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“Who would believe that so small a space could contain the images of the whole universe?”

Leonardo da Vinci about the “camera obscura”, today also called pinhole camera

Re-thinking the picture through pinhole photography

It would be interesting to know exactly how long it took Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to take his photograph “View from the Window at Le Gras”. The blurry black and white image is considered to be the oldest preserved camera photograph, or pinhole photography. It was taken in 1826 or 1827.

Back then when the early photographers started to fix camera obscura images on paper it was a very time-consuming process. It often took hours to make the light-sensitive substances react and eventually form an image on the silver-nitrate coated paper. Without going into the details of the exact chemical processes and the technical discoveries that led to the development of photography, the point of this article is to think a little bit about the nature of photography and about the factor time:

How has technology – basically the shift from analog to digital – changed the way we think our images today?

These days modern digital camera technologies provide us with the opportunity to take infinite numbers of pictures. Thanks to massive storage memory cards we don’t have to worry about the costs of photographic materials, such as costly rolls of photographic film, for example. Garry Winogrand once said: “I photograph to see what the world looks like in photographs.” 

“Cameras of mobile phones have further enhanced this process of instant visual creation and result control.”

When the great street photographer said these words, he probably didn’t have in mind how easy it is these days to do just that. It’s not even necessary to wait anymore for the negatives to be developed. We have immediate control over the result and can review it in the display of our camera. Cameras of mobile phones have further enhanced this process of instant visual creation and result control – and thus led to an inflation of images.

Of course it’s great that photography has become accessible to a mass audience and that technology nowadays provides us with sheer infinite possibilities of taking pictures. The downside of this is that people tend to think less and less about their pictures, kind of like: The more images I take, the more likely that there’ll be a good one among them!

How often do we just press the shutter button of our camera without having thought twice before?

I strongly agree with those who say that good editing starts with looking through the viewfinder. It’s better to slow down a bit, maybe even miss a shot we wanted to make, but not shoot blindly hoping something good will come from that. There are few things more annoying than coming home from a shooting and having to go through infinite images that were randomly taken. Of course, one doesn’t have to take it to extremes like William Eggleston who once said that he never repeated a picture: one scene, on shot. But it’s true that you can improve your photography a great deal if you plan your images and take them consciously. That way you’ll generate less visual fast food and more high-quality photographs.

A pinhole camera can be made of just about anything: a box, a can, whatever.

Let’s take Henri Cartier-Bresson for example. The master photographer who coined the term of the decisive moment said that “photography is just pressing down the shutter button at the right time”. These days we are very quick when it comes to pressing down the shutter button, but we somehow seem to have forgotten what it means to do it at the right time. These two factors have to coincide for a great picture to come out. Bringing photographic composition and the right timing in line is essential in order to train the photographer’s eye and eventually develop an own photographic language. Looking at the work of famous photographers and learning from them is a great way to improve one’s photographic skills and become more aware of all the factors that come into play during the whole picture-taking process.

Another way of thinking about the nature of photography and gain a better understanding of how fleeting moments can be visually captured and preserved is to have a close look at pinhole photography. After all, that’s how photography once started. A pinhole camera can be made of just about anything: a box, a can, whatever.

The concept goes back to the so-called camera obscura (dark chamber or room). It’s basically an optical device that helps to project an image of a given scene on a bigger screen. Originally it was mainly used for entertainment purposes and by artists, mostly painters. This invention later resulted in photography and the camera itself. The camera obscura is made up of a room (or a simple box) with a little hole on one side through which the light enters. The outside scene is reproduced and turned upside-down (180 degrees) yet preserving perspective and color. The projected image can be used to create an exact copy on paper, for example.

 

An example of how the camera obscura and pinhole photography work
An example of how the camera obscura and pinhole photography work

 

It’s easy to build a camera obscura and experiment with it. At the same time, pinhole photography is an excellent opportunity to appreciate the picture-taking process and gain insight that you’ll later benefit from when shooting again with a digital camera. Here’s a great video that gives some background on how to get started with pinhole photography. You also might want to have a look at this collection of links all related with pinhole photography.

 

 

If you’d like to read a little bit more about the subject, please check out what I wrote about my own experiences with pinhole photography. Dutch photographer Gregor Servais has also experienced with pinhole cameras and shot some beautiful images of the sea – “Pinhole Seascape Photographs”. “Tickling The Eye” is another feature about the same artist that might be of interest.

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