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Contrary to what Apple wants you to believe, there’s more to taking a cool-looking photo than choosing which Instagram filter to apply. Few photographers know that better than Nancy Breslin, a local artist nationally renowned for her contributions to the pinhole photography scene.
What the heck is pinhole photography, you ask? It’s a simple method of taking pictures using a camera using a tiny hole in a box instead of a conventional lens. When light strikes the pinhole, it’s inverted and projected onto film or photo paper inside the camera. Depending on the medium used, a pinhole photo can require anywhere from a few minutes to several hours to take.
Because these photos use long exposure times, they tend to be haunting, blurry, and ghostlike. “It has a unique look,” Breslin says. “A lot of the fun of a pinhole camera is the crazy experimentation.”
But it doesn’t take a professional camera (or photographer!) to take quality pinhole photos. You can make your own pinhole camera at home, and this is the time to do it: April 26 is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. The best part of this kind of camera? With no viewfinder, your results may be a surprise. “You tend to get a lot more than you think with a lot of these cameras,” Breslin says. “You want to get closer to things than you otherwise might think.”
What you’ll need:
- A box, tin, or can for the body of the camera. The thicker the material, the better. Coffee cans, shoeboxes, and oatmeal containers work well. Anything with a lid is a plus, since you’ll need to load the camera with photo paper later.
- A soda can or thin piece of metal to make your pinhole on
- A needle
- A knife
- Electrical tape
- Photo paper and, if developing your photo at home, darkroom chemicals. Breslin says you should look for “resin coated” (“RC”) photo paper, as it’s easier and quicker to process. Though it comes in standard sizes like 5×7″ and 8×10″, try to pick a size that will work in your camera without much cutting. Breslin says an 8×10’’ sheet fits nicely in large round oatmeal boxes, while 5×7’’ works well in a smaller cookie tin. These supplies can be purchased at a local photo shop. Embassy Camera in Dupont Circle should carry what you’ll need. Don’t open the box of paper except in complete darkness or under a darkroom safelight.
Step 1: Cut a hole in the box. Use a knife, and make it 1 square inch. For a metal container, drill a hole with a large bit.
Step 2: Cut a 2-inch square out of the soda can. Poke a single hole in the center with the pin.
Step 3: Make the box light-tight, meaning light can’t enter the box from the outside or bounce around once inside. You can do this by covering the seams of the box in electrical tape. For a better camera, cover the interior of the box in black construction paper, but be sure not to cover up the pinhole. NOTE: Spray paint works well here, too. A plastic lid also needs to be opaque.
Step 4: Tape the metal piece over the hole in the box. Place a piece of electrical tape over the pinhole. This is your shutter.
Step 5: In a completely dark room, tape your photo paper to the inside of the box, light sensitive side up. (Lick your fingertip and touch the paper’s edge; the sensitive side should be a little sticky.) In a round camera, the paper will stay in place easily as it hugs the curved sides. If you have a shoebox-type camera, tape the corners of the paper so it fits securely inside the camera
Step 6: Test whether your camera is truly light-tight by taking the camera outside during the daytime with the shutter closed for a few minutes. If the photo paper isn’t pure white after you’ve put the paper in the chemical developer, it’s been exposed to light.
Step 7: When you’re ready to take a photo, open the shutter and wait. Breslin suggests conducting some exposure tests: “Try a one-minute exposure. If the paper negative is overexposed (too much black), try 30 seconds. If it is underexposed (too much white paper where there should be stuff to see) then try two minutes. Always half or double the time that didn’t work last time, and take notes.”
- Work outdoors—-bright, sunny days are optimal for taking pinhole photos. Always position the sun behind the camera.
- Don’t try to hold your camera during the long exposure. Put it on a flat surface, but weigh it down with something heavy so the wind doesn’t take it away.
- If you think the lid might not be light-tight, place the camera upside down.
Photos by Nancy Breslin