Pinhole photography

It is theorized that Plato's cave was a camera obscura, Basically a room sized pinhole camera. This page is designed as a gateway to resources on pinhole photography online and as a beginners guide to creating your first camera. A pinhole camera is the most basic form of photography. It is essentially just a box with a small hole at one end and light sensitive materials at the other. Cameras have been made from matchboxes to semi tractor trailers, even inside people's mouths.

  • Materials needed for pinhole camera making:
    Metal Plate for making pinhole (disposable Aluminum baking trays work very well)
    Flat Black Spray paint or UltraFlat black spray paint
    Flat Black Tape (electrical is Ok but Scotch #235 available at photo stores is best)
    Gaffers Tape Black
    Rectangular or cylindrical tin or wooden box (or cardboard, wood or metal to make box)
    10-25 sheets Ilford Multigrade Matte RC (2 students can share a 25 sheet pack**)
    Needle or jewelry drill bit
    very fine grit sandpaper
    a timing device in seconds

The design-
The size of your camera makes a big difference in the kind of image you will get. In simplest terms the closer the pinhole is to the rear of the camera, the wider the angle of view of your camera. Conversely, the further the pinhole is away the more of a telephoto camera you will get. Initially, the box itself must be the size of your final image since you will be making contact prints from the negatives.

The Box-
You must create a COMPLETELY light tight enclosure for your camera. Corrugated cardboard, Metal, wood all work well. Choose the material you are most comfortable with. You can also find pre-fabricated light tight boxes all around you. The front must include a place to put your pinhole plate, the rear must have a way to hold your light sensitive materials. You must be able to get into the camera to remove the light sensitive materials and replace them for the next exposure. Remember to consider the aesthetics of your camera think of it as a piece of sculpture. Design is the balance between function and form.

The pinhole -
itself needs to be as perfectly round as you can make it. DO NOT shove the needle through the metal as this will tear the metal and create more of a gash than a round hole. Instead, place the thread end of the needle in a cork or a pencil eraser to use as a hadle. Securely place (taping it down might help) the metal plate on something firn but soft enough to allow the needle to pierce it, eg: the back of a legal pad. Then carefully and slowly spin the needle into the metal. Take your time!!! You do not need to push the needle all the way through. Instead as soon as the point of the needle emerges from the other side, remove it and use the sandpaper to remove any burrs. Use a loupe to critically analyze your hole. If it is not round, discard it and start over aluminum is very cheap. Mount the plate with the pinhole in it securely to the INSIDE of your light tight box.

The shutter -
You must devise a way to create a shutter that can be opened and closed easily and quickly. Your finger miht work but it is impractical if you choose to take your camera very far away from the darkroom. Black tape will work but over the long run it gums up your pinhole.

loading the camera and Affixing the Photo Paper -
In the darkroom be sure that the darkroom is closed before opening your paper box. Close the shutter that you have devised and open you camera. Double stick tape or rolled up masking tape works to hold the photo papaer to the back of you camera. If you move on to using film you must use something else (I have used photo corners before).

Be sure your first exposures are outside, with the camera sitting firmly on the ground or a stable support. DO NOT TRY TO HAND HOLD the camera on your first pinhole photos.
You can use the meter in your 35mm camera to get a basic light meter reading, remember to use that gray card. Exposure in pinhole photography is really more an art than a science. I generally assume the approximate ISO of photo paper is 5 to 10. Try an exposure of 30 seconds in direct sun or 45 seconds on an overcat day.
To determine the F stop of your pinhole camera you only need to know a few basic things. The formula is f/stop = focal length / diameter. There is an online resource that will do the math for you if you are uncomfortable with basic math, see the F stop calculator.

Here is a list of the typical fstops:
1, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16, 22 ,32, 45, 64, 90, 128, 180, 256, 360, 512, 720...

the Pinhole resource publishes the Pinhole Journal

The Pinhole visions web site has a lot of interesting information collected in one place, especially in the resources area. They have the very useful Pinhole FAQ. They also maintain a mirror of john Grepsted's very informative Pinhole Photography - History, Images, Cameras, Formulas article

Optics in Art David Hockney's Art and Optics book spurred a conference at NYU recently

Jewelry drill bit supply house
Lenox precision pinholes source for precision pinholes
Reciprocity characteristics of Kodak Films

Here are some interesting links:


The Hole Thing Publisher: Morgan & Morgan, Inc.; ASIN: 0871000474;
Pinhole Photography:
Rediscovering a Historic Technique by Eric Renner Focal Press ISBN#0-240-803507
The Beginner's Guide to Pinhole Photography by Jim Shull
How-To Make Three corrugated 8x10 Pinhole Cameras: Wide-angle, Normal, Telephoto by Anita Chernewski

Artist that use pinhole:
Barbara Ess
Adam Fuss
Ruth Thorne Thompson