i always try and help anyone, whether newcomer or professional, in any way i can, and i know how difficult it is to get hold of instruction manuals for classic cameras sometimes, so here’s a couple o’links for you:
http://www.diaxa.com/ (for olympus xa cameras)
If you’ve always wanted to make the simplest of all cameras, a pinhole camera, you’ve come to the right place!
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In these days of multi-megapixel digicams producing high resolution photographs, wouldn’t it be nice to go back to the days when photography was simple and demanded very little from you apart from a little ingenuity and perseverance?
Even though I have been dealing with some very sophisticated cameras, I do sometimes reach a point of saturation when just talking about f stops, fungus, shutter speeds etc gets so annoying, that a break is often called for!
So at times like that, I leave the house and disappear into my little shed at the bottom of the garden. This little space (and it is little–very often there is hardly space to sit down and more than likely I end up standing, as there is so much stuff in there) is my bit of peace, quiet and tranquility. All members of my family have been warned not to disturb me when I am in there, unless it is a dire emergency, so once I am inside there, I can rely on being left alone for as long as I like!
Anyway, it was during such a time that I was taking a break by fiddling around in my shed, when I hit upon an idea that I often had been thrashing about in my mind – that of building my very own pinhole camera.
As I had the time to embark on this long-awaited project, I hit myself in the foot by deciding to introduce some strict guidelines with which this task was going to be done (and of course in doing so, the stress levels shot up again !!).
The camera would be built using whatever materials I had in my shed, and nothing else! This was something I should have thought about before I decided to do it, as most of my “stuff” lies in my study (well, I like to call it a study but it is actually the smallest room, built right at the end of the very long garden, and is absolutely chock full of all kinds of wonderful detritus that I have been hoarding since when I was not even a teenager – things like Airfix model aeroplanes, electronics kits, old magazines, newspapers, even some of my old secondary school exercise books!).
So I looked around in the desk in front of me in the shed, rummaging around in all the many little drawers containing boxes, pill-bottles, old bicycle puncture repair kit boxes, film containers, even a little box that was used by my grandfather to keep his false teeth in!) and found a matchbox that in my mind’s eye looked just about the right size for the body of a camera. In fact I tell lies here, as at first I wanted to use an empty cardboard film container, but that I found to be a little flimsy, so in the end I opted for the matchbox.
I also got together an old Stanley knife, a tin of drawing pins, some cardboard tags that had come with a pair of Italian shoes, black pvc tape, a black marker pen, a roll of sellotape, a plastic ruler and finally a pair of scissors. You may be saying where was I going to get the film – well, the answer to that is I always have some rolls of film in my shed…….oh, alright, I’ll tell you one of my other secrets (as the wife is bound to find out soon anyway!); I sometimes tell my wife that I’m going to do some work in my shed, but when she’s not looking, I load up my little Rollei 35 with film and make a perfect escape through the gate behind the shed, and into the lane leading to some woods – freedom at last!
Stuff I gathered together for the project ( the piece of foil was used for the pinhole, the tablet flap for the “ticker”)
Ok, now that you know at least one of my secrets, let’s see what I did next.
Now, as you all probably know, the roll of film you buy in your pharmacy or supermarket (or, if you are lucky, a real camera shop), is usually 35mm film that is of a frame size of 24mm by 36mm, and which will give you either 24 or 36 exposures, depending upon the type you have bought.
So, bearing that in mind, I thought about changing the format of the standard 35mm film to a square format. I was going to do this by measuring this square size onto the matchbox. This would give me something totally different to what everyone gets from 35mm film and would allow me to hopefully get square photos as well, something which I have not seen done with 35mm film, although 120 roll film is usually the medium for square photos.
Righty-oh then – I just about had everything I needed, so I made a start by fiddling about with the matchbox and length of film from the 35mm canister, trying to work out how the film would run through the box, how it could be held as flat as possible (the secret of sharp photos), how would I know how many frames had been wound on from the film, how to know when the film had finished, what to use as a lens and how to find a solution to providing a shutter.
What a nightmare! And this is how I relax, you may ask?
