HandMade Photographic Images

What Is Pinhole Photography?

by Richard Vallon Jr.

Pinhole photography is making photographs using a camera fitted with a tiny hole known as a pinhole in the place of a lens. Any light tight container that can hold a sensitive piece of film or photographic printing paper can be fitted with a pinhole to make photographs. ( For detailed instructions on making and using pinhole cameras see the books on pinhole photography section of my web page (a pointer is available below); for pre-made pinholes and pinhole cameras see the pinhole products section of my page.)

Early History

Pinhole images can be found in nature. Projected images of the bright disc of the sun can be seen on the ground under trees when three or more of its leaves happen to come together in such a way that they form a triangular or square "hole " (pinhole). Ancient Chinese, Greek and Arabic scientists noted that pinholes formed projected images and used the pinhole as a tool for their early researches into the nature of light. By the Renaissance, darkened rooms with an outside facing wall w ere fitted with a pinhole and projected the outdoor scene (upside down and backwards) onto the interior wall. Modern scientists use the pinhole's unique ability to make images of radiation sources that cannot be seen with the naked eye ( or lenses ) such as fusion reactor experiments or to take a picture made by gamma radiation emanating from a dying star.

The Pinhole and Photography

Practical photography, first invented by L.J.M. Daguerre of Paris in 1839 used "film" formed by chemical reactions on a silver plate which was not sensitive enough to record the faint images projected onto it through a pinhole. Early in the history of photography a race began to produce lenses which transmit large amounts of light and create sharp images.

The progress of lens manufacturing marks the technical history of photography's early achievements and continues to the present. Between the 1870s and 1890s more "modern" black and white films came into production an d by 1890 these far more sensitive films were used by George Davison of England to produce his award winning photograph The Onion Field using a pinhole on his camera. Critics complained that giving an award to a photograph produced by a pinhole was a slight to the skilled lens maker's art.

To understand this position one must understand the status of photography as a fine art in the last decades of the 1800s in order to illuminate the source of this apparently irrational criticism. Photography was then and still is one of the newest of the visual fine arts. Painting, drawing and sculpture have long traditions in antiquity and can be traced all the way back to pre-history in caves such as Lascaux and La Madelaine in France. Photography (unlike painting and sculpture) has had a difficult time being accepted by the fine art community because it produced images without the need of the direct work of human hands on the image. Art photographers in the last century who were attempting to find photography's identity as a true art form broke into two distinct camps, those who were more romantic and created less sharp photographs that tended to look more like drawings or paintings and those who later championed sharp, ultra realistic images.

These images were by their viewpoint to be accepted for their own unique and purely photographic properties. The pinhole produces photographs which are not as sharp as those made by most lenses, but unlike lenses which often create images where near objects are in focus and far objects are out of focus the pinhole is "democratic" since both near and far subjects are imaged with an equal degree of soft focus. This characteristic of equal but overall soft focus is a strong identifying characteristic of the then (1880's) new school of Impressionistic painting.

Pictorial photographers ( those who utilized this softer more romantic, painterly approach) found a useful tool in the pinhole. Soft focus was a standard aesthetic of Pictorialism and was created by special soft focus lenses. In his early pictorialist phase Edward Steichen gave the admonition to rap on the legs of the tripod with a wrench during a long exposure to destroy the inherent sharpness of the lens produced photograph. M any pictorial photographs though made by lenses have a "pinhole aesthetic", specifically in their dedication to overall softness of the image. Commercially produced pinholes and pinhole cameras appeared during the pictorial heyday near the end o f the last century.

When Pictorialism faded in the second decade of the 1900s as the sharpness of realism came into favor the use of the pinhole in art photography declined to the status as the subject of science projects for young school students. Pinhole photography began a long Rip Van Winkle like sleep. By the 1930s photographers such as Edward Weston gave up their soft focus lenses and started making straight and sharply focused lensed photographs. Weston and the other photographers of the group f64 espoused making photographs using very sharp ( rapid rectilinear) lenses adjusted to have tiny apertures at their centers. This tiny aperture (designated in mathematical terms as f64) was like having a large pinhole inside the lens which allowed the photographers to make images in which near and far objects from the camera appear in equal focus ( just like pinhole images ).


