Pinhole Panopticon

Digital photography is simple to execute and very easy to access—the click of a button and we have a perfectly clear picture. One may wonder why we are going to celebrate pinhole photography when digital photography is currently the standard for  capturing images, objects and places. It’s easy to share and print images. As celebrations are scheduled throughout the world for the upcoming Pinhole Photography Day on April 26, are we paying homage to a dying art?

Dying? No. Rare, yes. Traditional photographic techniques have pretty much relegated to fine art photographers these days. My interests primarily focus on the relationship between the symbiotic camera and architecture,” said Bill Helm lead architect at In*Situ Architecture and a true admirer of pinhole photography. “Not only is the camera used as a means to document architecture, the camera itself can be viewed as a type of space if you think of the camera obscura (a fancy name for a pinhole camera). Likewise, architectural spaces can be thought of as cameras if you consider the ways that they frame views or create apertures for daylight.”

The camera obscura is an invention dating as far back as 989 A.D. when it was given that name by Arabian scholar Hassan ibn Hassan. The concept behind the camera obscura is quite simple: a small hole placed in one side of a light-tight box through which the light from a well lit scene enters to form an inverted image on the side of the box opposite the hole and is recorded on photographic paper.

The image that the camera produces is panoramic in nature because it’s capturing the space that it is in but it is not a panoramic in the true sense because it’s recording each side of the room and its flipping that image as it passes through the camera. Because it’s recorded on the photographic paper, what you are seeing on the projection lines is a map of that recording,”  Helm explains.

The pinholes can vary in size depending on what kind and size image you are attempting to collect. “The issue is the bigger you go with the pinhole, the fuzzier the image is. So if you want to use a camera that is portable, you would want to use a pinhole as small as you possibly could to get a sharper image.  Now if you wanted to get a fuzzy or soft focus feel—then that’s why you might want to use a bigger one,” said Helm.

The materials used to construct Helm’s pinhole camera box consisted of wood, felt lining to keep light from entering the box, piano hinges for the unfolding, custom parts fabricated from laser cut acryllic, and brass plates for the pinhole lenses.

Helm says depending on the size of the object and space, documenting the image could take seconds, minutes or even hours. One project he worked on took over 12 hours to capture the image. “If you were to do it outside in the daylight it would take two to three hours. That is because photographic paper is much less sensative than photographic film. If I had a big piece of film, it is difficult to get, handle and process.  Photographic paper is used more often because it is easier to use for pinholes. But its film speed is much slower, that’s why it’s taking so long,” said Helm.

Pinhole photography is rare for various reasons.  You can make a pinhole camera similar to Helm’s or out of a paint can or oatmeal container.  The materials, light and time are other variables. For Helm, documenting an image starts with loading the paper in a darkroom. When the location is chosen, the user must stay with the camera while it’s documenting a photo, unless it is in a position where it can’t be disturbed. The exposure time can range anywhere from five seconds to several hours. Once the image is captured the camera is brought back to the darkroom and it’s bascially developed the same way you would develop a black and white image—under a red light and washed in the chemical trays.

105_0552_1When a photographer engages in a project requiring more time for exposure, Helm says it can be contemplative in nature. “The process of working with large format view cameras and pinhole cameras is tedious. The process forces you as the photographer to slow down and carefully study the subject. That requires approaching the camera with a contemplative spirit and focus. The process then becomes one that is meditative for the photographer. Coming back to architecture, when I am designing a space as a ‘camera’ that used window apertures to focus the occupants on a particular subject, then that space can become meditative, “ said Helm.

Helm went on to reference the work of Ansel Adams who rallied the use of pinhole cameras. “I think he entered that meditative state when he’s working the camera and the space.”

A photographer known for hauling 100-pound cameras and even portable darkrooms through the American wilderness to capture his classic images, at the end of his career Adams told an interviewer, “Any photographer worth his salt could make some beautiful things with pinhole cameras.”

To learn more about Pinhole Photography and workshops around the area, check out this website: and look on our Facebook page for further information. [themify_icon icon=”fa-circle” icon_color=”#ec008b” ]