I’ve gotten lots of inquiries about my pinhole camera, so here’s the story. I really wanted to make one and first checked out the Corbis website for their DIY pinhole instructions. While beautiful looking, I soon discovered that the published dimensions are not big enough. Apparently you have to enlarge the diagrams in Photoshop in order to get them large enough to hold a canister of 35mm film. A pinhole cam was already going to be a lot of work so I quickly abandoned that idea.
Next I decided to do a random search of pinhole cams on Google and was amazed at what I found. People will make pinholes out of anything! How cool! I saw cams made from Legos, matchboxes, shoeboxes, round metal tins and even one made from a 110 film canister. The coolest (and most do-able) was a gallon paint can pinhole, sold on Freestyle (there’s also a quart-sized version). I figured I could make it myself for about $5. Then I thought about film and developing sheet negatives and decided I didn’t want to invest in the developing equipment when I might not be using this camera more than a few times.
I really wanted to make a pinhole but was intimidated by a) making a container light-proof with yards of black electrical tape and b) figuring out how to advance the film easily. Enter the thrift store pinhole cam. In short, you take a junker camera with fixed focus, preferably no flash, remove the lens and pop a pinhole in it’s place. Genius! You don’t have to light-proof anything! I soon found out it was much harder than I anticipated. Rather than re-invent the wheel go to silverbased.org for fantastic directions that even I could follow. In theory, you have a camera in which your lens cover is the shutter and the fim advance still works by clicking the shutter button (which has been rendered obsolete except for triggering the film advance) and advancing the film. Their link is very detailed and has pictures for each step of the operation (and it is an operation in every sense of the word). There’s even a great section on how to fashion the proper pinhole and how to figure out it’s diameter, a crucial element in ensuring proper exposure.
Here are a few handy tips to keep in mind when fashioning your thrift store cam. When you go to purchase your camera be sure to get one with a lens cover that can function as your shutter. While not crucial it makes life a lot easier and you won’t have to worry as much about light leaking in. In my case, I couldn’t get the lens cover back in working order once I went to reassemble everything so I use a piece of black velcro for my shutter and it works really well with no noticeable light leakage. Also when choosing your camera make sure the lens isn’t sunk way into the body. If you can get a camera with a lens that’s almost flush with the body you won’t have to worry about the sides of your camera sneaking into the picture. Since pinholes tend to be wide-angle lenses, this is something important to consider. As silverbased.org suggests, make sure it’s the variety of camera that is made in China as these types are all put together very similarly. It’ll make following their directions a lot easier. One more thing when purchasing the camera, take a good look inside and make sure it’s one you can easily dismantle: Check that the screws in back of the inside of the camera are easily accessible and also check that you can remove the film rewind knob with a simple twist of the screwdriver. I purchased two cams the day I went and one of them did not have a screw to hold in the film rewinder–it was fused into place–so I ended up with a camera I couldn’t vandalize. It was also virtually impossible to remove the back of that same camera once I got inside the film compartment as there were screws on only one side of the back.
Now that you have your pinhole cam make sure you have a few other tools, namely a screwdriver kit that contains an array of small-diameters such as 1.4mm, 2mm, 2.4mm, etc. (sometimes known as jeweler’s screwdrivers), soda can, metal cutters (for the thin metal wall of the soda can), gloves if you’re clumsy like I am so you don’t slice your hands while working with the metal, sewing needle, exacto knife, fine-grained sandpaper and a good bonding agent, such as model glue or a hot glue gun. It doesn’t hurt to have the black electrical tape handy, either. These are your tools.
While dismantling your camera, unless you’re super-mechanically inclined, it might not be a bad idea to take shots with a digital camera so that you can recall exactly where everything goes once you need to reassemble. When I removed the back of my camera some parts fell out and I had no idea where they went upon reassembly. I also ended up with about 3 ‘extra parts’. I even had my very mechanical husband take a look and he couldn’t figure out where those parts went, either. This is how I ended up with a velcro shutter.
Now, why and how did I make a panoramic pinhole you may ask? Simple. I bought a panoramic thrift store cam to gut because it fit all the above criteria. Imagine my shock when I developed the film and it was panoramic! I posted this question on the toycamera.com forum and found that there is probably some kind of mask internally that causes the pinhole effect. It was a plesant little surprise. Another question I get is how do you get your pinhole pictures so sharply focused? First you have to make a precise and clean pinhole. Follow silverbased.org’s instructions closely when fashioning your pinhole. When it is a very clean hole (no ragged edges, no dust, uniformly round) the light doesn’t have a chance to bend around the extraneous particles, therefore you get a very clean image. Another tip? Get really close to your subjects. Your pinhole could be your new macro camera! By far the best shots I’ve gotten with my pinhole were the ones in which I was a few inches from my subject.
I’ve only shot one roll of film through it so far but I’m having a great time with my thrift store pinhole. Next I think I’ll tackle a completely homemade model. If you have any questions, comments or tips, drop me a line!