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.