Mercury Man: Through the pinhole with Wulfie Mayfield

Wulfie selfie
Smile! Wulfie takes a selfie with his pinhole camera

It’s bank holiday weekend, so 853‘s special correspondent MERCURY MAN marks May Day by downing tools and getting someone else to do all the work.

Mercury Man logoAs you all knew, Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day was last Sunday. You did know, didn’t you? It’s been held on the last Sunday in April since 2001.

My own pinhole photography is non-existent, having only learned to “fill the frame” when called to replace drunken snappers on one or two occasions down the years.

But my new and very amiable mate Beowulf ‘Wulfie’ Mayfield – his dad to blame for the first name after having to study the epic poem of the same name back in the 1960s – is a pinhole shutterbug of some esteem. So he’ll fill you all in (so ‘Wulfie’ does it for free while you nip down the pub with the 853 payment in cash? – Ed).

Pinhole camera
General view of homemade pinhole camera parts plus
roll of 35mm film

Pinhole camera
Front of the camera with pinhole just about visible in the silver area

Thanks, MM!

A pinhole camera is the simplest kind of camera there is, writes Wulfie. It is essentially a light-proof box with a tiny hole in one side. Light passing through this little hole – or aperture – is projected onto the opposite side of the box and can be recorded on a light sensitive material or digital sensor.

The pinhole effect was noted by the ancient Chinese and Greeks several hundred years before the birth of Christ and was recognised as a safe way to observe a solar eclipse. During the 16th century, as lens making began to develop, someone came up with the idea of using a lens to focus light from a pinhole onto a ground glass screen and the camera obscura was born.

When Louis Dageurre and William Fox-Talbot made their techniques for capturing permanent images on light-sensitised surfaces known to the public in 1839, they were already using cameras with lenses. The first description of a pinhole camera was published in 1856 by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster and although many photographers experimented with the process over the years, it remained on the sidelines.

The drawback with pinhole photography is the fact that it requires relatively long exposure times, which limits its practical use, and until relatively recently, any pinhole camera work also required access to a darkroom and mastery of basic processing skills.

Pinhole camera
Detail of the interior of the homemade pinhole
camera showing notched rod for winding the film spool (left) and the
rod with tape (right) for advancing film over the central exposure
chamber

Pinhole camera
Pinhole camera with film in place waiting for the
lid to be put in place so the magic can begin

It was the challenge of setting up a darkroom that prevented me from exploring pinhole photography when I was a kid. However, with the arrival of digital photography and relatively cheap image scanners, things became a little easier. I can get my films processed at a high street photographic shop and once I have the negatives, I can scan these myself and use digital software to edit the scans into pictures for printing or publication online.

I don’t even have to switch off the lights…

I was planning to make a camera from a cardboard box I’ve been saving but it had a fatal malfunction so I’ll have to resort to describing the first pinhole camera I made.

Since I did not have any access to a darkroom, I had to use 35mm that I could get processed commercially. Using heavy black card and strong glue, I made three open-topped boxes of increasing size. The main box holds the film, pinhole and the winding rod.

A smaller, slightly shallower box sits inside the main box and effectively creates three chambers: one to hold a film canister in place, one to hold the exposed piece of film and, in the middle, the area that gets directly exposed to light from the pinhole.

The camera is completed with a third box, large enough to completely contain the main section, that acts as a very deep lid.

Tower Bridge
Tower Bridge on a sunny day photographed with
the camera pictured above

The film is wound with pieces of dowel and the all-important pinhole is drilled in a piece of aluminium cut from a drink can. The shutter is simply a piece of black tape. It’s very rough at the edges but it works.

Some may wonder why, in an age when just about every mobile phone or similar digital device includes a camera capable of capturing automatically focused pictures in an instant, anyone should want to fiddle about with out-dated, cumbersome techniques?

For me, it’s a fascination with the raw science – the fact that a little box with a hole in one side can capture an image will always seem magical and meeting the challenge of making that little box myself makes the result all the more rewarding.

The pinhole process is also very unpredictable and, for me, this is probably the most exciting factor. Not so long ago, the standard post-holiday ritual was getting your holiday films processed. For years, my parents would send the films off in the post and a week or so later a packet of prints would arrive.

The pictures would be happily passed around and for a few moments we relived our holiday. The best results were stuck into a bulging album and extra copies of particularly amusing pictures might be ordered to send off to grandparents. With pinhole photography, I get to experience that same anticipation.

Pinhole photography
A toy robot lit with a pocket torch taken with the
camera illustrated above

Pinhole photography has become increasingly popular over the past couple of decades and Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, as MM said, has been held on the last Sunday in April since 2001.

If you want to try the process for yourself you could buy a ready-made pinhole camera, make one from a kit, customise a found container or, if you enjoy making things, construct one completely from scratch.

I made my first pinhole camera from black card, glue, aluminium cut from a can, dowel rods and tape. I worked out the design myself and, although it’s far from perfect, it works.

There are already several perfectly good guides to making your own pinhole camera online so instead of adding to them, I’m going to provide a list of some particularly helpful ones.

– very quick video guide to making a matchbox camera for 35mm that rushes a bit towards the end.

– another guide to making a matchbox camera but this one offers clear explanations of each stage.

– good overall explanation and smooth jazz background music.

– an intriguing “how to” video for developing simple photographic paper at home using kitchen ingredients.

Mercury Man logo– It is also possible to take pinhole photographs with a digital SLR camera by customising a spare body cap. This video shows how.

(Thanks, Wulfie. If only I could sub your stuff instead of his – Ed).

Catch up with Wulfie Mayfield’s photos at wulfie.co.uk. Got a story or a tip for Mercury Man? Drop him a line at mercuryman.853[at]gmail.com or leave a comment below.

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