Look Ma, No Lens!: Pinhole Cameras You Can Build Or Buy

All Photos © 2004 John Stewart, All Rights Reserved

A significant number of photographers routinely set aside their computer-designed wonder lenses to make images with pinholes. And why not? It seems like magic when a simple pinhole poked in one end of a shoe box projects a surprisingly clear image on the other end. Unlike other pinhole how-to's you might have read, the procedures mentioned here require no home darkroom work. You'll learn how to "do-it-yourself" at little or no cost or find some fascinating "ready-made" pinhole products. These cameras all use standard roll film, 35mm or Polaroid materials, and some are even digital. Readers without darkrooms can have film processed at any lab or see the results immediately with peel-apart Polaroid film.

A 4x5 film box taped to an old Polaroid camera with bellows removed.

My apologies to those with fully stocked workshops who can quickly build a compound shutter from a coffee can lid, some wood screws, and a ball-point pen spring. This article is for the rest of us. My pinhole cameras were assembled on a kitchen table using pliers, a screwdriver, and lots of tape. Oh yes, safety goggles are recommended when you begin tearing apart old camera bodies. Parts fly everywhere.

You can experience pinhole images in about five minutes. Simply cut a large opening at one end of any box and tape a piece of waxed paper over it. Then take a pin and poke a hole in the other end. With the box tightly closed, aim it at a bright subject and observe the reversed image on the waxed paper. Voila! You are sharing the same experience as seen by devotees of the "camera obscura" hundreds of years ago.

You make a true film camera from the box you are holding by omitting the wax paper screen, placing a piece of black electrical tape over the pinhole, inserting a sheet of film at the far end of the box in total darkness, and taping it shut. Then you place the box on a firm surface and uncover the pinhole for several seconds or minutes. Finally, you cover the pinhole, unload the film in total darkness, and process it. After several repetitions, you get a good idea of what the proper exposure should be. If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. It's time for something easier.

Taken with a homemade 120 pinhole camera. The weak winter sun played over the old chair for about 20 minutes.

Building A "Smart" Pinhole Camera
The single film sheet approach is fine for those with a darkroom and lots of time. I prefer to modify an existing camera so I can shoot more than one pinhole picture per session. This allows trial exposures, and the film can be processed commercially. There are several ways to do this.

The 30-second modification is to simply remove the lens from your SLR and replace it with a pinhole. Use aluminum foil, cardboard, or plastic as your "lens material" to fully cover the large opening where the lens normally goes. (Foil is probably the least attractive choice, as the silver surface can cause internal reflections and flare and you don't want to short out any electrical contacts.) Place the camera on a firm surface or tripod and set the camera shutter on the "B" or Bulb setting for the needed longer exposures. Experiment with a few seconds, half a minute, or longer. Sorry, but you should avoid automatic or programmed settings, as even fuzzy logic automation won't figure this one out.

Another way is to buy a body cap and convert it to a pinhole lens. Some people have simply heated up a pin with a butane lighter and melted a hole through a plastic cap. Of course, if you make a mistake, you have to buy another cap! A better idea is to drill a larger hole in the body cap and fasten a small metal plate with a pinhole over the opening. This also allows you to experiment with pinhole sizes to improve quality (more on that little bit of science later).

Finally, something useful is made from a giveaway camera: a Spamera!

However, before you start melting or drilling, make sure the body cap is truly light-tight. Some bayonet-mount body caps allow light to slip in through the edges. (Ancient Pentax-Praktica thread-mount bodies usually don't have this problem.) Test your lens cap for light-tightness by placing it on the camera and making a bulb exposure for 30 seconds or more in bright light. If the body cap fits tightly, the processed negative should show no light leaks. If it fails this test, seal the edges with black tape to keep all light out. Or consider a better way to mount that pinhole!

T-Mount Adapters
A better way is to buy a T-mount adapter for your camera body. T-mounts look like the back end of a lens and are machined metal so there are no light leaks. T-mounts are normally used with telescopes and some specialty lenses. They are available from most camera stores for all popular brands of camera.

At $20-$30, a T-mount is more expensive than a body cap. But for the "optically curious," it is a great investment as a platform to mount all sorts of lenses and pinhole devices. The T-mount front side is flat, so it is easy to attach cardboard, etc.

If 35mm pinhole images from a home-brew gadget catch your fancy, consider the T-mountable "pinhole lens" from The Pinhole Factory in England. This gadget is made of black anodized metal with a corrosion-proof silver plate in the center. The plate is laser drilled with an f/180 (yes 180!) pinhole and is the equivalent of a 35mm lens. It screws directly into your T-mount. (About $25 from www.pinholesolutions.co.uk.)

And if you've gone this far, consider buying an inexpensive, old mechanical shutter camera body. For example, an old screwmount body with a dead meter costs very little. Some brands to look for are Chinon, Fuji, Ricoh, Praktica, and Pentax. The shutter can be left open for hours if needed with no concern for battery failure. T-mounts for screw-thread cameras are often less expensive than those for bayonet mounts.

Yes, this is a pinhole image taken with the Zero Image camera. Note that the front of the wheel and the building in the distance are both fairly sharp. (ISO 100 120 roll film, 7 seconds in bright light.)

How Low Can You Go?
There are even less expensive ways to make your personal 35mm pinhole camera. A dollar and a trip to any thrift store should get you started.

Anyone who has visited my Krappy Kamera Page (www.acpress.com/ crapcams.htm) knows about those odd little "promotional-quality" cameras flooding the shelves of thrift stores. These dreadful single-element monstrosities are found for $1 and are not worth wasting a roll of film--at least in their original condition. But a few minutes with a screwdriver (or a good tug with a pair of pliers) produces a 35mm camera body that is ready to accept a pinhole lens. Try to find a camera with a tripod mount, as you will need to keep these lightweight bodies steady.

A cut-down soda can, small cardboard box, or just about anything light-tight can be added to the front of the body for experimentation. My 35mm pinhole "concept camera" uses a Spam can with the white interior blackened. Some hot glue and black tape assembled the "Spamera!"

There are other ways to go involving unscrewing lens groups from 35mm lens/shutter cameras, but I will stop here. That's because while the 35mm route is a good introduction to pinhole images, making the jump to a larger negative produces better results. Again, it doesn't have to be expensive and you don't need a machine shop to build a medium format pinhole camera.

Canon EOS Digital Rebel image of an old barn taken with a glass lens.