The Magic of Pinhole Photography

Yesterday, on a rainy afternoon, I finally got together with some of the children at my younger son’s school to make pinhole photographs.

Pinhole photography must be just about the simplest way to make a photograph — all that’s required is a light-tight box with a pinhole through one of the sides and, of course, some photographic paper or film inside to record the image.

It’s amazing how tricky it can be to describe analogue methods from a bygone era to the youth of the modern whizz-bang digital age.

The best way of course is just to get on and do it.  To see the children wowed by the process once the first image magically appeared in the developing tray was so satisfying.

Learning about Pinhole Photography
It’s no mean feat to ask children to stand still for two whole minutes!

In discussion with the children, I asked them what they considered to be great inventions of our time.

The first answers came flying in — the iPhone, the iPod, the Xbox…

OK, but let’s think about the wheel, the bicycle, the internal combustion engine, the aeroplane, the motor car, domestic power, the internet…

All these things seem so normal and unsurprising to us now that most just slip under the conscious radar.

I encouraged the children to rewind the clock, to the 10th Century as it transpires, to people noticing images projected through cracks in baskets or the dappled light of trees.

At the time, this must surely have been an incredible realisation.  Move forward to the 1800s and just as incredible would be the notion that an image could then be captured and fixed forever onto a piece of paper or film!

The pennies started dropping around the room, especially on seeing that first print appear under the safelight of the darkroom we cobbled together in a cleaning cupboard.

Learning about Pinhole Photography
Three minute silhouettes…

The Solar Eclipse of 1999

As I was scanning these prints, it reminded me of a pinhole photograph I made of the 1999 solar eclipse.

Two memories stick in my mind from that day…

The first was the sudden cooling of the air as the sun slipped behind the moon.

The second memory is much more striking — seeing the bitten shape of the eclipsed sun projected onto a brick wall through the leaves of nearby trees.

The gaps in the leaves had acted as pinholes too and I was immediately transported to understanding how incredible it must have been, all those hundreds of years ago, to realise this phenomenon of physics and the natural world.

1999 solar eclipse over buildings in London captured with a pinhole camera
My pinhole photograph of the 1999 solar eclipse

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  1. I talked to the children at the end of this afternoon and they had been very inspired by the visit to your studio and the creating of photos. Thank you Jack! I love the more anonymous quality of the photos – leaves a lot more to the imagination!

    1. That’s really great to hear, Miles.

      Glad you like the photographs too – I particularly like the second one. Reminds me of Anthony Gormley…

  2. Really enjoyed reading this post. I like how the story began with the kids proclaiming the X Box the greatest invention man has ever owned, to there speechlessness as magically an image appeared seemingly out of thing air. Photography is a wonderful thing, especially when your developing and making darkroom prints. Always good to read the wonders of film photography isn’t completely lost among of the need for instant gratification.

    1. Thank you for your interest and for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment. You’re right — photography is a wonderful thing. JL

  3. I found you through Jeff and I also enjoyed reading this post!
    I have a very good memory (about fourty years ago!) of the first time I saw a black white photo showing up in the dev tray; it’s magical and captivating, specially for kids.
    And to build a camera from scratch out of a cardboard box is a very gratifying experience too.
    Yes, photography is a wonderful thing!!!

    1. That’s great, Jesús, and thank you for following. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen of your blog too…

      I see you’re in Barcelona — a fine city! I’ve visited a few times as I occasionally work with Hewlett Packard as a beta tester on their printers. As you might know, their printing division is based in the mountains at Sant Cugat.

      Anyway, I’ll look forward to seeing more of your work.


      1. I am glad that you liked what you have seen!
        Yes, I live in Barcelona, so if you pass by here please let me know, so we can share a beer.
        Thank you also for following!