Photography & Video Technology
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Do you have a digital SLR camera, some black construction paper, aluminum foil, a rubber band, and tape? Great, let’s make a digital pinhole camera!

The pinhole camera is the simplest type of camera. It has no lens, only a teeny-tiny hole of an iris. This pinhole ensures that the light which reaches any position on the exposure surface originated from a single direction; as the hole diameter approaches zero, the possible light source for a point on the exposure surface becomes an increasingly narrow cone, approaching a straight line.

The result is that if you make the hole small enough, you can capture a very wide depth of field, with objects both near and far in focus. The small hole also reduces the amount of light that reaches the exposure surface, in this case a CCD, so you need to compensate with a very long exposure time. It’s a perfect tool for capturing slow movement over time, or taking rich photos of still scenes that require a huge depth of field.

What’s great about using a digital camera for this is that you can easily experiment with exposure times and see your results immediately.

What You’ll Need

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Aside from the camera (yeah, I stretched the $0 part a bit), you’ll only need a few things: black paper, aluminum foil, a rubber band, and tape. Really, that’s it.

Blocking Out Light

The first thing you need to do is cover the lens area in a way that ensures that the only light getting through to the CCD is the light coming through the pinhole. If any other light leaks in, you’ll just end up with a washed out image.

First, remove the lens from your camera, put the cover on it, and put it in a safe place. Cut a sheet of black construction paper so that it will fit over the lens hole in your camera body. Cut a small hole in the center of the paper, and then carefully tape it to the camera body. This will block out most of the light, and it will also block any internal reflection.

Making The Pinhole

Take a square of aluminum foil and press it over the front of the camera on top of the black paper. You’ll want to smooth this down to the surface of the camera body and then tape it in place. This will be blocking out any remaining cracks that would have allowed light through.

When you smooth the foil over the paper cover, you should be able to see a depression over the little hole you cut earlier. Go find the sharpest, thinnest needle you have, and carefully prick the aluminum in the center of this hole. You don’t want to push the needle all the way in. You want to make this hole as tiny as possible, almost difficult to see with the naked eye. I find it helps to just gently press the needle against the surface and twist it a bit. Experiment and see what works best for you.

Enable ultra-long exposures

Your digital pinhole camera is essentially complete, but in order to take a decent photo, you need to take exposures over several minutes. To do this without jiggling the camera, you could use a remote shutter, but I feel like I’ve already cheated a bit with this $0 tutorial since I required you to have a DSLR. Instead of buying a remote shutter, here’s a way to make a long exposure control for free.

Roll up a piece of tinfoil into a tightly packed ball about the size of a marble. Flatten out the ball a little bit and groove one side so that a rubber band will sit in the groove and not slip out. Place this ball over the shutter button on your camera, and wrap a rubber band over it and around the camera body. It’s a little fidgety, but now you can position the ball to depress the button and take a photo, and pull the ball away to release the shutter.

Go Take Some Pinhole Photos

Just put your camera in “bulb” mode, place it on a tripod or a stable surface, and depress the shutter with your fancy shutter depressomatic aluminum ball. The necessary exposure time will vary depending on the light that’s available, the camera’s ISO setting, and how small you were able to make your pinhole, but expect at least a couple of minutes with indoor lighting if you did things right. Experiment to obtain the best results, and send us a link to your photos in the comments!

38 thoughts on “$0 digital pinhole camera

  1. if you have a dslr you most likely have a body cap (you didn’t throw yours away did you?) that you can sacrifice to make “lens” with a tighter seal.

    take your body cap, mark the center of it and drill a small hole in it; i found a quarter inch hole is just fine. you can then take a square of aluminum foil and some electrical tape and tape it to the front of the now drilled body cap. flip this over and with a very fine needle, poke a hole in the foil.

    it took me about 5 minutes to make this and it works great. i store it in a legal envelope and take it with me whenever i got out shooting. here are some examples of what i’ve shot – http://www.flickr.com/photos/zeebleoop/sets/72157612453178686/

