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Building a pinhole camera


Just about any sturdy cardboard or wooden box (or almost any other container) can be used to build a pinhole camera.
Just about any sturdy cardboard or wooden box (or almost any other container) can be used to build a pinhole camera.

Building a walk-in pinhole camera simply requires a light-tight room, an appropriately-sized pinhole that allows exterior light in and a viewing screen, which could be a rear wall. A walk-in pinhole camera is ideal for viewing a large-scale projected image, but impractical for picture-taking due to the film size that would be needed. Besides, the pinhole size for maximum sharpness is usually too dark for easy viewing, and requires making the hole bigger until the image is bright enough to see easily, with sharpness falling off. You can still capture the projected image by bringing a regular camera into the walk-in camera, loaded with the fastest film you can find (or use a tripod with slow film) and take a picture of the picture.


Building a smaller pinhole camera - Virtually any container or hand-made cardboard box can be made into a pinhole camera once you overcome a few practical problems.

  • 1 - Make the box light tight. We recommend the use of flat black paint, black electrical tape, paper glue and rubber bands. Use your imagination and save your money for film and photo paper.
  • 2 - Holding light sensitive material in place.
  • 3 - Loading and unloading the camera.
  • 4 - What will you do for a shutter - a means of opening the hole for light to enter and closing it after exposure is complete?

A pinhole camera can even be built from a Cadbury nut can, such as this one. Because of the can's oval shape, it must be mounted on a base so that it will remain level when making an exposure.
A pinhole camera can even be built from a Cadbury nut can, such as this one. Because of the can's oval shape, it must be mounted on a base so that it will remain level when making an exposure.

The lid for your camera must be tight-fitting and sealed against the entry of any light.
The lid for your camera must be tight-fitting and sealed against the entry of any light.

YOUR FIRST PINHOLE CAMERA

For your first experience in pinhole photography, let's build a camera designed to use 4" x 6" sheets of black and white printing paper. This is a simple approach, but requires a darkroom and chemistry to develop the image. If you've never used chemistry or a darkroom before, you will need someone experienced to help you.

The inside dimension of the rear panel of the box should be 4 inches high and 6 inches wide. The distance from the rear panel of the camera to the pinhole determines the size of the projected image relative to the scene. More of the scene is projected the closer the back is to the pinhole. A "normal" perspective (i.e. similar to the perspective of the human eye) would have the paper-to-pinhole distance at about 7 inches.

Let's construct the camera to make a wide-angle image and set the depth of our box at 4 inches. This will produce an angle of view that is equivalent to that of a 28 mm lens in the 35mm camera system. The finished dimensions of the box are therefore 4" high, 6" wide and 4" deep.

Construct a tight-fitting lid for the box that does not permit any light to enter. Now we just need to make (1) an opening in the box, and (2) a pinhole in an appropriate opaque material that will cover the opening.


In the middle of the front panel, cut out a square hole that is about 3/4-inch by 3/4-inch in size. Paint the entire inside surface of the box flat black and, while the paint is drying, you can make the pinhole.

Making the pinhole can be very simple. The most basic approach is to use a pin (naturally) to prick a hole in a piece of tin foil, which you then tape over the square opening in the box. Make sure no light can spill in around the edges. Are there better alternatives? Pop can aluminum has a thickness of .002 inches and makes a nice round, smooth pinhole. Brass shim stock is more workable than aluminum and can be found at craft supply stores. If you require the ultimate in pinhole size and quality, have a sheet of gold leaf rolled out to .002 inch and laser drilled to a specific diameter - a bit extreme for most of us, though. (See Making the hole for a pinhole camera for more information.)

Paint the interior of your pinhole camera matte black to reduce any reflections. This pinhole camera is equipped with a removable interior panel that permits the
Paint the interior of your pinhole camera matte black to reduce any reflections. This pinhole camera is equipped with a removable interior panel that permits the "back" to be placed in the middle, shortening the focal length.

The pinhole, little more than a dot, can be seen on the thin brass plate that covers the larger opening in this wooden pinhole camera.
The pinhole, little more than a dot, can be seen on the thin brass plate that covers the larger opening in this wooden pinhole camera.

For now, let's drill a 1/32-inch hole in the center of a square piece of pop can aluminum that is large enough to cover the opening cut out of the box. A 1/32-inch diameter pinhole will produce an interesting, "dreamy" looking image. The best pinhole size for our 4-inch focal length would actually be 1/64-inch but it's usually hard to find a drill that small.

Use a sharpening stone or sand paper to rub off the burr until the area around the hole is smooth, then paint the tin black, inside and out. Tape the aluminum with its new pinhole over the hole in the box, ensuring that the pinhole is centered.

Now, you're ready to test your new pinhole camera and put it into use. Time to visit Using your new pinhole camera.


A snug-fitting, light-tight inner lid, painted black on the inner face, is added insurance against light leakage.
A snug-fitting, light-tight inner lid, painted black on the inner face, is added insurance against light leakage.
Further information...

Making the hole for a pinhole camera
Related topics...

Using your new pinhole camera