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.


  1. Aaah the joys of bulk film loaders!, Great stuff Nick Justin