In this article, I will be guiding you through the construction of a simple pinhole camera out of a cardboard box, which uses photographic paper to make photographs. Pinhole photography is a fascinating branch of photography which has its roots back at before the beginnings of both optics and imaging (neither of which are likely to have been discovered without the pinhole phenomenon). Search the subject on the web, there are some excellent explanations out there.
Your initial result might not be as “advanced” as the 8×10 version below but it will be a start!
A useful basis for a pinhole camera is a simple cardboard box – hence this article/how-to. It simplifies getting everything lined up and, importantly, is light-tight. Enlarging paper boxes are a good size and (funnily enough) match the paper they contained.
Along with my easy-to-follow build instructions, I’ll also be showing you how you can make your own pinholes (for that 100% DIY feeling), as well as providing you with examples of 6×6, 6×12 pinhole camera conversions to hopefully demonstrate how the basic ideas laid out here can be applied to something other than a cardboard camera. Here’s what I cover:
Table of contents
Before the build
Step one of this build will be to gather your materials and find a suitable box. I use an empty sheet film box as shown in the images further below but almost any size will do. Enlarging paper is a useful medium to use to capture your photographs, as it is easier to trim to size, load and process under a darkroom safelight than film. However, you can work with whatever you feel most comfortable with.
At the very least, for this project, you will need the following on hand:
- A suitable box to form the basis of your camera.
- Some lengths of card.
- Adhesive tape.
- Masking or painter’s tape.
- Black felt/flocking material (self-adhesive is ideal).
- A straight edge.
- A craft knife.
- Blu-tack or something else to hold the paper or film in place in the camera.
If you plan on making your own pinholes, you will also need various sized pins, a thin sheet of brass or kitchen foil and maybe a cork. More on that later.
Note: because the card used here was white, I employed the use of self-adhesive, black felt as needed to black out the camera interior. Most craft shops will have something to suit.
Constructing the “box” aka the camera body
The basic construction uses the top and bottom of the photo paper box with a construct of card separating them (the box “sides”). This is fabricated from bits you may have lying around. In the case of this example, the waste cut-out from a framing matte was used. Ideally, black card saves time but anything will do as long as it is covered with black material.
Step one then, is to make the box sides – four in total, all cut to the same width. The width of the strips will be your focal length – 90mm in this case – and will determine the size of the pinhole you’ll need. A 90mm focal length is fairly standard for a 4×5 wide angle but much wider or narrower angles are possible, of course. It is up to you what you choose.
Bear in mind: the shorter your focal length, the smaller the pinhole needs to be, whilst a longer focal length will need a larger one. There is a formula to calculate the optimum size but you can use as a rule of thumb 0.1mm plus 0.1mm per 100mm focal length. So this 90mm box needs roughly a 0.2mm pinhole, a 200mm 0.3mm and so on.
The shape and clean-ness of the pinhole are just as important as its size. For some thoughts on making one, see further below. You can also buy ready made ones from retailers such as Pinhole Solutions and RealitySoSubtle, both of whom will also oﬀer advice on sizes along with bits and pieces, amongst other retailers.
Make sure you cut the sides to a length that gives a really snug fit in the box base and tape all around the joint with the box and up to the corners. A dense black tape is good here.
If the card needs blacking out, line the box with felt then line the inside edge of the lid with felt and a strip around the perimeter to make a really light-tight joint. With black card, it is best to tape the inside of the corners too.
Next, we move on to installing the pinhole.
Position your selected pinhole centrally on the lid and cut a small hole in the lid, fixing the pinhole over it. Details on various options to construct a pinhole follow in the next section.
With the pinhole installed, cover the rest of the inside of the lid with felt with a hole for the pinhole of course.
Place four flattened blobs of Blu-tack to hold the paper or film in place. For larger film or paper formats more blobs will be needed to keep everything flat.
Building the shutter
All that remains is to make a shutter, which at it’s most basic level simply needs tape and black paper. I find masking tape/painters tape is best because it retains its tackiness after being peeled off and stuck on over and over again. Additional strips of tape on the box lid protect the card from being scuﬀed and make opening and closing easier (see photos below). The black paper prevents light from entering before you want it to.
