Pinhole Photography: From Historic Technique to

Digital Imaging with
Pinholes, Zone Plates,
and Alternatives
Techniques vary, art stays the same: it is a transposition of nature at once forceful and
One of the first homemade digital pinhole images was created by Sam Wang in 1989
(Figure 8.1), which seems like eons ago for digital technology. Sam Wang described his
process as follows—actually it was nail hole not a pinhole:
The nail hole picture was made by using a digitizer on the computer to convert the
video signal to digital, so that the color separated images can be manipulated on the
computer and combined and printed one color at a time on a computer (digital) printer.
It was crude, but all early digital imaging was crude. Instead of being captured on CCD
sensors like today’s digital cameras, it was captured as continuous video signal, but
translated into digital by a converter. Slower, but same concept.
Makes sense? Look ma, no film! Just electronic bits and bytes. Must be digital.
But that was almost 20 years ago. Presently, many artists are using pinhole and zone plate
body caps on their digital single lens reflex cameras. First of all, it’s easy to turn a DSLR into
a pinhole or zone plate camera! Just about any removable lens digital camera will accept
a body cap. All Nikon models take the same cap, as do all the Canon EOS models. It’s the
Photoshop and printing part of digital photography that has a long learning curve. If you
have a digital single lens reflex camera you should only use a “no dust” pinhole or zone
plate body cap. “No dust” means that the pinhole or zone plate has been made with a very
opaque black area on film; the pinhole or zone plate area is clear on the film. A “no dust” pinhole
is not an open pinhole made with a needle—a place where air and dust could enter your
digital camera and end up on the CCD sensors.
If you have dust on the light sensors in your digital camera, it will show up as little dark
spots on the final image. The spots will always be in the same place on every image. After you
get a pinhole or zone plate body cap and if you notice dust right away on images, it means it
was there before. If you are unsure if the spots are dust, make a picture of a white wall by
setting the camera on manual (with its lens back on) and make the image with the lens set
way out of focus. Then see if the spots still show up in the image. If they do, it’s dust!
Pinhole Photography
© Sam Wang, Untitled
Still Life, 4¼ 7-inch
nail hole color-separated
computer print, Macintosh
ported to Atari ST, printed
on Star, 1989. From
the collection at Pinhole
A little piece of dust or dirt right on the pinhole or zone plate will not show up as a little
spot in the image. “No dust” pinhole and zone plate caps should not get wet in the rain.
When changing lenses or changing to a pinhole or zone plate cap, you should always hold
the camera lens area toward the ground so dust doesn’t naturally fall into the camera. It’s
very important to not change lenses in a windy or dusty area.
If you do have dust in your digital camera, you should use one of the wet or dry products
recommended by the Website You can try a Giotto Rocket
Blower (we use that method) and if that does not get all the dust removed, possibly Eclipse
cleaning solution will. Care is recommended. Don’t use canned air!
“No dust” pinhole and zone plate caps are available from Pinhole Resource.
Making Digital Pinhole and Zone Plate Images
After putting the pinhole or zone plate cap on your camera, set your camera to manual. In
the menu, adjust for the lighting condition: tungsten, daylight, and so on.
Set the ISO at a low rating unless you want pixel artifacts in the final image. Try a pinhole
image at about 1 second in bright sun. Try a zone plate image at about 1/20th of a second in
bright sun. Zone plates work well too, even when imaging in lower unshadowed light than
always in bright sun (Figure 8.2) and will still provide a subtle glow at the edge of a contrast
break. Because of veiling glare, some zone plate images will lack saturated color as compared
to pinhole images. Saturation can be increased in Photoshop.
Check the viewing screen on the back of the camera and either add or decrease the time.
The beauty of digital is that you can see how the image looks and you can always delete.
Trial and error is the only method and it’s the best. Unless you have some other specific reason, you should probably always shoot raw files.
Most DSLR cameras such as the Nikon series, Canon EOS series, and Olympus are easy to
convert to pinhole or zone plate imaging. If, however, you are using a Minolta Maxxum
DSLR with a pinhole or zone plate cap, set your menu to star, go to custom, and then set it to
Shutter Lock Off.
Since you can buy DSLR camera bodies without a lens, that makes digital much less
expensive, particularly if you only want the camera for pinhole or zone plate imaging.
