Interview with pinhole photographer Edward Levinson

Nancy Breslin’s interview with photographer Edward Levinson, with the focus on pinholes and his digital pinhole project Spots of Light in Tokyo.

Writer Nancy Breslin, photography / Edward Levinson

Nancy Breslin: When students are introduced to pinhole photography it is often in the form of black and white paper negatives created in homemade cameras. Visitors to will see that you have a number of distinctive pinhole series that go way beyond that, and also that much of your work is done in Japan. Before getting to particular projects, why is pinhole photography a favored medium for you and to what extent has living in Japan influenced that choice?

Edward Levinson: As with many of my generation, I first came across pinhole photography in a university photography class, with boxes and paper negatives in the 1970’s. The technical side of cameras and photography (F-stops, depth of field etc.) always confused me.

I was more into the creative side of it, and the fact that you didn’t have to worry about the technical so much with pinhole was a plus for me.

Later, I gave up photography for some time, partly because I didn’t have access to a darkroom after leaving college. At the time there was also talk about photo chemicals and pollution, partly centered around Kodak in Rochester, New York. I was New Ager and living the country life and vagabonding around. A camera, even a pinhole camera, didn’t seem to fit with this so-called simple life and philosophy. I didn’t even have a camera when I came to Japan in 1979. For the first year I was just living, immersing myself, and looking with my eyes only at the culture and landscape. I finally bought a 110-film camera that came out of a vending machine to take memento snapshots.

Fast-forward to 1992 when my Japanese wife, author Tsuruta Shizuka, and I made three country lifestyle books in one year’s time. I was burnt-out and didn’t want to touch my Nikon and Mamiya film cameras when we were done. I happened to pick up a copy of Camera and Darkroom and there was an article on pinhole photography. I remembered my college experience and immediately made myself an 8×10 box for paper negatives and got hooked. Later in 1993, when visiting my friend and mentor Willie Anne Wright, she showed me her Santa Barbara 4×5 camera and suggested I get one. I immediately bought two, 75mm and 150mm focal lengths, and learned how to use 4×5 film for the first time!

When doing my first series Healing Landscapes in the mid 1990’s, I discovered that pinhole cameras really suited my way of being. I am a long-time practitioner of meditation and I found the time when the shutter was open for the long exposure taking in a seascape or forest path to be very special.

I have written elsewhere about the pinhole camera being a Zen-like empty space. When the shutter is open, I too am drinking in and attuning to the moment, the location and, in the case of photographing people such as in my Cityscapes series, I spend some special moments with the subjects and share a connection as we watch each other during a 30 sec or 1 minute exposure. My personal practice is not Zen, but this way of being empty and letting something come in is definitely influenced by my living in Japan for 40 years.

Edward Levinson From Healing Landscapes
Edward Levinson From Healing Landscapes

We don’t see a landscape or the world at a 1/60 of a second as lens cameras do. Standing on the beach watching the waves is a longer real-life experience than that. And pinhole cameras are, for me, the photographic tools that best capture that experience, no matter what the subject matter. (see )

Nancy Breslin: I’d like to focus on two of your projects. First tell us about Mind Games, which uses color film in one of Chris Peregoy’s Pinhole Blender cameras, which are designed to create in-camera collages.

Edward Levinson: I came across Chris’s Pinhole Blender on the Internet. I saw some shots by pinhole photographer friend Tom Miller who was posting some images and it piqued my interest. I was teaching a lot of pinhole photography workshops at the time and wanted to keep up with new things. I had done some multi-pinhole box and paper negative cameras, but they were mostly just made for fun during workshops with my students. So I ordered a Blender, the original 120 size one with its three pinholes that blend three images.

