Monday, October 26, 2020

LUMP East in the Age of Coronavirus

Yesterday was the Fall get together and photo walk of the League of Upper Midwest Pinholers. I’m sort of an honorary member. I’ve never made it to one of their events but I try to do something to show my solidarity when they’re getting together in the Twin Cities. This year they had to forego the breakfast portion of the day and met outside at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds in St. Paul where they could interact at a proper social distance. I don’t live in such a grand metropolis so the best I could do was the Winnebago County Fairgrounds.

Lately the fairgrounds is the Covid-19 testing site for the county. In order to safely control traffic, instead of the normal entrance, they’re using the one just down the road normally used during the fair to bring in livestock. There’s no testing on Sundays so I didn’t have to worry about getting in the way.


Wisconsin is one of the current hotspots and Winnebago County one of the hotter spots in the state lately. The parking lot is full of traffic cones defining numbered lanes to keep things organized for the drive-though testing. There’s been over 2500 new cases in the last two weeks with a 13% positivity rate so this has been quite a busy place.

They set up this very makeshift looking booth to register people coming to get tested.


Unlike the Minnesota State Fairgrounds which has been around for over a century and has numerous permanent buildings, Winnebago County’s facility has only been here since about 1990. Other than the animal barns, the only building is the Exhibition Hall.


There is a rather large grandstand which hosts car racing and a few festivals during the rest of the year.

The grandstand itself is fenced-in and locked. I noticed the gate to the inside was open. I went in to get a view of the bleachers.


It had rained nearly three inches from Wednesday through Friday. About the time I got to where I wanted to take the photograph, I noticed about a two inch layer of muddy clay was clinging to my shoes. I didn’t think about it until I got home and most of it had scraped off, so this will have to do for the official footograph.


A group photograph is traditional for this sort of event. I wasn’t within a quarter mile of anyone at the Fairgrounds so I didn’t have to wear the mask but if I had been together with the rest of the League, this is what I would have looked like.


To lighten things up, I’ll include one of my efforts from several years back when my mustache wasn’t entirely grey yet. On the f295 post where they were sharing the results of their walk, I posted this with the comment: “The more I think about being like Minnesota, the more I look like Wisconsin.’


All the black and white images were done with the 55mm front on the 6x9cm Variable Cuboid with Ilford Delta 400 semistand developed in Rodinal 1:100 except for the footograph which was done with the Pinhole Lab Camera at 60mm on Artista.edu grade two paper developed in the Rodinal I had used for the film. The color picture was done with The Populist on 35mm Walgreens' Studio 200.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Autumn Expressionism

I had a conversation the other day with a Product Design student who is developing a pretty neat pinhole camera for her thesis. She wanted to interview pinholers as part of her project. One of the questions she asked is what I liked about pinhole. I talked about the fascination of how the image was formed with such a simple and basic system, how I could build the whole camera myself and the process of carefully previsualizing the picture. One thing I found it harder to express was why I like the images pinholes make. Trying to describe it, the term painterly always comes into my head. When I say that I guiltily recall Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adam’s strident positions on “pure“ photography and rejection of any association with painting or other earlier art forms. That was probably valid in the early 20th century but one of the values one now hears of pinhole and other alternative methods is the need for some variation to that f64 sensibility. 

So now how I’ve come to think of it is that I like paintings that remind me of pinhole photography. That includes Abstract Expressionism.

Riding around on my bicycle recently, like everyone, I’ve been struck by the beauty of the fall colors but also concerned of what a cliché the subject was. Maybe closing in and filling the frame with the foliage to create an abstraction rather than capturing a scenic landscape would be a bit different approach.

A narrow angle camera would facilitate filling the frame with what are some relatively distant objects that are high in the air. Also, my recent work with 2.5 x 10 inch negatives in the Pinhole Lab Camera has gotten me thinking about larger negatives. On a somewhat dark and cloudy afternoon, I set out for a walk around my neighborhood with the 200mm front on the 6x9cm Variable Cuboid loaded with Portra 400.

Red Maples have the starring role in this ecosystem. I usually am a little self-conscious taking photographs in a public place. This time I found it amusing to think about what the rush hour drivers on Jackson Street were thinking about this guy on the curb with the cardboard box on top the tripod.


The branches are as much a graphic element as the brilliant leaves.


A smaller tree contrasted against the green background with the long camera somewhat flattening the perspective.


The transition with just the branch tips lit up is as interesting as the full blown color display.


