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pinhole cameraCan you imagine life without cameras, with no way to record memories of faces and places? Modern photography has been with us since 1839, and in that time has become increasingly sophisticated, moving away from special chemicals and paper in favour of digital technology.

We no longer need to carry around Polaroid instant cameras or take films to be developed at special shops, and the quirks and oddities of old cameras with their gunpowder flashes and metal developing plates are long gone.

Yet we still try to recreate the look and feel of these images using filter tools for desktop and mobile apps! The fact is there is a certain charm about the old school cameras that people just love to replicate. But you don’t need digital technology to do this – thanks to the simplicity of pinhole cameras it can be done with just a cardboard box!

Pinholes & Camera Obscuras

The mechanics behind a pinhole camera are simple. Man has known for hundreds of years that a small aperture in a cave, building or other dark space will lead to an image of the area outside being projected inside.

A result of this fascinating phenomenon is the camera obscura, the room-as-camera that you often see in science museums (an example of which can be seen in the classic movie A Matter of Life and Death). These rooms are usually painted white with a very small opening for light to rush in, although in some cases the image is manipulated with mirrors and lenses to appear on a particular area.

If you have a suitable room at home – one with brightly painted walls that can be shut off from light completely – you can create your own camera obscura. All you need is to black out your windows with wood or card, but create a small round hole in the covering, perhaps using a pin (or if the wood is thick, a fine drill bit).

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pinhole camera

Note that unless a lens is used, the resulting image will be upside down!

It’s amazing to think that this technique was used by artists in the past to paint landscapes and murals. With a little bit of rejigging, camera obscuras can be used for several other purposes, such as viewing eclipses and taking photos.

Viewing Solar Eclipses

As you should know if you have successfully reached adulthood, you should never look directly at the sun. More crucially, you should never look at the sun through a telescope, binoculars or camera lens.

So how can people actually view solar eclipses? It’s actually remarkably simple, requiring perhaps a long tube (you might use packaging for posters or other long objects, taping two together is recommended to achieve the right focal length), a pin and a viewing area.

Viewing a solar eclipse with one of these devices means correctly positioning it so that your alignment captures the sun through the pinhole. The light will then run down the tube to a small “screen” area at the other end.

Pinholes in camera obscuras, eclipse viewers and pinhole cameras can be achieved by covering a larger hole with tin foil and then pricking the foil once with a pin.

At the other end of the tube you should insert a white surface (plain paper or card) which can be used for viewing the projection. Finally, cut a small door in the side of the tube, close enough to the end to be able to view the projection. You will then be able to view an eclipse – but only on the white surface. You mustn’t look through the pinhole!

Building a Pinhole Camera

There are many different types of pinhole camera that you can build. From coffee tins to shoe boxes to pre-printed card constructs that you can make yourself, putting together a pinhole camera from junk items you have around the house is simple.

how to make a pinhole camera

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Coffee Can Pinhole Camera – like the oatmeal box shown here, a pinhole camera can be constructed from a coffee tin.
  • Gift Box Camera – pretty much any type of box, from shoe boxes to matchboxes, can be used to create a pinhole camera.
  • Tin Spamera – featuring some additional mechanics in the shape of film winders, both the object used and the clever name are striking.

Finally, if you’re having problems getting the focus and brightness right, this useful calculator should help.

Tips For Pinhole Camera Images

There are three ways in which you can capture images created by a pinhole camera. The first is to insert a piece of film (or a film reel, assuming the necessary winding components are present) onto which the negative image will be projected through the aperture. Once created, this can be used to create a photograph using traditional photographic development methods.

how to make a pinhole camera

The second is to use a photographic paper (such as those coated with bromide or other photo-reactive substances) in place of the film. For both of these methods, the pinhole camera must be sealed so that no light can leak in from anywhere other than the aperture. Rubber sealant, black tape and foam padding can all be used to help with this, as can basic black paint. Once the photo is taken, you will need to develop the image using appropriate development chemicals for the selected paper type. You can find film and paper at photographic suppliers or on eBay.

A third method is to simply use a piece of card – as you would with the eclipse viewer – and add a viewing port so that you might take a look at the image or even line up your smartphone camera to snap the naturally created pinhole image.

Get Snapping

There are many ways in which a pinhole can be used to create an image, from the camera obscura to viewing solar eclipses. Most impressively, however, is the pinhole camera which can be created from the most basic discarded objects around the home.

pinhole camera

Even if you can’t find any suitable components or don’t have the tools to make a camera, you can still purchase pinhole camera devices. These might be professionally built or flat-packed for you to build yourself.

Whichever pinhole device you elect, you will find that the initial results might not suit your requirements exactly. For a home-built kit, for example, you might find that the focal length or diameter of the pinhole is creating images that are too bright or too dark. In this situation, take advantage of the calculator tool.

Have fun snapping!

Diagram Image Via Wikimedia Commons, Equipment Image Via Wikimedia Commons, Pinhole Images Via Wikimedia Commons, Pinhole Camera Via Wikimedia Commons, Pinhole Photo of New York Via Matt Callow

  1. LeeH
    September 13, 2016 at 3:44 am

    At boy scout camp a tall tower made from wood and rope ended up being a convenient hight for a pinhole solar eclipse viewer. The pinhole had to be in a large enough piece to shade the viewing area on the ground

    • Christian Cawley
      September 13, 2016 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Lee!

  2. Cathy Horner
    July 27, 2012 at 8:01 pm

    One day while walking down the stairs in my home I was surprised to see an image of trees and sky on the wall . Turned out light was streaming through the old fashion key hole from a closed door in the hallway and creating an obscura!

  3. Shawn Ashree Baba
    July 18, 2012 at 1:05 am

    This is a great fun project to try. Anything photography related is right up my alley.

  4. Austin Halsell
    July 9, 2012 at 3:09 pm

    A friend and I did this a few times on a bigger scale while he was in film school. He got a little obsessed and we ended up making larger scale pinhole cameras out a tent, his bedroom, and a living room. It's a trip to be inside one when you turn out the lights and the image slowly brightens and clears up. Good article Christian, thanks for reminding me of those fun little projects.

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