Monday, June 27, 2016

The easy way

I have presented our old college friends, Gene and Laura, with portfolios of black and white prints, beginning with their wedding, for many years.  They include all sorts of events and just mundane visits. For example, I had been trying to get their elder daughter to take my picture with my Canon F1 ever since she was born, and on New Years Eve when she was three and a half, she suddenly took over the camera and shot a whole roll. They had a fortieth wedding anniversary party last Sunday at the bar where they met that we had all hung out at for years  I tell you all this to justify what I did last weekend.  I shot a few rolls of Tri-X with a lens.

How that's relevant to a pinhole blog is that I had about 10 frames left when we got back to Oshkosh. I have never put a pinhole on a 35mm SLR nor have I ever shot black and white 35mm film with a pinhole.  So this seemed to be the opportunity.


I have to say this is the easiest way to do Pinhole I've come across.  It could be pretty cheap too.  I already have three of them but I found numerous fairly good SLR's including a Nikkormat on eBay for $10. The shutter doesn't really need to work very well.  All you really need is that it works on Bulb.

I lost the body cap that came with my F1 probably the minute I put the first lens on.  The closest thing I had was the lens cap from my 10x50 binoculars. It doesn't fit at all so I had to tape it on with 3M #235. It only took a few seconds and it's on there pretty solidly.

I was really surprised that the pinhole ended up being 50mm from the film plane.  I had always imagined these to be wider angle, but I never had really thought about it.  Quite a bit different from the Populist I'm used to at 24mm.  (The lens I had on it last weekend was my beloved Canon FD 20mm f2.8)

I made a pinhole in some beverage can aluminum by drilling just the tip of a #10 needle on a table top.  The initial hole was about .18mm. I gave the needle a gentle twist or two and enlarged it to .26mm.  Mr. Pinhole says .298mm is optimal for this distance.  Close enough.

Professional SLR's are some hefty chunks of steel, but I never felt about this camera that way, but with the pinhole on it it strikes me as really heavy and clumsy.  It's just under two pounds.  The Populist is just under three ounces.


I was kind of surprised you could see anything at all through the viewfinder. Except for a completely sun-lit scene, it's still pretty useless though. This image was done with my iPhone and probably a little  better than it actually looked to my eye. (Yes, I know, the phone has a lens too)
Another kind of surprise was there's no other good way of viewfinding, other that just trying to center your subject in the frame.  Horizontally, the angles on the pentaprism roughly point at the angle of the 50mm distance, but vertically you just kind of have to guess.

I guess you could have predicted that I got some more tightly framed shots than I was planning. Not particularly level either.



I did a little better with the entrance to the garden.


I couldn't find a cable release.  (BTW, our local camera store which is jam packed with every kind of accessory you could imagine, doesn't carry cable releases.) I kept forgetting that you had to keep the shutter held down on Bulb and blew a few exposures that way.  It also meant I had to be within an arms length of the camera.

Here I am gripping the black film can from a roll of Tri-X left over from Gene and Laura's 25th wedding anniversary in 2001 that I found in the bottom of the camera bag.


When I'm desperate to get some film shot quickly, I always end up with a self portrait, but having to hold down the shutter meant it had to be pretty close-up,


It is kind of handy that you know how much film you have left.  I may play with it with that outdated roll of Tri-X as long as I had to buy a whole quart of developer.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Existing containers episode 3: Boxes.

Paper boxes of one sort or another are everywhere.

I have to start out by saying a lot of forms of boxes are not easy to make cameras out of.  Almost any kind of one piece box with a fold down lid with a tab that inserts into the front are going to be almost impossible to make light-proof without taping over part of where the top closes when you put the paper in.  I really don't like cameras that need to be sealed with tape every time you load them. Paper boxes especially are going to get damaged removing tape.

Also boxes that are not very stiff and don't fit tightly into the lid, or distort somewhat when you place the lid on are going to be prone to light leaks.

The best boxes are those which are fairly rigid cardstock and have the lid which is just as tall as the interior.  My favorite lately are Oaks Candy Boxes.



