The discovery of pinhole optics massively predates photography (the act of chemically recording a projected image). During the Renaissance, painters traced scenes projected onto a canvas by a pinhole on the opposite wall. The use of a pinhole to project images goes back to 5th century BC China.
In an age of digital cameras and high-end optics, the pinhole endures, charming and simple. In honor of World Pinhole Photography Day, I went on a pinhole outing.
You might ask, what is the point of pinhole photography in this day and age? There are aesthetic and practical reasons. I like knowing exactly how my lens works, for once. Even a prime lens can have upwards of a dozen pieces of glass in it. I have a good science background, and I can’t even touch that level of optics. A hole in black plastic. I get that. Pinholes have interesting properties. True, they don’t focus nearly as sharply as lenses. But because pinholes have such small apertures, they have nearly infinite focal depth.
Brief photography lesson: larger openings (apertures) allow more light and create shallow ranges of focus. This can be desirable in a portrait. Small openings permit less light and increase range of focus. This might be preferable for a landscape. Sufficiently small openings cause softening due to diffraction (physics of light stuff). If you shoot on an SLR, you may have noticed diffraction-caused softening on shots at f/22. The pinhole I use is f/177. This diffraction is what gives pinhole photos their texture.
The upshot: pinhole photos flatten a scene. Something a yard away will look similar to something 100 yards away. This allows a photographer to create interactions between different depths that wouldn’t be possible with a conventional lens. And finally, pinholes can create a really fun old-timey effect.
My setup is a bit like sticking a horse-drawn carriage on a rocket ship. I use a Lensbaby composer with the pinhole optics kit. My camera is a Sony Alpha 7s. Pinhole photography, due to the tiny amount of light transmitted, has slow exposure time. Exposures are often measured in multiple seconds. The Sony Alpha 7s is one of the fastest consumer cameras in the industry, with a maximum ISO of 409600. Thus, I was able to take decent handheld pinhole images even in low light by using high ISO.