In 2006, Nancy Spencer and I were invited to China to make images on a photo trek in
Qinghai Province, a very rural area that was originally northeastern Tibet. We knew we would
be on a little bus accompanied by other artists, probably none of whom did pinhole or zone
Digital Imaging with Pinholes, Zone Plates, and Alternatives
Nancy Spencer, Trees,
Shenzhen, China, digital
zone plate photograph
from a Nikon D50, 2007.
From the collection of the
Nancy Spencer,
Ancient Woman, Qinghai
Province, China, digital
zone plate photograph
from a Nikon D50, 2006.
From the collection of the
plate imaging. They would probably be using very high-end digital cameras, which made us
realize that if we used film holders, 4 5 pinhole cameras, changing bags, and tripods that
these traditional methods would be cumbersome and time-consuming—undoubtedly our
setup time would be unappreciated by the others. As a result, we opted for digital zone plate
imaging. Because zone plates make an image seven times faster than pinhole, we figured that
this too would speed things up. It did; we actually blended in with the other photographers
and made images (Figures 8.3 and 8.4) as easily as anyone else. At an exhibition in Xining
we met up with a large group of commercial photographers who watched how Nancy and
I were using our digital cameras. They thought we had forgotten to take the body caps off—
where were our lenses? Humbly, they came over to correct us. When we showed them that
we actually could get an image to show up on the screen with a body cap on the camera they
all were appreciably happy, but puzzled. We showed them the tiny little hole in the body
cap—then, they understood and everyone laughed even harder.
Less than a year earlier, Nancy had purchased a Nikon D50 in Beijing. From Beijing we went
to an exhibition of our photographs in Pingyao, a small city that is a World Heritage Site. We
wanted to put a pinhole onto the body cap of Nancy’s new digital camera. Having no drill or
Pinhole Photography
© Eric Renner, Face,
Qinghai, China, 16 24-inch digital zone
plate photograph from a
Nikon D50, 2006. From
the collection of the
© Nancy Spencer, Black
Horse, White Horse,
New Mexico, 16 24inch digital pinhole photograph from a Nikon D50,
2006. From the collection
of the photographer.
other tools, we went out on the street. Luckily we found a bike repairman. We showed him
the body cap and, using hand language, asked him if he had a hand drill that would put a
hole through it. He quickly understood, went into the back of his shop, and came out with a
hand drill and just the right size drill bit. He drilled a 3/8-inch hole through the cap.
Next we cut a piece of metal from a soda can, took a pushpin, made a pinhole, sanded it
somewhat smooth with a nail file, and taped it onto the body cap with black electrical tape
that we had brought along. In about 15 minutes we had a working digital pinhole camera.
of course this physical hole let a small amount of dust into the camera, however, it was the
best we could do. A roll of black electrical tape always comes in handy when traveling. Other
advice when traveling with a pinhole or zone plate digital camera is to take many extra
image cards, extra batteries, a Giotto Rocket Blower, and a good camera bag.
Returning to the United States, Nancy made handheld digital images (Figures 8.5 and 8.6).
Black Horse, White Horse was one of those surprise images that appear as an enhanced
Digital Imaging with Pinholes, Zone Plates, and Alternatives
© Nancy Spencer,
Cypresses, North
Carolina, 16 24-inch
digital pinhole photograph
from a Nikon D50, 2006.
From the collection of the
© Nancy Spencer, Under
the Blue, Flying Monkey
Press, 2008, cover, digital
zone plate photograph.
mishap. Many of Nancy’s digital landscape images are in Under the Blue (Flying Monkey
Press, 2008) (Figure 8.6B).
Thomas Micklin used a “no dust” 0.29-mm pinhole on his Canon 5D to photograph The
Meadows at Washington Park Arboretum in Seattle (Figure 8.7). The image has a slightly
different look and feel than if it had been photographed using a pinhole on a film camera.
Using the same “no dust” 0.29-mm pinhole, Micklin added a 25-mm extension tube onto
his Canon D5 and photographed Falling Light at Madison Falls (Figure 8.8). Because the
Pinhole Photography
© Thomas Micklin, The
Meadow, Washington
Park Arboretum, 8 12inch digital pinhole photograph from a Canon 5D,
2007. From the collection
of the photographer.
© Thomas Micklin,
Falling Light, Madison
Falls, 8 12-inch digital
pinhole photograph from
a Canon 5D, 2007. From
the collection of the
pinhole was not optimal for that increased focal length, the image has an even softer look,
surprisingly like a zone plate image.
