Pinhole photography with the HQ Camera
Linux Format|October 2021
Interchangeable lenses enable us to experiment with that historical curiosity, the pinhole camera, Mike Bedford shows you how.
Mike Bedford

The pinhole camera might date back to 1856, but it would be wrong to think it predated cameras with lenses. Instead, it seems that the idea of a lens-less camera was always intended as a curiosity, not a serious suggestion for a practical camera. It has been used as such by enthusiasts, but in the main pinhole cameras have been employed as teaching aids. Irrespective of whether you want to learn more about optics and photography by experiment, or take some shots with a rather unique look, if you have a healthy curiosity we’re confident that you’ll enjoy trying our various hands-on exercises.

A pinhole camera can be nothing more complicated than a cardboard box, as we demonstrate with our first experiment. While it might seem incongruous to mix old and new technology in this way, we then bring the concept up to date by showing you how to use a Raspberry Pi HQ Camera as a pinhole camera. This isn’t just a desktop exercise though – we also provide some guidance on how to make that pinhole camera portable so you can use in the great outdoors.

Because pinhole photos aren’t always perfect as they come out of the camera, we’ll offer some brief thoughts on photo processing. Finally, to round off our look at this primitive form of photography, we also take a look at pinhole photography with a DSLR.

Illuminating in a cardboard box

Right at the start we have to come clean and admit that you’re probably not going to take a photo with our first pinhole camera, even though it’s quite feasible to do so. Instead, the real purpose of this experiment is to demonstrate how simple a pinhole camera can be – after all, this one is just a cardboard box – and to give you a better feel for what’s happening when we get embroiled in high-tech pinhole cameras.

First of all you need to find a cardboard box. The size isn’t critical, but we suggest going not much larger than the one in the photo, bottom left. Paint it matt black, inside and out, and when the paint has dried, glue a piece of white paper to the inside of one of the smaller faces. Now, using a sharp object like a small bradawl, make a small hole about 1-2mm in diameter through the face opposite the one with the white paper. In picking the faces to which you’ll stick the white paper and make the pinhole, make sure that one of the other two faces can be opened. Congratulations, you’ve made your first pinhole camera.

To see it in action, take it into a dark room and find something that emits its own light as the photographic subject, say a candle or a bare lightbulb. Place your camera on a flat surface such as the floor or a table, and place that object close to the box facing the pinhole. Now turn off the lights and take a look at the white paper through the opening in the box, and you should see an upside-down image of the light-emitting object. If you don’t see the image, try adjusting the angle of the box to better frame the shot and/or try moving it closer to or further from the object.

Now, to take a photo, having set up the camera and the object, just remove the piece of tape from the pinhole for the exposure period. Of course, you’d need to prepare your camera in total darkness, or in red light if you’re using photographic paper as opposed to film. You’d need to develop it afterwards, and you’d need to experiment with exposure times. We suspect few of you will choose to try that, so let’s move on to some more practical ways of taking real pinhole photos.

A Pi-hole camera

First we’re going to see how to build an experimental pinhole camera using a RPi HQ Camera, and then we’ll move on to consider how to make it more practical for portable use. For the first step, until you’re sure everything’s working okay we suggest that you use a Raspberry Pi attached to the HQ Camera on a tripod facing outside through a window, and with the usual keyboard, mouse, monitor and power supply attached.

However, we’re not going to be using the camera with one of its normal lenses attached. Instead, we’ll be using a pinhole, so let’s see how to make one. Take the body cap that will have been fitted to the HQ Camera when you first took it out of its box, and drill a hole about 10mm in diameter through the middle. Now take a piece of aluminium cooking foil and make a small pinhole in it, using a sewing needle – see the box below for information on pinhole diameter.

Alternatively, you might do better using thicker foil, such as that used for some takeaway or freezer-food containers. The advantage of the thicker foil is that you can sand it down with very fine sandpaper to remove any burr. Cut out the pinhole so that the piece of foil completely covers the hole in the body cap and secure it in place using tape, ensuring that no light can leak through the cap except through the pinhole. Finally, screw the body cap and its pinhole onto the HQ Camera, using the C-CS adapter that you’d use with the longer of the two official lenses. This will provide you with a focal length of about 16mm – see the box on page 50 for information on focal lengths.

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