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Justin Quinnell's pinhole photography tips

How to make your own 6 month duration images of the sun.

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Words and images by Justin Quinnell.

pinhole photography
The Clifton Cathedral in Bristol, UK.
A 6-month duration exposure from June 19th 2009 till December 20th 2009.
Pinhole photography suffers the illusion that, as its science is simple, it should be easy to master. In practice, creating an effective pinhole image requires learning many variables including: hole size, exposure times, Digital vs Analogue, focal length all topped off with a fear of ‘getting the maths right’.

What follows is a simple and effective design of pinhole camera, which enables the user to take 3 or 6-month duration pinhole images of the sun (‘solargraphs’) without the need for any chemicals or a darkroom.

I used this approach for the Sunrise project where 450 cameras were distributed to people around South Bristol. The book of this project can be found on my website or through Blurb.

You will need:
  • An empty, washed out aluminium drink can, (ideally the dimensions of a tall beer can or ‘red bull’ type energy drink but in practice any will do.
  • Some black card,
  • Some Black Duck – Gaffer – Carpet tape
  • A pin.
  • Some cable ties.
  • A packet of 25 sheets of 5x7 inch resin coated VC Photographic paper (Semi matt or satin texture but NOT Glossy). This is ‘traditional’ photographic material, not the paper you put through your printer, and can be obtained online from photographic suppliers, (most photo shops don’t stock it any more).
  • Access to a flatbed scanner and a computer.

Making the camera
Find an aluminium drink can. Aluminium is non magnetic and can be tested on the magnet on the edge of a fridge door). Do not use steel, which is a hard metal, therefore razor sharp.

Cut the top off with a can opener. With practice this can be done with a safe sharp edge.

Cut an 80mm strip off the short edge of a sheet of A4 black card (80mm x 210mm). Cut notches along the edge then crease them over then cut out a circle of card the same diameter as the can (60mm).

Turn the can over (so you work on the 'non wobbly' base) and tape the strip of card tightly around the can.

Crease the notches over horizontally, place the circle of card on top of the notches and use strips of Gaffer tape to cover over the lid.

When you are content that there is so much gaffer tape even Gamma radiation couldn't pass through, take the completed lid off and place it over the open end of the can.

Making the pinhole
Find a point half way up on the side of the can, Push a map pin into this point (it will pop in) and gently remove it. Fold a small length of insulation tape onto itself to make a light proof shutter and stick this over the hole.

Loading the camera
Switch off the white light in the darkened room and switch on a red cycle light. Take the lid off the Pin Can camera. Open up the packet of photographic paper, take out a sheet and then reseal the packet.

Curl the paper lengthways into the camera so the emulsion is on the inside of the curl. (The shinier surface is the emulsion). There will be a gap of around 10mm, which is where the pinhole should be.

Loading the camera with photographic paper.

Make sure the paper isn't covering the hole then replace the cap. Cover the lid with loads of gaffer tape (to keep out the rain, snow, sleet, lightening, mice etc) The photographic paper will go dark when exposed to light in a similar way as getting a sun tan.

Taking your photo
Find a position for the camera pointing towards the Sun. South in the Northern Hemisphere and North in the Southern Hemisphere (I presume!). Google Earth will show you South.

Chose a date to start the exposure. December 20th is winter solstice from then you could expose till summer solstice on June 20th. Even putting the camera up in January onwards will be fine. You could even do it from one anniversary to another.

Fix the camera sturdily in position. It needs to cope with all that natures elements can throw at it. A drainpipe or fencepost is good but make sure it is well out of reach! It's going to be exposing for some time, day and night. I find a healthy mix of gaffer tape and cable ties works quite well. Gluing a piece of wood horizontally on the back will tilt the camera slightly upwards and will enabling to capture the height of the Summer sun.

Camera in position – Note piece of wood placed to angle the camera to capture the Midday sun.

Peel the shutter (sticker) off and write on your calendar when you will stop the exposure.
Have a look at it from time to time thinking things like, "I wonder what is going on in there".

After 6 months place a tape shutter onto the hole and bring the camera back home after its long ordeal. (OK, it’s not exactly the Shackleton expedition I know but by now it probably needs a rest!)

Recovering the image (The Clever bit)
  • Switch off the light in your computer room.
  • Set the scanner on a highish resolution (500dpi is good for 5x7)
  • Take the photo paper out of the can camera and without developing it (Told you it was clever!), place it onto the scanner with a book on top to hold it flat then press scan.
  • Save the negative image on your computer.
  • After scanning, place the undeveloped print into a box entitled 'scanned paper negs'.
  • Open up Photoshop or PaintNet
  • Image > Inverse > Flip horizontal and play around with the contrast and brightness.
  • Show off to your mate in the pub after he has shown you his holiday snaps.

More information and images are viewable on

Find the tripod and camera bag to suit your needs at

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timduck 8 1 United States
26 Feb 2012 3:59AM
Darned clever! I just may try it.

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