Pinhole photography in a digital age

Published 7:04 am Wednesday, April 14, 2010

HAYFIELD — While bored on a winter day, a Hayfield resident decided to blend two unlikely hobbies: photography and woodworking.

Bruce Carlson and his father, Don Carlson, have begun experimenting with pinhole photography, a simple camera with no lens and a small hole for the aperture. The cameras are simply a sealed box with a hole in the side.

He made his pinhole camera from old boards from a barn on his property, which he said his grandfather built.

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“They can be built out of anything from a spam can to a coffee can, we just decided to make ours look more like a real camera,” he said.

While they aimed to have their pinhole cameras resemble wood versions of cameras, Bruce said many people didn’t believe what the small boxes were.

“Everyone that we showed the cameras to, they almost think we’re joking,” Bruce said. “The first one my dad came up with, they weren’t sure if it was a bird house or a mouse trap or a camera.”

Bruce said they even thought the cameras were a practical joke, and that the camera would shoot out water instead of taking a picture.

The cameras do take real pictures, and Bruce and Don have used 35mm film. While the cameras don’t take pictures with as high of quality as a regular 35mm or a digital camera, Bruce said the pictures have an older style look to them.

Bruce also included another of his passions into building the camera: motorcycles. Bruce owns Motorville Garage & Campground, 410 Second Street NW, in Hayfield. He used pieces from old model and new model Harley Davidson motorcycles at portions of the camera.

When they built the cameras, they didn’t use any plans or instructions. They just read about the camera, looked at some photographs and set out to building cameras.

Bruce and Don used old pieces of tin for their shutters to cover the hole the size of a number nine needle. To take a picture, they simply flip the piece of tin away from the aperture, exposing the small hole and the film.

Often times, pinhole cameras utilize long exposure times of a few minutes to a few hours.

On top of his mechanical skills, Bruce said his family has a history of carpentry work. Don worked in carpentry and construction for close to 60 years, and Bruce’s grandfather worked in construction.

“It’s all about keeping busy and trying to have a little fun doing it,” Bruce said

So building things and tinkering with different things is nothing new in his family. Bruce said they “shot from the hip” after getting the idea to make the cameras.

“We were looking through our photography stuff and found some things on pinhole cameras and decided what the hell, we’ve got nothing else to do today,” he said. “Let’s make some cameras.”

The stops from the shutter were made from speedometer dial backs from a early Harley Davidson. To advance the film, Bruce used bolts off of motorcycles, and they also used some pieces from a hardware store.

Even before taking the pinhole photographs, Bruce and Don have had a passion for photography for more than a decade. Bruce described himself and his father as “enthusiastic amateurs.” Bruce owns a few 35mm cameras that he uses to take true black and white photographs, and he also does digital photography.

Don has developed some of his pinhole pictures, but Bruce had to send his film to be developed in Atlanta because it’s a type of black and white film that can’t be developed at a Walmart or Walgreens.

Bruce said even new pinhole photographs look about 50 to 100 years old. The cameras have no lens, and very few moving pieces.

While he said it would be nice to sell a few pictures, Bruce said it’s more of a hobby than anything else.

“We haven’t gotten a call from Kodak yet or anything like that, so we’re not going to patent it yet,” Bruce joked. “I’m not worried about them buying our patent yet.”