Well, instead of boring you with pages of useless garbage, let me number each problem step-by-step and it’s solution. That way, you will know exactly what I am thinking and how I did the thing:
1 How would the film run through the matchbox?
Well, this was one of the many difficult questions – if a way could not be found to run the film through the box, the whole project would be a waste of time. After several minutes mucking about, I hit upon feeding the film leader into the matchbox, and out the other side. From this side, the film would wind into another spool (the take up-up spool). You can see this step in the photo below >>>
2 How would the film be held flat in the box?
In order for the film to be as flat as possible, it needs to be held quite securely and tightly. The only way to do this using the materials I had would be to use the sliding tray, as this fits in really snugly, holding the film flat. Then I hit upon using the tray as a template with a square hole cut into it – that would achieve my target of square photos from a 35mm film.
3 How would I know when the end of my film had been reached?
This was a very tricky one to solve! I tried using a piece of plastic stuck on the take-up reel, marked on one end to show the start of the first photo, etc. That did not seem practical. Another way would be to count the slots in the film as they went past a point, but trying to show the slots through the matchbox would obviously expose the film, this was not practical either—talk about problems!
Finally, I managed to suss out that the only really reliable way to count the frames would be an audible method. This is where a bit of clever trickery was used. I cut a little piece of plastic from one of those pill dispensers you can buy these days. That piece of plastic was fitted to click into the slots every time the film was wound, which would create an audible click. Then it was just a matter of counting how many clicks would mean 1 frame – in this case, it was around 6 clicks.
4 What would I use as a lens?
This was easy – although I did initially want to use a home-made lens or one from a plastic camera, that would make this thing look more like a real camera, which I did not want. So I opted for the classic lens as used by the first photographers in history – a pinhole! More details on how I did this below.
5 How would I set up a shutter to expose the film?
Here again, it was just a matter of improvisation. I tried various methods ranging from a scrap of paper over the pinhole, to a sliding piece of card, and even a circular cardboard with a gap in it. However, none of these looked any good, so I finally hit upon using a cardboard lever affair that you slide from one side to the other, which either opens or closes the shutter. Very simple, but very effective!
Ok, that’s all the talking over!
Now let’s see how to actually do it.
First thing to do is to grab your matchbox, slide the tray out and mark it on the back as shown – measure the sizes with a small ruler. The centre 23×23 slot will be the slot that gives you the square photos, and as it will be right next to the film, make sure it is cut cleanly as possible, without any frayed edges etc. Sizes are in mm >>
Ok – done that? Fine.
Next thing to do is to colour or paint all the previously cut matchbox tray with black – this is done so as to prevent flare caused by stray light leaking into the camera. By the way, it’s also best to paint or colour the inside of the matchbox sleeve itself as well, as you want to prevent any light from being reflected from any light surface onto the film.
I used a permanent black marker as shown but you can use paint & brush or even a spray paint, but make sure you don’t use any other colour apart from black (matt black is ideal). The photos below show that being done >>
When you have finished doing that, the next thing you will do is cut out the
23x23mm square from the tray, which is what will give you the square photos. Have a look at what that is like in the photo here >>>
Now what we need to do is to cut a smaller square out of the matchbox sleeve itself, and this is where the pinhole “lens” will be attached.
Getting the exact centre of the sleeve in order to cut the hole can be quite difficult, so the way I did it was to place the matchbox tray on top of the sleeve lined up exactly on all sides, with a pencil draw around the 23x23mm cut you have already made, then take the tray away, and you will be left with a 23x23mm square drawn onto the sleeve.
Then draw 2 straight lines from corner to corner in the box you have just drawn. The point where the 2 lines cross is the exact centre. Clever, eh?
Now, finally, measure 5mm all around that centre point and cut out the square shape, as shown below >>>
Ok – finished? Righto!
Now we come to the critical part of this whole project, and that is making our “lens”.
For this, we are going to use a piece of foil that collected earlier.
Before I show you how I did it, let me mention here about what kind of foil to use. The reason is that there are different types and grades of foil – some are very thin and not really suitable for our use.
I actually used the piece of foil that I cut from one of those foil containers you get when you buy a ready-prepared salad or Chinese meal.
The foil these containers are made from is of a sturdier grade.
Failing that, you can always use a piece of cooking foil.
Ok; measure and mark gently a 15mm square onto the foil and then cut it out.
