Friday, May 18, 2018

Rank heresy - a few lines on digital pinhole

On of my favorite titles in my collection of historical articles about pinhole photography is Rank heresy - a few lines on pinhole work.  It's from Amateur Photographer in 1897, by F.A. Wright who has apparently lost patience, but in a light hearted way, with the overly technical dogmatic attitudes of the audience of that magazine (Trigger warning: He assumes they're all men).

In the 19th century, there were criticisms that wide angle and telephoto lenses were unacceptable distortions of reality.

Dogmatic attitudes about using digital sensors to record a pinhole image are a similar hot topic today.

Several times the coordinating committee of Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day actually held votes to decide whether we should allow submissions of digitally recorded pinhole images. As I've mentioned before Gregg Kemp was somewhat vocal about his disdain for just buying a pinhole in a standard body cap and firing off a few exposures for Pinhole Day.  We always ended up voting to accept digital submissions on artistic freedom grounds. I dislike being told what's proper pinhole practice cough 35mm isn't appropriate for pinhole cough. Several well-known pinholers, including a few of the founders, have submitted digital images for Pinhole Day.

Pinholers are not universally unwelcoming of digital pinhole. On the f295 forum,  one participant, an illustration professor, had made a sudden discovery of handheld digital pinhole and had great fun exploiting it and creating a memorable set of images. Comments were generally positive. There's at least one worker I see on Facebook who is doing some interesting pinhole work exclusively with a digital camera.

Commercially made pinholes that mount on digital cameras have been around a while. Recently I had a conversation with the manufacturer of one of the newer ones. He was enthusiastic about bringing pinhole to the masses whom he said could never get the experience if they had to make their own. I guess. As I said in my reaction to Joe Van Cleave's video on Pinhole Day, any way you get to experience the apparent magic of the pinhole is OK with me. This entrepreneur wanted to "sponsor" Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, but we don't get involved in that kind of partnership (we'll put a link on our Resources page).  I said I could try it out and write about it and post pictures here and he promised to send me one. He never did. probably after I mentioned I wished he would quit calling it a lens. This isn't dogma, it's proper use of a couple of nouns. Words have meaning. Lenses refract light. A pinhole isn't a kind of lens.  Lenses and pinholes are two kinds of image forming objectives.  He said people wouldn't understand the difference. This reminds me of statements like "Of course when I say all men, I mean all women too."

I've been pretty ambivalent toward digital pinhole because I can't make the entire camera myself. I also was a little put off by the little sensors, although I shouldn't be too critical of small formats.

A couple years ago, Sarah bought a Nikon D750, and it's a pretty impressive camera. More to the point it has a full size 24x36mm sensor, and even at ISO's like 6400 it's practically grain/noise free.

My curiosity and a desire to pass myself off as a pinhole expert finally got to me.

And typical of pinhole, it turns out it's typically cheap and easy to do it yourself, although there's a couple ready-made options that are pretty cheap on the market.

I got a ProMaster Nikon body cap for $6.99 at my local camera store.

I didn't want to haul out my electric drill so I half-heartedly poked an X-acto Knife in the center and started spinning it and in a few seconds, I had drilled about a quarter inch hole quite cleanly.

The biggest scare headline to do with digital pinhole is that you'll get dust on your sensor.  Haven't these people ever used a UV filter? You might reply that's putting glass in the way. A filter isn't a lens either, it doesn't focus by refracting light.

I took the UV filter off the 50mm lens on my Mamiya-Sekor 1000DTL (which hasn't seen film since the meter failed in 1978 and I got my Canon F-1). The filter has a lens hood screwed permanently on to it, but I think the hood is short enough to be out of the way, and that should help some with flare, and it looks cool mounted on the new Nikon. In a nod to tradition, I attached the pinhole and the filter
 to the body cap with real 3M #235 although that wasn't necessary because it doesn't need to be light tight, and any tape that would hold would have worked.

The Nikon mount is a little closer to the image plane than most SLRs, about 40mm.  Mr. Pinhole gives .267mm as optimal, but after 3 attempts and making holes too big, when I got this nice looking .20mm, I just decided to go ahead with that one and taped it to the inside of the body cap. I've used smaller than "optimum'' pinholes with good results before.  As much as I go on about how easy pinhole is, drilling smaller holes is a bit tricky, and it's even harder to measure them.  But it's not that hard.

If that image and the story looks familiar, that pinhole is now mounted on Thin Lizzy.

I did mount it on the camera once and took one image just to see what it would take to get the exposure, but I just can't get interested in trying it. I've often described my practice of pinhole as being like an obsessive-compulsive disorder, and I'm just not compelled by using the digital camera. I did mount another pinhole on the body cap and it's sitting in my backpack and maybe I'll play with it sometime.

One of the things I was curious about was video, but Joe's YouTube piece mentioned above demonstrated that you could pretty easily make video, so that blew my curiosity.

One of the things that discouraged me was the size and weight of the camera. If I can get just as pinholey images with my 3 ounce cameras, why haul around this 2 pound chunk of Titanium that I can't just toss in my backpack.

One of the truisms you often hear from large format photographers is how the forced discipline it takes to work with a large piece of film results in more considered composition.  I think this is one of the benefits of pinhole, and film in general, too.

The limitless exposures and immediate feedback of digital can lead to shooting endless variations without really considering what you're trying to capture. The simple fact that you're spending some money on every frame makes film a more compelling experience. Although to be fair, you can buy a lot of film and processing for the cost of a full frame DSLR, and you can get really nice car for what a medium format digital camera goes for.

