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Pinhole exposure tips

In search of the perfect exposure


This pinhole camera is equipped with an easily-made sliding shutter. Sliding it sideways permits light to enter the pinhole. Sliding it back blocks all light from going into the camera. Simple, but effective.
This pinhole camera is equipped with an easily-made sliding shutter. Sliding it sideways permits light to enter the pinhole. Sliding it back blocks all light from going into the camera. Simple, but effective.

A pinhole exposure may take three or four times longer than you might expect. For our first approach to finding the "perfect exposure", we'll use a time-honored method that doesn't require any technical literature or knowledge - trial and error.

The key to the trial-and-error (T&E) method is to keep written notes of your trials and errors and also to make observations about the quality of light during your exposures. You will need a cardboard box pinhole camera that loads with 4 x 6 sheets of photographic paper. (See Building a pinhole camera.)


EXPOSURE FOR A SIDELIT SUBJECT

We used the T&E method to determine correct exposure for a scene in full sunlight with the sun directly behind the camera in Using your new pinhole camera. This time, place the camera at a 90-degree angle to the direction of sunlight and make as many exposures as are needed in order to determine the correct exposure. You remember the drill:

  • Set the loaded camera on a level, solid surface.
  • Make sure it cant move during the exposure.
  • Open the pinhole for exactly 30 seconds, then cover it over.
  • Bring the camera back into the darkroom and develop the photo paper.
  • If the developed print is mostly white, the image was under-exposed. Repeat the process, trying a new exposure time of 60 seconds.
  • If the developed print is mostly black, too much light struck the paper and it was overexposed. Try an exposure time at 15 seconds.
  • Continue in this trial-and-error manner until you produce an image that looks to you to be properly exposed.
  • If you recorded exposure times for the two different directions of light in your notes (which of course you did), you will notice that correct exposure of a sidelit subject requires twice as much time as an exposure made with the sun directly behind the camera.

    Sidelighting of this pincushion cactus required longer exposure than full frontal lighting. Kodak 126 film box camera, Exposure of 1/2 sec at /128
    Sidelighting of this pincushion cactus required longer exposure than full frontal lighting. Kodak 126 film box camera, Exposure of 1/2 sec at /128

    Fairly dark overcast skies provide even illumination without strong shadows, and require long exposure times.
    Fairly dark overcast skies provide even illumination without strong shadows, and require long exposure times.

    OTHER LIGHTING SITUATIONS

    Diffuse light from overcast skies or dim light from dark shade require much longer exposure times than a subject in direct sunlight. Being aware of the quality of light under different conditions of exterior illumination is important to estimating accurate exposures.

    Using the T&E method, establish correct exposure times for:

  • 1) Slightly overcast skies with shadows softly defined;
  • 2) Fairly bright light with shadows only vaguely present;
  • 3) Overcast conditions with no shadows at all;
  • 4) Heavy overcast conditions; and
  • 5) An exposure in complete shade on a bright, sunny day.

  • You may be tempted to try artificial lighting, but photo paper in a pinhole camera is just too slow to obtain an exposure in just about all artificial lighting.


    Be sure to take notes, accurately describing lighting conditions and corresponding correct exposure times. Your T&E notes will provide you with valuable exposure data that will enable you to closely estimate correct exposure times for similar future shots.

    For accuracy in predicting the length of time to keep the shutter open, see Light meters and pinhole cameras.


    Be sure to record your exposure notes for various lighting conditions. If you don't have a record of the exposure time and lighting conditions for a picture such as this, you may not easily be able to repeat it.
    Be sure to record your exposure notes for various lighting conditions. If you don't have a record of the exposure time and lighting conditions for a picture such as this, you may not easily be able to repeat it.

    Further information...

    Light meters & pinhole cameras

    How to time exposures reasonably accurately