What Is A Pinhole Camera? And How You Can Build Your Own

Jo Szczepanska

If you’re interested in the history of photography, chances are you have heard of a pinhole camera. The DIY tool that dates back as far as the 1500s, the pinhole system was designed to be simple, yet effective.

To offer you some insight into the production of this historical camera and give you some tips on how to build your own, let’s talk about the pinhole camera.

What is a Pinhole Camera?

According to an official website dedicated to Pinhole Cameras, Pinhole.cz, their definition of this camera is:

“A pinhole camera, also known as camera obscura, or “dark chamber” is a simple optical system device in the shape of a closed box or chamber.

In one of its side a small hole, which is the rectilinear propagation of light, creates an image of the outside space on the opposite side of the box.”

In essence, the pinhole camera is the simplest camera ever made.  According to HowStuffWorks, it consists of a “Light-proof box, some sort of film and a pinhole. The pinhole is simply an extremely small hole like you would make with the tip of a pin in a piece of think aluminum foil.”

How Does the Pinhole System Work?

To visualize how the pinhole system works, we need to relate it to our present-day knowledge of aperture.

The pinhole camera is essentially a box with a hole. When you shine light in through the hole, the light will enter at various angles. Then, as it enters, it will create an imprint of the light inside the box. As the light moves, so does the imprint inside the box.

If you increase the size of the hole, more light would be let in resulting in a wider surface area. Yet, if you decrease the size of the hole, the amount of light would become smaller.

Think of the difference of light entering your modern day cameras at an aperture of f/1.8 versus f/14. This is exactly how a pinhole system works.

So, let’s take it a step further. Inside the camera is film or photographic paper. When the light from outside the camera enters through the pinhole, an entire image will form which will be recorded on the film. This is how we can capture the image.

Yet, because the pinhole is small and lets in very little light – you will need to expose the film for a long time. Even though this process takes a while, the fact that only a little bit of light enters at a time – allows for the final image to turn out sharp.

Now, that we know what a pinhole camera is and how it works – let’s talk about how you can build your own at home.

How To Build a Pinhole Camera

Step 1: The Materials

For this project you will need the following materials:

  • A box
  • Photo Paper
  • Some thin metal such as one from a can
  • Knife or tool for cutting
  • Needle
  • Sand Paper
  • Black Paint, if your box is white
  • Tape

Step 2: The Pinhole

Since we know that the pinhole acts as the lens of the camera, we need to carve it out in the shape of a hole. Take your piece of metal and poke a hole in the center. Then, use the sandpaper to create a smooth edge.

Make sure to leave enough space around the hole.

Step 3: The Camera

The next step is to create your camera with you box. The material of the box doesn’t matter, so use what is available. In fact, a shoe box is easy to find and will suffice.

The box needs to be completely in tact with no holes or openings. This is because you want the light to be coming through only the pinhole.

If you have a dark colored box, use that. If not, you can paint it black to make sure it is dark inside and out.

Then, you will need to cut a small square opening where you will place the pinhole.

Step 4: Placing the Pinhole

Now, you can tape the pinhole you have created to your box.

Place it on the inside, behind the square you have cut out using heavy duty tape. You can then make an external piece that will cover the pinhole from the outside.

This will be opened and closed in order to capture your picture.

Step 5: Add Your Photo Paper

Just like developing film, the paper you use will need to be placed into your box in the dark.

Tape the piece of paper inside your box. Make sure it is directly situated across from the pinhole you have created. Close your makeshift shutter.

Step 6: Capture Your Image

Point the camera at your scene that you would like to capture. Its best to have available light. You will need to keep the shutter open and then close it for the image to be captured on your paper.

Make sure to keep everything in tact and balanced. Once you are finished you can bring it into the dark for development.

Step 7: The Development

Finally, you can now develop the image you have captured with your pinhole camera. This process is just like developing film – so if you are familiar with this then you are already one step ahead.

Yet, if you feel uncomfortable with this process – you could most likely bring it to a professional lab to be developed. But, you will need to make sure the paper remains in the dark box with the shutter closed.

If you are willing to do this at home you will need the essential darkroom tools:

  • Developer
  • Fixer
  • Water
  • Tool to pick up the paper
  • Piece of glass
  • Lights like within a darkroom such as an LED system
  • A line to hang and dry the developed paper

Start by having the room completely dark. Take your negative from the box. You will need another paper to transfer the negative on, so have an extra piece of photo paper ready.

Then, press the negative to your new piece of photo paper with the negative on top. Use the piece of glass to press the two pieces of paper together.

Turn the light on for a few seconds, so that you can see the development of your image onto the new paper. Your new photo paper needs to remain covered or else it will become exposed too soon.

Place it into the developer, water and fixer. Hang it up so it can air dry.

Once it is dry, you will be able to see your new, developed image.

Photo Paper To Develop Your Pinhole Images

Here are our recommendations for photo paper to print your pinhole images.

Remember, you can also use this paper for any film developing of your negatives in the darkroom.

View the options below:

Ilford Multigrade IV Contrast Black and White Paper

pinhole camera
Pihole Camera Paper

Arista EDU Black & White Photographic Paper

pinhole camera
Pinhole Camera Developing Paper

Arista EDU Black and White Semi-Matte Paper

pinhole camera
Black and White Pinhole Camera


So, as you can see, a pinhole camera is a simple tool to capture some creative images. Try to build your own camera and see the unique photographs you create!