Pinhole Photography - the honest art of photography
26th April 2012
Pinhole photography allows you to strip a camera back to its very basics - allowing you to understand the incredible magic of photography to a greater degree.
It makes every print precious, where every frame is carefully thought out and planned. Yet it's also about the unexpected, where mistakes and accidents should be embraced rather than trying and cover them up and hide them away. It's "honest photography".
As Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day approaches, we catch up with Blipper Mr Pin (aka Andy Brown) to find out more about the excitement, the tingle and anticipation of Pinhole photography... And how to put the buzz back into photography.
I now have five pinhole cameras. I made the first one last Christmas, so I am still a beginner in the pinhole game learning more all the time. The first ones I made were from matchboxes exposing onto 35mm film.
I loved the process and idea of making a camera from such an everyday object. It felt like being in the A-team, but without living as a soldier of fortune and living in the Los Angeles underground - I currently live in South Korea where I am Head of Art in an international school. A long way from my hometown Chelmsford, Essex, (and the LA underground.)
These early pinhole explorations took me back to the excitement, tingle and anticipation of waiting for the prints to come back from the processing lab. With digital photography providing such instant gratification this buzz has gone. Following on from here I decided I wanted to complete the full process and develop prints myself.
Using Chris Keeney's excellent book Pinhole Cameras: A DIY Guide, I made a camera from the box I was given a Christmas present in. It's a bit smaller than a shoe box and takes photographic paper 7x5 inches. I use Elieid Grade 3 paper which produces black and white negatives.
Since making the box camera I have made two more, this time from drink cans. These can give great results due to the paper being curved in the camera, but my favorite camera is the box.
Pinhole photography takes a huge amount of experimentation, patience and trial and error. Through all the experiments with shutter speeds, and learning how to compose a photo without a viewfinder you really have to get to know the camera you have created.
You need to learn how it behaves in various conditions and how to get the best from it. There are online calculators for understanding exposure times which can help, but shutter speeds can vary hugely according to the camera you are using and the type of negative you are making (film or paper).
Using my box camera in sunny conditions an exposure might be as little as 15 seconds but if shooting indoors times can range from 5 minutes for a daylight exposure to anywhere between 1-3 hours in darker spaces.
I develop my paper negatives in my bathroom, it's a relatively cheap and simple process to turn a room into a darkroom, but there are plenty of new things to learn and experiment with before you get it "right". When it does happen however there is nothing like seeing your image magical appear in the developer. Sometimes the image is overexposed and the image appears and quickly disappears into a black cloud, but conversely there are those incredible moments when the image appears and something completely unexpected has happened and you discover a gem! A good example of this was in my Blip entry The Flow where streaks of light appeared seemingly from nowhere!
After developing I scan the image into my computer to invert the colours. The image itself is also reversed, so using a simple photo editing program you can flip it to get it the right way around. Aside from this I keep the image editing as minimal as possible.
Pinhole photography to me is about the unexpected where mistakes and accidents should be embraced rather than trying and cover them up and hide them away. A fingerprint, a scratch, dust, dirt on the negative are all part of the process. It's honest photography.
As a practising artist I always seem to work with portraits. I have found so far however that the box doesn't always produce good images of people. Generally this is down to the practicalities of keeping people still for long periods of time. The best results so far have come from still life objects and interiors. This has been great, being forced to look at new subject matters. Saying this, however, the images I tend to produce always still relate back to the people in my life, so in many ways it's a new way of approaching my favorite thing - people.
Since working with pinholes my view of photography has changed immensely. Previously I'd take my DSLR out and come back with hundred of shots. These days I take my box and cans and take maybe 3 or 5 exposures.
Things are more precious, every frame is carefully thought out and planned. I find the simplicity of this incredibly peaceful and beautiful. Pinhole photography also allows you to strip a camera back to its very basics. Doing so has allowed me to understand the incredible magic of photography to a greater degree.
Lastly I love the fact that there is no such thing as a perfect exposure. A shaky blurred image can be just as good as a crisp still exposure, an over/underexposed image can be just a good as an evenly balanced shot.
With pinholes there is a freedom in the unknown, things are complicated, but also more simple - ultimately you just have to enjoy the ride!
(One of Mr Pin's cameras, taken on a 90 minute exposure)