pinhole camera


"Pinhole" photograph of Dogfish Head Brewery.

"Pinhole" photograph of Dogfish Head Brewery.

Every good news story or photo caption needs a when, who, where, what and why, and after reading this headline, I have no doubt you are probably seeking answers to those very questions. 

The when. Each year, normally around the third week in April, Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day is celebrated around the planet. In 2013 and 2014, I participated using what would be considered a more traditional pinhole camera, but last year due to planned travel, I had to get a little more creative which you can read about in Making the Best of Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.

The who.  Me and my son. He is the one flying the Solo 3DR.

The who. Me and my son. He is the one flying the Solo 3DR.

The where. I can explain this in two ways. There was the original location of Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware and the final location which came to me while enjoying a few beers after getting kicked out of Cape Henlopen State Park for flying a drone. I suppose I should have seen that coming, but like many initial plans that don't work out, I think the final outcome yielded much better results than the original concept would have. 

Something to consider when taking a pinhole photograph from a drone is that you will be looking through a pinhole when flying the drone. So keeping the drone in sight and close is very important.

Something to consider when taking a pinhole photograph from a drone is that you will be looking through a pinhole when flying the drone. So keeping the drone in sight and close is very important.

The what. This gets complicated and depends largely on your interpretation of what is a pinhole photograph. I'm always looking to try something new and was thinking of ideas on how to build off of last year's photograph when it hit me that I could use a GoPro. And if I was going to use a GoPro, it wasn't a great leap to consider using a drone. 

A few problems that I didn't consider. The GoPro has a fixed lens and even though I thought I was smart and ordered a lens cap, which I planned to drill a hole in, I didn't consider that there was still going to be a lens. Traditionally pinhole cameras don't have a lens. And then the surprise when I placed the cap, now with a small hole in it, over the lens and saw that instead of a wonderful slightly out of focus pinhole image, I was seeing a small dot made by placing a lens cap with a hole in it over the lens. So much for that. Experimenting with the size of the hole and adjustment of the lens cap I finally achieved the results you see in the top photograph, what I'm calling a pinhole photograph.

Non-pinhole photograph of Dogfish Head Brewery in Milton, Delaware, taken by Patrick Williams.

The why. I'll avoid the very snarky response of why not. But really, why not. When I rediscovered pinhole photography it was about trying something different, exploring new ideas, getting out of my comfort zone. It was never about making a perfect image or adding income to my bottom line. So why a drone? It was something I hadn't seen done before, seemed a little crazy, and I had nothing to lose.

Of course, you still might be asking a simple question. Is this really a pinhole photograph? The short answer is no, of course not. But if you read this far and some crazy ideas are making their way into your head, then I suspect you really don't care whether it's a true pinhole photo or not. I know I don't.


Pinhole #4

Pinhole photograph of the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. 

April 28th was

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day

 and I thought I would let you know what I did that day and then a little more about what I've been up to since I first posted about pinhole photography on this blog last month in a post titled:



Since I knew I would be in Pittsburgh for the weekend, I loaded my camera on Thursday night and began to figure out what I would photograph on Sunday the 28th. When the day arrived it was raining and just not very nice out, but I had to make do right? I've been experimenting with exposure times over the last month and in my previous two attempts, 40 seconds was too much in bright sun and two and half minutes was not enough indoors under a mixture of natural and artificial light. I've since come across lots of resources to help solve the exposure problem and look forward to sharing as the pinhole experiments continue.

Phipps Conservatory

28mm photograph from same location as pinhole camera which has a focal length of 76mm.

For a location, I decided to photograph the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens located in Schenley Park, one of Pittsburgh's largest greenspaces. Built in 1893, this great steel and glass Victorian greenhouse seemed like the perfect subject for my pinhole photograph.

My pinhole mounted on a bogen tripod placed atop a parking box.

