole photography: the raw, back to basic, unfiltered pureness of photography.
Pinhole photography is about experimentation
While you can control the image quality by the size and quality of the pinhole, pinhole enthusiasts will admit that part of the magic lies in the unexpected. The viewfinder (if you even have one) is often only a rough framing estimate; you have to aim the camera and hope for the best.
Play around with exposures and moving objects. Add mirrors to distort the picture or curve them on the inside to get a spherical view. Experiment with the type of film you use or add filters. There are endless opportunities to experiment with.
The results are always distinctive. A pinhole shot will always be more complicated to predict and set up and the results will surprise you, and that’s the beauty of it. The spells of dust, the flares of light, the atmosphere, the pinhole camera has it all.
The results are often magical, dreamlike. A sudden wind can cause bleakness by shifting an object, the movement of the sky, even rustling a tree’s leaves. Such ‘accidents’ make exciting pictures, whether desired or not. A variety of unique visuals can be achieved by long exposure times or double exposures generated by opening the shutter twice.
Pictures, therefore, have certain artistic characteristics; an old-fashioned, timeless look. A vignette can be made around the outside of the print by light fallacy. Whether it was taken just yesterday, or 100 years ago, it is difficult to say.
An uneven pinhole can cause distortions, generated by light scattering and bending around the hole’s edges. The aperture may not be completely circular. Like other cameras, pinhole’s too merely record the world differently from the manner our eyes see.
The procedure for taking pictures of the pinhole is exceptionally interactive. You are an essential component of every step, from constructing the camera to creating negatives. Pinhole photography is a box-load of fun if you like photography and are glad to experiment, offering the potential to build memories deeper than the photos.