The thought of making your own camera may sound daunting. Today, a camera is seen as highly technical and expensive machine. But at its most basic, a camera is simply a box with a hole in it, and making one is not as tricky and costly as you think. Here’s how to make a pinhole camera in the comfort of your own home using the bare minimum materials.
We’ve built this step-by-step list from the above video by Karl Schwartz, and a quick YouTube search will reveal many other tutorials you may want to watch, as well.
The word “camera” comes from camera obscura, which simply means “dark chamber.” A pinhole camera is one of the most basic examples of this concept. Pinhole cameras are made from a lightproof box, some photographic paper, and a tiny hole (often made with a pin, hence the name). Technically, any size of box will work — even a bedroom can become a pinhole camera — but if you want to actually preserve your images as a photograph, your box should be sized to fit a piece of photo paper.
The pinhole is just an aperture, not a true lens, but because it is so small it will still focus an image on the opposite side of the box, exposing the photo paper placed there. Yes, that means you won’t see your image right away and will need to develop the paper first, but that’s part of the fun.
What you’ll need
Before we get into the process of creating a pinhole camera, below are the materials and tools you’ll need to get started. While most of these are common household items, you will need some darkroom-specific supplies if you want to safely develop your own images at home. We’ve put links to what you’ll need for Ilford black-and-white prints below, but be aware that other options exist. You’ll also need Adobe Photoshop (see how to get a free trial) or another photo editing application that can turn a negative into a positive.
- A lightproof cardboard box (a shoebox, for example)
- Black paper
- A black marker
- Black tape
- Aluminum Can
- Push Pin
- Paper cutter
- A sharp knife
- Photographic paper
- A red safelight
- Photo developer
- Photo stop bath solution
Step one: Making the box lightproof
Although a shoebox will prevent most light from coming through, it does need a couple of modifications to ensure it’s completely light proof (any light source entering the box other than through the pinhole will spoil your image).
To do this, you need your black paper marker. Take your ruler and measure the inside of the box. Cut the black paper so that it’s the same dimensions, then glue it to the inside of the box, making sure all areas are covered.
The connecting corners of the box may still be exposed. To fix this, take your marker and color in over any parts that are not covered by the paper.
For the outside of the box, take some black tape and cover all the edges. Electrical tape is your best option. Due to its robustness, you have less chance of light penetrating it — although it will cost a little more than standard black tape.
All this may seem like overkill, but it’s better to be safe than have your image ruined by light leaks.
Step two: Creating the pinhole
Take your ruler and draw an X in the center of the side of the box where you want to put the pinhole.
Next, take an aluminum can (you can use a soda can) and cut a 1 x 1-inch piece out of it. Use your marker to draw an outline (0.5-inch x 0.5-inch) around the center of the X on your box.
Once this is complete, take your knife and cut out the piece of the box on which you drew your outline. When cutting, be careful not to cut any of the paper on the inside of the box. Doing so will result in light leaks that may affect the quality of your image.
Now it’s time to put the pinhole in piece of aluminum. It’s best to place the aluminum on a piece of cardboard. This will act as a cushion when you’re piercing through the aluminum.
Take your pin and begin to push it through the center of your aluminum. Be careful not to push it all the way through; you only need to push the first quarter of the pin through to make a big enough hole.
Step three: Making the shutter
Tape the aluminum so that it covers the hole you cut out in your box. You’ve now made your camera’s aperture. Like all cameras, yours will also need a shutter, which you can make with a piece of black tape. Make sure the tape is long enough to fully cover the pinhole and allow you to peel it back without completely removing it from the camera.
Step four: Using your pinhole camera
Now that you’ve built your camera, it’s time to put it to the test. For this step, you’ll need some photographic paper. Working in a dark room, cut the photographic paper so that you can place it inside your box, making sure it’s on the opposite side from the pinhole (attach it with a piece of double-sided tape if you want to ensure it stays in place). Make sure the box is fully closed and the tape is securely covering the pinhole before you step out into the light.
To begin your exposure, open the shutter by peeling back the black tape. If you’re shooting outside on a bright day, you should aim for an exposure of around 30 seconds, but depending on the size of your pinhole, you may need to do some experimenting to figure out the correct exposure time.
Due to the long exposure time, you’ll need to keep the camera stationary to prevent motion blur. Set it on a solid surface for the best results. If you have a human subject, just make sure they stand or sit as still as possible — you won’t be able to completely prevent motion blur, but you can still get a recognizable portrait if done correctly.
Once the 30 seconds is over, close the shutter by sticking the tape back in place. Importantly, leave your photographic paper in the box until you can get to a dark environment.
Developing the photo negative
Developing your image can be tricky, but with the right tools and practice, you can easily do it yourself.
First, always keep your photo paper away from light both before and after making your exposure. When developing, you must be in a room of complete darkness — but you can use a red safelight to help you see, which won’t expose your photo paper.
Once you’re all set up in your darkroom, take the photographic paper out of your pinhole camera. You need to have two separate trays for your developing solution — one to begin the development of the image (developing solution) and the other to stop it (stopper solution).
Place your photographic paper in the developing solution and leave for two minutes. Then take some kitchen tongs and remove it from the developing solution tray and place it in the stopper solution for 30 seconds. Remove it from the stopper solution, rinse with plain water, and put it on the side. You now have something called a photo negative.
Creating the photo positive
You can turn the negative into a positive by scanning it into your computer (or going the old-school route of using a photographic enlarger, but we scanning is going to be much less of a hassle).
If you don’t have a photo scanner, that’s no problem; you can “scan” the paper just by taking a picture of it with a camera, or even your phone. Open the image in Photoshop and choose to Image > Adjustments from the menu bar. Next, select Invert. This will invert the image, turning the negative into a positive — or in other words, a normal picture. Save the image to your computer and you’re finished!
Pinhole images might not be the most technically excellent photos in the world, but they have a unique charm to them. What’s more, it feels pretty good to create a photo from a camera you made yourself from scratch.
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