The one on the left is the one pound and on the right is the two pound.

The cardstock is white which is always a little suspect for opacity, but with a layer of flat black paint they were completely light-proof.  Notice that I painted the bottom not only on the inside, but also on the outside, so where they're together, the joint between them is black on both sides. You want to make it as hard  as possible for the sun to sneak in.

The one pound box is 4 x 8 inches and the two pound is 5 x 10 inches.  They're both two inches deep, so they're pretty wide angle for these image sizes.

Here's the image from the two pound box,


One aspect of wide image formats with short distances to the pinhole that's obvious here is vignetting. With lenses this term usually refers to part of the image being shadowed by part of the opening, but with pinhole it more commonly refers to the fact that there's a significant exposure gradient toward the edges of the image.  In a wide box like this the edges of the paper are quite a bit farther away from the pinhole than the center is. The amount of light a lens or pinhole transmits is generally indicated by it's f ratio: focal length divided by the size of the opening. The larger the number, the less light it transmits. Focal length is an inappropriate term for pinhole because there's no focusing going on, but I'll use it for simplicity's sake. In pinhole the distance from the pinhole to the paper gives the same sort of geometric results as focal length of a lens does.

I used a half millimeter pinhole, so the two pound box, at a point directly under the pinhole, is f100 (50mm/.5mm).  The right and left edges of the paper are almost six inches (152mm) away from the pinhole and therefore f305.  Thats nine times less light reaching the paper. In addition, from that perspective, the pinhole becomes a foreshortened ellipse reducing it's area and reducing the amount of light even more.  The end result is that the picture fades to black before it reaches the edge.  We could argue whether that's good or bad – some people like it and some don't.

It also exhibits a characteristic of all wide angle objectives.  Perspective is stretched out so things seem farther away from the camera and each other than they appear to your eye. To get this picture I had the tripod in the middle of the street and had to cut short the exposure when an SUV unexpected came around the corner. It's always a good idea to get closer than you think you need to with a really wide angle camera

But you don't necessarily have to put a sheet of paper the entire size of the box in there.  You probably want the paper to be centered directly under the pinhole.  On the one pound box I glued a couple strips of foamcore to make a depression exactly 4x5 so it was easy to make sure it was in exactly the right spot and if the camera was level, the paper inside was too.

Oaks has a big sign in their store that says they don't sell empty boxes with the Oaks branding already printed on them, so my wife and I made the sacrifice and ate the candy so I could make the cameras to show you.

Existing containers episode 2: Tins

Tin boxes are a popular choice for making pinhole cameras.

They're made of steel, so are reliably opaque, are very durable, and usually have very tight fitting but easy-to-open lids that might be light-tight right off the bat.

They come in both rectangular shapes like tea tins, or low cylinders like cookie tins.  (See the previous episode on cylinders for special issues about the effect of curved backs on the image.) Altoids tins are great but they're very flat and therefore extremely wide angle. (See the next post about issues with extremely wide angle images)

Of course, they're decorated on the outside, but the inside is shiny metal, so they need to be given the flat black Krylon treatment.

I've had this tin around the house with various sorts of small bits stored in it for forty years. It originally held some hard candies which we bought from a neighbor girl on a school fund raising project.


I decided to put the pinhole in the top and the paper in the bottom but if the tin is really light-tight it shouldn't matter.  I suppose there's the argument that if it's the sun shining into that joint between the lid and box that's the big problem, putting the pinhole on the side means the sun will always be shining on the top and therefore be less of a problem.  But then you'd have to make sure you carried it around that way, and that benefit goes away when you decide to shoot a vertical.

This tin been pretty well used so the top does not fit quite so tightly anymore, and I got some distinct fogging on my first shot.

I normally avoid camera designs where you have to tape them closed with opaque tape every time you load them.  It strikes me as wasteful of tape, is difficult to do under safelight conditions, and often damages your camera when it's removed.  In a workshop where the objective is to get the participants to make just one negative each,  it might be workable.