I really became excited by the fact that the collages were all done analogue inside the camera (not in Photoshop). You have to create them on site so to speak. In my photography talks and lectures I often say you need to “unlearn” and “not think” to be creative. It is similar to many approaches of meditation. I still believe this, but the Blender camera requires some thinking to go along with the creative impulses. What three objects will go together and tell a story, say something humorous or have some satirical or even political message? Which subject goes in the center, which balances better on the right or left side and then you have to remember the image is upside down in the camera so the left pinhole records the right side of the image and vice versa. I made a few mistakes in the beginning. Of course some were lucky mistakes.

Edward Levinsons pinhole of Time Square
Edward Levinsons pinhole of Time Square

In the Mind Games series I mostly used it for street photography, though I did some still life stuff at home when I wasn’t in the city, and some theme variations when traveling. I’ve traveled with it all around Japan, using it a lot in Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as on trips to the USA, Europe, and Vietnam. I carried a full size tripod for this project, because I often photographed signs, posters, statues, along with people, making it necessary to be able to get up high rather than being limited to a mini-tripod or placing it on the ground as many pinhole purists like to do! Eventually I got good enough at it that I could shoot two rolls of film in half a day (that’s eight blended shots, each one containing three separate images and exposures) and get a 75% -80% success rate.

Femme Fatale pinhole
Femme Fatale pinhole

Nancy Breslin: So much of your work (and that of many pinhole artists) is in black and white. Why did you choose color film for Mind Games?

Edward Levinson: I must admit that at first I didn’t know if I would do color or black and white with this camera or even what I wanted to photograph. But I knew that the three blended images should tell a story and they needed to make one harmonious whole. For the first few test rolls I used color negative film so I could get it developed in an hour at the local camera store. I liked the color results and kept at it; thus my first pinhole color series was started!
I tried converting a few of the color images to black and white and once or twice I used grayscale conversions for some black and white print publications, but I never exhibited any and I have never shot a roll of black and white film with it to date. I think most of Chris’s own Blender images are in color and his popping colors, which I saw in person when he visited Japan and joined the Japan Pinhole Photography Society’s group show, really intrigued me and certainly had some influence on my choice.

Color really seemed to fit the subject matter I was capturing. I found myself looking for very vibrant subjects and combing them. Sometimes all three images were blue or whatever, but more often it became a combination of reds, greens, yellow, and blues. With colors there is more distinct separation between the three overlapped images.
I don’t have a color wet-darkroom and never learned that craft, thus I previously had little interest in color for my pinhole art. If I couldn’t print it myself I wasn’t really interested. But then quality ink jet printing at home became possible and I could make my own prints. The timing of this was perfect.

Edward Levinson's Coffee High pinhole
Edward Levinson’s Coffee High pinhole

I used color negative film and had it machine developed at my local camera store. Because of the odd size negatives (about 6x12cm) they couldn’t make any cheap proof prints or scan the negatives. I’d bring the film home, scan it, and then see the combined colors for the first time. That was always an exciting moment. The capture was pure analogue pinhole but I processed the colors myself on the computer with Photoshop, Lightroom, and some third party plug-ins.

Nancy Breslin: Your project Spots of Light – Tokyo is unusual in part because the images are captured with a digital camera rather than on film or photo paper. Please describe this project, including why digital capture suits it.

Edward Levinson: When it first became possible to do digital pinhole (using a pinhole body cap on a DSLR or Mirrorless camera) it didn’t interest me at all. I didn’t think much of using a pinhole body cap on a 35mm film camera for that matter, though I showed students how to do it. And I was certainly surprised to see Eric Renner and Nancy Spencer using inexpensive Nikon DSLR cameras with pinhole and Zone Plate body caps when they came to Japan for a pinhole conference in 2008! Of course they were on the road and obviously wanted to travel light and that’s a big advantage of digital pinhole.

Mostly I was intrigued with the idea of making pinhole movies using a digital camera and so I stuck on the pinhole body cap I had made for my Nikon film camera. With the first test I was surprised at the results because you do not get the slow exposure blur that comes with still pinhole photography. In video mode you get a normal speed scene with the soft pinhole look, occasional light flare, good depth of field, and no worry about focusing. To get blur like you do with still shots, I was told you would have to slow it down in post-processing, which I wasn’t interested in doing.

