Pinhole Cameras with Modesto Tamez


For the past two weeks we've had a special guest visiting us at Tinkering Club - artist and senior scientist at the Exploratorium Modesto Tamez! To continue our exploration of light and shadow, we worked with him to create Pinhole Cameras. We thought this would be a fun connection to previous weeks' ideas, but with a new twist. For example, when we made light paintings we were creating long exposure digital images. Pinhole cameras also use long exposure techniques, but the image created is completely analog.

To start off our exploration, Modesto demonstrated how a pinhole can focus light without a lens. He had us poke holes in a piece of paper using a push pin, then look at objects through the opening. We noticed that whatever object we looked at was in focus, no matter how far away it was. He also used red and green lightbulbs to demonstrate how a pinhole projects a reversed image, which would be important when we took our photos later.

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Next we dove into building our cameras. They're constructed out of quart size paint cans with a 1/4" hole drilled in the side, a piece of tin with a pinhole as the aperture, and a construction paper "shutter". Paint cans work well because they don't let light leak in, but we could have experimented with other containers as well. We placed photosensitive paper inside the cans opposite the shutter. To do this we had to turn the Creativity Lab into a darkroom so there's no photos of this process (the light from the camera screen and flash would ruin the paper!).


After building our cameras we went outside to the school's atrium to take our photos. Modesto showed us how to use a light meter to determine how long our exposure would have to be to expose the photographic paper. Since it was a moderately sunny afternoon, the light meter reading told us it would take about 10 seconds to capture a bright image. A cloudier day would have meant more time, and direct bright sun would have been less. (Fun fact: counting one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, etc. gives you a pretty accurate measure of time - try it!)


We took two rounds of photos that day. The process required the whole group to take their pictures, then head back to the darkroom to develop them (again, couldn't take pictures at this point). The original images as they came out of the camera were negatives. By inverting the image using photo editing software we could create the positive print. It's amazing to me how ordinary objects look so different as negatives.
Malaya week 1B original Malaya week 1B
IMG_20170614_0016 Dobras week 1B

There were definitely some challenges to taking pinhole photographs. One that happened for several people was that the photo paper wasn't lined up directly across from the aperture, so you ended up with a print of the pinhole itself or a partial print like this one:

Lily week 1A

Another thing we realized we had to be careful of after the first round was accidentally photographing our hands as we opened the shutter.

Amy week 1B

Still, we were able to capture some amazing images. The figurines were an element to incorporate since pinhole cameras allow you to play with size and scale in a way a regular camera won't. Because all parts of the image are in focus, tiny objects can look giant - like this seal hanging out in the atrium.

Shyanne week 1A

Our second week of the activity we did more experiments with trying to take photographs of other people. We realized faces need a lot more time to get a proper exposure than the surrounding environment. In the group collaboration below, we posed for almost 20 seconds, but the photograph was still a little dim. The photo also shows a good example of how the pinhole camera produces a reversed, negative image.

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This was the students in Tinkering Club's first time taking and developing analog photos. With so much to explore, tinkering with photography could be the topic of a whole future semester of after school investigations!

Overdeck Family Foundation

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

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