But in the case of a metal box, it might not be so bad.  The tape doesn't really have to be applied until you go out into the sun, so you could do it in room light. It peels off the metal cleanly and if done carefully that piece of tape could be reused.  I usually warn people against using cheap electrical tape because it tends to come unstuck at the most inconvenient moments and your camera just falls apart, but for this purpose it's not really holding the camera together, it sticks better to metal than to cardstock, and that's how I handled this problem.  I only took three exposures but used the same piece of tape and I wasn't being that careful, and I could have used it again.




One issue I haven't mentioned is that containers, including cylinders and cardboard boxes, come in a variety of shapes, but photographic paper comes in 8x10 sheets which evenly divide into 4x5,  4x10, or 5x8 sheets.  (Of course paper comes in larger sizes, but they're going to have their own even divisions). If your container is not one of those sizes, you're going to have to trim the paper under safelight. Paper cutters are usually the most convenient, and scissors can be workable, but it does add a little element of danger using sharp implements in a darkroom.  One thing I've done is make a template out of dark card stock that I could hold to the corner of the sheet so I didn't have to be able to see markings on the cutter bed or somehow mark it for cutting with scissors. And there's going to be some waste, which generally bugs me.  If you're also making contact print positives, though, these scraps could be used for test exposures.

It might seem tempting to put the pinhole directly through the steel, but it's awfully hard and getting an accurately sized and round pinhole is very difficult.  It's usually better to drill a quarter inch hole and make the pinhole in some sheet brass or beverage can aluminum.

All sorts of products come in metal tins-candy, tea, cookies and fruitcakes and there are often some great deals on cookie tins in after Christmas sales.

Existing containers episode 1: Cylinders.

There's a stereotype of the pinhole photographer that they view every container they encounter as a potential camera. Adding recycling and reuse to the process is a laudable additional objective, and it can be really creative activity.

But there are challenges. Here we're talking about single shot cameras using photographic paper. Roll film cameras have a few additional challenges.

If the general population has any thought about pinhole photography, it probably consists of the camera being made out of an existing container using photographic paper as a negative. It's probably a Quaker Oatmeal Box.  These became popular as cameras because of the way they were opened. The package consisted of a cardboard cylinder which was completely closed tightly fitted with a second cylinder inside it.  To open it, you pulled a string which divided the outer cylinder about an inch or two from the top.  The inside cylinder remained intact.  This made a nice tight fitting top which was pretty light tight when replaced. There are still directions on the internet which assume you can find oatmeal boxes like this.  Oatmeal boxes today however have a plastic lid on top, which is nowhere near opaque.

35mm film used to come in light tight black containers that made spiffy, miniature cameras, but now they're all clear.

One important characteristic of a camera is that it's flat black inside. For one, the material might not be totally opaque, and painting it black might take care of that.  The other issue is if the white photosensitive paper reflects light back into the camera, and the walls of the camera reflect it again back to the photographic paper, at best it can reduce contrast, and at worst fog the whole thing.

So essentially if your existing container isn't black or very dark inside, you're going to have to paint the inside black. Flat black Krylon is the solution in most cases. The key characteristic is that it dries in about ten minutes.  There are other flat black spray paints, but they take hours and probably overnight to dry.  But it's a messy step and requires some pretty good ventilation.  I have read of people recommending gluing black construction paper to line the inside of the container to accomplish this.

A container that is not light-tight is not a camera.  Absolutely light-tight. In the sun. For at least as long as it takes to get to your picture and back to the darkroom.  We all worry about it being dark and cloudy on workshop day, but the Sun is a vengeful benefactor.  Most problems with light leaks occur when the sun shines on the joint where you open and close the camera to insert and remove the photo-sensitive material.

It also has to be repeatably opened and closed in safelight conditions, which to most people is going to seem very dark.

Cylindrical packages of all kinds are still available to use, but instead of this kind of close fitting top of the antique oatmeal box, they now have plastic lids of one sort of another, which aren't close to light tight.

