It is widely accepted that the pinhole camera was the first purpose made camera that could capture an image on light sensitive material. Its formative incarnation was the Obscura, essentially a dark room/chamber with a tiny hole to allow light to pass through and project an inverse picture of the outside on the opposite wall.
The full history is quite detailed so rather than regurgitate it all we have chosen extracts. The full history can be seen via Jon Grepstad’s website which can be found here
- Aristotle (fourth century BC) comments on pinhole image formation in his work Problems.
- The basic optical principles of the pinhole are commented on in Chinese texts from the fifth century BC.
- The Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn al-Haytham, also known as Alhazen, experimented with image formation in the tenth century AD. He arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images were formed only by means of small holes and that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall. From his observations he deduced the linearity of light. (Hammond 1981:5).
- In 1475 the Renaissance mathematician and astronomer Paolo Toscanelli placed a bronze ring with an aperture in a window in the Cathedral of Florence, still in use today. On sunny days a solar image is projected through the hole onto the cathedral’s floor. At noon, the solar image bisects a “noon-mark” on the floor. The image and noon-mark were used for telling time (Renner 1995:6).
- The first published picture of a pinhole camera obscura is apparently a drawing in Gemma Frisius’ De Radio Astronomica et Geometrica (1545). Gemma Frisius, an astronomer, had used the pinhole in his darkened room to study the solar eclipse of 1544. The very term camera obscura (“dark room”) was coined by Johannes Kepler (1571–1630). At his time, the term had come to mean a room, tent or box with a lens aperture used by artists to draw a landscape. The lens made the image brighter and focused at a certain distance. (Adding a bi-convex lens to the camera obscura had been suggested by Girolamo Cardano in De subtilitate libri around 1550.) Thus this type of camera differed from the pinhole camera obscura used by Frisius in 1544. In the 1620s Johannes Kepler invented a portable camera obscura. Camera obscuras as drawing aids were soon found in many shapes and sizes. They were used by both artists and amateur painters.
- During the 19th century several large scale camera obscuras were built as places of education and entertainment. The meniscus lens, superior to the bi-convex lens, improved the quality of the projected images. Some buildings or towers with camera obscuras from this period remain today
- Sir David Brewster, a Scottish scientist, was one of the first to make pinhole photographs, in the 1850s. He was also one of the first to use the word “pinhole” in this context, or “pin-hole” with a hyphen, which he used in his book The Stereoscope, published in 1856. However, in 2009 Sam Morton, an 18 year old Scottish student, discovered that the word “pin-hole” was used in a similar optical context as early as in 1764 by James Ferguson in his Lectures on select subjects in mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics. Joseph Petzval used the term “natural camera” in 1859, whereas Dehors and Deslandres, in the late 1880s, proposed the term “stenopaic camera” (“sténopé-photographe”).
- By the late 1880s the Impressionist movement in painting exerted a certain influence on photography. Different schools or tendencies developed in photography. The “old school” believed in sharp focus and good lenses; the “new school”, the “pictorialists”, tried to achieve the atmospheric qualities of paintings. Some of the pictorialists experimented with pinhole photography.
- Pinhole photography became popular in the 1890s. Commercial pinhole cameras were sold in Europe, the United States and in Japan. 4000 pinhole cameras (“Photomnibuses”) were sold in London alone in 1892. The cameras seem to have had the same status as disposable cameras today – none of the “Photomnibuses” have been preserved for posterity in camera collections.
- Mass production of cameras and “new realism” in the 20th century soon left little space for pinhole photography. By the 1930s the technique was hardly remembered, or only used in teaching. Frederick W. Brehm, at what was later to become the Rochester Institute of Technology, was possibly the first college professor to stress the educational value of the pinhole technique. He also designed the Kodak Pinhole Camera around 1930.
Remarkably pinhole photography has survived over the decades, it may not have been as popular since the advent of the modern camera, but it still draws the attention of the inquisitive photographer.
The recent renaissance of film has helped spur the popularity of pinhole photography, so much so that there are now manufacturers of pinhole cameras once more. We do not know how long it will last, although the feeling is it is here to stay, we believe we still need to give it a voice and prevent it from slipping back into obscurity. It is a great educational tool for adults and children alike, it gives one an understanding of how an image is created and they are ridiculously easy to make so they are a lot of fun, really you can make them out of practically anything – the only limit is your imagination.