I couldn’t pass up this little sumac in the middle of a yard brilliantly floating in front of the green background.


Incidentally these are all the entire uncropped negative. I don’t think this one is exactly what I thought I was pointing at but symmetry isn’t always the goal.


Except for the brown hosta, the front of our house isn’t really classically autumnal.


The little tree across the street is probably the most successful abstraction of the lot.


The 200mm front for the 6x9cm Variable Cuboid has a .54mm pinhole.

Monday, October 12, 2020

Playing with pinhole panoramas with a parabolic image plane

I’m usually not interested in curved image planes mostly because I think the barrel distortion of horizontal lines dominates the composition. They all seem to look sort of the same to me. I know if you have a level horizon in a landscape image, it can be almost unnoticeable but that’s a pretty limited case.

It is the one thing that you can do with a pinhole that you can’t do with a lens. The normal attraction of curved film planes is to achieve extremely wide angles without the overwhelming vignetting inherent in very short distances to the pinhole with a flat image plane. To accomplish this, curved cameras are usually designed with an arc of uniform radius so that the pinhole remains exactly the same distance to the image plane, hence the f ratio is uniform across the field.

With the Pinhole Lab Camera, it’s possible to use a piece of paper 10 inches long that, when attached to back of the camera, creates a curve that almost extends to the front of the camera with the distance from the pinhole varying from 120mm to 60mm. (I know it’s not exactly a parabola but I couldn’t resist the alliteration.)

In the center, with a .55mm pinhole, it’s f231. By the time you’re at the front, it’s f109, a four stop difference. Something that modifies this is that in the center, the pinhole is circular from the point of view of the film, but by the time you get to the edge, it’s rather foreshortened into a narrow ellipse. Since what determines exposure is the area of the aperture, it should be passing less light to the film. Would those things cancel out?

I started out with a scene that I thought would have pretty uniform exposure, the little alley in the back of the Frontenac Flats. The levels of this scan have been adjusted to achieve the full range but otherwise there’s no burning or dodging. It does look like the exposure is pretty even across the frame.



Another unique characteristic of this configuration is that in the center of the image, at 120mm from the pinhole, the vertical angle of view is 28 degrees, but where it’s only 60mm from the pinhole it would be 57 degrees. I wondered how it would render something like a narrow courtyard where the back wall would be farther away but the sides would be close to the camera. In the narrow passage in the image above, it makes it look like the sides have been folded away from the camera by some giant. In this one of the wider courtyard behind the Beech building it’s less noticeable.


Sage Hall at the University was built to maximize daylighting to save energy. One feature used to accomplish this is the office wing on the south side has a concave curve to maximize the amount of time the sun shines directly into the windows.  Looks like it’s no match for the curved film plane and the expansion of the angle toward the edges. It looks like it’s curved away from the camera. Incidentally, this was done with the rising pinhole.


Across campus the colonnade in front of Horizon Village has a similar curve but facing more toward the west. The sun would have been shining on the pinhole at this time of day so I gave it a pass. As I got back on my bicycle, I was taken by the view down the curved pathway. This is one of those cases where the curved film plane is almost unnoticeable .


The courtyard in front of the atrium at City Center has trees which hide the corners and it’s hardly apparent that the side walls extend toward the camera.


How about pointing directly into one of those corners? I’m pretty sure the guy at the left had no idea his legs were in the scene. He told me he hadn't seen anyone use "one of those cameras" for a long time. When he was in high school, he knew several people who did in the tiny rural town he was from. 


It’s been a while since I used paper to take photographs and I’ve been a little frustrated at how high contrast is it when I tried to get a scene with sunlit and shadowed areas. I had been using some four year old Arista.edu Grade 2 glossy, but for these panoramas I switched to some fifteen year old Arista.edu Grade 2 semi-matte. I’m stunned how much latitude I’m getting. It took some burning and dodging to get where I wanted, but there’s plenty of detail to be found in the negative in both sunlit and shadowed areas.


And now to change from all the architectural seriousness. I thought this was going to look pretty silly but you can hardly tell it’s distorted.



With these shrunk down to fit the blog format, it’s hard to tell how big these negatives are. I know I’ve been an advocate of small negatives, but I do recognize that large formats have their charms. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Field test of the Pinhole Lab Camera with revised shutter


 I made some minor adjustments, corrected some mistakes on the template and built another copy of the new Pinhole Lab Camera.

