Make your own pinhole camera

The pinhole photography has its public, and for that it is necessary a device or a camera with very particular and different characteristics to those of a conventional camera. If you are thinking about creating a home pinhole camera or you are curious to know this kind of devices, we explain you everything in detail in this guide. Both what is a pinhole camera and the procedure to create one by yourself, step by step.

The pinhole camera is the one that does not have optical systems as other cameras, that is to say, it does not have lenses or objectives based on the refraction of the light. Instead of that, they simply have a hole that is in charge of forming the image. That hole is known as pinhole and makes the image look very peculiar by dispensing with that optic.

A little bit of history
Inverted image when light passes through hole

Although cameras are very recent maś, the history of this kind of systems goes back to 500 BC, when the Greek Aristotle and Euclid wrote about natural “pinhole cameras”. In fact they did not have cameras or devices of that type, obviously, but they did observe something curious when the light passed through some cracks or fabrics like the one of the baskets or interweaved leaves at that time.

Later on, an English scientist called David Brewster started to practice the first pinhole photography known. That would happen in the 1850’s, moment in which the own Brewster would also coin the term pinhole that is also used in English to call pinhole cameras. Since then, it has gradually been extended and developed to the present day…

Ideas for your pinhole camera

The fact that a pinhole camera does not need advanced optical lenses or devices like the CCD or CMOS sensors of the modern cameras, makes much easier to be able to create a homemade camera with everyday materials, cheap and in a quite simple way as we are going to check here.

To build the chamber you can do it in different ways. Here we will explain the simplest and cheapest way to do it, but we also give you some ideas to improve the design if you want:

  • Instead of using a cardboard box, you can create a box with wood and carve it on the outside to your liking and even create a design that resembles a classic camera to give a vintage touch to your design. The base can be the same as in the design shown here, but those decorations will leave it a little more colorful.
  • If you have a 3D printer, that would be great, because you could create your own computer design as you like and then print it on plastic with your 3D printer to make it much better. You can simulate the shape of an old camera or a modern one, and even create a totally different shape to a camera (simulating a book, a scale TV, a small trunk,…). That’s up to you…
  • You can also use any other material you want, such as metal, paper mache, etc.

Giving it an attractive design will not only serve as a camera, but also as an ornament.

Required materials

Materialsto build the pinhole chamber

In order to create your first pinhole camera you will not need a big payment of money, but it can be done with recycled and very cheap materials that we all have at home:

  • A small cardboard box or a large one that you can fold and paste to create a closed box shape.
  • A new 35mm film. Your photos will be printed on it so that they can be developed later.
  • A used 35mm film that we will use as a device to extract the new film strip.
  • A metal sheet, such as kitchen foil, a small tin plate, or even an empty soda can to cut a metal sheet. If you use kitchen foil, be careful not to wrinkle it, the wrinkles will ruin everything.
  • Black insulating tape. It is important that it is black.
  • Sewing needle as thin as possible or a punch or spike to pierce the metal sheet. The ideal diameter is about 2mm. The smaller it is, the sharper the images will be, even though it may seem otherwise…
  • Scissors and cutter for cutting.
  • Cardboard glue if you have chosen to create the box with cardboard sheets. You know that if you use another type of material, such as wood, you must use a suitable glue, such as carpenter’s glue, etc.
  • Pencil, marker and ruler to make the measurements for the cuts.
  • Indelible black marker.

With that you will have everything necessary to create the pinhole camera as we show in the following section…

How to make a pinhole camera

finished pinhole camera

Now let’s get the base design that you can use to create your first prototype and improve it with the ideas we gave you in the previous section. The step-by-step procedure is:

STEP 1: Cut the sheet metal

metal sheet with hole in the center

First we will cut the metal sheet, either from aluminum foil (remember not to crumple it) or cut a piece of metal from a soda can. If it’s a soda can, make a hole in the surface and insert the tip of a pair of scissors through it and cut a square of about 2.4×2.4cm. It’s easy to cut.

Then, with the needle, nail or punch, make a small hole in the center. It shouldn’t be big, remember that it’s just a small hole for the light to pass through and serve as a camera lens.

STEP 2: Prepare the box

Cardboard box with hole to put plate

You can do this in different ways, if you have chosen to create the cardboard box yourself because you can’t find a custom box, you can cut and assemble the box. But if you have found a box of an object that you have recently bought, you can work directly with it. The dimensions should be just right so that it can hold the two separate reels inside and a central hole for the sheet metal. It doesn’t have to have specific dimensions…

Remember that it must be well covered so that no light enters more than through the hole in our camera. So, make sure the lid closes tightly. If not, you can seal it with duct tape to prevent light from entering the lid. For the time being, you should leave it uncovered to continue working on it. Basically, on one of its sides you must make a small opening of 1x1cm as shown in the image. That will be our goal.

Another possibility is to use an empty matchbox, the big ones. Inside there is no room for the reels obviously, but they will stick to the sides of the box. To do this you can remove the “drawer” that is inside the box of matches and that housed the matches and leave only the body of the box. At both ends you put the reels so that the reel can flow from one roll to another passing through the box and on one side of the box you cut the hole to add the metal plate .

Step 3: Put the lens and shutter

Put the metal sheet on the inside of the cardboard box (picture 1), fix it with insulating tape (picture 2) on the inside making sure you do not cover the hole in the middle. Then we are going to put our homemade shutter on the outside (picture 3), we can simply use a piece of insulating tape that completely covers the light that passes through the hole in the sheet metal. You can use a piece of cardboard covered with black tape and stick it on the sides with this tape. Cover as much of the metal surface as you can with the tape to avoid possible reflections.

