How a box of air got me to think differently about photography

Posted by David Travis on 05 Sep 2023

The Power and Pitfalls of Modern Camera Sensors

I’m in awe of the resolution, dynamic range and features of today’s camera sensors. It’s no longer a problem if you seriously under-expose a photograph: the digital file is so robust that you just need to drag a slider to the right in Lightroom and your error is fixed. Another click and you can remove any digital noise that’s crept into your image. Furthermore, high-resolution sensors enable you to crop extensively: you can throw away half of the pixels and still have a printable A3-sized image. So these days, there’s really no excuse for taking an image that’s noisy or that fails to show a full range of shadows or that has even the smallest amount of blur.

And therein lies the problem for the creative photographer. Some of the most expressive photographs leave something to the imagination: the subject may be partially hidden in deep shadow, or the subject may be deliberately out of focus. Expressive images may contain grain or texture to create mood and atmosphere. This means that deep shadows, blur and noise are not always problems to be fixed: sometimes these ‘problems’ make the image.

Embracing imperfection with Pinhole Photography

This idea of embracing imperfections in photography led me to consider an alternative—the pinhole camera. A pinhole camera is as far from a modern camera as you can possibly get. It is essentially a light-tight box of air. There’s no lens: just a hole at one end of the box and a sheet of film at the other. There’s no exposure meter or viewfinder; there’s not even a shutter. It represents the antithesis of contemporary photographic technology.

My pinhole camera is a Harman Titan 4 x 5 large format camera. It has a chemically etched 0.35mm pinhole (equivalent to a staggering f/206) and a field of view similar to a 20mm lens on a 35mm film camera. I use Ilford FP4+ film (rated at ISO 125) and I develop the images myself.

Groynes near Crosby

I took this on a bright, mostly sunny day. My calculation showed that I needed a 2s exposure, but I wanted a longer exposure to still the sea. So I over exposed by two stops (8s). The film I was using has significant latitude so it was easy to recover the highlights later. I think the film grain adds depth and character to this image.

A foggy day at Gun Moor

I spent a while composing this image because, without a viewfinder, it’s difficult to work out if a tall subject, like this tree, will fit in the frame. I use my phone to get a rough idea of the composition but it’s far from accurate.

Blea Tarn

Lakes and water provide a perfect subject for a pinhole camera because the long exposure calms the water. Compared to shooting at f/8, the tiny aperture (f/206) is equivalent to using a 9-stop neutral density filter. I exposed this for about 15sec (film ISO 125) when the equivalent exposure from my digital camera was 1/80s (at ISO 200).

Loch Achray

Note how easy it is to read the text in this image: despite the absence of a lens, a pinhole camera can still be remarkably sharp.

St Fillans Jetty

Pinhole cameras create a natural vignette around the edge of the frame which draws your eye into the centre of the picture. This is another example of a technical 'problem' that is really a creative asset.

The Old Stone Jetty, Kinlochard field

This was shot on 5x4 b&w film but I decided to colorise it in Photoshop.

Roach End Barn

This provides a good example of the near-infinite depth of field that you get from a pinhole camera. The rocks in the near ground are as in-focus as the tree.

Padlocks by Rudyard Lake

Another example that shows the depth of field provided by this lens-less camera.

Salt Cellar at Derwent Edge.

Bottle ovens at Gladstone Pottery Museum

One of the challenges with pinhole photography is in finding the right kind of subject matter. Any subject that moves is a good candidate, but so is old, industrial heritage like these bottle ovens in Stoke-on-Trent.

Perch Rock Lighthouse.

7 minute bike ride

On a dull day I knew I could get away with a very long exposure, so I jerry-rigged the camera to my bike. This is an image replete with technical 'problems' — virtually nothing is in focus — but it contains bags of mood and atmosphere.

Thinking Differently

So what did I learn from using a pinhole camera that I can apply to digital photography?

  • Slow Down. First, it has taught me to take time over each shot. The long exposures mean that every image requires a tripod. I’m also limited in the number of film backs I can take with me which means I have just 4 exposures when on a shoot. This has forced me to slow down and be patient and has led to a more deliberate and mindful approach to my photography.
  • Let Go of Control. Second, it has stopped me being such a photography control freak. A pinhole camera prevents accurate control over composition, and the end-to-end process of exposure and film development inevitably results in imperfections. I’m hoping that this will change my digital photography for the better by preventing me from being too buttoned-up and precise.
  • Blend Analog and Digital. Third, using a pinhole camera has encouraged me to combine digital photography with other analogue processes. For example, I’ve recently tried printing digital negatives using the cyanotype process. The end result is unpredictable and unique and creates a sense of excitement and experimentation.

While digital cameras will continue to advance, I think there will always be value in stepping back, embracing imperfection, and finding inspiration in the unexpected.

The Photographer At Work

This picture shows me using the pinhole camera with my phone being press-ganged as a viewfinder. Image © Kevin Burton, all rights reserved.

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