I mounted the pinhole camera to a

Bogen table top tripod w/ ball head

 and placed it atop a parking meter box in order to gain some height.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this particular pinhole camera was built from a kit that I received as a Christmas present about ten years ago. I applied a custom paint job and added a new base made from 5/8" MDF board so that I could attach a

1/4"-20 T-Nut

 in order to mount to a tripod.

Inside the wood box that makes up my pinhole camera is a paper sleeve that both holds the photographic paper in place and also is where the actual pin hole is located. The hole was produced using a #10 sewing needle which equates to 0.457mm, pretty standard for a pinhole camera. However, poking a needle through the paper sleeve does not produce a very clean hole so I plan on substituting a piece of metal, probably brass, in which I will drill a slightly larger .346mm hole, giving me an f-stop of 220, based on a focal length of 76mm. I'll go into this more in future posts.

Also since my last post, I exhausted the chemicals and paper that came with the kit, so I ordered

Ilford rapid fixer


Ilford Multigrade paper developer


Ilford Multigrade IV RC Deluxe

 5"x7" paper with a pearl finish from

. I cut the paper into 3"x3" sheets and mix the chemicals per directions.

My pinhole photograph from Sunday, along with a description can be found on the

 website. Even though it is under exposed by about 15 seconds, at least I had something to submit.

Looking forward to writing more about pinhole in the future, possibly spinning off another blog. More to come.


Photograph of

"Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation," was on temporary display in New York's Madison Square Park.

I received a pinhole camera kit for Christmas about ten years ago and remember thinking what a really cool gift it was and that I couldn't wait to build this camera and start taking photographs. However, even before I started building the camera, I couldn't help thinking about what would be the first thing I photographed. And that's where my thoughts stopped.

So the kit was put away in a desk drawer and although I would often come across it during the past decade, I still couldn't imagine taking that first photo.

Then earlier this month I came across a tweet about a camera obscura on display in New York City's Madison Square Park and all of a sudden I realized that I now had the perfect first photograph for my pinhole camera. A pinhole photograph of a pinhole camera. That was it.

Contents of Pinhole photography kit from Flights of Fancy.

Wood pinhole photography kit complete with everything you need to develop your photographs.

Artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder set up this 10x10-foot walk-in camera they dubbed " Topsy-Turvy: A Camera Obscura Installation,” in the Flat Iron district of New York City to educate the public. The exhibit was on display through April 5th.

I retrieved the kit from my desk and started looking through the instructions while at the same time planning my day trip to New York. The kit came with everything I needed to construct the camera, plus everything I needed to develop the paper. I wasn't even deterred when I noticed the developer and fixer had expired in 2008.

The pinhole camera was simple to construct and took about 15 minutes to build. I did make a slight modification to the finished camera by adding a 1/2-inch piece of MDF board to the bottom of the camera so I could insert a1/4"-20 T-Nut so I could attach my camera to a tripod.

Photograph of my pinhole camera with the camera obscura in the background.

Almost complete pinhole camera. Still need to finish the paint job and make additional modifications to the base.

The last thing I did was dig through the attic and find my old darkroom safelight, a Kodak Model B. The kit does provide a red sheet of plastic that could be placed over a light source in case you don't have access to a safelight.

The night before I left for New York I went into the darkroom/bathroom, plugged in the safelight and loaded a 3x3 inch piece of photographic paper into the camera.

I arrived in New York around 10:30 a.m. the next day and walked the nine blocks to Madison Square Park and quickly located the camera obscura at the south end of the park aimed at the historic Flat Iron Building. A couple was just exiting the camera when I arrived so along with the attendant I stepped inside and after a few minutes my eyes adjusted and the surrounding area came into focus. To me, it is fascinating to realize that this is exactly what it would look like if I could step inside the small pinhole camera I had in my bag.

When I exited the camera I walked around the area for a while thinking about the photograph I was about to take. I literally only had one shot and not having used this camera before I wasn't sure what the focal length would be or how long of an exposure to use. The pamphlet that came with the kit did offer suggested exposure times based on the available light.

