Don't take that learning curve too fast: pinhole camera progress report

September 19, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

It’s been several weeks since I met Charlie McCarthy, my little wooden pinhole camera, and we’ve been getting acquainted.  Bit by bit, I’m discovering his unique personality.

You might think, based on the picture below, that he has a little boo-boo, but it’s just a simple solution to a potential problem.  The small wooden shutter, it turns out, is just a little too easy to open.  A piece of painter’s tape keeps the shutter closed, and is easy to remove and replace when it’s time to take a photo.

I also needed a creative fix to overcome the lack of a viewfinder.  The device is, after all, just a wooden box.  There’s no way to know what the camera is seeing.  My little pocket camera, zoomed out to its widest, provides a fair approximation of a viewfinder when placed firmly level on the tripod.  After taking a couple of practice rolls of film, and comparing the film images to the images taken by the compact camera, I’m learning how to fine-tune the process and better anticipate what the final photograph will include.  The short answer to that question is - more than you think!  A pinhole’s view of the world is very wide - the image of the rail car (above) gives some sense of that.

Calculating the exposure is simple.  By using the pocket camera to meter the scene, it’s easy to calculate the correct shutter speed based on the aperture of the pinhole (plus, I also printed out a handy chart).  One thing that has surprised me is that there doesn’t seem to be any problem with reciprocity failure, at least with the film I'm using.  “Reciprocity failure” is the principle that as exposure times get longer in lower light, instead of simply calculating the mathematically correct shutter speed, you have to compensate for the fall-off in light by keeping the shutter open even longer.  This has turned out to be a non-issue, even in deep shade with exposures of several minutes.

Goodbye sharpness!  The tiny aperture of the pinhole camera might provide an amazing depth of field, but no sharpness.  It’s pleasingly soft.  How liberating to be set free from digital photography’s tack-sharp expectations.  Other aspects of the non-digital experience require some patience, like that long wait to get the film back from the lab.  But the only real frustration is the problem of the manual film advance - something I had long since forgotten!  That teeny tiny window in the back of the camera, with its dark-red glass which is impossible to see through, especially since the tiny opening is in shadow.  With a little practice I’ve learned that it takes about 1 1/2 revolutions of the film advance knobs per frame, so I’ll be painting some markings to make the task a little easier.    

It’s a lot of fun to experiment with this new/old technology.  I see some special projects in my future - watch this space! 


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