Put the plug on the bottom, so that when you open it, it will hang by its own weight. If you put it in the upper zone you will have to hold it constantly during the time of exposure and it can be uncomfortable. Remember also that when the tape loses its glue and no longer sticks, you will have to renew it. Or if you prefer, you can use another permanent device such as a small hinge and a wooden fastener more worked or made with the 3D printer, etc.

Another idea is to use a cardboard sheet with a hole to let the image pass through to the metal sheet, as in the images above. Glue the ends of the cardboard with tape to the body of the box, aligning the hole with the hole in the metal plate, and then cut a cardboard cutout that we can insert between the perforated cardboard and the metal plate to close or open our obstruction more comfortably.

STEP 4: Put the photo paper or film


Now it’s time to put in the material with which we’re going to capture the image. If it’s a reel, put the new reel on the side of the box. You must work in the dark so that it doesn’t develop. Take out a piece of film and stick it to the old or worn film, so you can turn the old film around and pull out the new film to pass through the central area where it will be printed with the light that enters through the opening of the plate.

That is to say, you must simulate the system of a conventional camera, leaving the new film to one side, passing a piece of film through the central area of the cardboard box and at the other end use the old empty film as a method to go rolling and passing the new film as you take pictures. You can use two plates that are used to open the soda cans as handles for each of the reels and that are outside the cardboard box to be able to turn them from the outside… Remember that the light must not enter.

In the case of using photographic paper, the procedure will be similar, only you will have to stick the paper on the internal back side of the box, that is, the opposite side of the plate so that the light hits the paper or film directly and can be recorded.

STEP 5: Close the box

Close the box cover once all the elements are in place. Remember to avoid light entering inside so that the film is not developed or the photos are not damaged. If the lid doesn’t close properly, use duct tape to seal the cracks.

How to take a picture:

Photo with pinhole camera

To take a picture, it’s quite simple, just follow these steps:

  1. Place the pinhole camera on a stable, flat surface facing the landscape or whatever you want to capture. You can even get a tripod to take it wherever you want. It is important that it is completely still due to the sensitivity of this type of camera, otherwise the picture will not come out right.
  2. Now comes the most complicated part, as you will have to experiment with what is the optimal exposure time for you. There are cameras that also use photo paper instead of film. In the case of photo paper, the exposure time could be a few minutes, but in the case of film it is much faster and a few seconds will be enough. That is, I advise you to experiment with some photos first and see which one looks better when developed. Write down on a piece of paper the times you have taken for each one and then, the one that came out best, you will know which is the best exposure time. Remember that depending on the ISO of the film or reel, it can also change. For example, for an ISO 400 it could go from 2 to 12 seconds, while for an ISO 100 it could be multiplied by four, that is, from 8 to 48 seconds, and so on. I advise you to also try different lighting, for example, if you take the picture outside it will not be the same as inside or if there are spotlights, etc., because the more light there is, the shorter the exposure time. That’s why these ranges of seconds vary depending on the ambient lighting. How is the exposure done? See step 3…
  3. The exposure is done simply by opening the shutter flap we have created to let the light enter through the hole in the metal plate we have created and be printed on the film. You must do this carefully so as not to make the camera vibrate or move. If you want to superimpose several images on the same portion of the film, i.e. in the same picture, you can leave the film as it is and close the shutter, point at the other image you want to capture and superimpose it on the previous one, open the shutter and wait again for the exposure time. But remember it is important to close it before moving the camera to the next lens .
  4. After the time of exposure, close the shutter flap again. The image should now be on the film or photo paper.
  5. You can use the rolls of film to roll the new film to the old one that we will use as a puller so that we can take a new picture if we want to.
  6. Once you have consumed the new film, you can develop it in a photo studio or take it to a photographer to do so, if you do not have a darkroom and everything you need…

And you’ll have your pictures ready…

How to develop photos?

room to reveal

If you want to develop the photos yourself, and not order them from a professional photo studio, you can if you have the following materials that you will find in specialized photo shops:

  • Dark room with red light to avoid development as used by photographers. It can also be LED light like those of safety lights, etc.
  • An enlarger
  • Containers for chemicals
  • Chemicals (a developer liquid, water as a stop bath, and a fixer)
  • Clothesline and photo clips
  • Towels or rags
  • A sheet of glass

The procedure for development:

  1. Go to the dark room destined for developing.
  2. Fill a container with about 5 cm of developer, another with the same amount of water and another with the fixing solution.
  3. Now we take the film out of our camera. Remember that any white light will destroy the images.
  4. With an enlarger you can transfer the negatives to a photo paper by choosing the right f to generate strips of different brightness. If you have used photo paper directly for your pinhole camera instead of film, you can skip this step.
  5. Immerse the photo paper in the developing fluid with the help of tweezers to avoid touching it. Move the container a little bit so that the liquid runs on the surface properly. Once you see the image appear, you can remove it. Note that in a bright room, the image will appear a little darker than it does in a dark room.
  6. Using the tweezers, remove the photo when the image is already visible on it and put it in the container with water, i.e. to give it a standing bath. The water should be at room temperature.
  7. Then we use the tweezers again and pass the photo to the container with the fixer. We will leave it there for 2 minutes.
  8. Rinse the photo with water for another 2 minutes.
  9. Put the photo on a clothesline with a pair of clothespins in the corner and wait for it to dry completely. To speed up the process you can use a hair dryer.
  10. Repeat the procedure with all the photos you need to develop…

Once the work is done, you can turn on the normal light in the room and you will have finished your work.


Instructions – How to Make a Pinhole Camera

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