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Pinhole Cameras

Pinholes old and future

No one knows who made the first pinhole camera, the techniques involved have been used for longer than recorded history. There are ancient caves with upside down paintings of animals that are thought to have been painted using a pinhole effect and paint on the images.

One of the earliest life forms that still exists today is the Nautilus a sea creature whose eye has no lens, and functions in the same way as a pinhole camera with water going through the pinhole.

History records pinhole cameras from many years BC, and at points ever since. The largest completed pinhole camera was a converted F-18 hangar at the closed El Toro fighter base in Irvine, California, USA. The pinhole was 1/4 inch, and the recording made 80 feet away, with an exposure of 35 minutes, the resulting print was 108ft by 85ft, processed in tanks the size of an Olympic swimming pool, with 600 galleons of developer, 1200 gallons of fixer and two fire hydrants with hoses used for the wash.

The pinhole camera is not just something from the past, the largest pinhole camera ever has been commissioned by NASA in February 2008, known as the new worlds mission, at a cost of $3 Billion, a dedicated visible light telescope optimally designed for the task of finding and photographing new planets, the existing earth telescopes being the viewing and recording end.


Two pinhole camera images taken with a Nikon D300, no lens, but a piece of card with a pinhole instead , see how it was done at A pinhole for your DSLR


So what is a Pinhole Camera

As light travels in straight lines, if you have a small enough hole in a wall, then on a screen or surface in a darkened room you get an image displayed. The image is upside down and back to front.

Although there does appear to be evidence of ancient image making using light sensitive material most of the time a man was in the box or room and painted or drew over the image that he could see.

The smaller the hole, the dimmer the image, but also the sharper it is. Ideally the pin hole should be less than 1/100 of the distance from the pinhole to the screen or wall where the image is projected.

There are two points to watch:-

  • An extremely small hole can produce a significant diffraction effect and a less clear image due to the wave properties of light.

  • As the diameter of the hole approaches the thickness of the material in which it is punched, significant vignetting occurs, as less light reaches the edges of the image. This is due to the sides of the hole shading the light coming in at anything other than 90 degrees. Again this is perhaps less likely to occur in our DSLR experiments than with a larger format camera.

While formats like the DX format, used by most Nikon cameras, are ideal for most applications, with pinhole photography large formats will produce better results, simply because they don't need slowing up as much, so using a 10x8 inch plate camera with film or paper will produce a similar quality that is 10x8 to the small sensor size of a digital camera. As materials are expensive and immediate results not available for these you need a pin hole of known size and then you are able to use look up charts or calculators to get the exposure. You will find links to information relating larger formats, optimum designs and calculators in the pinhole cameras - further information   page, however here we want to look more at what we can do with DSLR, and preferably fast and at minimal cost.

Commercially Produced Pinholes

There are a number of people producing pinholes that you can use with your camera, we have some contacts and details of what they offer at the end of pinhole cameras - further information.   For initial experimentation kitchen foil can be used, and some prefer this, the only down side is that the holes are of an unknown size and even ones from the same needle are quite different. So if we wanted to experiment more then perhaps in order to tie down variables to known sizes we could use one or more pinholes that we bought in.  See Pinholes from the Pinhole Factory for information on one set that we have used. We also have a gallery exhibiting images taken with one of the adaptors from the Pinhole Factory - see Stanton Drew Stone Circle - Pinhole Gallery.

Depth of field is not a problem

With pinhole photography, there is no depth of field , everything is as sharp as every other part. So you can have a flower in the foreground and castle in the background and they are both is focus.

How large is the image

The image through a pinhole is about 150 degrees across so very wide, the resulting image area is about 3.5 times the distance from the pinhole to the screen or sensor.  So you are unlikely to run out of image area.

Getting the Exposure

You can calculate the effective f stop for the pinhole camera by dividing the size of the hole by the distance between the pinhole and where the image appears. Usually the f  is a very large number, for example imagine a pinhole camera where the hole is 0.25mm and the length from the pinhole to screen is 100mm then you get f400,  more than 9 stops dimmer than f16, so requiring an exposure more than 9 stops or 512 times as long. It does mean that if you know, using a camera or exposure meter what the exposure would be you can get a fairly good guess at what the exposure with the pinhole camera will be.

