What’s new Cameras, film & technique Peeping through: The magic of peephole lenses

Peeping through: The magic of peephole lenses

Writer and photography / Heather Siple

Heather Siple tells us how and why we should try out peephole photography.

“Long Climb Up” : photo taken with my original 1″ brass peephole on a 90mm lens for a medium-format camera at f/8.

Awhile back I found myself reading a message board in which someone had asked about building a peephole lens. The reply he got was “Why would you want to?” Why indeed! Peephole lenses are akin to toy cameras. Though many would discount the possibilities because the optics are rarely sharp, owing to aberrations, plastic lenses, wide-angle distortion, and even mold in one I ordered online, that is part of what gives them their character.

For ten years, I’d been playing with a peephole myself, creating magical floating worlds hanging in empty space, bathed in halos from their own light. The images were, by choice of aperture, not completely sharp, but there were details in the image that were brought in sharp relief with almost crystal clarity. Objects at the sides warped and swirled around the edges. Each halo was unique, like the fingerprint of the image within.

“RG’s Field”: photo taken using a 1/2″ peephole with an aluminum barrel mounted on the same lens.  Shot at f/32!

I sighed when I read the post. My lens had recently broken and I’d spent a month trying to find a suitable replacement. The first one had come from the local hardware store and I got really lucky to find one with a nice, clear lens. When I went back, I found that the hardware store had changed the brand it carried and the effect of the new lens was shockingly different. After another month and a total of six attempted replacements, I finally found the optics that I needed.

I wanted a lens just like the old one. What I found was that each lens had its own character. I was getting solid, consistent rings in some, no distortion around the edges in others, and sometimes nothing at all in focus, no matter how I adjusted the focal length between all the optics. It was a whole palette of $5-15 camera lenses!

“Bellevue Textures” The winning peephole in my search for a close match, one of three 1″ brass peepholes I tried.  Where the original lens had no consistent ring around the rim, this one always shows a bit of rim reflection, but it has the same flares and patterns in the halos as the original.

Finally, two months after beginning my search, I found something close. It came from e-Bay in a dingy package that looked like it had been sitting in a warehouse for decades. There are subtle differences that give it its own character, but I can definitely continue my series now without radically changing the way the pictures appear and, down the road, I can experiment further with the others to create different effects to tell my visual stories.

My own construction is not the most esthetic job when looking at my camera, but it is quite functional and the first one I built lasted 10 years before succumbing to an unfortunate accident.

I choose to use this lens on a medium-format film camera. Not only am I a fan of film, but the larger format allows for as much detail as possible. The peephole creates a tiny image relative to the image frame and is not the greatest piece of glass. A lot of detail is lost shooting through every extra piece of glass on a camera to begin with, and this can really mute the details when the picture is enlarged. Think of a 35mm image on a medium-format frame of film through a dirty lens. With the medium-format camera, the negative is about the same size as the peephole lens itself, so there is a minimum of detail loss. I also prefer the larger models of peepholes, the ones with 1-inch-diameter lenses.

Peephole Front – two-part epoxy and some putty hold the peephole in the lens cap while a safety tether keeps the whole thing on the camera

Many people love to mount these cheap lenses to digital point-and-shoots and there are some very good explanations as to how to build “$5 fish-eye lenses” on the web. Some are more elegant than others, but the general idea is to put the front half of a peephole on the lens of the point-and-shoot and secure it with duct tape or by gluing it to a tube that slides over the extended lens of a the camera.

Other people have made cyclops-style lenses by mounting the peephole to the end of a tube and placing the tube over the lens mount on a DSLR. This seems to work well if one has some exposure control in the camera body. My preferred camera, however, has all the exposure controls in the lens itself.

My peephole is mounted onto a lens cap. My camera lenses are much bigger than the peepholes or a digital point-and-shoot lens, making point-and-shoot mounts impractical. Also, because my Mamiya RB67 has both aperture and shutter speed controls in the lenses, I needed to mount to an existing lens.

The cap mount was made by cutting away the locking mechanism on the back of the lens cap (or you can use a slip-on cover if you can find one) and then cutting a hole in the center of the lens cap to fit the larger half of the peep hole barrel. Place the back end of the barrel through the back of the lens cap and secure with two-part epoxy. Then, screw the front end into the barrel, making sure not to extend the front half past the eye piece on the back. Screwing the lens back too far will make it hard to focus, and, more importantly, may scratch your lens!

Once the glass is screwed on, I check the focus through the camera lens to make sure the distance is right, then secure the lens with more epoxy or putty to keep it from unscrewing or screwing itself in too far with vibration.

Peephole Back – Make sure the barrel does not get screwed past the back edge or you could damage the much more expensive lens behind it.

Most importantly, I have a tether from the lens cap to the camera! The weight of the peep hole is enough that if the cap is not on securely, it can fall off and break. I learned this the hard way.

This set-up is mounted onto a “straight” 90 mm lens, roughly the equivalent of a 50 mm lens on a DSLR. Here are a few variations to consider:

  • A wider-angle base lens will make the image within the peephole smaller, but gives the most halo.
  • A zoom lens will enlarge the picture and cut off the edges of the halos or eliminate them altogether. Zoom far enough and you can even shoot directly through the peephole to make a rectangular image, if you like.
  • The smaller peepholes I have tried had much smaller “sweet-spots” where the image can actually be focused than the larger versions.
  • The metals used for the barrels reflect differently. The polished brass ones I tried were much more reflective than the aluminum ones.
  • There are a number of ways to play with the borders of the picture. Although I play up the halos in my photos, other people prefer to burn them out, crop them out so that there is only vignetting at the corners, or simply crop to the circular image seen through the glass with nothing but white around it.
  • The angle of view listed on the packaging is not necessarily accurate. I tested one lens advertising a 220-degree field of view that actually had less in view than another that advertised a 180-degree view shooting at the same scene from the same angle.

Peepholes can create all manner of magical imagery, depending on the lens you use and the choices you make with it. Try some different variations and see what you like best!


Heather Siple is an internationally published artist, Siple is a dedicated practitioner of peephole photography and the alchemy of the darkroom.

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2 thoughts on “Peeping through: The magic of peephole lenses

  1. Heather, what a brilliant article. I would like to try some peephole photography, but would like to know where I could buy a 1″ brass peephole. Ebay has an assortment, but they either do not specify the size, or the ones that are named are too small.
    Thank you for this great addition to the site.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it!

    The original lens I had I got from the local DIY/Hardware store. Lowes.com has a supply of 1 1/8″ brass online. It is a different brand from the one I tried from them last fall, so I don’t know how it will behave. It was the first on the list when I entered “peephole” in their search box this evening. The one I finally ended up selecting last fall I got off of ebay and it came in a dingy wrapper that looked like it had sat in someone’s garage for the last decade or more. The seller had 10 in stock and I bought three of them after the first tested successfully, just in case of future accidents.

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