Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Pinhole Cameras

Modern digital photography has made taking pictures a simple affair. Press a button, and BINGO! You can look on the display screen and see exactly what your picture looks like.

In the Olden Days of film cameras, you had to wait three days to get your pictures back from the drugstore, only to find that you left your lenscap on for half of 'em, two of them have your Aunt Betty's head chopped in half, and your pinkie finger covered half the lens when you took that shot of Rover on the skateboard in the supermarket parking lot. Now, with a digital camera, you can see all those lousy pictures right away. Joy!

But there were advantages to using those old-school film cameras. One of them was that you could develop your own pictures. Not all that hard if you took black-and-white pictures...definitely a challenge if you took color pictures. And there was nothing quite as exciting as watching your pictures appear as if by magic as you put the paper in the developing tray.

You can do all this today - and you don't even need to buy a camera. Because all you really need is a few simple, easily available supplies (like an empty oatmeal canister, a used aluminum soda can, and some flat black spray paint) and you can take and develop your own pictures using a pinhole camera that you build yourself!

It might seem surprising, but if light passes through a small enough hole, it gets refracted (bent) just as though it had gone through a lens! In fact, the very first cameras - long before photography was invented - were darkened rooms with a small opening. Light would come in through this tiny hole, and an upside-down image would be projected on the opposite wall of the room. The room was called a camera obscura, which simply means "dark room" in Latin - and that's where our modern word "camera" came from.

It was easy enough for people to figure out that a camera obscura didn't have to be as big as a whole room. You could build one in a box, and if you put a sheet of frosted glass on the side opposite the little hole, you could see the image on the glass. Finally, in 1826, the French inventor Nicéphore Niépce figured out how to capture the image permanently, using chemicals. It wasn't easy, though - the first permanent photograph took eight hours to shoot!

Modern cameras use film - or an electronic sensor in the case of digital cameras - to capture images. And they use lenses instead of pinholes...mainly because lenses let a lot more light through, so exposures can be tiny fractions of a second instead of many minutes. But pinhole cameras can still be used to capture beautiful images, and you don't need any fancy equipment to build one.

Rather than "reinvent the wheel," I've found an excellent Web resource that gives complete, step-by-step instructions for building your own pinhole camera, taking pictures, and developing them yourself. You can find it here at Stew Woodruff's Oatmeal Box Pinhole Photography website.

Whether you take your own pinhole photographs, or whether you just browse the gallery at the Oatmeal Box Pinhole Photography site, you'll notice that the photographs are all exceptionally sharp, and many of them have a "wide-angle" appearance. It's one of the things that make pinhole photos so unusual-looking. Try it!

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