As editor of Photo Review Australia magazine, I have to come up with a lump of verbiage for the front of the book (aka The Editorial) every time we put out an issue. What follows is one such instance that I post here following receipt of a kind note from DuncanW apropos his return to experimentation with pinhole photography. I hope that it might at least provide some amusement value for DuncanW and any other folk interested in making little holes to let the light in…
How do you keep the flames of photographic passion alight when taking photographs for others is what you do for a living? It’s a dilemma common to any profession with an artistic dimension I suspect. You take up architecture because you love to design spaces for people to live and work in, but the harsh reality is that more people need factories and shops than need chic coastal retreats or opera houses. You practice a musical instrument for years, but when you finally get to play it for a living, you discover that no one’s interested in your astonishing inventiveness or amazing compositions, they just want to hear the golden oldies played absolutely straight – every night. After a decade or two of this, it’s hardly surprising that the creative fires often subside to little more than a faint glow deep in the ashes.
The two veteran photographers featured in this issue haven’t perhaps found themselves adrift in sloughs of creative despond, but they have both experienced a dramatic rekindling of their love for the art of picture-taking after long and successful professional careers. Curiously (or, maybe not…) both Tim Hixson and Anthony Browell started their respective voyages of discovery with the most basic of photographic tools. As you’ll find when you read the stories, for Hixson it took the form of a simple, toy plastic camera called the Holga, while for Browell, it came in the shape of that most fundamental of all photographic tools, the pinhole camera. As you look through the examples of their work we’ve published, I hope you’ll feel the same sense of excitement and engagement with photography that animates these two great practitioners.
After interviewing Anthony Browell and seeing his beautiful images, your editor was inspired to create himself a pinhole camera too. But rather than make one from an old ceral box or a tin can, I decided to use my Nikon D70. It’s really quite simple and you can do it with any camera that has a removable lens. Here’s what I did:
Step one was to drill a (roughly) 10mm hole in the centre of a spare body cap. 10mm is of course far too big for a pinhole, so the next step was to cut out a piece of aluminum from an old beer can. It only needed to be small enough to fit on the reverse of the body cap.
To make the pinhole, take a push-pin or reasonably sturdy needle and press it hard enough into the aluminum to make a dimple but not to quite break through. Then, find yourself a bit of sandpaper and start sanding the bump you’ve made until it just wears through. Sanding, holding up to the light, sanding some more, holding up to the light again, and so on, seems to work well.
Once the pinhole is in the aluminum, it’s easy to tape it on to the inside surface of the body cap. You want the pinhole more or less centered on the aformentioned 10mm aperture. Black electrician’s tape works a treat for holding the aluminum in place.
There is a formula for creating the optimum sized pinhole for a given focal length, but as a practical matter, few of us have a way to accurately measure the hole, even if we know what size it should be. Part of the fun is playing around to see what works! It took me only four or five go’s to get a pretty good pinhole. My procedure was to cut out two pieces of aluminum each of which had the smallest hole I could make. I tried both to see if the results were similar, and when they were, it was then a matter of going back and very slightly enlarging one (by gently rotating the tip of the needle in the hole) and comparing the result with the unchanged hole. The great thing about digital is that it allows you to check the consequences of your modifications immediately. Go to woah on my digital pinhole project was not much more than two hours.
Amusing as the project was, the real pleasure came from using my new pinhole. Because the aperture is so tiny, exposures under even the brightest conditions are large fractions of a second at higher ISO settings. Set the ISO as low as possible and take pictures in the shade and you’ll soon find yourself using the bulb setting on the camera and timing exposures with your watch. Time, as Anthony Browell says, becomes a vital compositional element. And so too does depth of field. As many readers will know, depth of field in pinhole photographs extends from the front of the pinhole to infinity – which means that you can have lots of fun juxtaposing the extremely tiny with the very large.
Stepping out of your usual way of looking at the world often leads in exciting new directions. My pinhole pictures of course can’t hold a candle to the likes of Anthony Browell, but I’ve already created a couple of ‘keepers’ and that little modified bodycap is now as much a part of my photographic kit as my expensive lens collection.
These ruminations and pinhole-y advisings originally appeared as an editorial in Photo Review Australia early in 2007.