Every year on the summer solstice, the sun is higher in the sky than at any other time in the year. From that point, until the winter solstice in December, every time the sun passes overhead on its journey from dawn to dusk, it’ll be slightly lower in the sky.
But don’t be sad, the chances are that whoever wins the upcoming UK general election*, the sun will begin to the opposite journey from the winter solstice onwards.
* ..if you’re reading this on June 8th 2017, are in the UK and are registered to vote, get out there before you read on any further!
‘If only there were a camera that could show this effect’ I hear you cry. Well film fans, guess what. There is! And it’s simpler than you think…
So how does Solargraphy work?
The cameras are ‘built‘ out of drinks cans, 35mm film canisters, dustbins, or anything else that you can make light tight and put a hole in.
The steps below will walk through how to use a 440ml beer can, which just happens to fit a piece of 7×5″ photographic paper perfectly. If you use something of a different size, you’ll just need to scale up (or down) the paper.
Photographic papers, or paper negatives typically have an ISO of 3, but because the exposure will be so long, the image is ‘burned’ into the paper. This means that no chemicals are required to develop the image, just scanning and inversion to a positive image.
Your exposure can be as long as you wish. If you want to see the progress of the sun, then think in terms of months rather than days. If you have the necessary will power, then recording a full 6 months, from summer to winter solstice, or the reverse, will give the best possible result.
How to make a Solargraph camera
Remove the top of your can with a can opener. Ideally, using thin black card (I only had white to show you in the picture above), cut a circle 6 cm in diameter and a strip 25cm x 7cm with notches cut along one edge.
Use some gaffer/duct tape to assemble a light proof cap on the end of a can by wrapping the strip around the can. Fold the ‘flaps’ onto the top of the can and tape the circle on top.
Using a pin, make a hole halfway up one side of the can, by pushing the pin halfway in.
If you’re a perfectionist, you might want to use a nail file or emery paper to remove any burr from the inside, but don’t worry too much.
Cover the hole with an insulation tape ‘shutter’, then place on the light-tight cap.
Loading the paper
Under a darkroom red light (you could use a rear bike light in the bedroom with the light off, that’ll be fine. Or, use ninja skills and just do it by feel in the dark), insert a 5×7 sheet of semi matt photographic paper curled round the inside of the can with the shiny, emulsion inwards.
Try any photo paper that you can get your hands on. Don’t worry about the expiry date. People rarely go and buy fresh paper for solargraphs, but you could if you like.
The important part is to make sure the paper doesn’t cover the hole (there should be a 1 cm gap). It shouldn’t need securing in place as it should fit well but if you like to wear a belt with your braces, add a bit of sticky tape to hold the paper in place.
This thing is going to be outside for a long time, so seal the cap completely with gaffer tape – you’ll need to keep out rain, snow, mice etc.
Where to put your Solargraph camera
Find a position pointing towards the Sun. Generally this is south in the Northern Hemisphere and North in the Southern Hemisphere.
Google Earth will show you South if you’re not sure, as will the compass app. on your phone. If you are placing the camera in your garden, or attached to your house, flat, or workplace, you’ll probably have a good idea of where the sun rises and sets. The camera is going to give a 160° view, so the main thing is getting it centralised.
Check where the sun is around midday and line your hole up with that and then use plenty of gaffer tape and cable ties to secure it in place.
If you were to tie-wrap a gaffer tape-wrapped beer can in a busy public space, you may well get arrested. At the very least, it’s likely to be removed. Consider more out of the way areas or those with few or no passers by. It’s a good idea to make a label for the can, something along the lines of:
This is a pinhole camera taking a very long exposure.
It contains no hazardous or valuable parts.
It was placed here on __/__/____ and will be removed on __/__/____.
Email me for details…
You get the idea.
It’s worth thinking about what’s going to happen over the coming 6 months.
Solargraphers (I made that up), dream of buildings being demolished as this will give the effect of the sun being blocked from the camera for part of the exposure, and then ‘appearing’ later in the exposure. Check out this project from Leicester Lo-Fi.
Also think that if the tree in front of the camera is bare when you install it (not likely in the summer but still for our antipodean friends), in 6 months time, it’ll be in full leaf and blocking the view.
Once you’re good to go, peel the shutter (sticker) off, go inside and make a note to remove the camera after the Winter solstice (December 21st).
Recovering your image
When the day comes, put some tape back over the pinhole, bring the camera back home and fire up the scanner. Set resolution to about 500ppi and don’t forget that you’ll be scanning reflective paper and not a film negative (if that’s what you usually scan).
With the lights low, take the photo paper out of the camera and place it onto the scanner with a book on top to hold it flat: press scan.
You’ll want to get it right first time, with no preview scan. If you do pre-scan, the paper will respond to the light of the scanner and reduce the contrast of your image (or kill it all together).
Once you’ve got a scan, invert it, flip it horizontally and play around with the contrast and brightness.
That’s it – no processing, no chemicals and no expense really. You should have something that you’ll probably work out orientation for quicker than other viewers, as you’ll be familiar of what the image shows.
You should have, as per the examples above, a series of lines in the sky – one for each day. If there was patchy cloud, you’ll have broken lines. If it rained for a fortnight straight – something familiar to UK readers – you’ll have gaps between lines.
If you don’t have the time to make your own Solargraph camera, I have it on good authority that Sam Cornwell’s recent Solarcan campaign on Kickstarter is on its way to be delivered before the solstice – fingers crossed!
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