Thursday Nov 18, 2010
How-To: Cheap panoramic pinhole camera from a film tin!

Pinhole cameras can be a lot of fun, and a great experiment to introduce photography to just about anyone. The concept is very simple, all you need to make a pinhole camera is:

  • A container of somesort that you can make light-tight, even if that means wrapping it in duct tape. Duct tape cures everything.
  • Film or Photographic Paper, I recommend paper…some cheap 5x7 RC paper from Freestyle is perfect ($16 for 100 5x7’s)
  • A dark place to load the camera, using paper makes this a lot easier because you can work under a safelight…so if you have a goofy pinhole that is hard to load consider using paper!
  • The actual pinhole, something sturdy with a hole in it.

And, yeah, you are going to need some B&W chemicals to process your paper or film pinhole photos. Again, I recommend using paper because it adds a lot of fun to the process. If you have never seen a print appear in the developer you are truly missing out! Working in total darkness with film can be very frustrating for first-timers, especially if they are kids. So what chemicals do you need?

  • Developer, pick up some Kodak Dektol. Enough to make 1 gal. will last you forever if you are making pinhole photos.
  • Stop bath, get a little jug of Kodak Indicator Stop Bath. One little jug (16oz) will last you years. And you know its going bad when it turns purple.
  • Fixer, I like regular old Kodak Rapid Fixer. The size to make 1gal. is actually enough to make 2gal. if you are using it for paper!

You can make trays out of anything, and just use the kitchen sink to wash your prints. By the time they are done in the fixer they are totally safe to bring out into the light. You can find a wealth of information about making pinhole cameras on the web, it’s merely a Google search away. If I remember some of my favorites I’ll add them to this post at a later date.

Making a panoramic pinhole camera out of an empty 35mm film tin If you have ever rolled your own 35mm film canisters from a 100’ bulk roll, you have probably seen a tin like this many times. But for the uninitiated, the tin you see in the pics is what a 100’ bulk roll of 35mm film comes in. You load the 100’ roll into a device that is designed to help you roll your own film into re-loadable canisters. If you don’t have one handy, go buy a 100’ roll and shoot it! Then, make a pinhole. Or, I bet you could find these all over ebay, just don’t pay too much please. If it comes down to that, make it out of something else with a similar shape (if you want a panoramic pinhole). An often overlooked, but really great improvement in image quality for a pinhole camera is having the correct diameter pinhole. I went out and got a variety pack of sewing needles and measured the smallest one with some calipers…worked out to be right about 0.017” in diameter. Using one of the pinhole camera calculators linked below, it turns out the ideal focal length is 4.1” for a pinhole of that diameter and an image height about what the height of our panoramic photo would be. Perfect! Why? Because that’s the diameter of the film tin, meaning pinhole to paper distance is right about 4”….this is a happy coincidence.

Some useful online pinhole calculators:

Step 1: Make the camera

How nice, a tin designed to hold film turns out to be perfect for making a camera.

  • Drill a hole midway up the height of the tin (with the lid off), I used about a 3/8” drill bit
  • Sand down the burrs created by the hold you drilled, and also scuff up the inside of the tin (lid and base) with the sandpaper. This will help the paint stick better inside.
  • Paint the inside with flat black spraypaint. No need to break the bank, I got a can for $0.92 at WalMart. You’ll barely use any of it, but now you’ll have some on hand for “flocking” other pinhole cameras. We’re using flat black because we want to reduce any light bouncing around inside off of a reflective surface.

Guess what? You just made a pinhole camera, now time to make the “lens”.

The camera from the outside, notice the hole drilled on the left

Step 2: Making the “lens”

For this camera, it so happened that the smallest needle in a multi-pack of sewing needles was just the right diameter for good focus using this tin. Right about 0.017” in diameter. For your first time, no need to get hung up on this. You’ll still get an image, just maybe not as sharp.

  • I used some brass sheet stock from the hobby store as a material to make my pinhole. It was about $5 for a roll with enough of this crap to make about a million pinholes. If you don’t have that available, cut a piece out of an aluminum drink can.
  • Slowly, and with a twisting motion, “drill” the metal with your sewing needle. Put something like thick cardboard under the metal, it helps to have that solid, yet poke-able surface when you are trying to be gentle.
  • When you have it all the way through (the tip), use the same sandpaper to clean up the edges of the tiny hole. If you hold it up to a bright light and peek through it with one eye, you can see the imperfections pretty well.

Step 3: Mount the “lens”

This step is simple. Tape the pinhole to the inside of the “camera” like you see in the photo. Try to center it in the hole you drilled in the camera.

Brass pinhole taped into position, you can also see a piece of photo paper taped inside

Step 4: Load the camera and apply the shutter and light sealing

So, now you’ll need to go into your dark place with the safelight on.

  • I cut the 5x7’s into 3 strips I think, then just taped them inside the camera with some black tape. Try to center the tape based on the pinhole location
  • Now, put the lid on and run a piece of tape around the lid. This will keep the lid from accidentally coming off in transit and help to eliminate light leaks.
  • Last step, put a piece of thick black tape over the pinhole from the outside of the camera. This is your shutter, pull it back when you want to expose the paper.

Try to center the paper across from the pinhole like this

Now, go take some pictures!

Those links above can also be helpful in deciding how long to expose your photos. I would go in “stops” just like you would with a camera, and do it on a sunny day inside. When I say go in “stops” I mean try: 1sec, 2sec, 4sec, 8sec, 16sec, etc… Move in stops, remember this is a camera! All you do is pull back the tape over the pinhole and wait, that tape is your shutter. From here I recommend you go back inside and process the paper (tutorial coming soon). After it dries, you have two options:

  • Make a contact print of your paper negative. The image your pinhole is going to make will be a negative on the paper when processed, so you need to turn it into a positive! A simple way to do this with light is to make a contact print. Sandwich your dried pinhole photo between a sheet of glass and an unexposed piece of photographic paper and shine some light on it. If you don’t use an enlarger you’ll have to experiment with times, but you can easily use a flashlight or table lamp.
  • Scan the paper negative and invert digitally. This is what I did for this example. I dried my paper negative and threw it in a flatbed scanner I got at the Goodwill Store for $5. I opened the scanned image and inverted it in Photoshop.

An image of my backyard taken with the camera, scanned and inverted

So, that’s all there is to it! Go make your own and see what you can come up with. This camera is very portable so get creative!

  1. aepearson posted this