Little did I know when on an impulse I offered John Martin the loan of my homemade (not by me) 5×4 pinhole camera that this would be the genesis of a collaboration with photographers from around the country joining in.
What if we send it round the world and make a ‘zine? Round the world may be a bit ambitious but certainly round the UK is doable.
The whisky talking?
I was sat in a cafe with a pot of tea on 16th June 2021 when John messaged me via Twitter. He’d been chatting to James, another photographer, about the camera he’d been lent. James was keen to try it out and John knew I’d be more than happy. After a few whiskys though they came up with the idea of a world tour for the camera and perhaps also a ‘zine. Thus was born this collaborative project.
The camera itself was the result of an impulse buy I made from a charity shop; I figured that even if I didn’t use the camera regularly I was still doing some good for the charity. So, you could say that this whole project was founded on impulses.
Next week the camera moves on, down to the south coast if I recall, and the recipient is I believe a complete newcomer to both pinhole and large format photography. One of the things John and I are keen on doing is encouraging people who’ve never used large format before and to this end John is lending three DDSs to the project – which will be going south fully loaded!
The camera has a 50mm field of view, a 0.2mm pinhole and an effective f-stop of f250. To put that in context, a scene that meters at 1/30th second at f16 becomes an exposure of eight seconds BEFORE taking into account the reciprocity failure of the film stock. So, if you are using Fomapan 100, which is my go-to for 5×4 pinhole, this 8 second exposure becomes 56 seconds once reciprocity is factored in. If, like me you also routinely use a contrast filter for black and white photography (a yellow/green in my case), then this becomes seven and a half minutes!
The project already has five participants in addition to John and myself and we’ve only been kicking the idea around for ten days or so. Hopefully, as more images are shared with the #DPCWT2021 tag then more people will want to get involved. Watch this space!
Fear not, I’m not about to get all poetic in my appreciation of the aforementioned wooden box. The box of which I speak is my Zero Image 612b pinhole camera. The ‘b’ is for basic of course, whereas the 612 indicates a maximum negative size of 6×12. In reality the negative is bigger than 6×12 as I’ve mentioned before. It is also multi-format as baffles inside can be moved to create 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7 and 6×9 in addition to the titular 6×12.
When I bought it I felt it was expensive for what it was and even more so when it languished on a shelf for month after month once the first couple of rolls had been exposed. None too successfully at that if I’m honest. However, just recently I’ve used it more and have started to learn to appreciate it properly. I’ve also started to get the hang of using it more effectively too.
The biggest thing I’ve learnt is that it likes to be close to the action – very close! I’ve taken a couple of images recently featuring coffee mugs – with said mugs never more than three inches from the wooden box. Really, that close. I’m finding that for my taste, using a very obvious main subject very close to the box helps create depth and a real sense of three dimensional space. That’s not to say that every pinhole image I make has a subject right up close but it’s fair to say that I’ve never been disappointed when I’ve got in close and many images could have benefitted from being closer to the subject. This little box does have a fair sized field of view!
One of my early mistakes with this box was with regards to exposure calculations. I metered as I would normally but still seemed to get under-exposed negatives. My mistake was treating the given aperture value as gospel – my box likes light, plenty of it too. I now almost always add on at least a stop to the exposure time I calculate and am never afraid to bracket if in doubt. Reciprocity should also be taken seriously in my experience, especially with the Fomapan 100 I favour for my pinhole work. I chose Fomapan precisely because of its huge reciprocity values. It is actually helpful to have longer exposure times when your shutter is manually opened and closed by simply sliding a piece of wood to reveal and then hide the pinhole.
This is a seriously lightweight piece of kit and despite accommodating 6×12 negatives it is surprisingly small. It fits comfortably in my shoulder bag even with an SLR/DSLR with a second lens already present. Spare film and my mini tripod also fit in and I’ve made plenty of images that I’d not have been able too if the box took up more room. I like to travel with minimal kit and this box adds extra artistic capability without being a burden.
Not only is this box light and therefore easily carried in my shoulder bag “just in case” I need it, it is also pretty water resistant. No electronics to fizzle under the persistent rain we are blessed with here in the UK for a start. No lens to become rain spattered and smeared either. A quick wipe with a micro-fibre cloth and it’s like it was never wet. I’ve used this little box in torrential rain, on the beach, low down on a mini tripod with the sea lapping around and whilst I’ve been careful not to submerge it in water I’ve yet to have any issues with a malfunctioning box!
