Pinhole’s Progress; A Legendary Legacy Lives On

Does it really matter how you get the picture on a piece of paper? Why not take a holiday from all the gadgetry and take a journey back in time with me and thousands of others and have some fun without worrying about things like Live View, megapixels, and more. In fact, don’t even worry about a lens! Try pinhole photography.

Pinhole photography, long popular in Japan and China, has caught on with a vengeance here in the US. Witness the groups on Flickr (you can see some of my photos on Flickr at: or the Internet dedicated to pinholes (almost 2 million possible locations) or the manufacturers of pinhole cameras worldwide. Even Holgas have succumbed to pinhole mania.

From left to right, my favorite pinhole cameras: the 8Banners all-metal variable format; the teak Zero 2000 6x6 Deluxe; the Zero 4x5 with two extensions and includes variable-sized pinholes as well as zone plates; and the pinhole Holga which at less than $50 is a great starter camera.

What Makes It A Pinhole Camera?
A pinhole camera is simply any container that can be made light-tight and will accept film. Film sizes vary from 20x24 on converted suitcases down to the old 110 film size. (Actually, a pinhole photograph was made using an aircraft hangar as a camera in 2006——a bit unwieldy for our purposes.) Pinhole cameras use a pinhole for a lens. These can be anything from a small pin-sized hole punched in aluminum foil or brass to precise laser-drilled pinholes available from a number of manufacturers.

Because the depth of field in a pinhole photograph is nearly infinite, structures and other near/far perspectives make interesting subjects. Additionally, if you can add in moving objects, like this small fountain in the bottom of the picture, it adds interest to the overall photograph.
All Photos © 2009, Hugh O. Smith, All Rights Reserved

The cameras range from homemade to custom-made collectibles. Being seriously do-it-yourself challenged, I elect to buy mine. (Caveat: Buy from a reputable camera maker as some of these are absolute monsters that look good on the outside, but are horrible as takers.)

My favorite cameras come from Zernike Au of Zero Image ( in Hong Kong. He makes a range of precision and innovative pinhole cameras from 35mm to 4x5. All of these are teak, with brass fittings, and are a joy to use. I have several of his cameras, including a Zero 4x5 multi focal length and a Zero 2000 6x6 Deluxe (my favorite).

(Top): My favorite camera is a teak wood Zero 2000 6x6 Deluxe. It’s small, beautifully engineered, and the most reliable of my pinhole cameras. (Center): Taking the top and back off the Zero 2000 6x6 Deluxe. Here is a view from the backside, showing a roll of Fujifilm Superia being loaded. No pressure plate, no frame counters, no lens! (Above): The completely “disassembled” Zero 2000 6x6 Deluxe. Not much to show here. The simplicity is pretty much all there is! The camera “guts” include, well, film spools. Note the brass exposure scale on the back. This is a really nice touch by the engineer, Zernike Au, at Zero Image.

Then there are the pinhole cameras that can only be described as art. My favorites are the Chamaeleons from Juergen Kollman (see his Photostream on Flickr at: These can only be described as sensual, beautiful pieces of art that are photographically well engineered if you can afford the price that rivals some low-end D-SLRs!

I have bought a lot of these cameras (and been burned a lot, as well) by both the good and the bad designers, so let me caution the first-time buyer, be really careful when you buy. I have a few expensive horror stories to relate. Buy from a reputable dealer like Zero Image or Leonardo. Some so-called custom craftsmen are not photographers! (Some can’t even use the post office.) You can find a lot of good buys on eBay, too.

Various stages of loading the Zero 2000 6x6 Deluxe.

Why Pinhole?
I love pinhole cameras because they actually slow you down. Inherently, they require that you actually perform some thinking about and examining of your subject. You won’t shoot any stock car races with these things because with ISO 100 film your exposures on the brightest days will range from 1-2 seconds. But, therein lies part of the appeal of pinholes. If you choose a subject with some movement in the scene as well as some static subject, the results can be amazingly artistic. Moving water is a favorite subject of most pinholers.

Keep in mind that most pinhole cameras have pinholes that equal f/135 or more. My Zero 4x5 with two extensions has an f/stop of 235! Exposures start getting pretty long at this end of the scale. If you take into account reciprocity failure, some exposures can run 90 minutes!

This interesting all-metal camera was made in Mainland China. It sports a viewfinder (a “no-no” for pinhole purists), a compass (don’t ask), a specially designed shutter, and a bubble level. Internally, it has baffles that convert it from a 6x4.5 to a 6x6. It’s truly a “state of the art” low-tech pinhole. Unfortunately, 8Banners has closed their factories and these are now
a memory.