Pinhole Camera Adventures

For some time I’ve been wanting a change of pace with my photography. It’s not that I don’t have a variety of equipment, but I wanted to experiment with a different kind of image — something less sharp and modern. I considered getting a Holga, and may still do so. The Holga with its less than sharp lens and unpredictable optical quirks and vignetting with almost no controls over exposure has the charm of being simple yet different. Many of my photography contacts use them as a kind of therapy when they need to freshen their outlook on the craft.I was in this contemplative frame of mind when I saw a haunting photo by Ian Phillip, a Scottish photographer known as mr_phillip on Flickr:

Tarbet Tree, Loch Lomond
Photo by Ian Phillip

There was something ethereal and romantic about this that attracted my attention. It wasn’t sharp but it was beautiful. Ian’s tech information indicated this was taken with a Zero 6×9. Zero 6X9? That was a camera I’d not heard of, so I did a Google search and discovered the Zero 6×9 Multi-Format, a 120-film hand-crafted teak pinhole camera that has inner wooden baffles or masks that can be adjusted for 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, and 6×9 format. The cameras are created by Zernike Au in China and sold through his Zero Image web store. One look and I was hooked.

But first I wanted to see more images, not just Ian’s. Mr Phillip is an exceptionally good photographer who can make great looking images with any camera so I was concerned that his lovely Loch Lomond shots might not be typical of what the camera produces. Ian had a link to a Flickr group called Zero Image and a look through the images there convinced me that this was the change of pace I was looking for. I was flush with a little extra cash, having recently sold some redundant gear, so I decided to buy the 6×9 (though the 35mm and 4×5 versions were tempting) with cable-release adapter and bubble level. It arrived within a week.

Zero Image 6x9 Pinhole Camera Zero Image 6x9 Pinhole Camera

Marion and Trevor loved it. I thought it looked like something from the movie set of H.G. Wells’s Time Machine.

The arrival of the camera coincided with a series of snowstorms. Unable to get out easily for a walk to the harbour and environs, I decided to shoot my first roll at home — in the yard and in the house. Calculating exposure with pinholes is an inexact science. I used my Sekonic hand meter in incident mode and took readings at ISO100 for the Plus-X film I’d loaded into the Zero. The Zero has a handy calculator dial on the back for getting you into the approximately correct exposure range. You dial in the reading from your meter, say 1/30 at f/16, then follow the dial to the 1/250 f-stop to get an exposure approximation. For my outdoor shots, on an overcast day with a bit of wan sunlight peeking through occasionally, the dial at f/250 read between 7-8 seconds.

However, most films exhibit reciprocity failure1 — becoming less sensitive to light — during longer exposures so you have to factor that into the exposure. The guide that came with the camera suggested a 2x factor for reciprocity failure for any exposures over 1 second so I used that to adjust my exposure to 15 seconds. I’m not all that good at counting seconds in my head so I used the digital stopwatch I use for my cardio walks.

It was a new and foreign experience, taking those first shots. There’s no viewfinder on the camera so I pointed the front of the box towards what I wanted to photograph and levelled the camera on my tripod. I used a cable release and 15-sec exposures outdoors. The first time you try something like this, you have no idea what to expect, but I liked the experience. It felt uncommonly retro. This photo of the front of our house (along with our neighour’s) was my first-ever pinhole photograph:

First-ever Pinhole Shot

On this one I corrected some of the typical vignetting to get more of a soft but typical medium-format wide-angle shot. I was on my way! One more from the outdoor shots: the accumulation of snow on our birdbath and back deck bench:

Back Yard

I didn’t correct the vignetting in this one, liking the way it looked as is. Next I went indoors. This shot of the top of my bureau took 30 minutes:

Dresser Top, Sharpened

A pinhole camera makes interesting ‘people pictures’. Because of its long exposure times, people are blurred while the surroundings are not. I sat for a self portrait — four minutes in this case — and worked on a sudoku while keeping an eye on the timer. Due to the length of exposure, my image is blurry, and my getting into the frame, then out of it, was too quick to be recorded. Despite being underexposed (eight minutes would have been better) this is my favourite image from the first roll:

Self Portrait

I hope to take more pinhole portraits. And when the wintry weather is better for walking (it’s been brutally cold for the past two days), I want to experiment with pinhole shots of the Port Credit harbour.

1Reciprocity (photography) – Wikipedia

2 thoughts on “Pinhole Camera Adventures

  1. Hi

    Avery interesting article and project, I love the photos you have already achieved and can’t wait to see more as you produce them. In this modern, high-tech, digital age its refreshing to see some new images produced in an old fashioned method.


  2. Thank you Andrew. I intend to do more pinhole projects as soon as I’m able. I like the slow, old-fashioned aspect of it too. It provides a good balance to my digital shooting.


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