Pinhole history

Writer / Anita Chernewski

A brief pinhole history by pinhole expert and enthusiast Anita Chernewski.

Image: The first picture of a pinhole camera obscura is a drawing by Gemma Frisus’ De Radio, an astronomer. He used the pinhole in his darkened room to study the solar eclipse of 1544.

A pinhole lensless camera is a light-tight box with a very fine round hole in one end and film or photographic paper in the other. Light passes through the hole; an image is formed in the camera.


The image-forming ability of a tiny hole is thought to have been known thousands of years ago by nomadic tribes of North Africa, who lived in animal skin tents. A pinhole in the tent would project an image of the brilliant scene outside.

In the 5th century B.C., Chinese scholars had discovered that light travels in straight lines. The philosopher Mo Ti recorded the formation of an inverted image with a pinhole. Aristotle wrote about pinhole images in the 4th century B.C. In his famous books are references to pinhole observations. In the 10th century A.D., Arabian physicist and mathematician Alhazen, described a pinhole’s usefulness for viewing a solar eclipses without the risk to the eyes. These are just some of the fascinating accounts describing the early experiments and observations by scholars.

Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century gave a clear description in his notebooks: “When the images of illuminated objects pass through a small round hole into a very dark room…you will see on paper all those objects in their natural shapes and colours.” “Who would believe that so small a space could contain the image of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tonque will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily, none! This it is that guides the human discource to the considering of divine things. Here the figures, here the colors, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. O what a point is so marvelous!.

Image above: Drawing by Brook Taylor. Leonardo da Vinci gave a clear description of the Camera Obscura in the 16th century. Image below: Pinhole camera from french designers Messrs. Dehors and Deslanders, 1887

Ever since the Renaissance artists turned to optics for assistance in solving perspective problems, and they found the camera obscura “dark chamber” a mechanical aid of great value.

A scientist from Naples, Giovanni Battista della Porta in the first edition of his book “Natural Magic” in 1558, described the camera obscura in great detail. His demonstrations of up-side down images astounded and mystified visitors.

Image above: Pinhole camera from french designers Messrs. Dehors and Deslanders. Image below: Vermeer’s 17th century Camera Obscura.

It took centuries before the technology existed to permit photographic pioneers in the early 19th century to capture an image on a light sensitive surface. A Frenchman, Jacques Louis Mande Daquerre is credited with putting it all together, but the first permanent images made directly by the action of light were produced by the Frenchman Joseph NicOphore Niepce an amateur scientist, inventor and artist. His first “heliographs” were produced in 1822. The biggest problem at that time was how to “fix” the image. The search for a method to fix the image was discovered by astronomer and scientist Sir John Hershel in 1839. That led to the development of photography.

Sir David Brewster, an English scientist, was one of the first to make pinhole photographs. In the 1850’s in his book “The Stereoscope” the word “pin-hole” was first coined. Another Englishman Flinders Petrie, acclaimed the “father of archaeology” in the 1880’s, took many pinhole photographs during his excavations in Egypt. His photographs are exhibited in London museums.

The 20th century has been a time of brilliant technology advances in the wonderful world of photography. We witness from the Hubble space-telescope celestial beauty beyond our wildest dreams. Both NASA and other high technology industries use sophisticated pinhole cameras in special applications where lenses are not suitable. And now the latest in high-tech, state-of-the-art digital cameras are leading the way into the 21st century. With 160 years of photography and much more to come-what wonders lie ahead? Right along side of this technological leap will be over 5000 years of pinhole history!

Image above: PIXIE multipinhole camera is used in space by NASA taking pinhole images of our universe. Stationed on the Polar Spacecraft. Image below: This x ray image of the norther auroral was taken with a PIXIE pinhole camera from the Polar Spacecraft in Outer-Space. PIXIE stands for Polar Ionospheric X-ray Imaging Experiment.

Pinhole cameras have infinite depth of field. Everything from the closest object to the most distant object is in the same relative focus; objects at a far distance will be less sharp due to particles in the atmosphere. A pinhole reproduces a scene just as the eye sees it. While there is no focus for different planes in pinhole photography, there is a relation of pinhole to film that gives the maximum definition and it is this combination of softness with strength that gives to the pinhole photograph its essential character.

f-stops, exact pinhole diameters, view finders and light meters are not necessary when using the pinhole camera. Its simplicity allows you to concentrate on the freedom of personal expression. Explore, experiment and above all…Enjoy the magical art of painting with light.

Anita Chernewski runs the website The Pinhole Format Co. and is a pinhole artist and expert.

Beginners guide to pinholing
From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour
by Gary Fabbri, Malin Fabbri and Peter Wiklund
The quick and easy way to learn how to build a pinhole camera!
From pinhole to print will guide you from drilling your first pinhole to printing your first pinhole photograph. It is an easy to read, step-by-step guide to making a pinhole camera and creating images.
Strongly recommended for beginners

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