Sam Wang has continued his use of zone plates (Figure 8.9) and in 2006 was instrumental in
developing short focal-length zone plates: 45 mm, 38 mm, and even shorter.
Stefano Bandini of Kyoto, Japan, used a Canon EOS 5D with a Kenko pinhole adaptor
to make handheld Nico the Clown (Figure 8.10). Of the Kenko adaptor available in Japan,
Bandini explains:
The Kenko Adaptor is basically a camera cap which is installed on the camera instead
of the lens. It consists of two pieces, one is a threaded circular plate in which the pin
hole is drilled. The second one is a ring that is sold with different mount (Canon, Nikon
etc.); the threaded part is mounted in the ring and the assembly is mounted in the
camera as a lens. It has a focal length of about 50 mm and an f number of 250. The
Kenko Adaptor can be seen at
12219283/1233177.html and
Digital Imaging with Pinholes, Zone Plates, and Alternatives
© Sam Wang, Encounter
in Forest, 12 18-inch
digital zone plate image
from Canon Rebel, 2003.
From the collection of the
© Stefano Bandini, Niko
the Clown, 30 20-cm
digital pinhole image
from Canon EOS 5D with
Kenko pinhole adaptor,
lighting with a lateral
spot and white umbrella
and opposite side a
reflecting panel, 1600
ISO, 3-second exposure.
2003. From the collection
of the photographer.
Digital camera options were explored by Jürgen Königs from Germany, who used an
Olympus E500 to create AB-Seher (Figure 8.11). He explained:
I modified a DSLR camera into a pinhole camera by replacing the objective with
pinholes of different shapes, zone plates and slot systems. I also used a kind of bellows
lens hood to combine positive and negative masked images sections. On the other hand
such a digital pinhole camera has some limitations: you can’t get wide angle pictures
and there is only one image size. The image field is always plane. Multiple exposure isn’t
possible—and so on. On the other hand you can choose for example between different
Pinhole Photography
© Jürgen Königs,
AB-Seher series Präfixel,
2007. From the collection
of the photographer.
modes of monochrome or colored picture and of sensitivity. You can use noise
reduction or accept or push noise as a means of expression. Furthermore you can control the images immediately.
The picture AB-Seher of the Präfixel series is made with a letter shaped pinhole. I used
the German prefixes (AB-, VOR-, NACH-) each of them differentiating the meaning of the
german word ‘Bild’ (image).2
Pinhole Spy Cameras
Hardly a spy camera, but this 1885 rendition of a pinhole camera obscura made with a derby
hat suggests imaging discretion (Figure 8.11) and humor (as no one would have known you
had a camera obscura with you). I guess you were meant to wear the hat on your head until
that special magic moment appeared. Then you swiftly got under your oversized black cape,
saw the upside down image on translucent paper, traced it, and then put your hat back on
your head and continued onward, with no one the wiser.
A digital pinhole camera may someday be manufactured, but only if there is a market for it.
However, there are digital pinhole spy cameras. . .hmmm? In fact, an overwhelming surfeit
of them are on the market. That lipstick sitting on your bureau may just be a camera or the
Teddy bear (Figure 8.13) sitting high on a shelf may image your babysitter.
Digital Imaging with Pinholes, Zone Plates, and Alternatives
Derby hat camera obscura. In 1885, a simple camera obscura was made from a derby hat, translucent
paper, and a dark cloth, from Scientific American,
April 1885. From the collection of Julie Schachter.
Teddy bear spy camera, one of many objects available commercially as a spy camera.
Jim Moninger from New York used a pinhole spy camera and then wrote about its usefulness
in “Pinhole Videography and the Digital Still” in Volume 18#2 of Pinhole Journal (2002). The
pinhole on his Visiontech VC25P3 spy camera (Figure 8.14a) is less than 1 mm. Moninger
Pinhole imaging is widely used in the commercial production of state of the art
micro-miniature video cameras. Designated “Spy Cameras or Nanny Cams,” these are
extraordinarily small, relatively low cost, video cameras which have powerful imaging
Their tiny size makes them ideal for concealment in ordinary household objects like
clocks and books. They’re available in both black and white and in color, and deliver the
© Jim Moninger, pinhole spy camera, 2002. Lens photograph. From
the collection of the photographer.