The shutter on the earlier copy was just kluged together from a couple older shutters. It turned out the openings were too small and the shutter extended out too far from the front of the camera. When using the widest angle setting with the negative 30mm from the pinhole, it got in the way and blocked a significant bit of the sides leaving just a nearly square image.

I made the openings as large as possible, made beveled cuts on the sides of those openings and the sliding shutter itself and eliminated a layer of cardboard to reduce it’s depth on the front of the camera. I also got rid of any dividers between the holes on the front of the camera.


The shutter was only a problem at the 30mm distance. One issue I encountered in testing it was that the vignetting is so pronounced from the center to the edge at this angle that the image faded to black before it got to the sides. The edges of the frame are twice as far from the pinhole as the center. That translates to four stops. A bit of a challenge for contrasty paper negatives.


I looked for scenes that had lighter backgrounds and with some burning in of the center and dodging the sides, I could tell that it does seem to be wide enough.


The sky gave me a bright enough background to get a significant exposure across the frame and now I can see that the edge of the shutter still impinged the side where the third pinhole, which gives the rising front capability in the vertical orientation, is. The pinholes are 10mm apart. The rising pinhole on James Guerin’s RSS 6x6 camera is 15mm above the axis. I could probably move that pinhole a little farther and get rid of that little bit of blockage.


One time I tried to slide the shutter on that pinhole over a tiny bit to see if I could get it out of the way. The shutter itself is two layers of card stock above the pinhole. The angle of view is so wide that the second pinhole could see through that narrow gap and formed a double image on that side of the frame.


 I really can’t get the shutter any nearer the pinhole and still have the removable pinhole mount, but if I had a little more room between those pinholes and made some internal changes to the shutter, I could put a little baffle on the back of the edge of the shutter and block that gap.

With a curved image plane with a 60mm radius the edges of the negative go all the way to the front of the camera. Quite a bit of the image is blocked although you still have an almost 150 degree angle of view with what’s left. The image area is just slightly wider than with the flat film plane. Of course in this configuration you also have the more uniform exposure since the distance to the pinhole remains the same across the image and, of course, the characteristic distortion of a curved image plane.


With a strip of paper the entire width of the 8x10 sheet of paper curved and attached to the center of the back at the 120mm distance, the edges of the negative don’t quite reach the front of the camera. There is still a bit of blockage. The angle of view is still about 150 degrees but now it’s spread over twice as wide a negative. Another difference is that the angle of view vertically is 28 degrees at the center where it’s 120mm from the pinhole and spreads to 53 degrees at the outside edges where it’s only 60mm away. Pinhole fun, eh?


One thing that’s hard to illustrate in a blog where there’s a limit to the width of the image is how much bigger that 10 inch negative is.

The shutter is no problem at the other lengths. Here it is with the back at 60mm with the camera sitting level on a table using the on-axis pinhole.


Still at 60mm, the camera is mounted on a tripod for this one but I used the on-axis pinhole and just tilted it up to get the whole magnolia in the frame. You can really see the converging verticals in the houses at the sides of the frame.


The utility of the rising front is of course to keep those verticals parallel when photographing a tall structure where otherwise you’d have to tilt the camera to get it in the picture. Again at 60mm with a tripod but this time with the camera carefully leveled and using the rising pinhole. 


One thing I’m pleased about is how reliably the negative can be placed nice and square in the camera. That one was done in a changing bag where I couldn’t see what I was doing. It’s the whole negative with no post-processing rotation. I also switched the pinholes a couple times in the bag and had no trouble.

One of my pet peeves on Pinhole Day is how many images are submitted with the camera sitting level on the ground in the town square. Most of them are intended to be of the city hall or local cathedral, but the surface of the pavement fills the bottom half of the image. This one is at 90mm with the rising pinhole. The camera isn’t quite sitting on the ground - it’s about 7 inches up on an upside down plastic gardening pot leveled with a few twigs under the camera.


Again the camera sitting on the gardening pot, but using the rising pinhole to get the frame a little higher, this time at the 120mm distance to the pinhole.


And again at 120mm with the rising pinhole to keep the walls looking plumb.


All these were done with the .3mm pinholes except for the three done at 120mm for which I used .55mm pinholes. The negatives are Arista.edu grade number 2 glossy paper developed in Ilford paper developer.


Thursday, September 24, 2020

Using an accessory viewfinder

One of the characteristics than defines the Zen of Pinhole is the ability to previsualize a photograph and then, without a viewfinder, place the camera in the right place to capture that scene. I compose the picture in my head and then use sighting triangles to get the camera at the right distance, height and angle.