Now, what we have to do is to make a tiny hole in this square of foil, and for this, I used a medium sized sewing needle from my wife’s sewing kit. The photo below shows, wonder of wonders, the piece of foil and a sewing needle!! >>>
The best way to do this I found is to place the square of foil on a scrap piece of cardboard, placing the lot on a hard surface (I used the top of a hand cream container), and gently pressing the needle through the foil just far enough so that only the very tip of the needle goes through the foil. Once the hole is made, handle the foil very carefully as any excessive pressure on it will damage it and render the pinhole lens useless. Here is what it looks like when the hole has been made >>>
Fine – with that done, now all we need to do is to attach the foil to the front of the matchbox sleeve, over the square hole we had cut earlier. Here is that bit done, with the tray just slid in place to give the sleeve a bit of strength >>>
Ok, that completes the major part of the project – phew!
Now what we need to do is to make the “clicker”, which is a clever little thing that tells us when the next frame is ready to be used in our camera.
For this, I used a piece of plastic cut from one of those flat tablet dispensers aspirin or paracetamol is often sold.
All I did was to cut a small piece as shown, then cutting the tip so that it fitted into the film frame slots. The tip of the plastic was also bent into shape slightly so that it actually fitted into the film holes with some tension, otherwise every time a hole went past, you would never hear it. Here is the piece of plastic cut and the tip bent to shape >>
Right – now what you do is get hold of your new film, and pull out around 4 inches of film. Then place the clicker just over the lip of the film canister ensuring the tip fits into one of the film holes as shown here (the clicker in place and attached to the film canister with tape; the film has been threaded through the matchbox sleeve already) >>>
And here is the whole lot all done >>
Now all we need to do is to attach the end of the film to the take-up spool. Make sure that the matchbox tray is in place at this stage and is correctly placed, ie it’s square hole should be in touch with the film being passed through the matchbox.
What I did here was to take a scrap film, pull out all of the film from the canister, leaving about 2 inches protruding from the canister, and cutting the rest off.
This leaves you with something to attach your new film to. Now all you do is cut your film leader from the new 35mm film canister as straight as possible and using sellotape, fix the new film leader to the bit of film protruding out from the take-up spool as shown >>>
Fine – with that done, now all we need to do is wind up the film slightly from the take-up side in order to bring both the supply and take-up spools as close as possible to the edges of the matchbox, as this is where light could get in and expose all the film as it passes by.
Once the 2 film canisters are in place next to the matchbox edges, seal the edges up with the black tape, making sure you don’t put the tape on the sliding film, as that will stop it from passing through. Here is this stage being done >>>
Ok – you will now have quite a solid little thing that almost looks like a camera below >>>
Note that this side also needs to be sealed properly with black tape at the points where the film canisters meet the matchbox.
If you have lasted up to this point, take a break for as long as you want, have cup of tea, shot of whisky or maybe just go for a walk and come back refreshed!!
It’s just as well you have taken a break, as the next bit is a bit fiddly – fitting a shutter to your camera.
For this, I used a strip of card cut out from a shoe label!
One corner of the strip was cut in a round shape as you can see, and this allowed the strip to swing through an arc without being caught in any part of the contraption.
The drawing pin was pushed through carefully at the other corner.
The whole strip was the stuck to the matchbox, just to one side of the pinhole.
However, I noticed that the strip was a bit loose in making contact with the pinhole, which would allow stray light through, so I added another strip across the shutter strip, which holds the shutter strip quite snugly against the pinhole. The photos here show the shutter was attached but without the extra tension strip added >>
And here’s a photo with the tension strip added and the shutter open >>
And here is the shutter in closed position >>>
One other addition I found to be helpful, is adding a small square of foam material to the bottom of the take-up film cassette as shown here >>>
What this does is to create a bit of friction on the bottom of the take-up spool, thereby preventing the film you have just wound from sliding back past the pinhole, which could cause double-exposure (unless you specifically wanted that effect!). In any case, the “clicker” we fitted to the supply film cassette prevents the film from accidentally winding back, but this foam will add that extra bit of friction.
No – I want a different kind of shutter!
Ok, if you find that this type of shutter does not work, or lets in light or you just want to be damn awkward, then I have another style for you here!
This will take almost the same time to make as the one above but is slightly more fiddly.
Fine. Ok, whereas the previous shutter worked sideways, exposing the pinhole for whatever time you wanted it to, this other method works in a different way.
This type of shutter slides up and down, alternately exposing the pinhole and closing it.
As I was using Konica film for this project, I decided to use their carton which the film comes in.
