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Getting Started: Constructing a Pinhole or Lensless Camera

Today, with technology rapidly changing the way we create, process and use photographic images, it may be the best time to be considering this low tech approach to photography. The following information is assuming you are interested in wet-based or traditional photography. A lensless or pinhole camera is extremely simple and quite inexpensive to make and use.

  • camera body: you will need a container for the light (the equivalent of the camera body).
  • black paint and tape: to darken and fill any holes that could allow light to enter including the aperture.
  • thin metal: to pierce for the aperture
  • needle or push pin: to create the aperture
  • light sensitive material: to record the light (image) that forms in the back of the camera.
  • chemicals for processing and fixing: basic black & white paper developer
  • darkroom: or darkened space to develop your negatives.

Find or Build the Camera Body: Shown here is one-half of a cardboard box that has an identical shaped lid slightly larger for a snug fit. Note: shallow lids tend to leak light. Generally, you will want your camera body to be light-tight. When you look for a potential container, it should be easy to open and close. This is important if you plan to use the camera to make more than a few photographs. Select a material that paint adheres to easily. Cardboard or wood is a good choice. For metal lightly sanding will help the paint to adhere and not flake off. While metal such as a cookie tin, will not leak light, it is still a good idea to paint the inside because of reflections. Using a container with a plastic lid can lead to difficulties because repeated bending may cause the the paint to crack and leak light.

Darken the Camera Body:
Paint the interior of the camera body. You will probably need to paint more than one coat to make the camera light-tight. Usually, I prefer latex, flat black paint out of a can rather that spray paint. Between each application, allow the paint to dry completely. Later, when testing your camera, if you find a small light leak you can use the black tape listed below.
 brass or metal piece

Aperture Plate:
Next you will need some thin metal for the pinhole aperture. Although I use paper-thin, brass shim stock obtained from an automotive supply store you may substitute a piece of aluminum from a beverage can.
  Piercing a hole or aperture: Place the metal on a flat surface with wood or matt board underneath while piercing. I use a push pin to make a small hole for the aperture. Start by gently piercing a tiny hole. This creates a burr (raised metal around the edge of the hole) on the opposite side. Using fine sandpaper, remove the burr. Enlarge the hole with the push pin and repeat this procedure until the desired size of the hole is reached. Trying to create the full diameter of the hole at one time will result in a less than perfect circle. For smaller size holes work slowly and carefully. Paint the back side of the aperture plate. After the paint is dry, use the push pin to carefully clear the aperture of paint if necessary.

Aperture Size: There is an ideal size aperture for each camera's focal length (the distance of the aperture to the back of the camera where the film lies). However, it is possible to work simply. For example if the depth of the container - focal length - is 12 inches make your aperture the maximum diameter of the push pin. For smaller cameras, use the point of the push pin. For larger cameras you may use a drill bit. In fact, drill bits are one option used by some which create a hole with a known size based on the diameter of the bit. Jewelers bits come in very small sizes. There are drilled pinholes available in different sizes. I would recommend knowing your aperture size if you are planning to expose film instead of B&W paper for your negatives. A micrometer can also be used to measure the needle or instrument you make the aperture with.


Cut a hole just smaller than the size of your aperture plate.
Using black masking or electrical tape, attach the aperture to the front of the camera. For a shutter simply use a small piece of black tape over the aperture. Note: electrical tape works but in time (or hot weather) it deteriorates much faster than masking tape.

Pinhole to Pixel has a simulation on building a pinhole camera, numerous examples of camera designs, technical data and lensless photographs. This multimedia disk is available in the cd-rom section.