I've used La Choy Noodle Cans in a couple of workshops.  The top is not light tight. One way to light-proof is with a piece of opaque black plastic (at least six mil) you can place that over the can and hold it on with the lid and a rubber band.  If you use of lot of photographic paper, you probably have lot's of this stuff, but the only way you can buy by itself is in huge rolls used by the construction industry for about 70 bucks apiece.

I've heard of people using tin foil for this purpose, but I've had a little trouble with regular weight foil.  Once it creases, it creates cracks so you might get one or two exposures out of a piece of foil, but if you're going to take a lot of pictures, you're going to have to replace it quite often. Heavy duty aluminum foil would be safer.  It's also shiny so it's going to reduce contrast a bit as noted above.

I discovered a surprisingly effective method to make cameras from tin cans. Normal can openers cut through the lid itself, distorting it and leaving a sharp edge.  Oxo makes a can opener that splits the rolled joint where the side joins the top. It's not sharp at all, and it reseals almost seamlessly. Paint the inside black and you're all ready to go. I'd be careful to constrain it with a few pieces of tape or a strong rubber band when it was loaded, but I was really surprised that it worked.  But you gotta have the Oxo can opener.

Paint cans have light-proof lids, if you're careful about keeping them relatively clean when you're using the paint. Paint stores often have clean empties you can buy.

Forming a sharp image on a curved back is one of those unique pinhole characteristics that is almost impossible to do with a lens. It should be noted to use semi-matte or matte paper for a negative in a severely curved image plane, because the curve can focus the light and project a couple vertical lines on the opposite sides of the image.

It gives a very characteristic distortion to the image where horizontal lines that are straight in the scene are curved in the image, such as the clapboards in this self portrait leaning against the side of my house.


It often seems to me like a gimmick to make a different sort of image but they all end up looking sort of the same. (I feel the same way about displaying negatives.)

It can be put to compositional advantage. Here it kind of frames my head.  With careful selection of subjects it can be minimized. Landscapes often don't have straight horizontal lines except for the horizon which will remain straight if the camera is level.

The three inch distance to a 4x5 inch paper is already pretty wide angle (the camera is about four inches from my nose), and the curve makes it almost 180 degrees in the horizontal.  Beginners often can't visualize what this will look like ahead of time, so it's something that should be emphasized. Like any wide angle, encourage them to get closer than they might think necessary.

But it is something unique to pinhole and children often are attracted to this kind of funhouse distortion.


If this is something that seems fun to you I've seen all sorts of cylinders used as cameras including toilet paper roll cores and the boxes that Scotch comes in and each one will provides some kind of unique twist to the image.

Friday, June 17, 2016

A replica of my first pinhole camera

In preparing for the workshop for teachers I'm doing in August, I've been making a few cameras out of existing containers and that got me thinking about the first pinhole camera I ever made. Keep in mind we're dealing with memories that are thirty-five, and sometimes more, years ago.

I don't know when I learned about the concept of pinhole photography. It seems like something I've always known.  It certainly wasn't in school. The closest thing to art class was coloring religious pictures.

I was one of those kids that read the encyclopedia for the fun of it. My parents bought a set of World Book Encyclopedia in 1956.  I used to go to bed with a volume and just browse until I got sleepy. I still have them.

There's no entry on pinhole photography at all and no mention of it in the photography article. In the camera entry, in a graphic titled "How a camera works"  it presents the principle on how the simplest case of a camera, with a pinhole, forms an image, and then explains how a lens does basically the same thing except that the lens "increases the intensity of the light rays."



I can't claim that I remember this diagram, or anything about the article, but I was a kind of nerdy kid so I'm sure I read it.  I had a period in sixth and seventh grade where I used my paper route earnings to buy film and took pictures with my mother's WWII era box camera, but I never considered pinhole.

The first time I can document knowing about pinhole was when I took a college level basic photography course when I worked in a University library right after I graduated from college

The text was Photography by Barbara London Upton and John Upton.

In the chapter titled "Lens", under the heading "Why Lenses are Needed, A Pinhole to Form an Image" are these pages.




