Back to Basics

You’ve seen them around – those enormous digital SLR cameras that are absolutely bursting with bells and whistles. There’s a huge lens protruding from the front, a big-ass flash charging on the top, and a fat battery pack strapped to the bottom. A touch of the shutter button activates 167 focus points and rapid fires 400 shots of 12 megapixels each. Not quite pocket-sized, each one weighs approximately as much as a 1971 Volkswagen.

Now, let’s imagine the absolute polar opposite to this scenario. Imagine that nothing – even a lens – separates the outside world from your film. It’s a bit difficult to visualize, as your very own eyes even serve as lenses. Pinholes work on one of the most fundamental and basic laws of light: diffraction. As light passes through a small point, it can yield an organized yet vertically reversed image on the other side. Using a very small hole, and a strip of photo-sensitive film, literally anything can be crafted into a camera.


The Science Behind the Magic

As you know, a pinhole camera has no lens. In its place is an extremely small aperture through which exterior light is projected onto sensitive film or paper. A lens functions by collecting the light rays outside, inverting them, and focusing them into a smaller image. These analogue wonders do not focus at all. It merely acts as a "center of projection" inverting the light rays without re-organizing them. The size of the inverted image depends on the distance of the pinhole to the projection surface - a closer distance yields a smaller image and vice-versa. As the hole is not truly a point, it allows more than only one ray from the subject to register on the film. This imparts a characteristic "soft focus" effect. Moreover, as the light is not altered, the pinhole has nearly unlimited depth of field, with reasonably close objects registering at the same sharpness as far away objects. As the pinhole is so tiny, it yields a wide-angle focal view and reproduces true geometrical lines, unlike the usual curved effect of a wide-angle lens. Using larger format film (ex. 120 vs. 35mm) will result in a wider field of vision. The field also widens as the distance of the film from the pinhole grows – although the image will become less sharp as well. Due to the small amount of transmitted light, exposure times are quite long and a tripod or some other method of stabilization is a must. With 400ISO film, you’re looking at about a 2-second exposure in bright sunlight.


The Philosophy of Pinhole

The pinhole enthusiast has something special about them. It’s the girl who takes a wooden camera and tripod out into the freezing cold because “the clouds are moving so fast.” It’s that dude on the subway platform who’s whistling Dixie while he’s simultaneously shooting a 10 minute long image. It’s the total maniac who makes all of his friends hold as still as possible for 5 minutes while he squints and tells them “just wait, it’s going to come out dope!”

While it can be spontaneous and crazy, nothing about pinhole is “convenient.” It’s not supposed to be. In keeping with the utter simplicity of the camera – a successful pinhole shoot requires a certain “cleansing of the mind.” Visualize what a pinhole sees – and a shot that looks boring and mundane through a lens can be dreamlike and mind-blowing through a tiny hole. Here’s an example: any kind of moving object – unless it’s insanely slow – cannot be properly captured by a pinhole. Therefore, you have to see moving things not as true objects, but as potential streaks and blurs on your resulting image. You see, using a pinhole will force your brain into an entirely different mindset. And honestly, you may find it hard to go back. Pinhole can be quite a powerful addiction.


Pinhole and Lomography

Being the wildly curious, hyperactive, globe-trotting, endlessly experimental, and relentlessly shooting individuals that they are, Lomographers are perfect candidates for Pinhole use and mastery. Truly, using a pinhole is the ultimate “shot from the hip.” There’s no viewfinder. The proper exposure is a bit of a guessing game. And absolutely nothing is controlled or automated. Take it from us: after running 100 rolls though your camera, you’ll still be hard pressed to really predict how your resulting image will look. And therein lies the beauty of pinhole. Every trip to the lab is a surprise. For every few blurry or completely screwed up images, there’s one or two which absolutely blow your mind. They shake your entire world from top to bottom – as there’s no way that any normal camera on Earth could create anything like this. After your first roll or two, you’re completely hooked and fully intoxicated with the new world of possibilities before you. And as pinhole photography is endlessly experimental and customizable – this world truly knows no bounds. Lomographers – more than any other people – can truly embrace the significance of this. They’re also some of the only people crazy enough to hump an insane camera and tripod on a family vacation can make everyone else stand around while you set the whole thing up and take a 2 minute long picture of a big-ass rock with some clouds behind it. If they only knew how good it was.


The Neverending Story

The science of Pinhole optics goes back a ways. Although its exact origins are debated, the basic principles are widely credited to China in the 5th century BC. According to several sources, the philosopher Mo Ti was the first to record the formation of an inverted image through a pinhole. Much later, in the 10th century AD and across the world, an Arabian mathematician Ibn Al-Haitam made his own discoveries - that light moves in linear waves and can be projected through small holes. Very nice. Now, fast forward to the European Renaissance, when pinhole truly started to come into its own. Our friend Leonardo DaVinci describes pinhole image formation in his hard-core Codex Atlanticus. In 1580, the Roman papal astronomers used a pinhole-powered observatory to create the newly correct Gregorian calendar. Around the same time, the term "camera obscura" ("dark box") was coined by Johannes Kepler in Austria, and used to describe a room or box with a lens aperture that served to project an outside image onto a wall. Herr Kepler went on to create a portable camera obscura in 1620, a crude predecessor to the more intricate pinhole devices to come.

Sir David Brewster, a scientist from bonnie Scotland, was the first to create a proper Pinhole photograph. He began shooting madly in the early 1850´s, and is also credited with coining the actual phrase "pin-hole." For you 3D-heads out there, you can also thank Sir Brewster for the creation of the modern Stereoscope camera. Following these heady days came a swarm of pinhole sensations - Flinders Petrie´s Egyptian archeological shots in the 1880´s, a wave of Impressionist-style shootings the world over throughout the late 1890´s and early 1900´s, the introduction of the truly commercial Kodak Pinhole camera in the 1960´s, and retro-style artistic musings throughout the 1970´s and 1980´s. Which brings us to today. In the era of megapixels, autofocus, and Photoshop, the pinhole camera holds more charm than ever. It´s sheer simplicity is actually thrilling, and even a little awkward as first you manipulate this completely silent camera and wonder if the shots will actually come out. Yet, out they come! The real excitement comes at the development desk, as you´re awed with the incredible, jewel-like and often unpredictably beautiful images that result. Break from the surgical perfection of ultra-techno photography. Embrace the pinhole´s no-viewfinder, no-exposure, barely-a-shutter, did-it-actually-work? techniques. Get in touch with the very roots of photography, and be rewarded with images that look as fresh and dazzling as ever.


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