Thinking about buying a camera for someone special (maybe even yourself), on your Christmas list? There are some appealing digital options on the market today. But what if you don't want to spend a small fortune on a camera that will be obsolete in two years? Maybe you're looking for something that can rekindle that creative spark you felt the very first time you took a photograph. In that case, a pinhole camera might possibly be the perfect gift! Not only will you likely save yourself some cash, but you'll also be able to take beautiful, timeless photos for years to come, with a camera that's never obsolete. Pinhole cameras are a great way to learn about the fundamentals of photography.
In its simplest form, a pinhole camera is nothing more than a light-tight container featuring a tiny hole (or aperture) to let light in. Inside the camera is a light-sensitive material that captures the image projected opposite the aperture, much like a movie is projected on a screen inside a darkened theater.
People have used an incredible variety of materials - from oatmeal canisters to cigar boxes to soup cans - to construct a pinhole camera. Really, the only limit is one's imagination. I listened to a fascinating interview with a lady who made large pinhole images inside a modified van, directly onto photographic paper.
For those willing to spend a bit more for quality, you can buy hand-crafted, ornate wooden pinhole cameras; a popular maker of such cameras is Zero Image. I have no personal experience with their products, but I have seen great images taken with these cameras, and they have a reputation for quality. These are not cheap but they represent the upper end of the market today. (It's also possible, of course, to buy specially made pinhole lenses that will fit on a digital camera and produce a similar effect. Somehow that doesn't feel as authentic to me.)
I think film is the most fun option for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the delayed gratification involved in getting the film developed later on, and finally seeing what you made. Fortunately, you don't need a boutique camera to have fun. I own the Holga WPC 120. It's an all-plastic camera that shoots panoramic, very wide angle pictures on 120 (aka "medium format") film. Film is relatively cheap - a 5-pack roll of Fujifilm Acros 100* will set you back about $25 online. Unless you develop the film yourself, you'll probably need to take it to a pro lab or mail it off for processing. I recommend The Darkroom - they do great work at very reasonable prices (plus they'll make a digital scan of your photos available for download right away).
You'll also need a standard camera tripod and a shutter release cable** to keep the camera steady when shooting. Since pinhole exposures are typically measured in seconds and minutes, hand-holding the camera is not an option. Each roll of 120 film will produce 6 exposures using the Holga WPC 120. To adjust exposure time, you simply hold down the plunger on the shutter release cable for a predetermined length of time. To play it safe, I often "bracket" my shots - that is, I take a couple of identical shots at different exposure times to ensure that I get at least one usable image. That might seem like a waste of film, but I'd rather sacrifice a bit of film than discover later on that the one shot I took was way off the mark.
There are various charts and websites (Mr Pinhole is a popular resource), that will help you calculate a ballpark estimate for exposure time, but you can also experiment with different exposures on your own. I find with the Holga WPC 120, using ISO 100 film, daytime exposures run anywhere from 3 to about 10 seconds, depending on lighting conditions. (There's a guide affixed to the back of the camera but I find the suggested times generally too long.)
So what do you get for your trouble? You get unique, dreamy looking images that have the same level of sharpness from front to back, due to the extremely small aperture of a pinhole. You get to have fun experimenting, never knowing for sure how your photo will look until later. If you learn to process your own film (you don't need a dedicated darkroom), you'll enjoy the satisfaction of making a photo from scratch using time-honored methods. And, at least with the Holga WPC 120 camera, you get impossibly wide angle photos that would normally require an ultra-wide lens to achieve on conventional cameras.
Instead of spending money on more megapixels this year for you or your loved one, consider delving into the exciting, lensless world of pinhole photography!
*Aside from the excellent quality of this film, it's especially well-suited for the longer exposures required by most pinhole photos. There's a phenomenon familiar to film shooters known as reciprocity failure that results in film needing more exposure time than standard calculations would indicate. How much more depends on the specific film being used. Fuji Acros 100 needs no adjustments for exposures of up to 2 minutes, so for typical pinhole use it's normally not an issue.
**I was disappointed to find that the shutter on my Holga WPC 120 camera didn't open fully with the standard shutter release cable I had on hand. It turns out that the camera required a cable release with a longer "throw" (the part that sticks out into the shutter release when you press the plunger). I had to search around a bit, but ended up buying a Gepe Pro Release that has an extra long throw. Regardless of brand, ask the seller if the throw is at least 5/8" to ensure compatibility with this model camera.