The images are by Ansel Adams.  The page on the left is with a pinhole 1/50th of an inch and on the right with an eighth of an inch. The point of the text deals with how exposure is much longer with the small hole than the large one, but the larger image is very blurry.  I definitely remember this.


I know I had some interest in learning about pinhole about 1980 when I was running the AV department and teaching photography in the Art Department at a small liberal arts college on the praire. 


The first on-line periodicals data base, Lockheed Dialog, had just been developed.  The College had gotten a grant to get access to it.  The interface was a teletype machine with an acoustic coupler. You called the mainframe in Chicago on the phone, and typed in the commands on the teletype, and then hung up.  Some time later, you would call back, and the teletype would print out the results.  The librarians (who were very close friends) were really excited about it and bugged everybody to give them things to search for. I came up with pinhole photography.  The results were 4 or 5 pages of standard computer printout paper, but alas, I don't have it anymore.

Also about this time there was an article in Scientific American (which I read only occasionally) about pinhole. Some of it sounds familiar and I remember the references to the pinspeck camera, but I can't say that's what inspired me to make a pinhole camera.

I was reading everything I could get my hands on about photography so who knows what kicked me off.

I used to buy film in 100 foot rolls and load my own cassettes and I figured if that can was light tight enough to store film, it would work as a pinhole camera. I've had this one knocking around for years, most recently full of USB flash drives, to use for a replica.





I remember painting the interior black. I used flat black paint which I had around to stencil the college name on AV equipment. I remember I made the pinhole directly through the container, but I don't remember how. It's made of some pretty stiff stainless steel. This time, I tried to drill through it with a number 10 needle and couldn't make a dent. Back then I had a lot of drawing compasses which have a rather stout points, so I might have used one of those.  This time I got the smallest finishing brad I had around and pounded it with a hammer until I just barely pierced the steel.  It made quite a burr on the back which I reduced with emery paper, but it's a lot harder than brass or aluminum and I just succeeded in dulling it a little. Part of the hole looks square. Duh! Nails have rectangular points!  It measures about a a half millimeter. I'm surprised I got it that small.

In the eighties, we used a lot of Kodalith Graphic Arts film in 35mm format to make graphic slides, and I knew that you could get a continuous tone image by developing it in a dllute mix of Dektol and I could handle it in the darkroom under safelight.  I don't think I took it seriously enough to put a piece of normal film in it and develop normally in a tank, and I never thought of using paper as a negative.

I took it outside and made one exposure, and all I remember about it is that I was disappointed, but why I don't remember exactly and I never used it again..

It is kind of an odd format. For the 4 inch diameter of the can, it's very narrow angle for the inch and three quarters vertical height of the can.  With the paper curved in the back of the can it's quite wide angle horizontally. I'm not sure why I didn't put the film in the bottom and the hole in the top, but one of the unusual things about a pinhole is that you can use a curved film plane and maybe I wanted to try that.

So here's the image I made today with the replica.




I'm not as disappointed in this one as I was then (Although I thought my head was going to be in the picture), but I'm also not very interested in taking more pictures with it.

A couple years later Ruth Thorne-Thomsen came to the college to judge the student art show and gave a Saturday workshop and that got me hooked.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The calm after the storm.

We've been having a pretty rainy June. (It's raining now.)  Over a couple of days we had waves of thunderstorms coming every 10 hours or so.  After one of these, the sun came out and I stepped outside and discovered that the wind was almost completely calm. If I'm a sucker for flowers, it's even worse when the flower is wet.

Just outside the porch door is a pot of calibrachoa.  These are only an inch across so the camera was within an inch or two of them and the exposure was somewhere around 12 seconds, so you can see what I mean about the wind being absent.


Just behind these are the hostas, which were the subjects of some of my favorite photos when I was shooting 4x5 photo paper.


I cought this peony in the act of blossoming.


This one had been open for some time, and as usual, was bent over by the rain.


And the irises, which I had propped up from being knocked over by the rain a week earlier, were still there.


