Making pinhole cameras from pretty much anything.

God knows, I like to teach people stuff. I also like obsolete tech that requires a minimum of interaction from modern conveniences, like electricity. I joke that the reasons for this is so I can document the end of the world, when people are fighting for generators and bartering for consumables like petrol and batteries, but some people look at me funny when I say things like that. Partially because they’re not entirely sure whether I’m joking or not.

Anyway, I was asked to do a pinhole photography workshop at Exposure Leeds. I can teach people about obsolete tech, which is a total win in my book. I’ve been making pinhole cameras from mint tins and paint cans and syrup tins for a very long time, and I’ve shown many, many people how to make cameras from matchboxes. But I’ve done that before for Exposure Leeds, so wanted to do something slightly different.

Jon managed to get his hands on some coffee cans (thanks to Nick Claiden); you can make pinhole cameras from anything as long as it is light tight. I’ve seen people do it with their mouths, with pumpkins, even an aircraft hanger. The coffee cans were exactly the right size for a piece of 6×4 photo paper, or if you were feeling confident you could mount a 6″ strip of film in there. I had about an hour to show people how to make the cameras, use them, and get the contents developed, so I went with paper.

They also had a screw top, so pretty easy to get in and out of.

First things first, you find the midpoint on the can, then drill a hole there, cover it in tin foil and tape it down with electrical tape. Then I take an acupuncture needle (which I know is no wider than 0.25mm) and poke a hole in the middle of the foil, just once, so light has a single aperture. (You can do whizzy things with multiple holes but it can make things a bit confusing if it’s the first time you’re doing it).

That’s it. Gently cover the hole over with more electrical tape and you are now holding in your hand a very rudimentary camera. Next time you finish off a can of golden syrup, wash it out and have a go at this.

Next, you need to load it. I was using a dark bag but you can do this under a safelight if you like. Just pop a sheet of (unexposed) photosensitive paper in the can, and close the top. That’s it. Remember to do it in the dark or under a red light, and don’t expose your packet of paper to the light. I was using multigrade that expired in 1996 that I picked up on Ebay for a song – really, use whatever you can get your hands on for as little money as possible. This is bucket and vague hand-wavey photography which is all about art and nothing about exactitude and getting reproducable results.

Now it’s all about the exposure. I worked out the aperture to be about f50 or so[1]. Paper is about iso 3. Think about that for a second – if you’re indoors and shooting f22/100iso then you could have an exposure time lasting 30s or more. We’ve got half that size aperture and 1/5 of the film speed, so in the best case indoor photo exposure time will be 20 minutes. Also, there’s reciprocity to think about (but not too hard). Effectively you could make one of these, load it, put it on top of your wardrobe and go to sleep for the night without worrying about it overexposing. Ethereal photos are made this way.

So you take your camera, make a best guess as to exposure time, and leave it, with the tape covering the aperture off, for about that length of time. Then you take the camera into your darkroom (in our case a disabled loo rigged up with three developing trays loaded with dev, stop and fix, and a sink to rinse everything off in, as well as safelights) and because you’ve got no real idea as to exposure you just dunk it in the dev and whip it into the stop as soon as something shows up. Then into the fix, where you can leave it for as long as you like. Don’t forget these are negative images, so bright spots will be dark and dar spots will be bright. And also because of the way apertures work the image will be the wrong way round, left to right. So scan it, flip it and invert the B&W, and you get results. And boy, did we get some results:

Indoor, 22m exposure. It’s still underexposed and overdeveloped as a result, but it’s not bad going.

Image by Andrew Broad

Outdoors, 5m(ish) exposure. Look at that curviture on the brickwork at the bottom of the image! That’s an artefact due to the paper being curved in the can and flattened out – it acts like a massive fisheye lens.

Image by Neil Brennan

One of my favourites is a 2-3m exposure of Holbeck reflected from Oli Wright (seriously, click the link.)

So it was a bit of a success, the workshop. I think 17 people all had a go with making and shooting cameras and getting the results in under an hour, and although as the light dropped the indoor exposure times were taking a lot longer than we were hoping the whole experience was a lot of fun, and hopefully inspiring to the people who took part in it. Personally, I had a whale of a time. I hope I get to run these workshops again, one day soon.

If you’d like me to run this as a workshop then drop me an email for more details.

[1] I messed this up. Aperture was 0.25, focal length – in this case, the distance from the aperture to the paper – was 100mm, which made the f-number f400. Whoops. Exposure times would have been very much wrong there, and whilst in bright sunshine a 2-4m exposure would be perfectly reasonable, indoors would have been two hours for properly exposed shots. Sorry, guys.

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21 Responses to Making pinhole cameras from pretty much anything.

  1. neil brennan says:

    My first attempt at pinhole cameras and i may have the bug, thanks again ๐Ÿ™‚

  2. ikkimassu says:

    Reblogged this on ~ ikkimasuuuuuu ~ and commented:
    Pinhole Camerta… uwaw… Cobain ah~

  3. …sounds like an amazingly fun (and useful) workshop. Teaching is so much fun, don’t ya think? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. What’s not to love about pinholes? Great post.

  5. Yubin says:

    I am going to give it a try. Any alternatives to coffee cans that works equally as well?

    • backwardslion says:

      You could try syrup tins, paint cans, mint tins, shoeboxes – the important thing is to experiment with anything that should be light-tight. Have fun!

  6. Ammon says:

    My favorite part of my high school photography class (nearly 20 years ago!) was when we made and used our very own pinhole cameras. It was a really fun experience and I’d do it again.

  7. Cool.. I want to try this ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Pingback: 48 HITS?! I AM PLEASANTLY SHOCKED, I feel “Wanted” haha… « laughinglouise

  9. cartoonmick says:

    Nothing like getting back to basic concepts.

    Now, how about a crystal set??

  10. great stuff! ive made matchbox pinholes many a time…in fact, ive got complete plans on my blog if you wanna look…but theyre a bit more involved than yor plans…i prefer yours! yep…ive seen the work of some guy who used his mouth as a camera….weird but unique!

  11. Great stuff, also enjoyed that link to Oli’s photo’s on Flickr! Will have to check out exposure leeds when I’m back in the UK

  12. Interesting, I just finished the coffรจ and not yet recycled the can…i’ll give a try…

  13. I made a pinhole camera from a shoe box in high school, it is a lot of fun to try and get just the right image from it. Thanks for sharing!

  14. Nice n interesting post ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Cool. Very cool. Pinholes have an interesting character to them. Please come check out my blog @

  16. L. Palmer says:

    I do a lot of volunteering with Girl Scouts. I’ll have to do this some time as an activity/room for experimentation. There’s so much to learn from the simple methods of doing things.

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