In passing, I just realised what a mug I am for using their name in this project (and so openly displayed, too!). I mean, I could easily well have claimed some cash from them, as they have got a free mention here and their logo is displayed for all to see, giving them free advertising!!).
Anyway, back to work……..
The first step is to cut out from the film carton, a piece of card exactly the size of the front of the matchbox, with the same size square hole in it, as shown here >>>
Next, we fix this piece of card to the front of our matchbox camera as shown. What we must make sure here is that the any tape used to fix the card onto the matchbox is not covering any other part of the camera apart from the edges. The reason for this is because the shutter we will be using, will actually be sliding up and down between the new piece of card and the matchbox front, and we don’t want anything disrupting the travel.
Right, with that done, the next task is to make the sliding shutter itself.
All we do here is use the film carton ends – the square piece and another smaller piece cut to shape as shown. The 2 pieces then need to be glued together, for which I used ordinary PVA adhesive. Note that I did not use tape for this, as that would restrict the smooth sliding action >>>
The top part will be the bit we use as a “handle” to slide it up and down
Next step – after these 2 pieces have been joined together and are stuck firmly (I allowed 10 or 15 minutes for this), gently slide the whole lot through the front of your camera as shown here >>>
Easy, wasn’t it?
Ok, now, turn the camera around, and with the sliding shutter in the full down position, mark this position on the back of the shutter with a pen as shown, calling this the C position (meaning “closed”) >>>
Then raise the shutter until the pinhole is exposed and again mark the back as before, but this time as O (meaning “open”) >>>
This is obviously done to make it easier for you to know exactly how far to slide the shutter up or down when taking a photograph!
Once that has been done, you are ready to take your very first photographs – hooray !!
Here is the completed camera with the second type of shutter ( here the shutter is closed) >>>
And here the shutter is open >>
Examples of my first pinhole photographs!
I’m only including two photos here as an example for you. At the time of writing this, my scanner had given up the ghost as they say, so I had to make do with taking photos of the pinhole photos, if you see what I mean!
This photo shows a scene in my garden – you can see the fence, tree, leaves and even the thyme growing at the bottom left. Reasonably clear, with a lovely dreamy effect! >>
This 2nd photo below shows another part of the garden with my famous shed, where this whole project was conceived and completed (and where I disappear to for hours on end, pretending to write, when the wife has chores for me to do!)
Again, notice the dreamy effect with a soft focus to everything. You may also notice the vertical band of white in the centre of the photo – this is one of the hazards of pinhole photography, especially home-made ones, and is caused by light leaking onto the film. As this was my 1st attempt, it’s most likely that I did not seal the camera well enough >>
How to use your camera.
Using your camera is simplicity itself.
All you do is to first of all wind your first frame on, by counting the number of clicks you hear when turning the little knob on the take-up film cassette.
In my case, the number of clicks was 6, ie. six clicks signify that the first frame is ready to be exposed, another six clicks mean the second frame is ready and so on.
At the 6th click, stop winding and then position your camera wherever you are going to take your first photo.
You will need to hold the camera quite still in order to get a sharpish image, and the best way I found is to hold it with one hand and use the other free hand to slide the shutter up or down (sounds a bit naughty, doesn’t it?!!)
How do you judge the time required for each exposure?
Good question! The answer is, with difficulty!
You will be relieved to hear that as this is photography at it’s most simplest and creative, there are hardly any rules, and you can actually make them up as you go along!
Whatever worked for me, may not work for you, as the conditions I used the camera under, may not be the same as the conditions you will be using.
But, what I can do is to point you in the right direction at least.
The majority of the photos I took were outside – quite a bright day but no sunshine.
On days like that, I held the shutter open for around 1 or 2 seconds roughly.
When being used inside the house or in other darker areas, I just randomly doubled or even trebled the shutter open time; in very dark areas or at night, you can safely leave the shutter open for anything from 1 to 5 minutes; trial and error will be your teacher here! But that’s half the fun, isn’t it?
You will get to judge the correct times yourself when you take a look at your first film after it has been processed.
So there you go!
I am sure you will agree that the project has been very relaxing and full of creative action, and it may well have given you even further ideas to experiment with, which is all part of the exercise!
As for me, I have already decided upon my next project, which will be just as interesting as this one, and I will let you know the details once I have completed it successfully!
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