Pinhole photography is a lensless form of photography. Essentially, the pinhole camera is a lightproof box with a tiny aperture and a photosensitive material positioned inside. Light passes through the aperture and projects an inverted image onto the interior of the box where the photosensitive material is fixed. You can make a pinhole camera out of practically anything, and the results are unique and often surprising.
Analog ideas in a digital world
Modifying your DSLR camera’s body cap to create a pinhole effect is a simple project that allows for real-time adjustments that the analog process doesn’t. As long as you can spare a body cap you can do this. The lens emulates the distinctive vignette and softness of a pinhole photograph in a fraction of the time and is great for adding an abstract or surreal quality to an image. While the digital technique isn’t the same as a classic biscuit-tin camera, your home-made lens makes for a dynamic approach to a nostalgic analog process. Plus, the unpredictability of the results adds an interesting twist to your digital practice.
You will need:
- A DSLR camera
- One body cap that fits the body of the camera you are going to use
- One drill and a drill bit
- A needle
- Aluminum foil
- Sticky tape
Mark out the center of the body cap and make an indent by pressing the tip of the drill bit into the center mark. It’s important to make a hole in the center of the body cap or you won’t get the full effect. Drill a 1/4″ or 6.35mm hole in the center of the cap. Make sure the hole is clear of any swarf (chips) or sharp ridges left behind by the drill.
Cut a small piece of aluminum foil to fit inside the edges of the cap.
Tape the foil onto the inside of the cap, keeping the sheet taut.
To create an outline of the drilled hole, gently press the foil into the body cap with your finger,
Now, have a look at the outline of the drilled hole. With a small sewing needle, prick a tiny hole in the center of the outline.
The smaller the aperture, the sharper the photograph, so use the very tip of the needle to make a hole. Make sure no foil hangs over the newly pricked hole as this could compromise image quality.
Shooting with your pinhole camera
Before attaching the cap onto the camera body, be sure to thoroughly clean the body cap of dust and residue. Keep a bit of Blu-Tack with you to cover the hole when the camera isn’t in use.
The tiny aperture in our pinhole lens allows significantly less light to hit the sensor than a conventional lens, so exposures must be longer to compensate. When I’m out in the field, I set my ISO to 500 so the sensor will be more sensitive to the light that does reach it, without too much digital noise in the image. I also set my camera to aperture priority (A on Nikon and Sony, and Av for Canon and Pentax) so that I can adjust the exposure easily, and the shutter speed will adjust automatically.
In dark, indoor conditions, my shutter speed settings can go as low as 8 seconds. On bright days outdoors I photograph at 1/30 of a second but shutter speeds of up to 1/8000th of a second can be used to photograph bright subjects like the sun. At first, it will feel a bit trial-and-error, but half the fun is in the experimentation and you will quickly get a feel for it. Tripods are handy, but in-camera movement can have some neat results too, so don’t be afraid to experiment.
Also due to the small aperture of the pinhole lens, dust specks are more visible than images taken with a conventional lens. Don’t panic, it’s not the sign of a dirty sensor! Use Photoshop or a similar program to remove spots via the Spot Healing Tool. While you’re at it, give the colors in your image a bit of a boost with the Curves tool to make your images really pop, or convert an image to black and white for a traditional analog feel.
This project is quick, easy and fun, but it also yields fascinating and unexpected results. Much like its analog counterpart, I found that this method requires the user to relax and enjoy the experimental process and hone in on their photographic senses, rather than pouring over the details.
I found that my best images were the ones I took spontaneously, often having to quickly guess the appropriate exposure and shoot from the hip. Also, I was compelled by the new perspective that the combination of camera movement, long exposure, the limited field of view, and minimal technical adjustment delivered.
Have fun and share your results in the comments below.
This photograph of leafy branches was taken with a 2 second exposure on an overcast day. The soft focus of our modified lens and the moment of the branches lends a painterly quality to the image.