Of course, this isn’t my only pinhole camera. It isn’t even my only Zero Image camera. I have pinholes in 35mm, 120 and 5×4 large format. All of them are simply wooden boxes. I’ve written about them regularly, including this post which could have been sponsored by a rubber band company! It wasn’t but I’m still open to offers!
For some people, pinhole equates to fuzzy, unsharp images but whilst I’ve my fair share of such pictures, with or without a lens, it is my experience that a pinhole camera can also produce lovely crisp images. To support this assertion I present the image above created with the Zero Image 5×4. The key is technique. Which applies to all forms of photography I guess. Whilst a pinhole camera may be a very simple technological concept it is true that you still need good technique. For a start there are no electronics to assure good focus, the correct exposure or even adjust for slight camera movement. The first requirement is that the camera doesn’t move either during the exposure or at the time the shutter is opened or closed. This requires two things. Firstly, a tripod or other support to keep the camera still. A wall is helpful here if you find yourself without anything else although for my part a mini tripod is always in the bag with the camera. Secondly, a steady hand to ensure the camera isn’t knocked whilst operating the shutter. Some pinhole cameras have a cable release mechanism built in allowing the use of a standard threaded cable release although sadly none of mine feature this innovation.
The last ingredient I want to mention is aesthetics. Specifically YOUR aesthetic. It is my view that pinhole photography does not rely on technique alone. Good technique will help tremendously but it is not enough on its own. Using the camera regularly is vital if the photographer is to start to “see” through the pinhole. Not everything you point the pinhole at will work visually in two-dimensions and it takes time and practice to judge what will and won’t work. There’s little point though in me trying to tell anyone what will or won’t work; photography is a very personal medium and what works for one person may not necessarily work for others. Of course, it’s great when other folk appreciate your work but as ever the most important viewer of your work is you.
This has been a short appreciation of the humble pinhole camera and I have hopefully shared a few thoughts that will help those new to pinhole photography or indeed those thinking of jumping in to the fascinating genre. Technique is the key to successful images but even technique is subservient to the aesthetic.
After the very successful ‘zine of urban panoramas last year I’m currently working on my next ‘zine offering. Whereas the panoramas were all made within a short period of time the images I will be using for A Sense of Place were created over a much longer period of time and in fact were not originally intended as a series, let alone a zine.
Although I have been creating images by the water for as long as I have been making photographs the genesis for this collection are the four pinhole images above. They were created one after the other at Cresswell Beach in the north of England using a Zero Image pinhole camera and Ilford HP5+ film in early October 2020 after four months of being confined to the house and a further three months confined to within a few miles of home. I had never been to Cresswell before – but it was like coming home.
Whilst I’ve not made the final selection yet, and in fact I have not finished the photography yet, all of the images will feature water; representing my “happy place”. Time spent by a river, alongside a lake, walking the canal towpath or strolling on the seashore is always a relaxing and peaceful place for me. I am at peace alongside water, calm and relaxed – even when the camera is playing up!
Even after more than nine years of retirement I still cannot lie-in bed once I wake. Nor does my body seem to want to change the habits of a working lifetime and whilst I’m not crawling out of bed before 5:30am these days I rarely sleep beyond 6:30am. Today was no exception and so at 7am I was out of the house with a 5×4 camera and a few sheets of film in my shoulder bag.
The detectives amongst you will have already worked out from the title that it was a pinhole camera, a Zero Image 5×4 to be precise. The plan was to visit four locations around town that I have visited recently and recreate the images using the pinhole – and one sheet only, no bracketing and one composition only. I often impose restrictions on myself to make things more challenging and keep me on my toes. With the cost of 5×4 it is also a sensible approach. Being a Sunday each location was quiet meaning I didn’t have to worry about getting in peoples way, especially at the final location which involved me standing the tripod in the middle of the road. That was sheet five (see next paragraph) however so won’t be making an appearance here.
