Macro Pinhole Photography


Over time I’ve been fortunate to have been able to shoot with almost every type of film and digital camera imaginable. The funny thing is, out of all of them, the camera that to this day amazes me the most is a pinhole camera I made out of a shoe box. Best part? I used it to photograph a magazine story and (thank goodness) the editors loved the results.

All Photographs © Allan Weitz 2020

Pinhole cameras are as basic as it gets. A darkened box with a pinhole on one side and a piece of photosensitive paper or film on the opposite side of the pinhole. That’s it. Despite the simplicity of pinhole photography, if the pinhole is small, rounded, and parallel to the photosensitive paper, film, or imaging sensor, the image it produces is distortion-free, which is more than can be said for many of the pricier aspherical glass lenses we regularly praise.

One of the attributes of pinhole cameras is that if the camera is squared off and level, there is zero distortion in the photograph—parallel lines remain parallel and keystone distortion is a non-issue.

There’s one other unique attribute that makes pinhole photography interesting, and that has to do with focus, which in the case of pinhole cameras is infinite. From millimeters in front of the pinhole to infinity, everything is in focus. Pinhole pictures are not sharp, especially when viewed up close, but that’s not the point—the pictures one gets from pinhole cameras are magical nonetheless. As for macro photography, when everything is in focus, close-ups are a walk in the park.

In this photograph, everything from the distant trees on the left side of the frame to the edge of the steel bracket on the right side of the frame, which is about an inch from the lens, is equally sharp.

Even though the color saturation and contrast levels of pinhole photographs are inherently flat out of the camera, if you shoot raw it’s possible to improve color, contrast, and saturation levels greatly post-capture, which is how the photographs accompanying this article were produced.

By carefully plying the raw file adjustments in Photoshop, I was able to increase the color-saturation levels (when aesthetically needed) and contrast levels of the photographs. This isn’t to say you must heavily edit each image; if anything, the muted palettes of pinhole photographs are lovely as they are, but to be fair, how often do you capture digital photographs that do not benefit from a minor tweak or two in Photoshop?

The petals were touching the edge of my camera in this extreme close-up of a sunflower patch.

The following series of photographs of an old artillery range in Fort Hancock, NJ illustrates how versatile pinhole cameras can be for landscape and documentary photography. Close and distant subjects—regardless of how close to or far from your camera—are easily captured and rendered in soft, dreamlike tones when shooting pinhole photographs, macro or otherwise.

The remains of a WWII artillery range at Fort Hancock NJ are a good example of how distortion-free and (relatively) sharp pinhole photographs can be.
Massive 12" diameter chain links once anchored munitions for massive cannons that were able to hurl projectiles the size of compact cars well over the horizon line.
Working with my Sony a7R III on a tripod, I was able to take full advantage of digital technologies by carefully composing my pinhole pictures using the camera’s EFV and LCD. This is a far cry from the film days in which the entire process was slower and technically challenging.
Being able to get as close as I want to my subject without having to check focus is counterintuitive, but in the case of pinhole photographs, focusing is a non-issue because everything is in focus to begin with.
In this final image of the series, the camera is literally pressed up against the massive iron links.

Establishing exposures with film-based pinhole cameras is a time-consuming trial-and-error process. Establishing pinhole exposures with a digital camera is far easier. The quickest and easiest method is to place the camera into Aperture-priority mode and make any adjustments using the camera’s +/- Exposure Compensation dial.

A tripod or comparable camera support is strongly recommended, because exposures can be long when shooting at f/264. As for ISO, if your subject is static, go for the slower ISO ratings. When photographing close-ups of flowers or other wind-blown subjects, it’s recommended you bump the ISO to higher sensitivities to ensure sharper pictures. The accompanying pictures were taken at ISO sensitivities ranging from 100 to 2000. The exposures ranged from about 1/10 second to about 10 to 12 seconds.

Vines growing along a concrete step

How to Make a Pinhole Lens Cap

Turning your everyday DSLR or mirrorless camera into a pinhole camera is easy. You start by sacrificing a body cap by drilling a hole of at least ¼" or larger through its center. Sand down any sharp scraps along the edges until the edges of the drilled hole are smooth to the touch.

Next, take a 1" square of aluminum foil, flatten it against a soft surface such as wood or a pad of paper, and gently press the point of a pin (the thinner the better) until you poke a hole through the other side. The hole should not be ragged or have tears along its circumference—the rounder and cleaner the hole, the better the image quality. (I check the hole with a magnifier in order to catch any defects.) If you should spot any tears or irregularities along the circumference of the hole, you can smooth things out with a few gentle passes of a piece of #600-grade sandpaper. Once cleaned along the edges, the foil can be carefully taped to the lens cap, making sure to center the hole over the body cap before securing it in place.

Rather than aluminum foil, which is what most DIY pinhole enthusiasts use, I prefer a sheet of black Cinefoil, which is thicker and firmer, and it’s painted black, which helps to minimize flare and reflected light.
A vine creeping along a fence post

If you would rather not fuss about with drills, pins, tape, and metal foil, you also have the option of capturing pinhole photographs using one of the pinhole lens caps we sell at B&H Photo, which are available in a choice of lens mounts and focal lengths.

Have you toyed with pinhole imagery? If so, let us know about it in the Comments section, below.