All with the Populist. .15mm pinhole 24mm from 24x36mm frame.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Oshkosh miscellany

Went to Menomonie Park for a walk and stopped by the zoo.  One clear way to make an ass of yourself is to try to get a long exposure photograph of a donkey. This is a miniature horse. After standing still munching hay for about 10 minutes, the donkey decided to move when I opened the shutter.


Ardy and Ed's is an Oshkosh landmark "since 1948" and pretty much unchanged.  The carhops are on roller skates. Kind of rare when you get spot where you're not too close to get it all in the frame, but when there aren't several cars in front of you.


Since the wilt that wiped out impatiens, Sarah has to put geraniums in the window boxes.  Here she is selecting them in the greenhouse at Fernau's.


At Hrnak's, another local Garden Center, she found this giant hanging arrangement on sale for $19.


Last summer I repaired and painted the rest of the garage, but by the time I got to the south wall it was covered with plants, so I waited until this spring. Kind of reminds me of Renoir's nudes, except I'm an old man and do have shorts on.


All with the Populist. .15mm pinhole 24mm from 24x36mm frame.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Workshop camera

For the teachers workshop I'm doing in August, I considered several camera designs, but I ended up deciding to use the trusty 4x5 inch format, 5 inch long camera I've used in almost all the workshops I've done. Before Ruth Thorne-Thomsen gave a workshop at the small liberal arts college on the praire where I was working, she sent me a handwritten sheet with illustrations (which I really wish I still had) with the directions for how to build it so participants could make it ahead of time. It's essentially the same camera she had used for the work she has in major museums (except hers was covered with several layers of tape when I saw it.)


The one on the left was made by a 6th grader who accidentally took home a camera I made instead of his own. (They do look a lot alike).

Yesterday, I picked up the card stock for the August workshop, and made the one on the right.  (Very grateful to Jim Evans of the Art Haus for cutting it into 5 inch strips for me). I love the professional black body look. I haven't made one of these since 2006.  It took me a little over a half hour.

It's basically a 4x5x5 inch box with one end open, and a back that fits snugly into the box. Most of the people whom I've made these with get it light-tight on the first try, and I did too. (Looks like the piece of paper is a little too big.)

If you're interested you can read all about it and how it's made starting on page 5 of my 1991 Guidebook for Teachers.

I chose this camera for a lot of reasons. I don't have any contact with the participants until the workshop happens so I can't get them to bring existing containers, and we don't really have time to mess with lightproofing a bunch of different boxes.  It's long enough there's not much vignetting. I'm kind of a fuddy duddy about curved camera backs. Particularly for beginners, the curving geometry really puts a stamp on the image which I often find distracting from the subject and composition.  Give me a rectilinear, flat film plane any day. It's also very simple to vary the length of this camera, although we won't have time to do that in this workshop.  Rookies often can't previsualize well with extremely wide angle cameras, so the 5 inch length minimizes this, about equivalent to a 35mm lens on a 35mm camera. (Still pretty wide angle though.)

I drilled the pinhole with a .5mm #10 needle in a piece of a Leinengkugel's beer can.  Looks like it's got a little bit of a burr at the bottom, but I was afraid I'd bend it if I got too aggressive with the emery paper.   It's very close to Mr. Pinhole's optimum for this pinhole to paper distance.  That makes it f250. A little slow with sunny day exposures about 1 minute, but I've never had a problem with people not being able to deal with long exposures.
Another thing I haven't done for ten years, except for a few exposures about a month ago, and a few experiments yesterday with a couple other cameras,  is take pictures with black and white photographic paper, so I loaded it up and went out and took some photographs.

Here are some irises that got knocked over by the rain and are leaning on a wire plant support.



Sarah discovered these volunteer grass lilies that some bird apparently planted in the herb garden,


And a peony, also pushed down by the rain conveniently firmly supported by some apparently stiff weeds below it. Since it's pink, I expected it to be darker with photographic paper insensitive to red light.


Looks like it still works. Hope we have a nice, still, sunny day like this when August rolls around.