You can calculate the f number sequence for stops by doubling the one before last, so in this example we get 16, 22, 32, 44, 64, 88, 128, 176, 256, 352. Stop difference in shutter speed are far simpler being the doubling of time, so if the exposure on the meter or camera, or by sunny 16 rules suggested f16, 1/250 sec at ISO 250, then the exposure would be 2 seconds.

The problems you will discover is in measuring accurately the size of the pinhole, and even if you use the same needle point to produce a number, they will all vary. With sunlight outdoors and reasonable ISO settings of 640 or 800 I have had good results with as short an exposure  as 2 seconds, while indoors with poor reasonable lighting it has been on occasions up to 20 seconds.

If you want to get the exposure experimentally I suggest that outside you start with an ISO of 400 and exposure of 5 seconds. If it is too light, reduce the exposure length if too dark then increase it. If you want to achieve this by looking at the curves on the camera, then try and keep them in the left two thirds, moving to the right by increasing the exposure length and to the left by decreasing it.

Why use it

It won't produce you a quality that you can seriously compare to what you could get with a quality lens, although you can make acceptable images. See the two images at the top of this page, they are magical, considering no lens was used, but not very sharp. While you may improve on this, you are not gong to ever get images that match what you could get with a quality lens.

You may, on rare occasions, find that you can take photographs with this technique that you could not otherwise, perhaps to get both a telephoto effect and unlimited depth of field, or perhaps to correct the perspective stopping buildings from leaning. This is explained in Using a pinhole to simulate the rising front on a camera.

The main reason to use it is in understanding photography better, getting a better grasp of how things work and gaining more control.

Some of us also may answer, just because we can.

Putting pinhole photography into practice

Besides fun photography, today pinhole cameras are used for Solargraphy, looking at the movement of the sun over a period, for photographing and looking at eclipses, and with pinhole cameras being used in security and discreet filming, as they are so hard to detect. A camera obscurer, may use the same technology, often with mirrors, to project an image of something outside onto a dish in a room, but some are far simpler pinhole cameras.

Some pinhole cameras have film or photographic paper that is exposed, but today we can also record the image with a digital camera.

You can create a simple pinhole camera yourself in minutes, so as to optically see the effect, see the article the Pringle tube pinhole camera , although this does not record an image, those who have not seen this technology before will find it exciting and most children think its magical.

You can also buy kits that allow you to build a pinhole camera, see Pinholes from the pinhole factory,  on these.

Your DSLR can also be operated as a pinhole camera quire easily, and we have articles covering different aspects of this:-

The articles above use stationery and kitchen items, without any expenditure, however if you want to get some very low cost items to explore further you could consider purchasing a Pinhole Adaptor this is connected using a T2 adaptor instead of a lens and is a small ready to use device. The pinhole is in the centre, as you would expect.

If you get on well with pinhole photography and decide it merits further experimentation then we have a suggested design that you may like to have a go at, this is made mostly of mountboard, as used for framing photographs. In the article Pinhole Kit Mk3  we have a project to make a device that allows you to change the pinhole and also to slide in vertical or in any other direction you choose. We use 4 bought in pinholes, but these are not expensive. Getting a variety of telephoto images with this is possible by using it in combination with a set of tubes. A sketch of the design with dimensions is in a PDF file available from this article. The pinholes we are using for this are explained in the article Pinholes from the pinhole factory,  information on where to get both the pinholes and the pinhole adaptor, as well as prices is at the end of pinhole cameras - further information.  

See Also:

Pinhole Photography Section

A pinhole for your DSLR

Pringle tube pinhole camera 

Pinhole Kit MK3

Pinhole Adaptor

Pinholes from the Pinhole Factory

Pinhole Cameras - Further Information  

Stanton Drew Stone Circle - Pinhole Gallery


By: Keith Park Section: Pinhole Photography Key:
Page Ref: pinhole_cameras Topic: Pinhole Photography Last Updated: 03/2011

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