First Attempt: Matchbox Pinhole Camera

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With digital cameras and phones that allow us to easily snap photos and send them to others in an instant, we don’t give a lot of thought to the physics of photography these days. Even for seasoned shooters, it’s easy to forget that the science behind photography itself is something, well, kind of impressive.

But I’m always reminded of this when I return to using film.

For me, film has a sort of magic feeling to it. Apart from the novelty that comes with holding a finished print in my hands, I also appreciate the greater thought that goes into shooting, as well as the process of developing and printing a film photo.

Moreover, film photography forces you to be patient and forgiving of yourself. When you’re trying something new, you can’t always be sure of the results until the film is processed!

It’s unsurprising, then, that I’ve always been intrigued by homemade cameras. While I still await the inevitable day when I’ll frivolously cover my windows in black cardboard and turn my room into a camera obscura, I’ve decided to attempt the same concept on a smaller scale.

For those of you unfamiliar with the science of photography, the basic idea behind any camera is that light enters through a small opening in an otherwise light-tight container, strikes the opposite surface, and produces the outside image on the surface–only upside-down, since light travels in diagonal beams.

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A pinhole camera is one of these simplest types of cameras, consisting of little more than a box, a piece of film, and a tiny, tiny opening to let in light.

There are many different varieties of pinhole cameras you can buy, but where’s the fun in that? Especially when there are such easy tutorials online, I definitely recommend making your own!

One of the easiest tutorials I came across was to make a matchbox pinhole camera, so I decided to give it a try.

I gathered the materials, all of which are VERY easy to find–chances are, you have most of them around your house–and set to work making the camera.

It only took me about an hour (and a lot of electrical tape!) to assemble the whole thing. Honestly, the part that took the longest was making the pinhole in the piece of soda can. I kept twisting the pin and checking my progress, afraid of pressing too hard and making the hole too big. But as you can see, I finally managed it.

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“Pinhole” is not an exaggeration… the aperture needs to be TINY!

I especially liked this project because it uses things that I’d usually just throw away. For example, I added this sliding shutter over the pinhole using the film box.

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The only other step that required a bit more precision was splicing the two rolls of film together. I used an old Agfa roll and a new-but-expired Kodak Gold 200 roll, which were both threaded through the back of the matchbox and carefully joined with clear tape.

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After this step, it was just a matter of taping everything up to avoid light leaks, and then it was good to go!

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Over a period of about two weeks, I tested the camera, carrying it with me and casually using it. I tried not to take pictures of anything that I really cared about, and I took them in a variety of lighting situations.

Confession: I also free-handed a lot of the shots, although I tried to utilize steady surfaces whenever I could.

I didn’t keep precise track of how long I left the shutter open for each individual frame, but the exposure times ranged from a few seconds to about 20 seconds, depending on how much light was available.

Admittedly, it was mostly pure guesswork, made slightly more credible by an estimation of the Sunny 16 rule… when I could be bothered to calculate. (FYI: the approximate aperture of a matchbox pinhole is somewhere between f/90 and f/120, if that helps).

After finishing the roll, I dropped off the film at my local photo shop to have it developed, along with a warning to the clerk that this was “un experimento.” When I picked it up a couple days later, I learned that only two photos (out of 36) came out: one of the cactus on my terrace, and another of my kitchen.

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Actually, looking at the negatives, there seem to be more salvageable images, but I won’t know for sure until I’m reunited with my negative scanner.

Bearing in mind that I used expired film and that this was the first time I’ve ever made a camera by hand, I’m not allowing myself to be discouraged. After all, you’ve got to make mistakes to learn!

And the negatives are truly an important part of the lesson—I know which photos I overexposed, and which ones I underexposed. In general, the longer exposure times yielded better results.

I also know that I need to be a bit stricter about using steady surfaces. I can get pretty impatient sometimes when I want to take photos, but it’s especially important to make sure the camera doesn’t move too much when using a pinhole.

Even though most of the roll didn’t come out, I was still thrilled by the two images that did. I’ve never made any sort of camera before, and it was exciting to see that my taped-up creation is capable of functioning. And I love the dreamy, hazy qualities of the photos.

Like I said, there’s just something magical about film.

Have you made a pinhole camera? Do you have any tips, advice, or questions? Let me know!

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