It all started with some idle musings between a few photographers. Some were expressing a bit of disdain for the “selfie generation”, which triggered a chain of thought that lead me to a fusion of pop-art and selfies. Surely nothing is more mass produced today than the selfie and yet each one is individual.
This was in autumn of 2018 and I thought it would be fun to spend a couple of evenings putting the concept into practice. Little did I know that it would be many months before I got anything presentable and it would turn into a real journey of discovery.
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The idea seemed simple enough: turn a tin can into a pinhole camera and have it a take a selfie in a mirror. A quick search of the web showed that others had turned cans into pinhole cameras so it could be done, albeit usually with much larger cans.
A normal tinned food can is around 3″ (75mm) in diameter and Mr Pinhole’c calculator gives an optimum pinhole diameter of 0.365 mm for that focal length. I decided to go with 0.3mm because having made pinholes in the past I have found that they often end up over-size presumably due to drill chatter and deburring etc. So, with a set of tungsten carbide drill bits of that size range on hand, the pinhole was sorted.
My next issue was the film. For no better reason than wanting to make sure it looked about the right size and to ensure ease of handling, I decided to go with 120 format roll film. a 6cm wide strip covers something like a third of the back of a standard can. Pretty much all selfies are colour but I had never processed colour film before, so I decided to do the initial test shots in black and white and take it from there.
First, a strip of film had to be cut and for ease of positioning, I decided to cut the film close to the full height of the can, thinking it was bound to capture the image. To cut the film and keep the ends square I used a rotary paper trimmer with a stop blu-tacked in place, all of this had to be done in a dark bag.
The thing with a tin can is that you have to open it to get inside. This means that one end is open. Yes, I know that sounds obvious but it turns out that closing the open end in a light-tight way which cannot be seen when photographed was a bit more of a challenge.
The other issue to solve was how to hold the film inside the can. It tends to curl from being on a roll and being keen to keep things simple, my first attempt was a film holder made from a stepped hardboard lid and double sided tape to stick the film to the can.
After blacking everything out and a few trial runs, it became clear that this approach was never going to work well enough. But the results were tempting, there were in-focus images on the negatives. Here’s an early black and white shot showing a big light leak:
So, it was time to step up a gear and go for a version two film holder! After a bit of head scratching, I hit upon the idea of making an insert that acted as a light seal and a film carrier. As well as keeping things light tight the film holder, could also be reusable across any cans of the same size.
The film holder is made from thin black card bonded to a 12mm plywood disk which is a close fit inside the can. When the can is opened there is a sharp edge around the inside but it is easy to press this flat with a screwdriver and then the plywood disk is cut and sanded down to a close fit with enough allowance for the thickness of the card.
Inside the older are two thin wood battens with bevelled edges, these are fitted just slightly over 6cm apart so they just catch the film when the card is rolled into a tube. The other trick with the film holder is to mark the direction of the centre of the film on the outside top so it can be centred opposite the pinhole after it is removed from the dark bag.
With a can painted black inside, drilled and deburred it was time to get shooting … perhaps making-an-exposure is a better term. The film has to be cut, loaded into the film holder and that loaded into the can all in the dark bag, it’s not as hard as it sounds.
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For the initial tests, I used black PVC tape to cover the pinhole and being a winter project, I made the exposures in a dark room using daylight lightbulbs. The next difficulty was framing, there is no viewfinder and focal length varies with can size, the other issue is that being a pinhole everything is in focus so simple and tidy backgrounds are a must.
Below is an early photo showing the difficulty of framing and another showing a ruler being used both to get the right distance from the mirror (I found around 170mm from film to mirror to be reasonable) and line up the pinhole to flim axis. This also shows a small light leak.
I found that the PVC tape I was using as my lens cap had a tendency to tear some of the can labels and asking around, an acquaintance gave me a neoprene velcro strap which turned out to work really well (you can see it in the “Lighting Setup” picture above.
Obviously, the cans have no viewfinder and I initially had no real idea of the f-stop of the pinhole. A few trials showed that the pinholes were coming in at around f/140. More trial and error got gave some idea of a suitable distance of each can from the mirror the selfie is being taken with.
Having got a feel for exposure times and composition using black and white film, it was time to move on to colour. Most selfies seem to be in colour and pop-art is always vibrant so it just had to be. Whilst I have been processing black and white film for a number of decades I had never done any colour processing. I didn’t think a commercial lab would want to handle a bunch of random-sized pieces of 120 negative, so I bit the bullet and got into colour processing.
Follow the rules and it’s not that hard (I did buy a second hand Jobo rotary processor) and despite the dire warnings, with a bit of care, the chemicals keep for a surprisingly long time. Given the relatively long exposure times, I wanted a 400 ISO film and there aren’t that many 120 colour films at that speed. In the end, I settled on Fujifilm Pro 400H and I am happy with the results.
You may have noticed that a Pot Noodle pot appears in a number of the photos in this article. Having done a few tin cans I thought the Pot Noodle was a worthy subject given its place in popular UK culture but as has been the way of this project, it turned out to be even harder than the cans.
The pot is white translucent plastic and the sides are stepped and sloping, it is also thicker than a metal can which lead to vignetting. More trial and error eventually got a half decent shot out of it.
Having done the Pot Noodle it feels somehow like the experimental phase of this project is more or less over, I am fairly confident in the process and can get reasonably repeatable results.
I do want to do more and I started this project with a Spam can, the associations between Spam and selfies amused me and I think going forwards I might do a series of just Spam.
Thanks for reading,
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