f/256: Tips for Digital Pinhole Photographs

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There is something magical about creating an image from a tiny amount of light that traveled through the smallest of holes—regardless of whether the image is captured on film or on a modern digital camera sensor. Pinhole photography is, arguably, the purest form of the art and, if you can mentally handle the fact that you are embarking on a voyage that runs counter to all of your wide-aperture-super-expensive-no-digital-noise digital aspirations, it is a blast as well as a rapid journey to unique images.

Photographs © Todd Vorenkamp
All photographs made with a Rising Wide Pinhole Lens on Fujifilm X-T2 and X-T3 cameras.

Here are some (hopefully helpful) tips and (hopefully inspirational) images for those who are ready to give up on the lens, at least temporarily, and make some cool digital pinhole images.

Get Ready for Different

If you have never done pinhole photography, analog or digital, get ready to make images that you never thought you’d be making. And, in order to do this, before you start, strip away all preconceived notions of what your images may or may not look like. I find that pinhole photography is great for giving you unexpected visual surprises—some beautiful and some destined for your computer’s trash can.

Speed

While the pinhole lens is likely, aperture-wise, your slowest lens by far, your setup will be blazing fast. Why? As fast as today’s cameras are today with their autofocus and electronic apertures, the pinhole lens needs none of those luxuries. The only delay in digital pinhole photography is in your brain and the camera’s minuscule shutter delay.

Hello, Noise

I won’t get into the binary weeds of digital signal-to-noise-ratios, but, trust me, when you are photographing at triple-digit apertures, you are going to generate a lot of noise, regardless of the exposure time. Digital noise might look like chic film grain from a distance, but it is never really something you want in a digital photograph. With digital pinhole photography, grain is going to be part of the aesthetic.

OMG, Dust

Where do I start here? Well, when cleaning your sensor, the best way to investigate your sensor dust was to point the camera at a blank patch of daytime sky, step your lens down to f/22, and take a photo. See the dust? Yep. Clean it and repeat the process.

If you want to really really clean your sensor, slap on a pinhole lens and shoot your sky (or pretty much anything) at F-stops that your mechanical aperture cannot even dream of and you will see every-single-tiny-speck of dust on your sensor. This is great if you want to clean your sensor, but, if you were actually making a photograph, prepare to spend some time with a healing brush or clone stamp in post processing.

I'm embarrassed to show how dirty my sensor was, and the image took a lot of time to clean up, but sensor dust happens.

Give Up Your Dreams of Sharpness

One of the major purposes of putting a lens in front of your camera is sharpness. Yes, it is possible to get semi-sharp pinhole photos (diffraction happens) but if you are shooting handheld with a pinhole lens, sharpness will likely be an elusive foe!

Depth of Field Like You Read About

Jealous that large format photographers could dial up f/64 on their cameras and your SLR or mirrorless lens only goes to f/22? Well, you no longer need to be envious because some pinhole lenses are measured at f/1154. This means that everything from… well, pretty much everything from the sensor to the horizon and beyond is going to be inside your depth of field area.

This means that, if you are photographing through a window, everything on that window, even if the lens is pressed against it, will be in focus.

Any rain drops on the window in your field of view are going to make an appearance in your image.

Set Yourself Free

Don’t set out to take the world’s greatest digital pinhole photograph. Just put one on your camera and go out and have fun. Upload them to your computer later and see what magic you have created!

Ready for Launch?

There is a ton of DIY videos on the Internet about making your own camera body cap pinhole lens, and I certainly encourage money-saving DIY projects. However, if you want to up your digital pinhole game, check out some of the camera-mount-specific pinhole lens options from B&H Photo that feature holes drilled with precision you probably can’t get at home.

The coolest part, other than the images, is that all the light has to come through that tiny hole.

Go Analog

If you are feeling more old-school, check out B&H Photo’s collection of film pinhole cameras. Some are beautiful wooden systems that will look awesome on a bookshelf when not out in the field, others mount on large-format cameras, and some look like soda cans and are ready to capture multi-month exposures.

While some special effects lenses have looks that polarize the photographic public, there is something organic and historically rich about the “Pinhole Aesthetic.” If there was ever a photograph that looked like a photograph, the pinhole camera does it as well as anything out there. What are your thoughts about digital or analog pinhole photography? Do you want to give it a try? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

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