Archive for the ‘Pinhole Photography’ Category.

Pinhole Photos

Pinhole Photography

For years I’d wanted to try out pinhole photography. The opportunity came whilst I was living in the one place for a few weeks: at the foot of sacred mountain Arunachala, in Tamil Nadu, South India (More at a later date about that).

The light was great, and I had lots of time on my hands. In the process, I learnt as much about India and myself than about photography, if not more – my entire resourcing system, based on phone calls and the Internet, just didn’t work there. My friend Laxman taught me how to do it, and thanks to him I persevered and set up the project successfully.

It took a while before I got results. I had to re-invent the whole process empirically, without the Western controlled comfort of measures, light meters and instructions on packets.

Getting the Stuff

All digital IndiaStarting the project took a bit of perseverance; where would I find the necessary chemicals and paper? I started by asking the local ‘photo shops’, the processing outlets where people take their films to be developed and printed. Photography is a big thing here, mostly for wedding and family pictures, which get digitally enhanced and embellished with fanciful backgrounds – all done on the latest version of Photoshop, by an army of photo artists in the cramped shop labs.

The language barrier was hampering my progress – ‘not possible’, I was told countless times, ‘digital only’! But that’s the only think I was told. In the end, Laxman suggested going to Pondicherry and ask there.

The first thing we did was to have a refreshment in the famous India Coffee House. We made for the only free seats, at a table where a lady sporting jeans – an extroardinary feat in an almost all-sari community – was already sipping a drink. We started a conversation with her above the ambient noise, and it turns out she had been to Chelsea School of Art where she had studied digital art and video…. we’d stumbled one of the very few people in India who practiced it.

Aditi, as she was called, took time to explain to us how video art is not at all understood or appreciated in India, but she belonged to a small group of artists in Cochin who exhibited in a gallery. After our conversation, back to our errand.

After asking in a few shops (‘not possible, digital only!’) we were given the address of a photo equipment supplier, which we found quite easily. The manager had part of what we wanted: good old fashioned photosensitive paper, but only 3 boxes. It was out-of-date, he told us, he’d just skipped the rest of his stock… No one wants it, it’s all digital now. He gave us one box, and told us we could buy the other two after testing this one.

Sun Photo Store
Sun Photo Store in Chennai

Now I needed chemicals. We found a supplier in Chennai, unraveling a long chain of clues… I had gone to the Canon repair centre, miles away in another district of the city, to have my digital camera fixed. Waiting there was a lady who studied photography. She gave us an address, just by our guesthouse. The address no longer existed, but we discovered that our usual hotel was right next to the photography quarter… And so, going round all the shops, we discovered the only 2 retailers still selling paper and chemicals. Right by our usual hotel.

In the Sun Photo Store, the assistant knew exactly what we wanted, and flung a green cardboard box on the counter saying ‘developer’, and a further 3 clear plastic sachets of white powder and crystals. I asked what they were. ‘This what you need’. Start again. ‘What’s this?’

We didn’t manage to find what they were, except the crystal were ‘hypo’. The developer had instructions on the side of the box. We set off round the shops again, trying to find someone who could explain what to do with the contents of the sachets. We were given a phone number to ring, but I didn’t understand a word of what I was told.

Fish Curry Joint
Job well done… We have fish curry here

Eventually, a costumer in one of the shops arranged for us to visit his photography school. It was quite far, in a leafy suburb. The school was small, situated in a private house, and modeled on the latest Western design. We were expected, and after waiting for some time, ushered in the director’s office. I placed my sachets on the huge desk, leaving a smear of white powder on the immaculate glass top. ‘Nobody does that anymore, it’s all digital now’, the director said. He seemed reluctant to say anything about the chemicals, except that the crystals were hypo. Eventually we understood that hypo was the fixative, but still no idea about dilution.

Back on the bus. I had all I needed.

Setting up the Dark Room

Setting up was easier than finding the materials. I bought some plastic trays, a red light bulb, and darkened the second bathroom – to Westerners, a cubicle with a squat toilet, a wall tap and a shower. The toilet functions as drain for all three.


There was a full door that actually shut well, and a “window” made of concrete vents. I used cardboard boxes to cover the vents, and shoved paper in the door frame gaps. I got good darkness by adding a curtain of blankets. I could only stay there a few minutes for lack of air. The table was made of a tin box placed on top of the toilet.

I had a clock outside, and started the tests.

First Attempts

Pinhole Tests

My first camera was a Cadbury chocolate tin, the old type with a tin lid, which you find in India. I made the hole in the bottom, using a darning needle. The paper was taped to the lid.

I couldn’t wait to test it, so I put paper straight in there, exposed and developed it. It worked! though the picture was “failed”, some clear lines showed.

Pinhole Tests

Then I tried and tried and tried again to get the correct mix of chemicals to water, and the correct exposure…. Set up my pinhole camera outside while I exposed contact prints. Logged it all. With so many variables, I got more and more confused.

Till suddenly, 3 weeks later, it worked!

Making Pinhole Cameras

The first camera I made was based on one of the designs I saw on the Internet. I used a Cadbury chocolate tin, which in India still have the tight fitting tin lid. It worked fine, except that once I started getting results, I realised the hole I’d made was not precise enough. So I started using a piece of black film canister as a ‘hole-piece’, taped over a 10mm hole.

I didn’t use this camera much, because of its small size, and immediately made a big test pinhole camera using a cardboard box I negotiated for at the supermarket. They don’t like giving their boxes away…

This box worked remarkably well, and I used it till it fell apart. I made another camera on the same model, and started experimenting with cylindrical cameras using tins, which produced round pictures.

I made the smallest camera out of a black film canister, which produced excellent miniatures.

The Second Dark Room

When we moved back to the ‘jungle house’, there was no bathroom I could use. We only had a shower with no door, and the toilet was outside in the woods.
By then, I had a fairly good idea of what to do, and what I needed.

The dark room in the jungle house So I set up in the brick-and-mortar garden shed, which I shared with a fairly un-wild brown rat. The rat would walk off as in a huff when I walked in, and gnaw at the cardboard I’d placed over her favourite vents overnight and tear them down. I would replace them in the morning. In the end we came to a compromise where I took the cardboard down after use. The ants made damp piles of sand on the floor, so I had to store my cameras on higher shelves – the ones the rat didn’t use. I brought the water I needed for rinsing and diluting chemicals in a bucket.

Darkening the door, corrugated with big gaps top and bottom, was more of a problem. I couldn’t fix nails anywhere. I did manage to jam cardboard on sticks, and hang blankets somehow, and hook the door closed with bits of string.

But it worked fine, as long as I only used the darkroom when the sun didn’t shine on the door. I couldn’t prevent it to seep through the corrugated gaps.