A more elaborate sliding or pivoting cover can be devised if you wish but for this very simple build, we’re just going to attach some thick rubber bands to pull the components of the camera together and help keep it light tight:
At the most basic level, your camera is complete and you can load it and start using it to make photographs. It honestly is that simple and with all the materials to hand before the build, should take no more than an hour of your time.
The rest of this article will be dealing with making a pinhole for your camera (three easy methods), as well as sample images from cameras I have made and notes on making exposures.
Making the pinhole
The favoured method is to take a piece of thin brass and make a small dent in it with a needle or pin but not going through the metal. Then, with a fine emery paper, rub over the dent from the protruding side until a tiny hole is formed which should be circular. A bigger dent will give a bigger hole and so on.
You can try making many pinholes on a single sheet before cutting the one(s) you want for use.
A slightly more considered method is to use a cork with a needle of the diameter needed. Cut the point oﬀ the needle to make it flat (a hacksaw or a Dremel or the like with a cutting disk is useful here but protect your eyes).
For the pinhole material, a thin brass sheet or kitchen foil is normally used.
Push the needle lengthwise through the cork, flattened end down, and place the end of the cork over the brass or foil, with a firm wood or plastic sheet below it. Then tap the end of the needle lightly with a hammer so that it punches through the metal or foil.
Important: keep holding the cork firmly against the sheet whilst withdrawing the needle. Pliers can be useful here. The object is to prevent the cork moving as the needle is withdrawn to preserve a clean hole.
Alternative method: Just go for it. Tap a needle through kitchen foil a few times and see what you get.
Check and choose
With all three methods, make a number of holes in whatever sheet material you decide to use in a fairly wide spacing and number each one with a marker. Place the sheet in a flat-bed scanner and scan at its maximum resolution.
The result should show you which is the cleanest hole. You can draw a circular lasso in Photoshop around the hole to find its size to allow you to select the best one.
Notes on pinhole exposure
Your exposures will be long, so the camera will need to be firmly located. Assume enlarging paper is around ISO 2-4 and with Multigrade, a pale yellow filter over the pinhole will give better gradation.
Because of the length of exposure usually needed, the exposure that tables or a meter might give will be hopelessly out. Reciprocity failure is a fact of life with long exposures on film or paper. What this means is that exposure time must be increased the longer the exposure time becomes.
Exposure may seem a bit daunting at first but is quite simple, really. Effectively, you need to adjust the exposure time you establish with a meter or tables to match the much smaller aperture of the pinhole. I have added a Jpeg below which may help you. Download it, print it out and stick it on the camera for easy reference. You increase the time to allow for the reduced sensitivity of film at longer exposures and as a rule of thumb, doubling will be close enough.
Bearing in mind that filters can alter contrast, so that if you want to use, say, a 4x red filter held in front of the pinhole to get darker skies, the exposure would be increased by 4x becoming 32 or 64 seconds in the example above. Even more adjustment for reciprocity is needed, so these figures should probably be doubled again. Within limits, it is probably wise to err on the generous side where exposure is concerned.
Other pinhole camera builds/modifications
The finished camera for this build is simple, very simple. Using the basic premise outlined here, can start easy and then move onto more complex builds/modifications as your confidence grows. Some examples:
I’ve included a few sample photos below, which were taken on film and paper in 4×5, 612 and 6×6 format below.
I hope this article helps as an introduction to this absorbing side of photography and gives you as much pleasure as I have had over the years. I also hope that it covers the essentials but if you have any questions or comments please get in touch.
The beauty of pinhole photography is its simplicity and flexibility helped along by the latitude and behaviour of film materials. So don’t worry too much about absolute precision and enjoy the process. Its charm is in the serendipitous results.
I have tried various combinations, slits and multiple pinholes, whilst very long exposures over days and months have been given. Heliography it is called. I have seen images made with tiny cameras whist others have been room size and larger. You are only limited by your imagination.
A good source of inspiration is the gallery pages at the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day website, to which you may want to contribute also. Good luck with building your own camera.
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