Do this at home: A Digital Pinhole Camera

Some hipster friends want me to tutor their son and some of his friends in the ways of manhood.  Actually, the way they explained it, their son (friend to my son, same age) is studying chemistry, and they are looking to make the subject a bit more interesting.  They would like me to develop a ten-week science program for fifth grade boys.  The course would focus on chemistry, physics, electronics, and engineering, which to me means lighting fires, making stink bombs, shooting photos, launching rockets, building robots, and lashing towers.  See?  The ways of manhood (women always welcome).  Anyhow, the whole idea of formally teaching my friends’ children seems a little strange, but also maybe fun.  I’m going to give it a try.

So I’ve been thinking about interesting ways to engage these boys with science, and this has had me thinking about pinhole cameras.  Interested in converting my own digital camera into a pinhole camera, I searched around for details and found some good info by the people at Make Magazine.   I combined bits of ideas from a bunch of sources, and finally settled on the process below.  It is really very easy, and something that should definitely be tried at home.


First I take the SLR’s body cap and find its center.  I do this by cutting out a circle of paper the same size as the cap.  I fold that in half twice to find the center, and I drill a 1/4″ hole into the cap.


Then I use a sharp chisel to  clean the hole and scrape away some of the raised lettering on the inside of the cap.


The pinhole will pass through a thin metal shim made from a beer can.


I cut off the top…


… and the bottom…


… and cut out a small square.


A simple sewing needle pressed into a pencil eraser will produce the hole.


I ‘drill’ into the metal with a gentle twisting motion, careful not to press all the way through.  Then I flip the square and using 1000 grit sandpaper, I sand away the dimple formed by the needle.  I shape the hole a little bit with the needle, careful not to press it all the way through.  The hole should be very tiny, smaller than the widest diameter of the needle.  Only half of the tapered point of the needle should penetrate the hole.  The tinier the better!


This is the needle hole.  The hole in this image is too big, and produced photos that were too blurry.  In the search for the ideal hole size, I ended up making three different pricked plates.


With electricians’ tape I mount the pinhole plate to the inside of the cap.


I then mount the cap to the camera.  That is all it takes to make a digital pinhole camera.  A lensless camera!


The size of a pinhole aperture is way smaller than the smallest mechanical aperture in a normal SLR lens.  This means that pinhole exposures take a long time to create.  The image above is an 8 second exposure.  I was able to sit on the ladder half way through the shot.  Ultimately I felt this image was too blurry, so I returned to the desk and made a smaller pinhole plate.


The new pinhole was tiny enough to get the sharpness I was looking for.


So I walked a bit around the neighborhood to shoot some photos.




This is my sad little garden.  Everything has gone to seed!


This is my sad little Hope sticker.


While the pinhole camera doesn’t shoot sharp, everything is in uniform focus, no matter how close or how far.  The camera has nearly infinite depth of field, which made focusing on these coils of hose, just a couple of inches from the pinhole, a new possibility that would only otherwise be possible with an expensive macro lens.  Also cool, the flat profile of the pinhole lens allows me to place the camera in locations where a typical body and lens would never fit.


This was a twenty minute exposure taken at night.  The streaks of light through the air are the trails of the airplanes approaching LAX.  The longer exposure at night, at a higher ISO setting, generated a lot of visual noise, which created the grainy texture of the image.


Here is a five minute exposure of Susan reading the news.  Her movements over the five minutes create the ghostly look, while everything else comes into relatively sharp focus.


The next day, in the bright CA sunshine, I experiment with shorter exposures of a few seconds.  In this shot I experiment shooting while I am walking.


Local sights.


Here is a good example of the pinhole camera’s nearly infinite depth of field.


I always enjoy shooting graffiti.  Cliche, I know, but fun.



I like shooting trash.  Between my back yard, which still contains construction debris from many years of projects, and the piles of trash on the streets, I have plenty to look at.


The plywood surface of a weathered table.