I took six sheets of film with me and used five. Why five sheets and just four locations especially given the parameters I’d already set? User error! At the third location I set everything up, metered the scene, adjusted the reading for the pinhole and adjusted for reciprocity and finally removed the dark slide ready to open the shutter. Except it was half open already. A lapse of concentration as I generally check the shutter as I place the camera on the tripod and also just before I remove the dark slide.
Except it was half open already.
A lapse of concentration, as I generally check the shutter as I place the camera on the tripod and also just before I remove the dark slide.
My Stearman tank holds four sheets of film, part of the reason for limiting myself to four locations. I developed the first four sheets, from the first three locations, as soon as I got home. I chose Rodinal at a dilution of 1+49 partly because I’d not used it in this way before and I was hoping this would give a good compromise between the typical dilution of 1+25 and a semi-stand in 1+100. A dilution of 1+25 generally gives good contrast and acutance whilst I really liked the grain and detail I got from the semi-stand series so wondered if a dilution midway would give good negatives without a forty five minute semi-stand. By 9:30am the four sheets were hanging to dry, the errant third sheet clearly showing the effect of accidental pre-exposure on approximately a third of its surface (see above).
It was at 9:31am that I remembered I’d not had any breakfast yet – but that’s another story!
I was very happy with the negatives as they came out of the tank and impatient to get them on a light box and under a loupe but of course these things can’t be hurried so after breakfast I started this blog post in readiness and anticipation.
With all four sheets on the light pad I was very happy with the fruits of my morning’s labour, despite the momentary lapse. There’s plenty of detail in each sheet and the grain is very restrained. They all scanned nicely (with a mirrorless camera not a scanner) and on the whole look as if they will print well even if the puddle reflection above will take some work to tame the much brighter central portion.
The Zero Image at 25mm gives quite a strong vignette but I like this effect so it doesn’t displease me. With high contrast scenes it can produce tricky negatives as with sheet 2 above but these challenges are all part of the fun of pinhole photography and darkroom printing. The field of view is very wide (I have three frames but only used one today which equates to approximately 25mm) and in all of these images I could have got much closer to the subject if I’d wanted to. For the reflection image I used a mini tripod at the very edge of a deep puddle so perhaps not that one but certainly I will revisit the third location (sheet 4) and place the pinhole much closer to the rusty door in the middle of the frame.
If you’ve not given pinhole a try yet I can very much recommend it – especially as an introduction to the joys of 5×4 large format photography.
I am a relatively recent convert to the joys (and unpredictability) of pinhole photography, even building one myself not so long ago. As with the majority of my film photography I tend to use black and white film in the pinholes, indeed cannot remember ever having used colour film in one. I have pinholes that accept 35mm, 120 and 5×4 film of which my most-used is a Zero Image 612b, multi-format pinhole that uses 120 film. It is multi-format in that it has a pair of baffles inside that can be moved to facilitate using the camera at 6×4.5, 6×6, 6×7, 6×9 and 6×12.
As a black and white photographer I routinely use filters to control contrast, indeed with most of my film cameras a yellow or yellow/green filter is ever-present on the lens. However, my Zero Image is the basic version and therefore has no bells and whistles such as external filter rings. I lack the tools and skills to adapt the front of the camera working around the sliding “shutter” so have reluctantly accepted the lack of filter options.
I have recently modified the Zero Image to accept filters internally. I did this by taking a 25-37mm step up ring and asking my grandson to take the 25mm thread off (without removing his own fingers). This was then super-glued inside the camera, with the pinhole centrally situated within the ring. Because of the camera’s internal dimensions a 37mm filter ring was the largest filter diameter I could accommodate and still screw filters on/off with my old fingers. By incorporating a screw thread inside the camera and purchasing a few small filters I am now able to use not only contrast control filters but also a 720nm filter to enable me to use infrared film with the pinhole. The only downside is I have to choose upfront what filter I will need and install it before loading the film. In addition, I cannot change the filter part way through the roll. Other than that it works fabulously though and the 37mm yellow filter is rarely out of the camera.
At the 6×12 setting the outer edge of the ring is visible onthe edge of the negative as a very definite vignette BUT once cropped the usable negative area still measures 6×12.1. There are no issues at 6×6, 6×7 or 6×9. I haven’t yet tried 6×4.5 but on this evidence I do not envisage problems, although I very rarely use the smallest negative size with this camera.
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