A Pin Prick in Time – A Celebration of the Beginnings of Photography

World Pinhole Photography Day

I’m feeling very nostalgic today. It’s World Pinhole Photography Day.

What is Pinhole Photography, you ask? Well, basically, it describes the very beginnings of photography.

Camera Obscura

In it’s most basic form, a pinhole camera (or camera obscura) is a lightproof box with a hole, the size of a pin prick for a lens. It produces an inverted image at the back of the box, and, when lined with light-sensitive (photo) paper, creates a photograph.

The discovery of the pinhole image was pretty epic and I would love to celebrate that today by taking a moment to look back on how it paved the way to what photography is today. It is a fascinating road of discovery around the study of light. Many scientists have dedicated their life’s work to this, and countless books have been written. But I would like to keep it brief, kinda.

The Making of a “Photograph”

Early mentions of pinhole images can be traced back as far as ancient Chinese, Greek and Arabic scientists who studied the nature of light. No jokes, it goes as far back as that. The Arabic scientist, Ibn al-Haytham, wrote about pinhole effects in his “Book of Optics” in 1021. Roger Bacon, an English monk and scientist in the thirteenth century, used pinhole cameras instead of his naked eye, to observe solar eclipses and with that, protected his eyes from possibly going blind. It is also not surprising to stumble across the great Leonardo da Vinci, who is said to be the first scientist in the sixteenth century, who clearly described the use of a camera obscura in his notes.

It had long been established that since light travels in a straight line, a pinhole camera would project an inverted image. In 1604, Johannes Keppler, a German astronomer, was first to make use of a “lens” to let more light into his pinhole camera. In addition to the glass, he also added a mirror at a 45-degree angle to the back of the box that reflected the image to its top side (which was fitted with a transparent screen). This made it possible to trace the projected, now upright image onto paper that was placed onto the screen.

Awesome, we now have an upright image to look at, but we are still a long way away from creating what we call a “photograph” today.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that the problem of “fixing the image” onto something permanent was solved by the French painter and physicist, Louis Daguerre. His process, which he named “daguerreotype”, made use of silver-plated copper sheets that were treated with iodine to make them light sensitive. These in turn, were exposed to light using a lightbox and developed with warm mercury vapour. Hectic!

We are almost there. But first, we required the discovery by one more great mind in order to get to the end of our our journey. It was William Herschel, an astronomer and scientist, who in 1839, took the first ever photograph on a glass plate. He used Daguerre’s findings and added sodium thiosulfate to a sliver-coated glass plate which made the image permanent and resistant to further reaction with light.

Herschel did not stop there. Three years later in 1842, in an endeavour to find a way to copy his notes and drawings, discovered that iron salts were light sensitive and thus invented a cheaper photographic printing process. He coated a piece of paper with a solution of iron compounds and left it to dry in darkness. He then placed an object onto the paper and exposed it to sunlight. After washing off the solution, a white print on a blue background was revealed. The Cyanotype was born.

It is Herschel who coined the word photography.

And it all started with a tiny, little hole in a dark box and a beam of light.

I Tried Pinhole, So Should You!

Inspired by these great men and intrigued by what I learned, I wanted to gain some practical experience with pinhole photography.

Since I wasn’t in a position to make my own pinhole camera from scratch (and there are plenty of resources online if you feel like giving it a go), I chose a way to experiment with pinhole photography using my X-Pro3, and it couldn’t be any easier.

All I needed to do was drill a little hole into a body cap and close it up with some tape. The coup d’état was to prick it with a pin to achieve a “pinhole”, then attach it to my X-Pro 3. Voilá, there was my pinhole camera!

I couldn’t quite believe that it would be as easy as that, but I was ready to test what kind of photographs I could take with my new contraption. To add a retro look that most resembles pinhole photographs, I loaded the Ilford Ortho Plus 80 film simulation recipe by Fuji X Weekly and hit the streets with my lensless X-Pro 3.

I was amazed at the results I achieved! The images really do have a nostalgic feel and the soft focus that is so iconic of pinhole photographs.

This turned out to be an incredibly fun experiment and I highly recommend that you also give this a try too. It is a wonderful way to honour all the great people in history that have dedicated their time and talents so that we in turn, can experience the beautiful craft that photography has become today. And all the while, capturing and preserving precious memories and creating gorgeous images.

All images in this post are jpegs (straight) out of camera. The vignette has been added in Adobe Lightroom to give the photographs a finished retro look.