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About Pinhole Photography

(the basics)

The historical

I could write a book about the pinhole camera and its use but there are many books on the subject available for reading. Let me just say that the use of the idea of pinhole images goes back to the times of Leonardo da Vinci and Piero della Francesca dating back according to what Išve read to the years around 1420-1950. It was used as a method of viewing perspective in painting. Artists would construct portable dark rooms and position them in front of objects or scenery and trace the image that projected onto the opposite side from the pinhole. At this time the method was called "camera obscura", which is Italian for room dark.

A pinhole camera

The difference between a pinhole camera and a traditional camera that is used today is that the pinhole camera does not have a plastic or glass optical lens. 35mm cameras and the throw-a-way cameras all have a lens to focus what image you are taking a picture of. A pinhole camera has only a very small round hole that creates an image that can be captured (or exposed) on light sensitive material. I was taught to use photographic printing paper as my negative film paper.

The camera itself can be any light tight container. A box, a can, anything that can be made light tight and is obviously easy enough to open and close when you change the pieces of paper (your negative) once you have taken your picture. The interior of the container must be flat black. This is so light will not reflect or bounce around inside the camera when you take a picture. Next you should drill or cut with an exacto knife (being very careful not to cut you) a hole or square about the size of your finger tip. How you make the hole is obviously dependant on what your camera is made out of......tin, wood, cardboard or plastic. Then take a piece of tin, like a pie plate or a pizza tin and cut a piece that is larger than your hole. The pinhole is the most important part of the camera. That is where you have to experiment with what you are using as a camera, how far away the pinhole is to the light sensitive paper and how large a pinhole is made. I was initially taught to simply use a pushpin. Put the piece of tin on something like a cutting board and take the pushpin and push it through the tin. You can rotate the piece of tin as you are holding the pushpin to make sure it is round. Then take the tin and with a piece of fine sand paper, lightly sand off the ragged edges of the tin of the hole you just made. Tape the edges of this piece of tin ( you can use black electrical tape) to the inside of the camera over the hole you just made. This is your lens. On the outside of the camera, put a large enough piece of tape (like black electrical tape) over the pinhole lens. This tape on the outside is your shutter.

In the case of how I was taught, I have been using standard printing (resin coated) photographic paper inside my cameras. Remember, that you have to handle this paper carefully and in a darkroom situation. You will need red and/or amber lights. Photography stores have these for sale. Depending on what you are using as a camera you can cut the paper to fit the camera. Holding your pieces of photographic paper to the inside of your camera can be as simple as rolling a piece of tape so it is double faced and lightly pressing and placing the backside of the paper against the tape inside the camera. You want the shiny side of the paper (the emulsion side) facing the pinhole.

The negatives

When you take a picture this is where the experimentation and fun begins. Light is a factor, ( a big one) and the only way to know if your camera is working you have to take a number of pictures and count the seconds of your exposure time when you peel off the tape on the outside of your camera. The way you expose your picture is as simple as setting your camera on something so it will not move and pulling the tape away from the front of the pinhole lens. Depending on the camera and the light it can be anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute. You have to find that magic exposure time for the particular camera you have made. Nothing automatic here!

The positives

To make a simple darkroom, you really need only the following things. Find an enlarger or a light source to use to expose paper when you are printing. Plastic trays for your print developing chemical solution, stop solution and fix solution. You can give the developed negative or print paper a good water bath in the kitchen sink, then let it hang to dry by clipping it to a clothes line type set up or some people hang a long piece of plastic window screening and place the paper on it to dry.

The picture that you have just created is a negative image. After you have developed your negative from the camera you will want to make a positive print. It is just making a simple contact print. Placing a new piece of photographic paper light sensitive emulsion side up and placing the negative that you have created face down on the paper. It is very helpful to get a piece of glass cut larger than any paper you will be using. Place the glass on top of the two pieces of paper so they are perfectly flat. Here again, you have to experiment with exposure times to make a print that you are satisfied with.

All these plastic trays, chemicals an enlarger for a light source to make prints (there are some inexpensive ones) can be purchased at a photography store. People have been very helpful to me about how to mix the chemicals, their storage, wearing plastic gloves or using tongs to move the negative or print from chemical bath to chemical bath.

I have made cameras from cookie tins, black plastic mail boxes, small wooden boxes, cardboard boxes and I experimented this summer using PVC plumbing pipe pieces.

I hope you understand my pinhole basics. Again, there are many books available to read that are more detailed.

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