It works fairly well for me but this is a real source of stress for some people, particularly on Pinhole Day when they won’t get a second chance.

An accessory viewfinder could help with this. It’s very easy to make a little open box exactly the format of the camera, 6 x 6 x 6cm in this case, with a viewing port in the back so you can put your eye in place of the film and see what is framed by the box. If the bottom of the camera and the viewfinder are the same thickness and you have two quick-release adapters for your tripod, you can compose the picture through the viewfinder, switch to the camera and your photograph should match exactly what you saw. 

This isn’t a new idea. Ansel Adams famously sent people out with a cardboard frame to practice composition before letting them use a camera. In my summer pinhole workshops, after the kids had built the front box with the hole for the pinhole cut out, I would send them to look through that for a few minutes to experience the angle of view before mounting the pinhole.

I got the idea of using such a device mounted on the tripod to point the camera from a YouTube video by Huw Alban. He used a digital SLR with a lens set to a certain focal length so the image matched that of his Lerouge pinhole camera. I’ll bet you could do the same thing with a phone.

Sarah found my little box moderately useful on Pinhole Day. I thought I should see how it worked and what it was like to use. It was made to match The Little Black Cube. The Evil Cube is the ugly twin of that camera. I loaded it up and set out to give it a try.

My first stop was on the Ames Point breakwater. I carefully aligned the tree at the left with the edge of the frame. That turned out to match but the negative wasn’t level and I had to rotate this image two degrees. One thing that Sarah and I both noticed is that we wouldn’t lock the tripod head firmly enough and ended up moving it when we made the switch, often without noticing. 



 A couple of times I took a picture with my phone through the viewfinder to verify if the negative actually captured the same view.

It’s not bad. Looks to me like that negative is a little wider horizontally and narrower vertically. That was my impression when checking the sighting triangles as well.


Down to the other end of Millers’ Bay to a sun dappled dock. 

One of the things I had hoped for was to improve my camera leveling. I’m disappointed to see in the iPhone image that I hadn’t leveled the image and subsequently the negative was also tilted. (It’s been rotated to correct that. I really can’t stand a crooked image.) Even a perfect viewfinder won’t correct for a mental mistake. To get the view I wanted, the tripod was set in a precarious position on a slope at the edge of the water. I kept moving it after I aligned the shot with the viewfinder and tried to mount the camera. I had to repeat the process several times. That probably explains missing the tilted horizon.


Across the river for a view of the lonely white sentinel of the Sawdust district. Notice the line of telephone poles along Eighth Avenue. With the viewfinder, I lined one of them up exactly with the front corner of the Miles Kimball building and it looks like that worked.


Most of the rest of the structures from the Sawdust District are now in these piles next to the railroad. What I found most useful about the viewfinder was I could check how near to get to something before unstrapping the tripod from my bicycle and extending it.


Prior to the fire of 1875, one of the fancier neighborhoods in Oshkosh was just east of downtown. This Italianate mansion just escaped the fire which stopped just behind it. The neighborhood is no longer so swank and it’s now divided into apartments. If using the rising front, the viewfinder doesn’t reproduce the exact view vertically of course. I found myself not really trusting it anyway and ended up making adjustments based on the sighting triangles.


A green and red balcony on Boot’s Saloon. Again, a pretty accurate rendition of the view with the box, but again I couldn’t help futzing with the pointing based on the triangles.


It wouldn’t be a proper experiment if there wasn’t a control condition without using the viewfinder. This is my Takara Standard bicycle which I bought with Gerald Ford’s economic stimulus tax rebate in 1975 and commuted on when there wasn’t snow from 1977 to 2007. Originally it had dropped handlebars. I just had the bull horn handlebars put on it to replace some straight ones I put on after I retired. It looked kind of steam punk with those shiny steel straight bars, but now it looks really Metal. I recently went on the farthest and fastest ride since I was in my thirties on it. Looks like the camera was pointed ever so slightly to the left of where I wanted to be, but probably as good as I would have been with the viewfinder.


Isn’t there a meme somewhere about not messing with an old man on a bicycle? I always seem to get a little closer than I want when I’m going to be in the picture and I don’t think the viewfinder would have helped with that.


I found using the viewfinder was just another thing to have to mess with and it didn’t help me that much to visualize the picture or to more accurately point the camera.  For someone just beginning in pinhole photography I can see how it would help on both these issues and make the transition to the Zen of Pinhole a little easier.