A photograph that shows the relation between my pinhole camera and the camera obscura.

My pinhole camera all set to take a 45-second exposure of the camera obscura.

I placed the pinhole camera on a light stand I brought along to act as a tripod, took a deep breath, waited for some park goers to get out of the way and then pushed aside the little door covering the pinhole and started the countdown. The pamphlet recommended a 30-second exposure in bright sunlight. I settled on a 45-second exposure because of some open shade in the park.

After I closed the cover I was done. Seemed anticlimactic. I stuck the box back into my bag and went about the rest of the day taking photos of New York City.

I returned home around 11:45 that night and briefly thought that I should wait until the next day to process the photograph, but soon realized that was not going to happen. So once again I set up my makeshift darkroom and went about mixing the developer and fixer. The last time I was in a darkroom was 1997 but when I smelled the fixer it was like I was there yesterday.

A pinhole photograph after being converted from a negative to a positive using Lightroom 4.

Pinhole #1.

I opened the camera and retrieved the paper negative and placed it in the developer and... Nothing! I started to panic and question whether I had put the paper in camera correctly or perhaps not made a long enough exposure. Then I remembered that the chemicals were five years past the date of best use. So after a couple of minutes of not seeing an image appear I added some additional developer and finally Pinhole #1 revealed itself in the miniature tray.

A view of the Flat Iron neighbor as seen on the wall inside the camera obscura.

The Flat Iron Building at left as seen upside down and backward inside the camera obscura.

Just like the image I saw on the wall inside Topsy-Turvy, the image you will get is a negative and reversed. There are two options to correct this. The first is to place the paper with the negative image face down over another sheet of photographic paper, place a piece of glass or plexiglass over both sheets of paper and expose them to white light, then process the paper as before. Remember, everything with the exception of turning on the white light must be done under a safelight in the darkroom.

The second method and the one that I choose is to photograph the pinhole photograph with a digital camera and then using a program such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop, flip the tone curve and rotate horizontally to get a corrected image. I explained this process in my blog post about using your digital camera to copy old negatives. I have some exciting things planned for this pinhole camera and with camera obscuras in the future, so keep reading this blog and be sure to follow me on Twitter.


Adirondack camera obscura in Saranac Lake, N.Y.

During a recent vacation to the Adirondacks, I came across thiscamera obscura overlooking Lake Flower in Saranac Lake, N.Y. I've been a big fan of these large camera obscuras since I first visited Scotland and Edinburgh's camera obscura, located on the Royal Mile, many years ago.

From Wikipedia: The camera obscura (Latin; camera for "vaulted chamber/room", obscura for "dark", together "darkened chamber/room"; plural.)

The simplest of these can be a pinhole camera, where light passes through a tiny hole, sometimes made using a pin, hence the name and the scene is then projected and reproduced, upside down, onto the rear of the box.

Edinburgh's camera obscura.

The more complicated camera obscuras use lenses to provide a wider aperture, allowing for more light and better focus. And if you add mirrors, you can correct the image and provide a sharp image with color and perspective preserved. As is the case with the Edinburgh camera and the one I visited in Saranac Lake, the lens is located in a turret-like structure on the roof which can allow you to rotate the camera, thus changing the scene displayed on a table located in the center of the room.

View of Lake Flower from inside Adirondak camera obscura.

I've long toyed with the idea of building a mobile camera obscura using a small 5' by 8' cargo trailer or even a small travel trailer. The idea would be to travel the country with the mobile camera obscura in tow taking photos of various landmarks. Additionally, it could be used for educational outreach, visiting schools, youth organizations, etc., in order to spread the word about photography.

Of course my family thinks I'm nuts and that may be the case. However, if you have, or ever see a used cargo or small travel trailer for sale, you know who to contact. Also, if you know of other large camera obscuras out there, I would love to hear about them.