© Jim Moninger, Pinhole Videograph Shot in a Dark
Cafe, 2 3-inch pinhole photograph, 2002. From
the collection of the photographer.
© Jim Moninger, Intense Man, 2½ 3-inch
pinhole photograph, 2002. From the collection of
the photographer.
Pinhole Photography
same picture quality as VHS camcorders. . . . Many of these devices have glass lenses,
but many have a pinhole for primary imaging. Color models cost well under $100.
Art and the Pinhole Videograph
Miniature pinhole video cameras, connected to a conventional camcorder, can be a
powerful imaging tool for the artist creating still photographic images. Rather than
being limited to art applications in the video medium alone, many of today’s camcorders have the ability to capture still photographs from their own tape recordings in a
digital form which is readily downloaded to a computer. Images can then be improved
with imaging software and printed out on a wide variety of papers with a digital printer.
These video/still camera hybrids often feature input jacks which enable them to record
the images played back on tape by another camera; for example, the pinhole spy camera. This is the method I’ve been using to explore the aesthetic potential of this new
pinhole technology. I’ve connected a miniature pinhole video camera to a conventional
miniature digital video camcorder. The camcorder records, like a portable VCR, the footage imaged by the pinhole security camera. Later, the tapes are played back and the
camcorder is used to extract still images from the moving pictures.
Low Light Pinhole Imaging
Exploring these technological advances has opened the opportunity to expand the vocabulary of pinhole photography into radically new dimensions of creative expression. First: low
light. One of the most serious inherent limitations in pinhole work is largely overcome: The
dependency on bright light or slow shutter speeds. Very low light images formed by pinhole
video cameras are electronically enhanced. It is now possible to shoot with a pinhole camera in extremely dim light, including that of city street light, and at action-stopping shutter
speeds. At last, night photography of moving subjects is possible with a pinhole camera.
These tiny video cameras, roughly the size of a sugar cube, contain circuitry which
delivers a remarkably accurate exposure down to an incredible .2 Lux level of light.
Some even have automatic backlight compensation. The color versions have automatic
color correction built in. Although the expanded depth of field of pinholes is reasonably
maintained, the cameras focus automatically. Focal lengths are somewhat limited, but
some cameras feature a fairly wide angle of view comparable to the 28–35 mm ranges.
The technology that allows this is based on the use of electronic components, most
often CCDs (Charge Coupled Devices). CCDs function something like the light-sensitive
photoelectric cells used in light meters which respond to varying levels of light intensity.
Instead of a single area of sensitivity, CCDs contain a host of microscopic photosites
which respond to the light intensity of various areas of the image projected to them
from the pinhole. The CCD is connected to circuitry which creates an electronic reproduction of the image’s light response. This is then recorded on conventional magnetic
video tape. Typically, CCD imaging systems contain 320,000–1.3 million photosites.
The more photosites and the larger the CCD, the greater the resolution of the image.
This is an expression of the clarity and detail of the recorded image. By using additional
circuitry, the cameras can amplify dark areas of the scene to compensate for low light
conditions. They can also read a backlight situation and adjust the exposure accordingly. Often, they focus by detecting changes in the frequency of the light striking the
photosites in various parts of the CCD.
Image Quality Issues
Image quality of spy cameras for VHS movie recording is quite good. However, the
quality of “captured” still photo images is very low when measured by conventional photographic standards. Of course, one of the liberating aspects of venturing into pinhole
photography is that the soft and low contrast images, the motion blur and camera shake,
the flare and other weaknesses have opened up our visual sensibilities to the expressive
capabilities of these characteristics. Spy cameras deliver very low resolution and are
Digital Imaging with Pinholes, Zone Plates, and Alternatives
practical for only very small prints of reasonable quality at this period in the technology’s
evolution. In addition to the images being soft and flare-prone, like most pinhole images,
video-captured images made with pinhole spy cameras contain video artifacts such as
scan lines, jagged edges, and patches of phantom color which appear in various parts of
the image.
Image quality of video captures is significantly improved by using Digital Video
Camcorders, but it is still very far from the quality that can be expected from film cameras and digital still cameras of high resolution. Capture resolution of digital cameras
is listed in terms of ‘megapixels,’ or one million pixels. Pixels are tiny areas of light and
dark (and color, where relevant) which comprise the image. It is convenient to think of
pixels as being like the silver metal crystals which form the image on conventional photographic film. The more megapixels, the higher the resolution of the image.
