Pinhole Camera (Camera Obscura)




The camera obscura has been around for thousands of years. The phenomenon was first observed by Aristotle and Chinese philosophers as early as 470 BCE. However, it was not until 1837 that the first permanent pictures could be obtained using the camera obscura as a pinhole camera. These pictures were called "Daguerreotypes," and the pictures you take with the pinhole camera will have a "vignette" effect.

To learn more

To experience it

Now, it is simple and easy to create a miniature pinhole camera from basic supplies. Join in on the fun!

*I wrote this Instructable to be short and choppy to emphasize the pictures of the process.
**A better shutter will be forthcoming in a future Instructable.
***Thanks to Mrs. Hogan of Gunn high School for help and assistance on the project. 

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Step 1: What You Will Need

Here is a list of materials you will need for this project:
-A box of some sort (I used an Altoids tin, but you can use anything, even a matchbox if you adapt this instructable)
-A soda can (empty!)
-A needle
-Opaque tape
-Black matte paint or a black marker
-2 small magnets

Here is a list of tools you will use in the project:
-Drill bit (1/8 in.)
-Craft knife or shears

To take pictures, you will need:
-35 mm black and white film (can be purchased online)
-Black and white film paper (can be purchased online)
-Developer and fixer (can be purchased online)
-A darkroom

Step 2: Wash the Inside of the Altoids Tin (Optional)

While this step is optional (especially for those of you who aren't using Altoids tins) I highly recommend washing out the tin. It will help later on in the painting and it will remove the overly "minty" smell.

Step 3: Paint the Inside of the Tin

To experience the camera obscura, the interior of the tin must be black. This is to prevent light from reflecting and ruining the film. I used a matte black spray paint to get the job done. Be sure that it is a matte or flat finish and not the glossy kind, because that will reflect light as well.

Step 4: Find Your Focal Length and Pinhole Size

This is the critical step in the making of the camera. The pinhole must be exact, or the camera will not function at the best of its ability. To find your focal length, measure the depth of your container or tin. for an Altoids tin, the depth is 0.75 in. That results in a pinhole of diameter 0.007 in. To achieve a hole like this I recommend using a thumb tack or a pin. To find the information about your pinhole size, click here

Step 5: Drilling the Hole

Find the center of the Altoids tin by measuring with a ruler. Mark the center with the pencil, and drill the hole carefully. Make sure that the hole is straight through and vertical.

Step 6: Cut Up the Soda Can

The soda can will provide the material for the pinhole. The advantage of this is that you can make different pinholes and swap them out of the camera body. Different hole sizes will produce different effects. Also, making the edges of the pinhole jagged will create a "rough edged" photo you take with the camera. Also, if you mess up, you can have a second chance.

Cut a small square out of the soda can (can be any dimension, but must cover the 1/8 hole in the tin), and find the center of the square using the ruler. 

Step 7: Making the Pinhole

To make the critical pinhole for the camera, take the small square of metal, and the pin or thumb tack. Gently, gently push the pin through the metal at the center. I recommend spinning the pin like a drill to create a smoother hole. If you want a jagged effect, you do not have to spin the needle. 

Step 8: Paint!

Paint the sheet of metal with the pinhole black to prevent light from reflecting off the shiny metal.

Step 9: Assembling the Camera Body

To assemble the camera body, tape the pinhole piece to the Altoids tin. Secure the pinhole so it is centered over the hole in the Altoids tin. Be sure to check for any light leaks in the tin. You can cover the pinhole with a piece of tape to form a shutter.

That's it! you are done. The rest of the Instructable will be on how to load the camera, and how to form another shutter if you want to.

Step 10: Load the Camera

Open your brand new amazing camera. You can load the camera with either 35 mm film, or with film paper. Cut the film or paper to fit in the Altoids tin. If you are using film paper, I recommend cutting it to roughly the same size as 35 mm film. Center the film under the pinhole/shutter of the camera on the wall opposite the pinhole. Then, place the two small magnets on opposite sides of the film. Be sure to have the magnets on the absolute edge of the film, or in the corners of the film paper. This is to minimize the effect of the magnets on the outcome of the photo. I recommend sealing the camera with tape to prevent any light from entering the camera after you have loaded it.