In the 1960s a few photographers began independently to experiment with pinhole photography in a search for something different than the images produced by the regimented, mass produced factory manufactured cameras fitted with their ultra sharp lenses. The steep rise of the use of the photograph in advertising in the 1960s re-awakened mass interest in photography as an art form.

Photography came to be taught as a degreed fine art subject at many college campuses around the world. In these environments information on the history of photography and knowledge of pinhole photography became more widespread. By the late 1960's that quest for something different led an experimenter such as Eric Renner to built his first pinhole camera. A six pinhole affair with a large piece of film wound in a circle around a cylindrical core, the camera took photographs in 360 degrees in an overlapping, discontinuous fashion. Since the 1970's many more pinhole artists have produced full bodies of work with their cameras.

Many of these pinhole artists have been trained in painting, printmaking, sculpture and other art mediums. For many their introduction into art photography has been through pinhole photography. A general consensus of these artists when posed the question "Why use pinhole?" is often answered in that there is little need for technical skill in pinhole camera operation and there is a feeling of uniqueness when viewing the unusual imagery produced by a hand made camera. As part of this attitude there is also a proliferation of alternate printing processes- the making of ones own light sensitive photographic papers to print the negatives produced from pinhole cameras. Though alternative processes are not synonymous with pinhole imagery, the large negatives that can be easily produced at low cost by pinhole cameras do contribute to a strong connection between the two, particularly among those trained in photography at a University.

The Present Day

In 1984 Eric Renner founded the Pinhole Resource and Pinhole Journal magazine to provide information to pinhole photographers and provide a publication that illustrates bodies of work produced by some of the 500 plus pinhole photographers actively working in this old-new medium. Today Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer continue to publish new issues of the Journal an d conduct seminars on pinhole photography. In July of 1995 I attended several workshops in New Mexico on pinhole photography presented by Eric and Nancy and met twenty or so pinhole photographers gathered there. Not only was it an amazing experience for s o many pinhole photographers to be in one place, but many of these people also displayed beautiful portfolios of their unique pinhole images.


*An editorial commentary by Richard R Vallon Jr. and is not expressly the views of the directors of Pinhole Resource.

Being a pinhole photographer no longer needs to be for most of us a near solitary practice as there are now opportunities to exchange ideas and images through this, other web pages and the Pinhole Journal. Most importantly, Pinhole photography is a unique and refreshing reborn photographic art form. To a great extent the art scene in the established photograhic art galleries has become entrenched by a relatively small number of what were once creative unknowns of the past few decades.

Once truly creative, for some their work has become tired, commercialized, repetitious and trivial. All too often these artists are like typecast actors in that they repeat the same "roles" with their photographs, afraid or unable to create fresh work. The prints of these "new" artists and the great pioneering art photographers (many deceased) are collected, sometimes re-printed from original negatives (in carefully controlled numbers) and then displayed and sold for escalating prices determined by associated art dealers. Interestingly, Alfred Steiglitz, who opened the first photographic art gallery at the beginning of the century saw his magazine Camera Work utilizing the gravure ink printing process as being an inexpensive way to bring photographic artwork of aspiring photographic talents to the masses.

Today those Steiglitz produced gravures from Camera Work are sold for thousands of dollars each. Fortunately for afficianados of photography Stieglitz's dream has been realized as the inventive work of the great photographers is now published in books on the history of photography which are sold for a reasonable price. Hopefully even more galleries will come to display the beauty of the fine Pinhole work of so many near unknowns now seen in the pages of Pinhole Journal. The gallery instead of being barred to newcomers is here online and equal access is granted to all. The cutting edge of any creative art is usually on the fringe and many pinhole photographers today are right there.

This page is Copyright ©1995, The Pinhole Resource. All Rights Reserved.