Pinhole to print – the qualities of a pinhole camera

Malin Fabbri argues that the limitations of a simple pinhole camera will release creativity and also some special qualitites a pinhole camera can add to your images.

Writer / Malin Fabbri
Photography / Malin Fabbri, Jan Kapoor and Maximillian Fabbri

In its simplest form, a pinhole camera is a light tight box with a pinhole at one end and photo-sensitive material at the other. A shutter can be as basic as a piece of electrical tape. But what happens inside that box when the shutter is opened and light shines in imprinting that photo-sensitive material with an image is the very essence of photography.

Nowadays everyone has access to a camera. People pull out their phones, take pictures and send them around the world in an instant. We have access to a steady flow of media and images.

There are many reasons why a photographer should turn to pinholing, ranging from understanding photography in its most basic form to finding inspiration within the limitations of a low-tech instrument. For me, the peace and tranquility of using my pinhole camera are most important.

My days are stressful. I’m in a rush to get to work, I am busy at work and then rush to school to pick up the kids. Dinner with two small boys can be hectic and early evenings are filled until they’re in bed.

I turn on my computer in the evening to a stack of emails, deal with a constant stream of paper work and start editorial work on the website Galleries need updating, articles need to be added, the newsletter needs writing, and books need to be posted. There’s not much time left for quiet and reflection.

When I pick up my pinhole camera I’m picking up a little piece of tranquility. It is impossible to rush anything in the pinhole process. I can’t take 60 shots and go back to my computer, download them and pick the best one. I have one shot. There and then.

My pinhole camera forces me to take deep breaths and just be calm. Selecting the right location for taking the photograph is like trying to find a place to relax on a warm summer’s day. It forces me to sit still and reflect, while the paper is exposed.

For me, pinholing is pure relaxation. It is a mini-holiday in a can. I realize that others may have more ‘professional’ reasons, but for me pinholing is very personal.

At first glance the pinhole camera may seem too simple to offer versatility to an experienced photographer. However, the limitations of using a simple pinhole camera may release the photographer from the technical aspects and settings on the camera. It’s often when everything is not perfect that I feel that I think most creatively. I believe that limitation releases creativity. I’ve also always liked spending time in the darkroom and seeing images emerge on paper.

There are, of course, many reasons why I, and others, take on the challenge of turning cake tins, soda cans, hat boxes, canisters, Pringles boxes, bags and other “garbage” into cameras. But the main reason is that we can.

A perfectly calibrated pinhole camera has an infinite depth of field which means that everything in the final photograph will be in focus.

If you take a picture of a statue with a building in the background using your digital or SLR camera, you would focus on the statue and the building would be out of focus. Or, you could focus on the building leaving the statue blurry. With a pinhole camera, both the statue and the building can be in focus. They are on the same focal plane with a pinhole camera.

Pinhole image by Malin Fabbri
Stockholm at my feet, Malin Fabbri 2009. When using a pinhole camera, both the foreground and the background can be in focus.

There are certain artistic qualities to pinhole photos. They have a unique, timeless, old-fashioned look. Light falloff may create a vignette around the outside of the print. It is often hard to tell whether the photograph was taken yesterday or a hundred years ago.
One of the things that I like most about alternative photo processes is that there are lots of possibilities for what I call “happy accidents”. Things that occur without intention, and that ultimately result in a better print.

When working with processes such as gum bichromates, platinum & palladium printing or cyanotypes, a happy accident could be caused by an unintentional spill of emulsion on the paper, a brushstroke taking on its own shape, or the color having an un-expectant hue. Happy accidents are commonplace in the pinhole process, and that makes me happy.

Pinhole photo by Malin Fabbri
Windy summer day, Malin Fabbri 2007. During the 30 second exposure on a still summer day, a gust of wind came out of nowhere, rocking the birch trees back and forth.

A sudden gust of wind can create a blur by moving an object or rustling the leaves of a tree. Long exposure times allow for a multitude of ‘special’ effects. Wanted or unwanted, the accidents make more interesting images. Double exposures created by, intentionally or unintentionally, opening the shutter twice, forgetting to change the paper or wind the film can create unexpected results.

