The Forgotten Magic of Pinhole Photography

As cameras continue to increase in their quality, definition, and focus, vintage photography has become somewhat romanticized. Just like how music lovers appreciate the crackle of a vinyl record over YouTube to mp3 recordings, modern-day photographers apply imperfect filters to their Instagram posts. Sepia, polaroids, film: it’s all vintage, and it’s all trendy. So, what happened to the lost art of pinhole photography?

What is pinhole photography?

If you didn’t take photography in high school and are hearing ‘pinhole’ for the first time, here’s a quick definition of how it works. All you need is a lightproof box with an aperture (pinhole) and a light-sensitive material on the back of the box.

In a dark room, tape some film or paper to the back of the camera (box), then take the box outside and face the pinhole towards what you want to capture (use a tripod for a sharp image). Keep it there for a few minutes, then take the pinhole back to the darkroom to take the film/paper out and get it developed. Obviously, there’s a lot more to pinhole photography than this, but this is the basic gist.

What’s so good about Pinhole Photography?

What made pinhole photography so exciting to me was how bare bones it was. Pinhole photography strips back the art of taking photos to the necessities: light and composition. It also doesn’t let you preview the image you’re taking. That’s far too advanced for pinholes! But that element of the unknown was the beauty of the thing.

There was this riveting excitement as you finally got to develop the image. The image could be a total dud, or it could be an immersive depiction of an environment, seen like never before! With pinholes, you could also experiment by mixing static with movement during the photo-taking process to create intriguing results. Take a look below:

Image: Steven Dempsey

Why are pinholes are a thing of the past?

So, why has pinhole photography crawled back into obscurity? It feels strange, considering how vintage filters are commonplace online. Not to mention the number of polaroids found at indie house parties.

The lack of pinhole action is probably due to the effort and materials needed. To develop pinhole negatives, one needs access to chemicals and a dark room, which isn’t exactly on every street corner. The light-absorbing process also takes a while, so it’s not like you can quickly take a pinhole photo at a party either. While the patience and precision required for pinhole photography are truly magical, it’s simply too much effort for today’s rapid-fire pace of content creation.

Still, we’d recommend a quick Google of ‘Pinhole Photography’ for those inspired creatives reading this. Who knows? You may feel inspired to start its resurgence. It wouldn’t be the first time old mechanisms found their way back into the mainstream.

Pinhole artists worth checking out

We thought it was worth shouting out some modern-day pinhole artists taking the practice to new heights.

Alan Thoburn. Thoburn is a renowned photographer, educator and lecturer in the world of photography. His pinhole work isn’t a massive part of his portfolio, but we found it exceptionally memorable, as he applied his love of precision and technique to the elusive field. In an interview with Phoblographer, Thoburn commented on his pinhole photos. “I always used a tripod and an exposure calculator. Basically, it allowed you to take a conventional light meter reading and adjust it using a special chart”. This technique-heavy approach to pinhole photos has resulted in some crystal clear images that evoke loneliness and mystery in a way that a digital camera couldn’t replicate.

Image: Alan Thoburn

Cameron Gillie. Gillie crafted his first pinhole camera out of a cigar box and hasn’t stopped since. Although initially sceptical that pinhole photography would get him into the top art fairs, Gillie quickly became an honoured photographer for his unique perspective and embodiment of the oldest form of photography out there.

“The limitations and simplicity of the pinhole makes photography new again for me”, says Gillie on his webpage, ThePinholeThing. “This simplicity continues to teach me invaluable lessons about photography and the way I see the world”.

We especially love this shot from Gill for its masterful composition. Shadows, symmetry, salience; it’s got it all!

Image: Cameron Gillie

We wish you all the best on your pinhole adventures!