Design and Build your own Pinhole Camera

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If you're somebody who likes to take film photographs, you know the satisfaction you get from a film photo that you just don't feel when you use digital.  Just imagine seeing the first photo you get out of a camera you designed and built yourself!  It is a fantastic feeling that you absolutely must experience!

The process of designing and building a camera may seem daunting, but with a little patience and the help of this Instructable and some further reading, you'll be able to do it.  You can use this information to figure out what you want to build, gather some simple materials and tools, and build it!

I want it to be clear that building a pinhole camera relies on your abilities, available materials, and your desired outcome. As a result, this Instructable is less of a step-by-step and more of a lesson on how pinhole cameras work, the physics involved, and some practical knowledge I gained while researching and building my own camera.  I'll do my best to answer any questions but please try to keep this in mind when reading;  thinking and problem solving are required.
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Step 1: What is a Pinhole Camera?

First thing, what is a pinhole and why does it have optical properties?
A pinhole has the ability to function like a glass lens because it excludes all light rays which are not reflecting off the subject that the camera is pointed at.  When light hits an object, it is scattered in all directions; this is why the object is visible from any angle.  If all this light was entering a camera and hitting the film, no image would be produced.  The light needed for a photo has to be aligned to make a focused image.  The pinhole excludes light rays from all irrelevant angles and only allows through rays which are almost perfectly aligned from the subject through the pinhole to the film.  See the image above. The red lines are light rays.  Note that they cross at the pinhole and produce an inverted image.

Applications of this phenomenon; the pinhole camera
First used in both ancient Greece and ancient China, pinhole cameras are a form of camera that takes images without using a conventional optical lens.  Originally called a "camera obscura" they were large boxes or rooms which had a hole in one wall.  This hole formed a sort of lens resulting in a projection on the opposite wall of the scene outside.  Someone inside the camera would then place a piece of paper on the wall and trace the projected image.  Once photo-sensitive materials were discovered and film was invented, the design was miniaturized but the concept remained the same.

A basic pinhole camera is a light-tight container with a tiny hole at one end, and a piece of photo-sensitive material at the opposite end.  Light passes through the pinhole and the photons cause a chemical change on the film, resulting in an image being produced.  Since the pinhole is very small, the light passing through it is light which has a particular direction; it is heading directly at that pinhole from the subject, and at a certain angle that it can pass through the pinhole.  All other light from the scene does not reach the inside of the box.  If all the scattered light that might happen to fall on the film was allowed, no coherent image would be produced.

Some terminology:

Pinhole camera:
A camera which utilizes a pinhole instead of a glass or plastic lens.  The pinhole is quite literally a pin-sized hole in a piece of thin, opaque material. Usually sheet metal is used.

Depth of field: 
With any camera lens, the depth of field is the forward and backward distance from where a lens is focused to that is in focus.  On optical cameras, this is determined by the size of the aperture inside the lens.  In a pinhole camera, this is determined by the diameter of the pinhole itself.  The smaller the pinhole, the larger the depth of field will be.  The effect can be so pronounced that the foreground and background of an image can be in focus simultaneously.  This is something that even the best DSLRs can't do.

Focal Length:
The focal length is the distance an optical system takes to converge light.  It applies to pinhole photography as the ideal distance from the pinhole to the film.  It is calculated based on the diameter of the pinhole.  If the film is not the correct distance from the pinhole the image will be out of focus.  It needs to be as accurate as possible for the best image quality.

f-stop (aperture):

You probably already know what f-stop and aperture is and how to use it for conventional photography, but what is it really?  the f-stop value is based on the diameter of the aperture inside the lens compared to the distance from the aperture to the film.  There is a formula to calculate its value based on those two measurements, which will be covered in Step 3.

Reciprocity Failure:
Pinhole cameras need long exposures, and film does not respond to the amount of light they receive over long time periods in a linear fashion.   More on this in Step 9.

Aspect ratio:
The ratio between the height of an image versus the length.  For example, HDTV is normally 16:9 meaning the width is "16" arbitrary units and the height is "9" arbitrary units.  It is just to give a relative measurement of the final image shape, not the absolute size.
talirc9171 month ago

This is incredible!! Very well designed. I am doing a project like this for school, and you have helped me immensely. I have a couple questions though, if you don't mind helping me out.

Do you have any way to see the film count so you know when you've used all the film?

Why do you have two dials for the film advance? Do you turn them at the same time?

I can't find a pinhole in brass shim shock like you did. Do you happen to have a link to a place where I could get one?

Thanks so much!!

mattthegamer463 (author)  talirc9171 month ago

Hey there,

You view the film count through the little swivel door on the back of the camera. You can also make a little red window instead of just a hole with a cover.

