Camera obscura, or the pinhole camera, is the oldest form of photography. A pinhole camera creates an image similar to what a painting looks like to the human eye. It doesn't have the exactness of a digital image, but the image is all natural.
Long before the days of processing film, taking digital images, or having a high caliber camera on your smartphone, all that was needed to take a photograph was a light source, a screen, and a small hole in the screen. If you want to know how to build a pinhole camera, it's really easy and only takes a few steps.
The simple premise behind a pinhole camera is to allow light to shine through a small hole that acts as the lens of your camera. A camera obscura won't have the pristine focus of a modern camera, but since this lens is small, it creates an image of the light source, in the case of camera obscura, the sun.
If you want a clearer image, cut a smaller hole, but that smaller hole will also create a dimmer image, and larger holes will create a brighter image.
The first pinhole camera was believed to be used by the Chinese before 500 BCE, possibly even as far back as 1000 BCE. The first record of a pinhole camera is that it was used by an astronomer to study the solar eclipse of 1544.
Aristotle also mentions the use of a pinhole camera in his work Problems. Aristotle asks why when an object of a certain shape does not project the same shape when seen through a type of lens. Aristotle never found an answer to his question.
How to Build the Camera
Now that you know a little about the history of the pinhole camera, you're ready to build your own. The construction is very easy, older children could do it, and doesn't require many supplies, most of which you can find around the house. Here's how to build a pinhole camera.
To start, you'll need a box, any size box will do, but the larger the box the clearer your image will be since it will have a larger surface to project on. Then, cut a square, on the small side of the box. This square acts as the part of the camera where the lens attaches to the body.
The next step in how to build a pinhole camera is to tape aluminum foil over the hole and use a toothpick, or another small pointed object, to poke a hole in the foil and you'll have built your own camera. Again, make sure it's a small hole to create a clearer image. The hole in the foil is the lens of your camera, which is why the size of the lens matters.
The camera obscura would be like using a very long shutter speed on a digital lens, and the changing of hole size would be an adjustment to the aperture, changing the amount of light let in.
Where to Get the Supplies
The supplies needed for the first step are a box and a pair of scissors. These supplies can be bought at just about any art supplies or general store. With the holiday season winding down, instead of discarding the toy boxes considering turning them into your very own camera.
The supplies needed for step two are aluminum foil, tape, and a toothpick. These supplies can all be found in any supermarket or general store.
Using the Camera
Now that you know how to build a pinhole camera, it's time to see it in action. Point the pinhole side of the box toward the sun, the image will appear on the far side of the interior of the box. Since light travels in a straight line, the image will be reflected and appear upside down. In order to see the image, you need to create a viewing hole.
If the box is big enough, the viewing hole can go on the same side as the pinhole. However, for a smaller box, cut the viewing hole on the adjacent side of the pinhole. The viewing hole can also go on the bottom of the box, that way a child can put the whole box on their head and see the image, just be sure not to block the pinhole or the subject of the photograph will be blocked.
Positives of the Pinhole Camera
While this piece of technology may seem archaic to some, there are still plenty of positive aspects of using the pinhole camera. One of these positive aspects is that a pinhole camera is easy to construct and use. Knowing how to build a pinhole camera is a great skill to have, it can be another outlet for someone to express creativity and can be a great project for children.
There are only five supplies needed and the camera just needs to be placed in the right place and it will do the work for you. Camera obscura also creates realistic looking images, at least when being compared to paintings which were the initial intentions of the pinhole camera.
Negatives of the Pinhole Camera
Like anything in life, with positives there must be negatives. One negative of the pinhole camera is the long exposure time needed. Camera obscura is not like a digital camera taking a perfect photograph in a half second, camera obscura needs a long exposure to the light source to create the image.
Another negative aspect of using the pinhole camera is that the image needs to be created with natural light, unlike a digital or film camera where you can add flash and play with the lighting in the room, that won't work with camera obscura, the only light source for a pinhole camera should be the sun.
Pinhole vs. Digital Photography
While pinhole cameras won't create a perfect image like a digital camera, they can be just as fun to use if not more so. Camera obscura was the first true form of photography and without it, we never would have made it to the DSLR cameras we use today.
While it will take longer to create your photographs, camera obscura is very rewarding and there's a certain type of pride felt when you know how to build a pinhole camera and then see the images it can create. Pinhole photography is the perfect place to start when wanting to learn more about the history of photography.