For the work illustrated here, I’m using a SONY TRV900 camcorder capable of only
1.3 megapixels of resolution. This delivers a print of adequate quality for snapshots only
to a size of about 4 5 inch. By comparison, higher quality 35 mm digital still cameras
deliver images comprised of 5 to 6 megapixels, or four times as much clarity and detail
than the best consumer grade camcorders. And, although very low light images are
now feasible using these cameras, the lower the light level, the lower the quality of the
image. The weak link is not the camcorder but the spy camera which is of far lower
resolution and creates a lot of visual noise in low light.
Among the images illustrated here is a series made in the New York City subway [Figures
8.14b and 8.14c]. Light conditions there are such that, with an ISO 400 film, exposures
at 1/30 range from f 1.8 to f 4. This low light level is impossible for ordinary pinhole work
shot at hand holdable and action-stopping shutter speeds. If the quality is low today,
dramatic improvements in both camera types can be expected in the near future.3
Digital Printing for Nonsilver Processes
Sarah Van Keuren, author of A Non-Silver Manual, has generously contributed detailed information for digital printing with nonsilver processes.
From the perspective of a non-silver printer working in gum bichromate and cyanotype:
many imperfect pinhole negatives may be scanned and improved in Photoshop. Barely
perceptible shadow details in underexposed pinhole negatives, both paper and film,
often appear in scans and can be boosted in Levels or Curves, adding richness to the
Working in hand-applied alternative processes requires contact negatives that are the
size of the printed image. A small pinhole negative may be scanned at a high enough
resolution so that the resized larger negative has a resolution of 300 dpi. Enlarged
negatives may be printed on inkjet acetate film or on vellum or lightweight plain paper.
(You will obtain a richer inkjet negative if you print in color with the cyan, magenta and
yellow cartridges contributing to the info and density of your negatives that will still
look monochromatic.)
If your printer does not produce large enough negatives you can tile them together
printing one segment of an image at a time and taping them together. Or if you have
access to a copy camera you can print out a positive from your computer printer on, say,
8 1/2 by 11 inch paper, and then in the copy camera enlarge onto bigger ortholith film to
obtain a negative.
If you are printing from a color negative or positive you might want to change to CMYK
mode and print color separation negatives by highlighting one channel at a time and
printing a monochromatic (black but in color) negative from it. If you wish to inject color
Pinhole Photography
© Sarah Van Keuren, War
is Not a Civilized Option,
composite pinhole negative and pinhole positive
cyanotype and gum
bichromate photograph,
2003. From the collection
of the photographer.
into a b/w negative you can also switch into CMYK mode and then in the manner of a
printmaker, make changes in each separation so that an in-color imager emerges.
Theoretically duotone, tri-tone or quad-tone negatives can be generated in Photoshop
from continuous-tone b/w pinhole negatives. In practice I have only generated duotones negatives from enlarged lens negatives. Sometime I would like to compare the
look of a Photoshop duotone rendition of a pinhole negative with my old way of printing
two layers in gum from a single 8 by 10 inch pinhole negative with a short exposure in
a dark color for the shadow details and a subsequent much longer exposure in a lighter
color to extend into the highlights.
I save all of my pinhole negatives so that eventually I can scan and compose from them.
Certain negatives that may seem empty and a bit dull such as a field with woods in the
background can function as stages upon which I place my ‘actors’ or symbolic elements.
Pinhole negatives work especially well in this montaging activity because they have
fairly uniform soft resolution rather than being in or out of focus. The effect is painterly.
Another use of the computer when printing from b/w pinhole contact negatives in
alternative processes is as a source of accurate nuanced masks [Figure 8.15]. This is
especially handy when attempting to produce areas of local color from a b/w pinhole
negative. The mask can be feathered and gradated and specified to be of a particular
opacity that would be hard to achieve by other means.
Finally, it is useful to be able to produce in advance a positive inkjet proof that roughly
approximates to what you are heading towards in your non-silver print.4
1. Stefano Bandini, personal communication with the author, 4 January 2008.
2. Jürgen Königs, personal communication with the author, 15 August 2007.
3. Jim Moninger, “Pinhole Videography and the Digital Still,” Pinhole Journal, Vol. 18#2 (2002): 13, 24.
4. Sarah Van Keuren, personal communication with the author, 28 November, 2007.