You have to consider intensity of the light and determine the length of exposure.  Even though I use Pinhole Assist on my iPhone to do that, it is a separate step you have to take. With the 35mm Populist I usually just guess, but that's still different than letting the camera do it.

Pinhole usually has no real preview of what's hitting the film plane, except by indirect methods such as the sighting triangles I use. That forces you to pre-visualize the scene and carefully adjust the camera's pointing and position to match what you hope to record. I recently read a photo column about how to revive your creativity that suggested getting a pinhole body cap for just this reason.

I certainly don't mean this as a blanket condemnation of digital photography. You'll notice that I use the D750 to document my cameras for the blog and I'll repeat that most basic of all concepts, it's not the camera that takes the picture, it's the photographer. When photography was part of my job, I would have killed for the latitude and speed of a digital sensor, and not having to stop and change film every 36 exposures would have been nice to not have to plan ahead for.

There is also a lot of mentally and philosophically satisfying depth to making your own cameras and working with film that you won't get with a digital body cap.

But capturing the image isn't the only part of film photography. You also have to make the positive. My reaction to displaying negatives is that it's kind of a gimmick, although it occurred to me reviewing Pinhole Day images that most of the kids submitting negatives had never seen one before.

One attitude that bothers me a lot about some pinhole images I see is that somehow the flaws of pinhole are what makes it charming. I see people displaying images that are low contrast, have blown out highlights in the middle and drop out to black at the edges, are covered with dust and scratches and claim as a badge of honor that the image was completely unmanipulated. I guess if I see a shitty print, I don't really care if it's unmanipulated.

I often see guilty apologies that an image was "lightly" adjusted with digital tools. I never see analog printmakers apologize that they use variable contrast papers, burn and dodge and make a dozen draft prints before they're happy with the final product.

I hear people talk about how they find darkroom work relaxing. It always made me tense as I piled up multiple variations that were almost good enough.

I scan my negatives and adjust them liberally with digital tools. My goal is to get the best image out of the negative that I can. I'm a bit of an old fashioned fuddy-duddy and in my mind, I'm trying to give a you-are-there feeling to my images.  I scan using VueScan with a $200 flatbed at 48 bits per pixel at 1800 dpi for 120 negatives and 2400 dpi for 35mm. I use an older version of Photoshop I got back in the days of educator discounts. The newest version of the open-source GIMP supports higher bit depths now and I might switch to that. I don't add or subtract parts out of the scene. I do rotate and crop to correct for a non-level camera. I balance color, adjust contrast and burn and dodge quite a bit. A favorite trick is using the shadows setting of the burning tool, which I always think of as my realism tool. I retouch for dust and emulsion flaws at full resolution.

Getting this quality would have cost a fortune with analog methods. I value the affordability of digital editing and printing that makes high quality work accessible to a wide population who don't have access to a printing darkroom and can't afford their own and the associated costs of paper and chemistry.

The digital file is usually the end product of my work, and the way others see my images is this blog (and when I occasionally get around to it, Flickr). I don't really have the ambition to go through the process of juried shows, and I'm old enough that I'm reconciled to the fact I'm not going to be a famous photographer.

I don't do it very often, but if I am going to make prints, I have them output digitally by my local camera store, and I'm happy with how they match what I see on the screen. A couple of times for gifts, I've made books on Lulu, and it's kind of a charge to hold a book of your photographs. Especially from this 20th century graphic artist's perspective, it's also really inexpensive. The whole book costs significantly less than a single Match Print.

I hear a lot about how the disciplined craft of analog printmaking and unique nature of each print makes the results more valuable and I agree that's true, but nobody is going to buy my prints no matter how great they are, so having a pile in a box that no one but me sees really doesn't seem valuable.

Now get off my lawn and go out and take some pinhole photographs with whatever method you get off on.


  1. I like your idea of protecting the sensor from dust by shooting through a “window” of a clear filter. Might have to try that. My mirrorless cameras always have dust issues because the sensor isn’t protected by the mirror when removing the lens, unlike a DSLR.

    Regarding imperfections, the Pinwide body cap for micro-4/3 places the pinhole behind the lens mount, inside the body, which causes color shift on the edges, because the sensor sites aren’t optimized for those off-axis rays using micro-lenses and other strategies, as with Leica digital M cameras. So converting my color-shifted files to monochrome is one way to fix the problem.

    How many digital pinhole images would you have to make, to pay off the cost of the camera, as compared to shooting color film and paying for processing? An interesting intellectual exercise to justify using a digital camera for pinhole!

    I enjoyed this post, keep up the good work.

    1. Using 120 6x6cm to calculate. Film and developing averages about $11 a roll (if you scan them yourself). Current price for a D750 body is about $1400 (you can make your own body cap for less than $10), so that comes out to 127 rolls of film or about 1524 pictures before you're ahead on a per-exposure cost. Assuming I shoot 25 rolls of film a year, that's 5 years of use.

  2. I did make a camera by hand and drill my own pinhole for WPPD. But, at the same time, I sent my film away to be processed and scanned, and I slighty tweaked (with the Gimp) the resulting jpeg photo that i chose for submission.

    Next year, I intend to shoot b&w film and develop it myself and find some way to scan it myself. I don't see myself making a print in a darkroom, however, but I would feel a little less guilty about violating what I imagine the spirit of WPPD to be if I went the step further of developing my film.

    My feelings about the "purity" aspect of pinholery aside, I have to say that I still enjoy the completely digital photos in the WPPD gallery; I'm still getting that slice of life on the last Sunday in April from places and people all over the world. That part is still a thrill, regardless of the equipment and methods used.