The two dials are because there is too much friction on the film so it has to be loosened from one end and pulled through with the other as you advance. It also lets you adjust it backwards if you crank it too far forward past your number. It also lets you tighten the film so it isn't too loose.

I bought mine from this guy:

His prices have come up but the product is good.

Good luck with your camera.

giocad1 year ago
you're fantastic!
I want to build one as beautiful as yours.
you're really a good manufacturer.
10 votes
mattthegamer463 (author)  giocad1 year ago
Thank you
1000383731 year ago
pleeeeeeeeeeease tell me how can i save this file i need it
epplebear1 year ago
pinhole cameras are fun.I made one out of cardboard box several years ago. Then my Mother passed and I got her old 35 mm camera.So I played with the idea of making it a pinhole. Unscrewed the lens and took it out. Replaced it with a piece of pop can that took some time to make a smooth hole in.To my surprise it worked after I was able to stop shutter from closing. As lone as I held the sutter opened as long as I wanted.It was fun doing. Sorry I can't explane it better. I'm 72 years young and don't know all the turms to use. Hope you can understand what is yonng lady met. Thanks all.
mattthegamer463 (author)  epplebear1 year ago
Thanks for the comment. While sometimes difficult to set up correctly, modifying an existing camera for pinhole is usually quite a bit easier than building one from scratch. You can even pinhole with digital cameras now.
Sergiozal1 year ago
Hello Mat
I am a pinholer myself, and found you design very good and well constructed.
Also, very good instructable,
I hope it pushes more people to this fascinating hobby.
Just one remark is that the flare on the picture seems to be light reflecting on the film roll. if you put a black shield between the pinhole and the film roll it might disappear.
Do you know
mattthegamer463 (author)  Sergiozal1 year ago
Hi Sergiozal,

Glad you liked my write-up and my camera. Thinking about what you are saying about the flare, I don't see how this could be light reflected off the roll. The roll is behind the film and not at all within view of the pinhole. Also, it is very overexposed in that spot, I don't see a way that that much light could have gotten to that spot if it was a reflection during exposure.

Also, the vertical panorama was the middle shot of the roll, since I only get 3 shots out of a roll. It was shot within about 3 minutes of the first one (the bridge and shrubs image) and had the least amount of that light appear, since it was exposed to the leak for the least amount of time. The camera sat for a while on the first shot and the last shot. This leads me to believe that it was a light leak through the seal. The location of the flare's brightest point also makes this make a lot of sense.

I have seen f295 but I am not a member, I should definitely sign up. Lots of interesting things on there.

Thanks for the comment.
Yes, you are right. Happens that I had a very similar problem in my first camera, but the roll was in different position. May be just a small gap left when you closed the camera. The tiniest leakage will do that.
Have fun with your camera !
If we have a lot of people doing it , more film will be available...
mattthegamer463 (author)  Sergiozal1 year ago
Haha yes, it would probably take a couple million new followers to get Fuji and Kodak to fire up the ol' film making machines. We can dream.
skylane1 year ago

Years back, I had so much fun with my pinhole cameras. Started with a 5x7
Then made a panorama and a telephoto out of a piece of tubing. All fun!
As much as I love my digital camera - it's small, pocket sized, with an 8 Gig card, it takes about 3,000 images on high resolution... I can self process / color adjust, stitch together for wide images, and I can even make image sequences in movies for them.....

And I don't have to pay $25 for the roll of film and the processing - even if half the pictures are crap, which means, not good pictures, blurry, shaken, bad lighting etc...

I do like the very basic camera and film set ups.

Have a look for DAGUERREOTYPE camera - in searches and DAGUERREOTYPE photo in image searches.

I would not go to all this effort to make these types of pictures, but they do give some of the most detailed images possible.

First Ever Human Photographed.
pghjim1 year ago
Nicely done! I'm not a photographer beyond the average birthday/vacation snapshots, but I read every word of your instructable. I find it very interesting when people like you take the time to re-construct/re-invent older methods of performing any task, or in this case, make art.

Once again, well done.
mattthegamer463 (author)  pghjim1 year ago
Thanks very much. Glad you found it so interesting.
seolfor1 year ago
Very nice and well thought out. It's good to see someone presenting the fun and experimentation of using a pinhole camera. 5 stars in my opinion.
AtomRat1 year ago
I did do a little research on this about 2 years ago and came across a couple of Japanese guys that had made a rather impressive one. Very useful and lots of information in this 'ible. Great job! I will certainly attempt this one soon. Supplied links are very useful as well, cheers. Many effects can be done with these that I know of as well
This is so thoroughly documented - great work! :D
mattthegamer463 (author)  jessyratfink1 year ago
Thanks, took me a while to write.

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