a portrait with a homemade pinhole camera

Ever fancied making your own pinhole camera and then taking and developing a photo with it? I’ve just got back from one of the ‘Thursday lates’ at Manchester Art Gallery, where I did just that – I  made a camera from a coke can, cardboard and masking tape. Love it!

Pinhole cameras work by allowing a small amount of light to hit the photo paper or film inside the camera (or can in this case). The paper is covered with a layer of crystals which are sensitive to the light hitting them, and the varying levels of light (i.e whether parts of the image are lighter or darker) react with the crystals to create an image on the paper. Because the hole is so small, the exposure time has to be quite long – the picture I took (below)  was 1 minute 50 seconds, and the first one I tried was 1 minute 30. With the first one I could have sat there for 10 minutes for a good exposure though, and it wouldn’t have made any difference, as the pinhole was blocked so no light got in – oops.

Once the picture is taken you develop the negative in a darkroom. The gallery had a tent set up for this and you could go in and watch your photo developing. The paper we used today – rather than film – needed a soak in a liquid to develop it, and as it’s soaking the image starts to appear, as a negative. Once it’s ready, you have to stop the crystals from reacting to the light by putting the photo into another liquid (two different ones actually), then drying it out. The photo just looked like a blob to start with and I didn’t think it had worked, but once it had been scanned into a laptop and inverted from the negative, amazingly I could see the outline of my shoulder and face. I turned my head half way through the exposure in the hope that I’d look like I had two faces, but I probably should have stayed still, I don’t think the exposure was quite long enough.

That said, I like the picture. It’s a bit odd, which makes it interesting. And there’s something quite exciting about making a camera yourself using such basic materials and creating an actual, physical photo with them. I rarely get my photos developed these days, and when I do – recently that’s only been when I’ve used film – it’s quite exciting picking them up and seeing how they’ve turned out. Creating an image like I did tonight is better as you get to see the photo  as it’s turning out, not just when it’s done. You really feel like you’ve made the photo, in a different way to shooting digital, or even film. It’s a bit of a gamble about whether it will turn out, it takes a while, it’s a bit fiddly, it’s not perfect, and it’s not predictable (at least, not until you’ve made yourself a decent camera), but that’s why it’s also so much fun. If I can suss out how to create a darkroom at home I’ll definitely try it again.

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