A camera is often referred to as a light-tight box and a quick look at the Obscura will tell you that it is very much from the box school of design. The question is whether that just makes it old-fashioned, or if it is actually funky in a retro way? Hopefully I can help you find out.
NB If you are unfamiliar with 5x4 film, you can get some info in my earlier review of the Harman Titan camera
I've already told you that it's a box shape and it's light-tight, so what else is there to tell? The box is in 2 sections with the front part sliding into the back part as a very tight fit and this effectively seals the camera against light entry, plus the 2 sections are held firmly together with neat magnets on the sides which meet up almost without you noticing. The front section has a fixed chemically etched 0.3mm pinhole which equates to an f number of 248 on a focal length of 87mm, which is roughly 26mm on 35mm film. The pinhole is covered by an intriguingly shaped device held closed by another 2 magnets, and this is simply swung open to take the shot and then swung back at the end of the exposure. It has a tripod socket in the base but no spirit level, although it would be easy enough to sit a small spirit level on the flat surface of the camera. I'm not entirely sure what material it is made of, but it appears robust enough.
Pinhole photography means exposure times way beyond the handholding stage and a support of sorts is essential. While a tripod would always be the preferred option, the great thing about a box is that it is pretty much steady when you sit it down on something such as a wall or a beanbag and it won't topple over. It's quite light though, so if it isn't on a tripod you would need to hold it steady while you swing the pinhole cover away and back or the Obscura will move.
So far, so simple, but the key part of the Obscura deal is that it is a one-shot device which has to be unloaded and reloaded between taking each photo, and that's not something to take lightly when out and about. While it might be possible to use a fold up film changing bag with a bit of practice, the size of the Obscura when it is taken apart really means there isn't much room in a changing bag for a 3 section film box to put the exposed sheet in. The bag then needs to be opened up and the film box replaced with the fresh film box, so it is quite a palaver and really needs a spring-up changing tent as shown in the photos rather than a changing bag. The upside to this is that the sheet of film or paper just sits straight into the outer/rear half of the Obscura and is held in place by the inner/front half when it is slid into place, so that's easier than loading conventional filmholders.
The other thing to be aware of is a scientific effect known as reciprocity law failure which means you have to give considerably more exposure to the film once the speed goes beyond ½ second. Ilford provide a graph for this in their film data sheets (not with the Obscura kit) so it is possible to print this out and take it with you. As an example, let's say you measured the light at 1/15th @ f22 and then transferred this to the Exposure Calculator that comes in the kit, whereupon the exposure time at f248 reads as roughly 8 secs. If you then check the film data sheet, you'll see that reciprocity law failure means that an 8 sec exposure actually needs 25 secs for an accurate exposure, so the unwary could be lulled into underexposing by 2 stops if just using the Calculator.
My testing was limited to Ilford 100 Delta film, so my comments are restricted to that. The first thing to comment on was the lack of light fall-off in the corners of the film, although that might still be an effect with the direct positive paper if used. The scanned film was soft as expected, but it sharpened up well to give a more detailed end result, albeit one which wouldn't be confused with a normal lens shot. You can see the photos here and decide for yourself whether the look appeals to you. Filters can be held over the pinhole for the duration of the exposure and a neutral density one could well come in handy on a sunny day when exposure times can get uncomfortably short.
As explained in the previous section, exposure times are a bit of an issue and, as they can easily be 25 secs or more, you really have to watch the light and wait for it to be consistent for the duration. The sun coming out or going behind a cloud during the exposure throws the whole thing out and this is a serious bind with a single shot camera.
Ilford Obscura Value For Money
I understand that the Obscura kit is to retail at £70 with film and paper, so that means the camera itself is probably valued at £50 or so and I'd say it was worth it for trying out this type of photography. It is a one trick device though, and the only changes you can make to it are with the stickers that come in the kit so you can decorate it to make it more funky.
It's clear that the Obscura had a very specific design brief and I'm reviewing it on that basis, rather than what it might have been. On that basis, I think it meets its design concept very well and it is well made. Once it comes to using it though, the choice is between a single shot or carrying a changing tent and box of film with you, so I found that to be really limiting and it substantially reduced the fun factor for me.
The Harman Titan I reviewed previously uses standard 5x4 filmholders, so you can take as many of these as you want on your day out. I also have a 120mm pinhole camera that can be set to 6x6, 6x9 or 6x12 and gives 12, 8 and 6 shots respectively at these sizes, plus the film can be changed outdoors with no hassle or changing tent, so that is another alternative that gives you more shots per day. These options also mean the day isn't wasted when the light changes during an exposure, since you just move onto the next bit of film.
Ilford Obscura Pros
It's a precision device that fits together well and stays closed due to the magnets
It's light and portable and you could carry it all day
No light fall-off on film
Its design is specific and clearly thought out for a purpose
Ilford Obscura Cons
One shot really limits the use of the camera
It is what it is and you can't change anything for the future
Having to take a changing tent and box of film is a major drawback
It isn't as much fun as you might hope for
VALUE FOR MONEY
Harman Pinhole Obscura Specifications
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