  2. There is an optimum size for the pinhole. It depends on the distance from the hole to the sensor or film. There is a calculator (and lots of other good pinhole info) at http://www.mrpinhole.com/index.php
    Making a good pinhole is not as simple as sticking a pin through foil. That will give a jagged hole. For the best results, use this method:
    Use thicker metal, like sheet copper from a craft store. It should be thin but strong enough to hold itself up.
    Use a pin to make a dimple in the metal, but not all the way through.
    Sand the dimple with very fine sandpaper, 400 grit or higher, to gently open the tip of the dimple, sanding in random directions.This creates a round hole with sharp edges.
    Check the size as you go, using a strong magnifier. For a measuring device, you can use wire. For example, for 40mm distance, the calculator shows that the hole should be 0.01″, and that is the size of 30 gauge wire.

  3. As a followup to KentD’s helpful comment– try using the metal from an aluminum can. it works just as well as the craft-store-metal.

  4. Oh come on, it’s only $0 if you already have a digital SLR camera, some black construction paper, aluminum foil, a rubber band, and tape!

  5. Thanks for this great tutorial. I can’t wait to try it but have one issue. My camera (nikon d40x) will not allow me to take a photograph without a lens attached. Is there a way to get around this?

    1. D40 and all other nikon cameras i know of require you to go into manual mode to take a picture without a “autofocus” lens.

      This is because all the sensors and apature info comes from the lens. It can not read those sensors so it doesnt know what to do when set to any of the Auto settings.

      Same goes when you use a old manual focus lens.

  6. @Anthony – I don’t think there is a way around it. I’m a very long time Nikon user (since the F2), and I’m kind of disgusted with Nikon for releasing the D40 since most Nikon lenses aren’t even supported by it. FWIW, I use a D90 right now and I’d be a bit relucant to do this with such an expensive body because a long exposure isn’t good for the sensor or the solinoid on the mirror. Also, I’d be concerned about a construction paper lens letting dust into the sensor area (I don’t even like taking the lens off to change it). I also want to do some time-lapse photography, I even built the intervalometer with an Arduino, but 10 minutes of video is 14,400 exposures and I don’t want to wear out the mechanics too fast. I’m toying with the idea of buying a D60 for “projects”, but I can just wait 3 years until my D90 becomes my secondary camera ;).

  7. Hey thanks The Oracle. I’m not much of a photographer so the lens issue hasn’t bothered me much, the few I have are plenty for me, but it is annoying. I’m pretty obsessive about my camera as well and would in any case add a uv filter to the rig. I think it’s time to try and thrift store some old cameras for a little experimenting.

  8. @Anonymous:

    Canon cameras come with a little doohickey on the neckstrap to cover the viewfinder with. You take the viewfinder eyepiece off, and slip the little rubbery cover on.

  9. One other thing. Why is the background so blurry? I would have expected much crisper from a pinhole camera. I was going to say post and say he made the hole too big and probably pushed the pin all the way through the foil, but the way he described should work perfectly and give much better results than the sample.

  10. after having just helped make 160+ matchbox pinhole cameras with elementary school kids I got a quick dip in pinhole design etc. (we used the mrpinhole.com design)

    We wanted to show the kids that a pinhole camera worked before sending them off with their hand made versions. Basically we did the same as above but used electrical tape on a Nikon D200. Instead of foil for the pinhole we used squares cut from an aluminum can which give a really nice and tiny aperture for crisp backgrounds etc. Basically using the same technique but pushing the pin with a block of wood. It is easier to control the pin with the thicker aluminum.

    Also if you want to avoid the problem of using bulb mode or super long exposures you can change the ISO to 1600 or H0.3, H0.7, or H1 if your camera supports it. At H1 you get a grainy picture but you can basically use the pinhole camera as a point and shoot even under moderately bright indoor lights and definitely in full sun.

  11. @Mayur – Your hole is MUCH too big, that’s why your pictures are so fuzzy. Take the advice in this thread, make the hole in the plastic bigger and then use pop can aluminum or aluminum foil to make a proper pin hole to tape in place.

  12. I followed all the instructions just to find out that my DSLR, when turned on, flips out when the lens isn’t attached. It blinks at me and refuses to take the picture. Any suggestions? It’s a Nikon D60.

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