Tokyo Story Movie Poster for pinhole movie
Tokyo Story Movie Poster for pinhole movie

So I mastered the pinhole movie technique, shooting digitally directly in black and white with an occasional still by mistake! However, even with the highest ISO’s available there was not enough light to shoot movies at night even in brightly lit cities. It was this that got me started shooting what I call “digital pinhole stills”. Shooting mostly handheld, I started shooting Tokyo at night in black and white. I first started with a series I dubbed Pin Holy Nights when they were published in a Japanese camera magazine, but they eventually got incorporated into Spots of Light – Tokyo and where I included daytime city street shots and also quite a lot of city nature.

In this series, photographed between 2015 and 2019, I used a hybrid approach combing a fairly primitive “analogue” pinhole attached to a modern digital camera. I have a normal looking camera body, but no lens other than my eye. Using a pinhole mounted on a digital camera allows me the freedom to wander the streets, buildings, and parks without a tripod. The flexibility of using a high ISO when needed widens the range of what was previously possible to capture using film with the added convenience of changing ISO on a shot by shot basis.

In my early pinhole Cityscapes series I used 4×5 inch cameras and 120-size film cameras, always with a sturdy tripod, but I still kept a street shooting style. However I never shot at night and rarely inside buildings, buses, elevators etc. With digital pinhole, I sometimes I had a small tripod or stabilizer with me and used it when the ISO was as high as it would go but there was still a really slow shutter speed. I can do handheld shots at 1 or 2 seconds when necessary and get a decent image so at least you knew what you were looking at even if it was soft and maybe blurry. In other words, I get just enough stop action in the shot that would not be possible using film. At first I only did it at night, but I soon discovered that the freedom of shooting pinhole this way in the daytime was challenging me to get new kinds of shots, like the one on the cover of the book.

Spots of Light Tokyo book cover
Spots of Light Tokyo book cover

I should mention that after doing the Mind Games series with the Blender camera and exhibiting them at various galleries, I spent a few years shooting Tokyo and other city places, including New York and Paris, with a compact digital lens camera, eventually having an exhibition at Olympus Gallery in Tokyo of 85 images including color and black and white. I took a break from pinhole still photography in the city for a couple of years. But at the same time I was also creating my short pinhole movie Tokyo Story. Shooting movies takes a lot of time and effort so working on Spots of Light – Tokyo was much more relaxed and perhaps playful. In a way it’s similar to how I was shooting with the digital compact camera, except I could emphasize pinhole’s unique characteristics. I printed the black and white exhibition prints for this series on thick fiber-based inkjet paper called Gekko Silver Label Plus made by Pictorico. The prints really have a nice gelatin silver look and feel to them.

I have had 1 or 2 people who commented the photos are not “pin-holy” enough. Some people (two were famous Japanese photographers who didn’t shoot pinhole) said they wanted to see them in color. This may sound presumptuous but this kind of pinhole in color, in my opinion, mostly looks too real, slightly amateurish, and dare I say boring.

Nancy Breslin: For those who might want to experiment with digital pinhole photography, can you share how to do it?

Edward Levinson: Mostly, I have used my own hand-drilled needle pinholes mounted onto an extra body cap of whatever camera I am using, though I have also used bought brass shimmed ones and mounted them myself on a cap. I even have some made for cameras I don’t own so if I go in a store or camera show expo I can test out another camera brand. It was Eric and Nancy who suggested putting a piece clear Neutral Color gelatin filter over the pinhole to keep the dust out. I put mine on the inside of the body cap and change or clean it occasionally. (Some purists may prefer a naked pinhole, while some commercially made pinhole “lenses” use glass to cover the pinhole.) Regardless, dust is still a problem and will show up in a pinhole image when you can’t see it with a lens image at F5.6. It’s easy enough to spot out in Photoshop or whatever. It’s a bigger problem when shooting video. I usually took my Nikon and Olympus cameras in for sensor cleaning once a month when in Tokyo. They’d clean it and put my pinhole body cap back on in their clean environment. But even so, spots show up, perhaps they are defects in the sensor that would never show up with a lens.