My neighbor’s dog.


Where some bricks meet stucco.


My kitchen sink.


A box.


I don’t know how this one got so sharp!  This is another great example of the infinite DOF.



When I look through a pinhole camera, so little light comes through that I can only see an image on the brightest day.  This forces me to point and shoot from the hip (or from a tripod), without a real understanding of what the camera ‘sees.’  I enjoy this as a creative process, as its unpredictability yields a lot of surprises.  The imperfections that the pinhole lens introduces to the photograph are gorgeous, and the authentic result of this physical phenomenon.


Lots of constructions debris.



Using a flash is a great advantage of digital pinhole photography over other pinhole techniques.  These family portraits were all shot at 1/40th of a second, which is close to the speed that a skilled photographer can shoot a hand-held shot.  The light from the flash falls off very quickly, exposing the faces, but leaving the background an inky black.  Susan.






Me again, kissing me, in a mirror.


Trying to show Susan, somewhat unconvincingly, that I prefer kissing her.

All of the photos in this post were shot in Camera RAW, a file format capable of recording a wide  dynamic range of of light values, which means that RAW images capture more detail in shadows and highlights than other file types.  Much of this detail can only be found once the image is loaded into a digital darkroom, where the photographer uses a program like Adobe’s Lightroom 2 (my favorite) to balance the dynamic range.  All RAW images require processing in much the same way that traditional film requires processing.  Unlike film, all selection of filters and film type (B&W or Color) is typically done in the computer, far from the field.  This naturally raises questions about photo manipulation and photographic authenticity.  I personally enjoy shooting images that hold an interesting emotional space, and I have no qualms with using our collective relationship with film, as a medium, to draw upon historical associations we make with certain film stocks and film processing techniques.  Unfortunately, where something seems naturally authentic about the photographic alchemy that results from chemical processes, a serious bit of that authenticity gets lost when the computer is creating a digital approximation of the chemical darkroom process.  But this is the reality of digital photography.  Programs like Lightroom allow the user to manipulate the whole image (there is very little selective editing) to create a unique ‘exposure.’  In this post I create three different kinds of exposures (not including the didactic sequence of photos documenting the pinhole making process).  They are — filtered black and white images, Split tone color images, and Split tone black and white images.  In all of the split toning I use a yellow filter for the highlights, and a blue filter for the shadows.  And last of all, where you see vignetting, I added that.  I was really hoping to get some great natural vignetting from the pinhole, but its size and space from the camera sensor did note create the effect I was hoping for.  So I added it, which even by my own lax standards, is borderline photography heresy.  I apologize to purists, but I will continue to experiment with the pinhole until I get the authentic vignetting I am looking for.

8 responses to “Do this at home: A Digital Pinhole Camera”

  1. Stella says:

    This is brilliant.

  2. Ess to the Gee says:

    Thanks! I feel so vastly inspired by this.

  3. Marleyfan says:

    This was very cool, I may just try it…

  4. Tim says:

    So simple and yet so cool. I love this sort of mechanical “hack” into the digital.

    My favorite pics are the first one of palm trees and the deep field one with the tires and the gas station sign.

    However . . . Wittekirke? “F*ck that sh*t! Pabst! Blue! Ribbon!”

  5. Wittekirke, Pabst, whatever. Beer is best in a can.

  6. LP says:

    This is so cool! I love the ones showing the depth of field, especially the one of the 76 station. And the hose closeup — there’s something so right about being able to create these effects with a beer can and needle, as opposed to expensive lenses. Thanks, Rogan.

  7. Dave says:

    I love these, but the fake vignetting is dirty pool

  8. 7: The vignetting is just shameful. It is like shoving the Star Spangled Banner, religion and apple pie down someone’s throat (does anyone else find the rise of the ‘shove it down our throats’ metaphor, in the wake of the health care debates, to be grossly amusing?)… maybe not that extreme, but pretty close.