Camera Obscura

Pinhole photography, the “Camera Obscura” effect, forms an image through a small pin-sized hole rather than a lens and its origins can be traced back 2.500 years to when Mo Ti in China observed that light travels in a straight line through a small hole like an arrow. 

It is a radical alternative to conventional photography, exploring a world beyond the limitations of the human eye and human wallet. In an age of instant automated screen-based predictability it rediscovers accident, wonder and delight through experimentation, delicious qualities increasingly absent from contemporary photographic practice. 

Pinhole images have properties that aren’t encountered using even the most expensive CanoNikon camera. These properties include:

  • Unlimited depth of field: Everything is in focus – from objects next to the pinhole to distant mountains enabling a “bug’s-eye view” of the world.
  • Capturing time beyond vision: Exposure times can range from fractions of a second to the six months that a solargraph camera exposes for when capturing the movement of the sun.
  • Construction, indestructibility and cheapness: cameras can be homemade. The combination of the camera’s relative indestructibility with its low cost allows experimentation where digital cameras fear to tread.
  • Multiple exposures: You can take two or more images on top of each other, often accidentally.
  • The joyous lack of a viewfinder: The wonder of the unknown replaces the instantaneous fix of a digital viewfinder (and a children’s “let me see it” demands are replaced by a wait-and-see approach).

Nonetheless, there is a mid-term solution for the speed lover. Rather than build a film camera, you can also use your up-to-date digital camera and convert it into a pinhole camera, filling the gap between a very old process and the most modern electronic devices. By the way, in this case, a mirrorless camera has a tremendous advantage: it allows you to observe immediately what you’ll get through the tiny hole, and it measures also the exposure time needed on manual position, without using any external lightmeter. 

In our age of instant photographic feedback, it is amazing how a bit of time and thought can change your images from previewed experiments to what could be the greatest photographs ever taken, something to ponder while you wait for them to be processed.

The trick ? Modify your DSLR camera’s body cap to create a pinhole effect. As long as you can spare a body cap you can do this. The lens emulates the distinctive vignette and softness of a pinhole photograph in a fraction of the time and is great for adding an abstract or surreal quality to an image. While the digital technique isn’t the same as a classic biscuit-tin camera, your home-made lens makes for a dynamic approach to a nostalgic analog process. Plus, the unpredictability of the results adds an interesting twist to your digital practice.

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