Pinhole Photography

Pinhole photography is basically nothing more than taking a photograph through a hole the size of a pin. It has been around as long as photography has been around, and for 2000 years or so before that painters used a similar technique in order, for example, to paint murals. They used a dark room with a tiny hole on one side that projected the outside scene on the opposite wall. Sounds familiar? Good! I have just described a Camera Obscura. Pinhole photography is basically the same thing. Pinhole lenses are relatively easy to make, you take a piece of aluminium foil, punch a tiny, pin-sized hole in it, and mount it on the camera instead of a lens, making sure that the hole is as round as possible and centered in front of the sensor. Alternatively, you can buy a pinhole lens for your camera. That’s what I did.

25 Sec. Exp.

There are formulas to calculate the ideal diameter of the pinhole. (there is even an app for that) which varies according to the focal length or, in this case, the distance from the foil to the sensor. As a rule of thumb, the shorter the distance, the smaller the ideal hole. For a 50mm equivalent for instance, the hole size should be between 0.25 mm and 0.30 mm. That tiny hole functions as an aperture on a normal lens, but much smaller.  We deal with apertures in the f195 – f200 range here instead of the normal range of f2.8 to f16 or there about for a 50mm lens. Now, in photography, the smaller the aperture, the larger the part of the image that is in focus, so one would think that with an aperture of f195, everything would be in focus and, technically speaking, it is. However, there is a snake in the grass, and that is diffraction. Nothing in the image is sharp. Even though you can see detail, it is always a little fuzzy. Without getting too technical here, that fuzziness is because light rays have the ability to bend around flat surfaces, but by doing so, the light rays become slightly distorted and are not exactly aligned anymore. This is called diffraction and causes the image to look a little fuzzy. The same phenomena occurs also with normal lenses and becomes generally noticeable with apertures smaller than f16 or so, depending on the lens. Using a larger or smaller hole size than the ideal hole size will also influence the sharpness in a negative way.

2.5 Sec. Exp.

The other thing is that the camera does not communicate with the lens. There is nothing to communicate with: it’s a hole in foil! No adjustments, no electronics, no light meter. Nothing. The only technical thing you need to do is to set your camera on manual and, once you are ready to go, calculate the shutter speed based on the Sunny f16 rule (or with a separate light meter).

For those who don’t know what the Sunny f16 rule is, this assumes that on a sunny day, the aperture will be f16 and the corresponding shutter speed will be the closest setting to the ISO being used. So, if you use ISO 100, the shutter speed will be 1/125 sec., based on full stops. If there is cloud covering and the subject is in the shade, but still very bright, the aperture will be f11 with a shutter speed of 1/125 sec., severe overcast will be f8 with 1/125 sec., and so on.

30 Sec. Exp.

Since a pinhole has a fixed diameter, it is not the aperture that changes, only the shutter speed. The ISO setting can be left at 100 ISO. Of course, the thing is that you are not using f16 or any of the “normal” apertures, but f195 or so. This means that whatever shutter speed you came up with needs to be recalculated to the shutter speed corresponding to f195. Because of this awfully small aperture, your 1/125 sec. shutter speed can easily turn into 3, 4, 5 seconds exposure or longer. Fear not though, there are smart phone apps that can help you with those calculations.

Keep in mind that because of the tiny hole size, the viewfinder will be dark and so will the life view. (if your camera has that option). There are two ways to solve this problem; there are manufactured pinhole lenses available with the different hole sizes built in. With these lenses, you can use a larger hole size to compose and then readjust the lens to the ideal hole size or the size of your choice. The other option is to compose with a regular lens and then switch to the pinhole lens to make the exposure.

60 Sec. Exp.

So, why in the world go through all this trouble for a fuzzy picture, you ask? But what a fuzzy picture it will be! It could be an acquired taste, but there is something special about a pinhole photograph, and pinhole photography is great fun. It is old school, sure, but this step back in time makes you realize what photography is all about: light, composition, and your imagination.

Rudy Umans

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4 Comments on "Pinhole Photography"

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schlem
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Digital pinhole is often disappointing unless your sensor is huge. It would be nice if you at least mentioned using film, a state-of-the-art artist medium that still rivals digital sensors for exposure latitude, resolution, and vibrancy. The “savings” from shooting pinhole digitally hardly outweighs the quality of film pinhole. There are also abundant (film) pinhole camera designs that you can build or buy, ready to shoot. I’m not trying to troll you, but your overview of pinhole photography is woefully incomplete. I’d be happy to share some pinhole photos that are not fuzzy.

rudyumans
Member
rudyumans
Digital pinhole is different than film and the article is meant as an introduction for people who use digital equipment they are familiar with and not for the happy few who know pinhole photography inside and out and use film and/or dedicated cameras. Of course I could have elaborated on all those dedicated cameras and systems and why film gives different results, but that might have become too technical and I didn’t want to write a book. Whether digital pinhole is disappointing or not depends on the expectations. let me assure you that most people I talk too are not… Read more »
reevephotos
Member

This is a nice introduction to pinhole photography, Rudy, and your final sentence says it all really.
I have played around with my little Recesky TLR pinhole 35mm film camera (see here) which adds another dimension to pinhole photography in that you also get that excitement of getting the prints back from the photolab (or, in my case arguing with them that yes, I do want every shot printed as they’re meant to be fuzzy!)

Be creative.

Delores Malcomson
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Delores Malcomson

Great article! Fascinating technique! Wonderful photo examples!

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