Teaching a cardboard box to be a camera

Pinhole cameras range from the sublime to the ridiculous. I lack woodworking skills, can barely glue things together straight, and have slightly less patience than a gnat. So I take a very low tech approach to making cameras: in short, I take a cardboard box, poke a hole in the front, and stick some light-sensitive material in the back.

A couple of people asked me how, so, this is what I wrote for them. There are other methods, and better explanations. There are certainly better cameras. Nick’s overview has a very good explanation of how and why it works and contains masses of useful information, and a good method for making cameras from scratch. if I was less cack-handed, this would be the method I’d use.

The camera I’m describing can be used with sheet film, but paper’s a good, cheap way to start. it might look like this:

best. camera. ever.

after a while, once it’s been used a few times and patched up with tape to keep it in one piece, and you might feel a bit weird using it in public, but that has no effect at all on the pictures you can take with it.

The short version

Take a box. Lightproof it. Cut a hole in the front. Make a pinhole and stick it over the hole. Make a shutter and attach it over the pinhole. Put photographic paper inside the box. Go outside lift the shutter to expose the paper and take a pic that you can then develop in the dark.

The verbose but still simple version

In a little more detail, here’s what I do (this probably almost takes longer to read than to do)

You’ll need:

a box that is fairly sturdy, one that doesn’t have gappy seams. It should have a lid that fits snugly, and, ideally, the sides lid should come well down over the body of the box. The deeper the box the less wide-angle it will be. The christmas card box I use is about two and a half inches deep, the new Boggle box camera is about 5 inches deep, and, bliss, the lid is as deep as the box. if the lid is a little loose or gappy against the box, you could put some tape on the inside of the lid flaps, lining it to make it a little tighter.

What else?

  • some matte black paint (unless the box is already black inside). Quick-drying spray paint is good for the impatient.
  • a black marker pen, or some more of that paint
  • black tape. Electrical tape is good for sticking the pinhole onto the box and tidying things up, and gaffer tape is always useful. You’ll need some of that.
  • a piece of thin, flat metal (you can cut this out of a drink can)
  • a bit of black card, thick paper, or thick plastic (I like to use a slice cut out of an old bag that held photographic paper, because I know it’s lightproof) for making the shutter.
  • a little bit of blutack or other sticky substance (if not, no problem, you can use more gaffer tape)

and the tools:

  • a pair of scissors
  • a sharp knife
  • a slender sewing needle
  • an emery board or some very fine sandpaper

to get started taking pictures:

  • a dark room (I use a very small bathroom and block out the light)
  • photographic paper that fits inside the box (multigrade or variable contrast is cheapest. I use Ilford or Jessops 4×6 or 5×7, in a matte or lustre. The glossy paper is fine unless you’re using the paper on a curve, which can cause internal reflections and weirdness. Resin coated is just fine: save the fibre for prints.)
  • developer for black and white paper
  • fixer for black and white paper
  • two plastic trays, big enough to hold the paper
  • a red safelight (I use a battery-powered brake light from my bike)
  • access to running water (if that’s not in the same room, then you’ll also need a bucket or a tub to hold water and prints until you can wash them properly)
  • a watch with a second hand, or the ability to count elephants for several minutes without losing count

Where to begin?

If your box isn’t already black inside, paint it with the matte black paint to prevent the light bouncing around inside and fogging things up when you’re trying to take a picture. Leave that to dry while you get going on the pinhole.

Cut a piece of metal from a drink can–say, an inch by a couple of inches, it doesn’t matter, you’ll trim it later–and flatten it out a bit. Start filing away at the middle of it with the emery board. You want to make the metal thinner, so you can poke a small, neat hole in it. File on both sides, just to relieve the boredom.

(You might want to take a biro/ballpoint and poke a dent at the centre of your filed patch, then flip the metal over, and file the dent down. I keep reading this, and I’m sure it makes sense, but I’m not convinced it makes any difference.)

Put the metal down flat on something other than your knee, and holding the needle as straight as possible, poke just the very tip through the metal. Give the needle a bit of a twist or spin. Flip the metal over again, and file very gently to take away any rough edge on the hole. Poke the needletip into the hole again to clear out any gunk or dust.

If you hold it close to your eye, and up to the light, you should be able to see a good, round pinhole now.

You need to make one side of the metal dark and unshiny, without getting stuff into the pinhole. Marker pen’s easiest, but if you use paint, do check the hole again, and clear it out if you need to.