Try to keep the ISO as low as possible if you want to avoid digital noise in the image and also have more blurriness with longer exposures. That said, I often use the max ISO 25,000 or even 100,000 on one Nikon camera that offers it when necessary. As with film, a bigger sensor is better, but I’ve printed Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 images at 16×20 inch (Super A3 and A2 Size) without problem. The noise (like rough film grain) is probably less disturbing in black and white than in color. Using a camera that has an in-camera stabilization in the body is a big plus.

From Spots of Light Tokyo
From Spots of Light Tokyo

The focal length is fixed similar to a 45-50mm lens. The only thing you can control is the ISO number, which will affect how fast or slow your shutter speed is. This is one of the biggest differences vs. film where you are fixed at one ISO of the film you have at hand or loaded in the camera. With digital its very easy to switch the ISO, so learn where the button/setting is on your camera and how to use it quickly, even in the dark. Of course accidents happen in digital pinhole too, like when you were outside in bright light and suddenly you are in a dark underground station and your ISO is set too low, you see something and excitedly shoot from the hip and you get a nice blur effect…by accident.

Hand held digital pinhole, Lucky Accident by Edward Levinson
Hand held digital pinhole, Lucky Accident by Edward Levinson

Note: there is currently a commercial Zooming Pinhole on the market. I have tried it but with the amount of zoom range it covers – not much, it is just as easy to move with your fixed pinhole and your feet!

“I come from a background of making my own gelatin silver prints in the darkroom, so having the skill to post process pinhole digital images yourself is important in my opinion.”

But some people may like what they get from a straight digital jpeg file printed by a machine at the drugstore or wherever. It may give a mood like a photo from the 1950’s or 60’s.

I recommend shooting in RAW format because most likely you will want to do some post-processing edits, image cleanup etc. For black and white series I shoot with the camera set to monochrome mode. This means I can see the captured image and mood right way on the LCD in black and white as a jpeg. However, the full RGB color info remains in the original RAW file giving you more data to work with, and the possibility to also use the image in color if you like it. In Adobe Lightroom, when you import the RAW images they all appear as color! I don’t want to look at them in color so I immediately hit “Select All” and covert all of them “back to” black and white, as I saw them, using my own preset as a starting point.

Most likely you will have a lot more images to look at than the usual 10 or 12 from a roll of 120 film. I tend to shoot a lot of same scene trying to get people and light, trees and clouds, taxis and moving trains, flashing neon, water reflections etc. to line up just in the right place.

Digital Pinhole Night Photography by Edward Levinson
Digital Pinhole Night Photography by Edward Levinson

In very bright light, you can see a darkish image in the viewfinder. At night you can pinpoint a street lamp or storefront sign to help compose you image. But if you use the same camera all the time with just one focal length, you get used to not using the viewfinder or LCD. You can point and shoot as you would any other pinhole camera without using the viewfinder or the LCD for that matter. Also beware that on a Mirrorless camera’s LCD screen or DSLR Live View mode the image you see is often NOT the exposure you get. What looks good on the LCD composing before shooting often comes out much darker or lighter after exposing. You need to experiment with the settings on your camera.

In closing, I should note that in addition to pinhole photography I am also a professional photographer shooting for magazines and books for many years. That definitely influences my pinhole works as far as telling stories and even using pinhole to create documentary style images. However, my heart and mind stay the same whatever the tool.

Nancy Breslin from Washington, DC, USA works with a variety of techniques, including pinhole, cyanotype and gum, see Nancy Breslin’s gallery or read more articles she has written.


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