The pinhole takes us back to the very origins of photography, to a time when great artists like Leonardo de Vinci used the camera obscura to sketch out the foundations of great masterpieces. The design is very simple and there are a number of ways you can try it for yourself. For the “obscura”, cover the window of a room so that it is completely dark inside. Then for the camera poke a small hole in the middle of the covering and hold a piece of paper behind the hole. Presto! you will see an inverted image of the world outside. Then you can play with the focus by moving the paper closer or further from the aperture and you can also experiment with the size of the hole. Also, using semi-transparent wax paper for the experiment will enable you to view the image from behind.
You can also try the camera obscura experiment on a smaller scale using a cardboard box with a pinhole on one end and a wax paper viewing window on the other. However you may also need to drape a cloth over your head and the viewing window to make it dark enough to see the image…just as the early day photographers had to do with their cameras.
As for the hole, size matters and here are some basic guidelines. First, the smaller the hole the sharper the image, but if the hole is too small little light will pass through and the image will be very dim. Second, the greater the distance between the hole and the imaging surface (the focal length) the larger the hole should be.
If you would like to try taking pictures using this ancient technology it’s very simple. Sure you can make pinhole box cameras, or modify old film cameras, but why bother with film in this digital age? All you need is a DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) camera and an extra body cap:
- Drill a hole in the center of the body cap.
- Make tiny hole in a very thin piece of metal.
- Attach your pinhole over the hole in the body cap.
- Take pictures.
Shooting digital pinhole pictures presents several interesting challenges and it largely comes down to trial and error. First you can’t see anything through the DSLR viewfinder so you pretty much have to point the camera in the general direction of your subject, take a picture, and then make adjustments to your composition and exposure. Second, since you’re shooting at an insanely high F stop, exposures are very long, even in bright daylight. Start at 5 seconds and adjust from there. Also, shooting digital pinholes will show you just how dirty your DSLR is inside as any specs of dust on the image sensor will show up as annoying spots on the image.
Finally, the images produced by this technique will be somewhat crude and lacking in fine detail. Almost as if you took them without a lens! But I do like the primitive, atmospheric feel of the photographs and also the challenge of composing shots as elemental blocks of shape and color.