After you unload the camera, take it to a photo developer (or develop it on your own if you can). Enjoy your pictures!

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    16 Discussions


    4 years ago

    To Worcester think tank any where from 10-20sec on a bright day and 15-30secs on a cloudy day. Although each camera may very. I took mine with two different camera and my second box took almost double the amount of time.


    4 years ago

    I built one of these cameras about 4 months back. They work well I even played with a duel exposer

    15, 9:03 PM.jpg15, 9:03 PM.jpg

    I just made these with six students in an optics class. How long do you recommend we keep the pin hole open to expose the film or paper inside once we want to take a picture?


    5 years ago

    any instruction on how to make a tracing style camera obscura? is it then same concept as the pinhole but with an longer box and a bit of glass and mirror?


    6 years ago on Introduction

    Forgive me for sounding stupid...but how do i take a picture with this? Do i need to load the film and cover the pinhole? then take the cover of the pnhoe for the image to process? how long need i leave the pinhol uncovered etc?


    7 years ago on Introduction

    personally i don`t use pin hole cameras i just use digital


    7 years ago on Introduction

    A camera obscura (sometimes spelled oscura) isn't a device, it's a room - literally a 'darkened chamber'. Originally it was observed that a small hole in an otherwise covered window would project an inverted image onto an opposite wall, but the term came to be used for a more complex room with a lens in the ceiling and a circular reflector on the roof above which projected a 360 degree panorama of the surrounding landscape onto a circular table below. Typically the camera oscura would be at the highest point in the town and you could go there to observe the entire town in real time, much like viewing a live satellite surveillance image. There is still an existing camera oscura in Edinburgh, Scotland, at the top of the Royal Mile near Edinburgh Castle, and it is a very popular tourist destination. Unless the meaning of the word has drifted over the years, I don't think it is correct to use this term for a simple pinhole camera.

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Camera obscurae come in all sizes.  Desktop sized camera obscurae have existed for centuries, and were generally used to take tracings of well-lit objects.

    A pinhole camera is a type of camera obscura, specifically a small (usually portable) camera obscura without a lens, and with film to capture the image instead of a projected surface for drawing as with other small camera obscura.  They operate on the same principle.

    On the flip side, a number of building sized camera obscurae were lens-less, utilizing the pinhole effect to project an image on the rear wall of the building.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    could you use polaroid film like the one that fujifilm now makes instead of film because this instructable does
    and I was wondering if it fit could it be done??? thanks


    7 years ago on Introduction

    This is a great instructable. I have got to get some photo paper, developer, and fixer. They have direct positive paper that you can print onto with pinhole cameras without having to use a negative to capture the image. Cool stuff.


    7 years ago on Step 7

    You can make a finer/better pinhole by placing the aluminum on something a little soft. like cardboard. push the pin into the metal (just enough to make a small bump, not poking through the can) then take some medium/fine sandpaper and sand down the bump. then poke it with the pin again make a new teeny bump, and sand it too usually at this pint the metal will be incredibly thin, and you can easily drill with a needle a teeny hole. (you want just the point to pierce the aluminum. you can then blacken it with soot from a candle flame (holdin git with tweezers.

    ive also used foil tape for making the pinholes (same technique) but its already thinner.
    you can see some of my blueprint photography pinholes here.

    1 reply

    Reply 7 years ago on Step 7

    That's a great idea, and I will try that next time. I feel that the size of the pinhole can also be a creative variable because it can be manipulated to create certain effects with the film.


    The camera is the Altoids box. The pinhole in the lid is the aperture that lets the light in, and the distance from the aperture to the film acts like the focal length. By peeling the tape off and putting it back on, you can work the shutter. I will be adding another Instructable shortly on how to make a more effective shutter. Does that satisfy your question?