You =might= need to make it a big bigger later on anyway. No worries. A small pinhole makes a sharper picture, but if it’s too small it will take forever to expose an image, and if it’s really too small, it will become fuzzier than a larger hole (ah, the mysteries of physics.)

The quick and dirty way is to take a piece of black card and jab a quick hole in that. But don’t tell anyone I said that.

Nearly done…

Next step is to cut a hole in the box, and then stick the pinhole over it. So, if your box is dry…

I usually put the hole in the lid, and the paper in the bottom of the box. FInd the centre of the surface where you want the pinhole, and cut a square hole that’s at least half an inch by half an inch. Tidy up the edges of this, so you don’t have any loose flaps or ragged flakes of cardboard around the hole (maybe cover the edges with a spot of that electrical tape).

The pinhole gets stuck over the outside of this hole, as centred as possible. Trim the metal as you see fit, then stick it onto the box with tape.

All you need now is a shutter, and you’re done. I usually use a flap of thick black plastic, taped at the top above the hole, with a spot of double-sided sticky under the hole… when I expose the pic I unstick it, lift it up and use the tape to stick it to the top surface of the camera. You could make one that slides instead: with a couple of strips of card taped sideways as runners, and another piece as the shutter…

If that’s all done, and things are still fitting together well, you’re ready to load it up.

Loading it up

Head into the room you’ve made dark, with the paper and the camera, and the red light.

When you’re in safe light, fish out a piece of the photographic paper, and put it into the box so that the sensitive side is facing the pinhole. (You might want to try just a cut up small piece, in the middle, for the first few goes, just to get a feel for exposure times.) I secure it inside the box with a few small bits of bluetack or a couple of spots of gaffer tape rolled around itself so it’s double-sided. Close up the box, check the shutter’s covered, and head outside.

behind the scenes
the super-high-tech Boggle-cam in action

Taking the first pictures

Be warned: your first picture will almost certainly seem like a waste of paper. You might not even get a picture.

Exposure is a bit of a guessing game. If you’ve made a small pinhole, and your box isn’t too deep, you’re probably looking at an f-stop of something between f200 and f300. And the ASA/ISO of paper is usually about 4 or 5. There are excellent guidelines all over the net, but I try to get a feel for it as much as possible.

Unless you’re in sun, the exposure is almost certainly over a minute. Try a shot, develop it, fix it, wash it and see what you’ve got. Obviously, it’s a negative. If the neg is very dark, you’ll need to cut the time because it’s over-exposed; if very white, vice versa… it’s best to halve or double until you get close. If there’s nothing at all, either it’s massively under-exposed or nothing is getting through the hole. After a few tries of longer time, check the hole.

With the first few, you’ll also find out if you’ve got any light leaks in the box, that you might need to seal up with tape.

If you’ve got a very shallow box, the light will fall off a lot around the edges–leaving it white on the neg–and it always be brightest in the middle. Keep playing until you get a result. Then keep playing more.

You’ll get a feel for timings very fast, but still get thrown off balance sometimes. Yesterday, for example, I managed to massively over-expose about 7 of 9 photos when I was out and away from the darkroom (using a film changing back to unload and reload the camera). Unusable. Grr. There was a lot more open sky than I was used to.

If you are inside, all the exposures will grow beyond anything you ever imagined. Even with lots of natural light coming in, you’re looking at 30, 40, 60 minutes. In dimmer light, several hours.

What next?

You can make contact prints to get a positive image, or scan the negative and invert it.

Maybe try film. Film can be much faster and you can stick sheet film, or even cut strips of regular film in the back of the box. While paper is amazingly easy to work with it can be strange on the far ends of light and dark, and you don’t get to make enlargements without digital tomfoolery.

Handy extra stuff: glue something heavy into the bottom edge of the camera to help stabilise it. A tripod is a nice thing, but you can always tape or tie the box to a chair, a tree, or a fence if you need to.

Surely there are better ways?

Absolutely. But this is mine.

For a very-swanky version of the standard oatmeal can camera, there’s a really nice step-by-step with photographs at zero image. The Kodak version sounds a lot more authoritive and George L. Smyth’s pinhole FAQ is terrific, if a little scary.

If all else fails, go out and buy a pinholga or zeroimage, and you can use rollfilm and send it off to a lab.

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