Cameras,  Reviews

Pinhole 4×5 – Lower than low-tech

What is a box, with a small hole on one side and photo sensitive material on the other called?  A Pinhole camera!  It does not get any simpler than this.  There is usually no mechanism, yet alone any electronics.   Calculation of exposure is quite complex, but made easier in modern times with apps that can help calculate all elements, including reciprocity.

My pinhole camera uses 4×5 sheet film, so it is considered a large format camera.  I received the camera as a gift when I bought a set of 4×5 film holders to use with my old press camera.  From what I can gather, it is home built, but of a very good standard of quality.  I deduce this because there is no label on it with a manufacturer’s name.

Pinhole photography is not necessarily for everyone.  The results tend to be dreamy looking, which can make it look attractive, but requires the right subject.  Due to long exposures (the aperture on mine is f/287), they are not meant for portraits or anything that moves.


Pinhole image forming has been around for 5000 years.  It has been documented that nomadic North African tribes thousands of years ago knew about it.  They would live in animal skin tents and with a hole would project the brilliant scene outside against the tent wall.

Aristotle wrote about pinhole images roughly 4th century B.C. in his books. Chinese scholars did the same in the 5th century B.C. where they discovered that light travels in a straight line.  All along history there are many examples where this has been rediscovered and used with the most notable being viewing the solar eclipse.  We all remember the warnings from childhood that staring at the eclipse is dangerous and how we would cut out a hole and project it downwards.  This is again the pinhole projection.

One of the very interesting uses is the camera obscura.  This involved darkening a room where you could walk into, with a small hole on one side and a clear wall on the other side, where the outside scene would be projected onto. Very similar to what the tribes in North Africa were doing thousands of years ago!

The early 19th century is when technology caught up, and was when it was possible to capture the scene onto photo (light) sensitive material.  While still quite primitive, suddenly scenes were being captured realistically, without artistic interpretation.  In 1822 Nicéphore (Joseph) Niépce, an amateur French scientist, inventor and artist produced the first heliographs using a photoengraved printing plate.  His photo of the view from the Window at Le Gras (1826–27) is the world’s oldest surviving photograph.

The word “pin-hole” was first used in the book “The Stereoscope” by Englishman Sir David Brewster, an English scientist.  He was also one of the first to make pinhole photographs.  Since that time, many people and even some companies have made pinhole cameras, including the home made one that I received and used in this article.  You can even purchase pinhole “lenses” for modern digital cameras now.

Camera Specifics

There is not much to a pinhole camera.  It is photography in its rawest and basic.  My camera is built out of wood, which is stained with varnish.  At the front is has a hole which I have measured to being an aperture f/287.  There is also a sliding cover with a little ball handle on it.

The bottom and one side of the camera have a tripod bush each.  This is a great idea as the camera can be used easily both in portrait and landscape orientations.

The back has a swinging panel on a couple of brass hinges.  It swings downward, to allow the 4×5 holder to be put in place.  The panel is then held closed by a brass latch.  Felt has been lined in the opening to ensure it remains light tight.

The interior has been painted black and a larger hole drilled through the wood panel.  Sandwiched inside the panelling is some foil with a small hole “pinned” through it.

The Experience

When I first received the camera, I must admit I questioned if it was light tight.  While I was preparing for a shoot to take it with me, I then hit the problem, how do you pack this this camera?  A very awkward box, does not fit in any camera bags and not something I would use all night, so had to complement my other equipment.  In the end, it was packed into a shopping bag.  I had loaded the film holders during the day so they got packed in with my other camera.

At Dee Why, a northern beach of Sydney, I propped the pinhole camera on my tripod and almost immediately had someone asking about it.  The same thing happened the second time at La Perouse, an eastern beach of Sydney.  La Perouse is very popular for wedding photographers due to the beautiful sunsets and a little island, Bare Island, which is joined to the mainland by a wooden bridge.  Quite a few of the photographers, generally with their digital Nikons and Canons, would stop by and ask what it was and how it worked.  I even turned around at one point and a photographer was taking a picture of me using this camera!

Calculating the exposure can be a bit difficult, but there are quite a few apps which help in this regard.  I use one called Pinhole Assist but I have heard Pinhole Master is also quite good.  These are both IOS apps on an iPhone, I am sure there are equivalents on Android.  With Pinhole Assist, you enter the aperture and the film details.  It then uses the camera in the phone to determine exposure including reciprocity.  Hilariously it would determine exposures “over a week” when it got very dark!

Flicking the hole cover back and forth was a little unnerving, with the inbuilt fear of vibrating the camera.  I even managed to capture my thumb in one frame, destroying what looked like a nice picture.  Lesson learnt, to the amusement of a photographer friend of mine, flick the cover from the top and move back.

When I got the negatives back, I was impressed that an image like that, on such a large film size would come out quite well exposed.  Of-course it will not be sharp like an engineered lens, and have softness to it, but the detail is still quite amazing.  Some post work was done on these pictures, but nothing you could not do in a dark room.  Mainly some dodging and burning with some spotting.  A little sharpening also applied to cater for the scanning.

I was also quite pleased considering there is no viewfinder on a camera like this, and I had to guess a little on the focal length.  I guessed a focal length of roughly 20-24mm and this seems to have done the trick.

I had a great time using this camera.  It is quite a slow process, but during that process, I met other people interested in something unique and got to try capturing light in its most basic form.  If you do get a chance to try pinhole photography, please do, you will not regret the experience.