This past weekend, a fairly sizeable portion of the western hemisphere got a glimpse of a spectacular eclipse, one which created a glowing red ring of fire in the sky. Of course, it is dangerous to look directly at an eclipse, which is why those eager participants viewed the phenomenon using eclipse glasses, handmade projector tubes or pinhole cameras.(Here are some tips for using a pinhole camera to view an eclipse.)
The pinhole camera, a lens-less camera with a single small hole, has been around in one way or another since the 5th century BC. As it's basically just a light-proof box with a small hole in one side, it is easily replicated out of a variety of materials (like an iPhone box). The camera captures light from an image or scene, which passes through a single point and projects an inverted image of the scene upon the opposite side of the box — all of which make it ideal for capturing eclipses and other light/shadow imagery (the photo above was captured by Ewan McGregor using a pinhole camera at an exposure time of 20 minutes).
Artist and blogger Jim Doran experimented with a pinhole camera, resulting in some moody photographs (viewable here).
It's also been used to create some stunning photography, and as a hard-to-detect surveillance camera. If you'd like to experiment with some old school photography techniques, or just want to be prepared for the next solar eclipse, it's easy to create your own pinhole camera out of simple supplies. Just grab a matchbox, some 33mm film, an empty soda can, some cardboard and electrical tape and this tutorial and you should be set to go in no time.
Photography enthusiasts might also enjoy some of the lovely wooden pinhole cameras that have recently appeared on Etsy. Designed to slow down the process of taking a photo and make the photographer think long and hard about their subject, this is not a process of instant gratification (like Instagram on your iPhone), but the results speak for themselves.
The pinhole camera is a simple process, as well as being a great entry level craft project for kids, and holds a lot of potential in the hands of the right photographer. There is, after all, a reason the technique has been used for thousands of years — simple, still images that capture a suspended moment in time, that require care and attention and dedication to take. Browsing through some of the stunning images that have been captured with pinhole cameras is all it takes to get inspired by this uncomplicated technique.
(Images courtesy Ewan McGregor, Jim Doran, and Etsy Seller Vermeer Camera.)