About Pinhole Cameras

A pinhole camera is just a box with film or paper on one side and a tiny hole on the other. I’ve started to occasionally use some of the simplest cameras – soda cans with photo paper inside – to make very long exposures called “solargraphs," but in general, for pinhole photography I've used cameras with 120 roll film inside.

For a long time, I had little interest in pinhole photography, since the only pinhole cameras I knew of were cans or boxes which had to be unloaded in the dark after each exposure. I didn’t want to do that.

When I decided to experiment with pinhole, it never occurred to me to buy a camera – I just assumed I would make them. I knew about 4x5 cameras like the Leonardo, but I did not want to deal with sheet film. I wanted to use 120 film, and to make wide panoramic images.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of many pinhole photographs is that they are brighter in the center, and darker at the corners – this “fall-off” can be very pronounced if the camera has a short “focal length” (distance from pinhole to film) relative to the negative size. One way to counteract this uneven exposure is to have the film follow a curved path – the closer the path gets to a circle with the pinhole at the center, the more even the exposure should be. But: the resulting images can be quite distorted. When I started designing my camera I wanted to minimize distortion, but I also wanted to minimize fall-off. I settled on a curved film plane, with the pinhole set one third of the way into the central radius of the arc, like this:

pinhole camera design

It wasn’t hard to mock up a camera with foamcore, and test it with ortho film to see what I would get:

  camera design test, 1999

camera design test, 1999

But foamcore ortho-film mockups didn’t pass the “reloadable in daylight” test, so I needed to build something else. The first usable machine was a bit of a monster: a wooden box, with hardware stolen from a box brownie. The film carriage inside was a modification of the inner workings of the same box brownie, expanded with aluminum litho plate. A friend in the metals shop across the hall graciously made me a shutter and a big finder window.

krakow, 2001

The photos that camera made were interesting, but the format was a bit problematic – very long panoramas, 4.5 x 18.5 – so I decided to make another camera. I had been using Graflex rollfilm backs with a 2x3 press camera, so I spent a lot of time building a wooden camera around one. It turned out that the Graflex mechanism didn’t have the strength to pull film around the curved path, and it failed after only a couple test rolls of film. 

But the pictures showed promise, and I found another viable donor camera for film carriage parts – a Mamiyaflex C2. Its film advance didn’t require me to see the numbers on the back of the film, so the camera could be a closed box.

After building (and using, for a while) a 6x12 camera out of aluminum plate, I was  getting tired of taping it up every time I loaded it when I stumbled on black matboard as a camera-making material. (It would be years before I heard of Peter Olpe or saw his book!) The resulting machine would be the fifth version of the curved-plane camera, and it stuck.

This black matboard camera was my only pinhole camera for about ten years – then I started itching to work with other formats. In 2013 I found Olpe’s book, built some 6x6 cameras with different focal lengths, and then bought a Zero Image 6x6. Around that time ONDU did their first kickstarter, so I bought their 6x6 as well and it quickly became my favorite. Todd Schlemmer started designing his 3D printed cameras – since I love cable release, mine both have the "butta shutta," which really can't be beat. With so many great pinhole cameras popping up on the market, I don’t feel the need to build any more. For now…

obama, japan  2005