A long time ago (about 2,500 years) in a land far away (China) a man by the name of Mo-Ti observed that light passing through a small hole projected an image on a surface. And that was the start of photography.

Over the next couple of thousand years, this idea was employed mainly for the study of the heavens, with astronomers and scientists building elaborate structures, or annoying their wives by taking over the living room, and then lighting a wall from a small hole that let in the light. In the seventeenth century Johannes Kepler decided it would be useful if these dark rooms with holes in them should have a name, so he called them camera obscura (camera=vaulted chamber in Latin, obscura=dark). By this time, the camera obscura was being used with a lens rather than a pinhole by artists who wanted to project an image and then draw it. Indeed there is some conjecture that some of the great artists were tracing their masterpieces inside a camera obscura rather than drawing from observation; the cads!

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The lens based camera obscura became more popular; but the basic pin-sized hole technique retained a following and as is so often the case, it took a Scotsman, Sir David Brewster, to give this technique a name: pinhole photography. Although Sir David only invented the pinhole bit, the word photography had already been coined by Sir John Herschel (if you didn’t have a knighthood, you weren’t allowed to name things).

In the early part of the last century, pinhole photography died away a little, but has seen a resurgence since the 1960s as people come back to the most basic form of photography, a box with a hole in it.

I like pinhole photographs. Some pinhole photos (none of mine) are extremely evocative and artistic. I bought a Pinwide pinhole “lens” for Micro Four Thirds and I play with it occasionally; but it is not the proper pinhole experience. Pinhole photos should be taken on film using a camera with minimal controls. There should be considerable uncertainty as to the outcome. The camera should not be a modern metal contraption, it should be made of wood. It should be something like this:

Having filled the toy kitty from the sale of my Canon gear, it seemed somehow fitting to take a little out of the fund and go back to basics with a pinhole camera; and they don’t come any more basic, and charming, than the cameras produced by the Hong Kong based company, Zero Image.

Starting at less than $100, they will sell you a camera for a variety of film sizes. Mine takes 120 size, medium-format, produces a square image and I think it is very cute,

On the front, the pinhole is covered by the shutter mechanism, a piece of wood that you slide sideways to open, and slide back to shut. Given that exposures are going to be at least a second in duration, a less shaky solution is to use a shutter release:

On the back there is a little hole through which you can see how many shots you have wasted, and a device for calculating exposure. You evaluate exposure for an ordinary camera and then look round the dial to find the shutter speed required for F138, which is the effective aperture of the pinhole. Then you apply a multiplication factor to compensate for reciprocity (no, I have no idea what that means either); and away you go. In practice I decided that the shutter speed should be somewhere around as second which I achieved by opening the shutter and shouting “and and one” before closing it again; much the bemusement of bystanders:

On the top, the middle knob screws down to hold everything together and the other knob advances the film. To top off the top there is a bubble level for those times when you really need to be straight:

On the bottom is the screw hole for the tripod, and you are going to need this given the exposure times:

Open up the back and you will find clamps to hold the films and a little plate with the camera serial number on it:

This is a nice touch in a product awash with nice touches. The camera comes in a sturdy little cardboard box in which, as well as the camera, you will find a hand-completed certificate describing your camera, a sheet of instructions and a viewfinder:

The viewfinder should be held about 2.5 centimeters in front of your face to give you an indication of what the camera will capture. But the chances of the camera pointing in exactly the same direction as your face and the viewfinder are pretty remote; so after a while I dispensed with the viewfinder and just guessed.

Using the camera could not be easier. Point it at something; calculate/guess the exposure, open the pinhole cover and then shut it again after a time interval that approximates to your exposure guesstimate. Wind on the film. Repeat.

I took the camera out for its first shoot on a wet and dull Saturday afternoon. Took what I hoped were some interesting subjects and came home to develop the film in Caffenol. Disaster. There was nothing on the film, in fact it didn’t even feel like film. Not buying that Lomo stuff ever again.

So on Sunday I was out again, this time with a roll of T-Max. It looked like rain so I just stayed in town and knocked off a few “proof of concept shots”. This is proof that a film in a wooden box with a small hole in the front, developed in shit coffee, vitamin C and Washing Soda, can produce an image:

This next shot was also exposed for about a second:

Then I though I would take it again with a longer exposure (“and and one and and two”) to bring out the details in the building. So I did that and walked off to photograph a Buddha. When I developed the film I found I had this:

I had forgotten to wind on the film after the building shot and so had two captures on a single negative. Happily, I rather like the result so will pretend I did it on purpose.

Most impressed with the quality of the Zero Image, and also surprised at the quality of the images it produces from its tiny hole. Most of all, what a load of fun it is to shoot with.