Pinhole double exposure by Maximillian Fabbri
Ghost in the sky, Maximillian Fabbri 2008. Taken with a pinhole holga camera on Pinhole day 2008, Maximillian, who just had turned 3 years old, forgot to wind the film forward, creating a double exposure of the sky and his dad.

Imperfections caused by reflections and light leaks become values in a pinhole image. An uneven (not perfectly round) pinhole can create diffraction, which is a type of distortion caused by light scattering and bending around the edges of the hole.
Pinhole cameras simply record the world differently from the way our eyes see it, adding unexpected qualities.

The qualities added by cameras

Several special effects can also be achieved by modifying a pinhole camera. In the book “From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour” several pinhole cameras illustrate some unique qualities a pinhole camera can add to your photographs.
Two of my favorite pinhole camera techniques are Solargraphics and multiple pinholes in 360 degrees.


Solargraphics uses extremely long exposures to map the movement of the sun in the landscape during a quarter of a year. The exposures should ideally take place between an equinox and a solstice. Once the camera is loaded with paper, the camera is placed and fastened securely to a lamppost, a window or building for three months. The shutter is opened and stays open for the entire time. Once the three months have passed, the shutter is closed again. The paper is removed from the camera in a dimmed room, then scanned and inverted into a positive in Photoshop.

Apart from the obvious beauty of seeing the sun over a quarter of a year frozen into a single frame, the one thing that fascinates me with solargraphs is that although black & white paper is inserted in the camera, the result is in color, without the use of further chemical processes. Magic!

Solargraph by Malin Fabbri taken with a solargraph pinhole camera.
Solargraph by Malin Fabbri taken with a solargraph pinhole camera.

Solargraph of Buildings in Stockholm Malin Fabbri, 2008. This solargraph was part of the Global Art Project of Pinhole Solargraphy carried out by Tarja Trygg as a part of her PhD. Tarja collects and documents solargraphics from the world building a map of solargraphs. She sends out film canisters loaded with film to ‘can assistants’ around the world, the volunteers expose them and sends them back to Tarja in Finland. She then scans them in and adds them on her map on

Multiple pinholes – 360 degrees

The first multiple pinhole taken with a 360 degree camera I saw was taken by Jan Kapoor. The way her images merged into each other, touching and interacting in the landscape startled me. I had to find out how she had created these images. That’s how I came across her 360 degree pinhole camera. The idea was not new, but it was new to me.

Jan’s pinhole camera is made from a hexagonal box – starting out as a Christmas ornament box. It has six pinholes, all of the same size in each of the six sides of the box. Inside the camera, the film is wrapped around a cylinder in the middle, making it possible for Jan to expose the film from several angels. She uses all six pinholes, individually, simultaneously, instantly or over time, creating her wonderful landscapes. The individual “frames” reverses side-to-side and blends into the adjacent frame, making completely unpredictable and fascinating results.

Pinhole by Jan Kapoor
Grotto Series, #5, Jan Kapoor. Taken with a 360 pinhole camera, during a 3 hour exposure, with all pinholes open. The negative was then used to make a print in platinum and palladium.

A simple pinhole camera takes less than an hour to build. If you are new to pinholing and want to try your hands on this wonderful photographic process, check out “From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour” by Gary Fabbri, Malin Fabbri and Peter Wiklund. The book is designed to guide beginners to build a simple camera and develop a print. The photographers’ gallery chapter shows some advanced features and effects and truly inspires.

This article was published in Light Leaks – Low fidelity photography, Issue 15. Malin Fabbri moved from Sweden to London to study, and earned an MA in Design at Central St. Martin’s. She has worked professionally with big media names in London, and has written two books on alternative photographic processes. In 1999 she began, and continues to be it’s editor.

Recommended reading - Learn more in the pinhole book
From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour by Malin Fabbri Gary Fabbri and Peter Wiklund
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From pinhole to print – Inspiration, instructions and insights in less than an hour

by Gary Fabbri, Malin Fabbri and Peter Wiklund

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Learn how to build and use a pinhole camera. Step by step to a quick and easy way to learn pinholing.

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