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How to Use a Pinhole Body Cap for Awesome, Creative Photography

Making a pinhole body cap is a rite of passage on any digital photographer’s journey. It’s a great way to get some of the unpredictability of analog photography without spending loads money on film or having to wait for the results to come back from a lab.

pinhole body camera image

But how do you make a pinhole body cap? And what do you shoot once you’ve made your pinhole body cap?

That’s what you’ll discover in this article.

What is a pinhole body cap and how do you make one?

First things first:

Let’s talk about pinhole body caps and how you make one. For that, you need to know what a pinhole camera is.

A pinhole camera is essentially a light-proof box with a small hole in one side. Light passes through the hole and projects an image on the opposite side of the box. It’s a tiny camera obscura – an optical phenomenon that has been known and used for hundreds of years. If you put photographic film or paper inside the box, you can record the image that the camera obscura produces!

So by modifying a camera body cap, you’re essentially creating a digital version of the camera obscura.

It’s very easy to do! You just need to buy a cheap body cap for your camera (don’t worry about it being on-brand and don’t destroy the one that came with your camera) and put a hole in the middle of it.

drilling into a camera body cap

I use a tiny drill bit (and a holder meant for model-making) to put the smallest hole I can create in the center of the body cap. Then I take a small piece of black construction paper and put a hole in it with just the very tip of a skinny sewing needle.

Next, tape the construction paper into place on top of the hole you’ve just drilled, lining up the two holes as carefully as possible.

Finally, place the body cap directly onto the camera body and you should be ready to go!

(Note: On some digital cameras, you may need to use a setting that allows you to shoot without a lens attached. If you’re struggling to find this, check your camera manual.)

What’s so special about pinhole shooting?

There are a few great features of pinhole camera photography that you might want to think about as you plan what to shoot. Using a pinhole body cap is completely different than shooting with a traditional lens.

creative pinhole shot of shapes

Concentrating on shape and texture can create striking pinhole body cap images.

Almost infinite focus

The first thing to note is that pinhole cameras have an incredibly large depth of field. You can’t focus a pinhole body cap, but that’s okay. You don’t need to. You’ll get images that are sharp throughout.

(However, this means you’ll lose any shallow depth of field or bokeh effects.)

Instead of blurring out any inconvenient backgrounds, you need to work with your surroundings in mind when you compose images.

No distortion

If you’re using a wide-angle pinhole body cap (the focal length of your pinhole body cap is the distance from the pinhole to the sensor), then there will be no lens distortion. When you are shooting architecture, the walls of the building will appear completely straight rather than curved as they would with many wide-angle lenses.

building against sky

Using hard light to create contrast can be a way to make images appear sharper.

It is possible to increase the focal length of your pinhole body cap by using extension tubes and the like (or a cardboard toilet roll with the inside painted black).

Test out different focal lengths and see what you can achieve!

Long exposure times

The downside of all that depth of field is that you’ll generally need a pretty long exposure time for most shots. This does mean that you can work with interesting blur effects. If you’re shooting urban spaces you can also blur out most of the people in the image, too.

On the other hand, you generally need to take a tripod with you when you go out shooting with your pinhole body cap. The exposures will probably be too long to handhold your camera.

blurry portrait pinhole body cap camera

Asking your subject to move while photographing them can produce interesting effects.

It can be interesting to explore either intentional camera movement effects or long exposures on moving subjects with a pinhole body cap. I particularly enjoy using a pinhole body cap to shoot portraits of people.

Try looking at the portrait work of Victorian photographers who used wet plates, or the more modern long exposure portraits (with a large format camera) by Sally Mann. These can provide some inspiration for your pinhole photography of people.

Help! All my images are soft!

The sharpness of a pinhole image depends largely on the size and accuracy of the pinhole you create when building your pinhole body cap. Unsurprisingly, putting a hole in a piece of construction paper is a pretty inaccurate way to build photographic equipment.

The smaller the pinhole, the more accurate the image will be. And the neater the edges of the pinhole, the more perfect the circle around your image will be.

comparison of sharp portrait and pinhole portrait

These two images are a direct comparison of a 35mm lens on a Fujifilm body (about a 50mm equivalent) and a pinhole body cap on the same body. The camera wasn’t moved between shots, and both images were cropped the same.

Ultimately, you’re going to need to embrace the heavy imperfections of this style when you plan what you’re going to shoot. Images will be in focus, but they will be very soft – and that’s not something you can correct afterward! If you really enjoy digital pinhole photography then you may want to explore some of the laser cut pinholes that are available on the market. They are very tiny, accurate circles and will create a more technically perfect image.

Of course, the smaller the pinhole, the longer the exposure you’ll need. This is because less light is hitting the sensor, so everything is a trade-off. With extremely tiny pinholes you can be looking at exposures of many minutes rather than a few seconds.

Seeing the world differently

I find that using a pinhole body cap forces me to approach photography differently. Because of the soft quality of the images and the large depth of field, I tend to focus on things like color and shape rather than the subject matter itself. It’s a great way to think about different kinds of composition rules.

tree in pinhole shot

If you end up with a pinhole that isn’t quite circular (like most of mine), that can also be a good thing to experiment with. Finding objects that fit inside the pinhole shape you’ve made can create some really unusual images.

What are you waiting for?

Time to get out and shoot! One of the best ways to improve your pinhole body cap photography is simply to head out and start capturing a ton of images. You need to learn how the things around you will translate into pinhole images. It’s only then that you’ll start to see the possibilities for pinhole photography.

Don’t be discouraged at first. It takes time to hit your stride with this style of photography. You may need to let go of some ingrained inhibitions and embrace the imperfections and flaws instead of aiming for technical excellence.

But eventually, you’ll be capturing some stunning photos!

We’d love to see your pinhole images! Share with us in the comments section.

pinhole-body-cap-photography

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Charlie Moss

Charlie Moss is UK based photography journalist with experience shooting everything from historically inspired portraits to e-commerce photography. Her passion is history of art, especially contemporary culture and photography. You can follow her on Instagram or catch her over at Patreon to find more of her teaching and mentoring resources!