• Wulfie Mayfield

Why I am sticking to a camera made with glue


Poppies in the Lost Gardens of Heligan, Cornwall, photographed by Wulfie Mayfield using a homemade pinhole camera

A PINHOLE camera is the simplest kind of camera there is. It is essentially a light-proof box with a tiny hole in one side. Light passing through this little hole - or aperture - is projected onto the opposite side of the box and can be recorded on a light sensitive material or digital sensor.

When photographic pioneers Louis Dageurre and William Fox-Talbot made their techniques for capturing permanent images on light-sensitised surfaces known to the public in 1839, they were using cameras with lenses, developed from the camera obscura, a device that projects light through a lens onto a screen, invented in the 16th century. The first description of a pinhole camera was published in 1856 by Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster and although many photographers experimented with the process over the years, it remained on the sidelines until the early 21st century and the digital revolution.

Ironically, the arrival of affordable, fully-automated digital cameras and camera phones, prompting many to declare the “death” of film, provided the catalyst for a revival of interest in alternative photographic processes, including pinhole photography. Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (http://pinholeday.org) has been held on the last Sunday in April since 2001 and attracts participants from all over the world.

Although I became aware of pinhole photography as a child, the cost and practical difficulties of setting up a darkroom prevented me from exploring it. However, the arrival of cheap digital image scanners made things simpler. I can get my films processed at a high street photographic shop and once I have the negatives, I can scan these myself and use digital software to edit the scans into pictures for printing or publication online. I don’t even have to switch off the lights…

I made my first successful pinhole camera in 2010. Made from black cardboard and strong glue, it used 35mm film wound with two pieces of wooden dowel and the all-important pinhole was drilled with a needle in a piece of aluminium cut from a drink can. The shutter was simply a piece of black tape. It was rough around the edges but it worked.

Since then, I have made a few more cardboard creations and bought some very fine pinhole cameras made by craftsmen from France, Poland, Russia and the USA. One of my pinhole images was included in an exhibition in London in 2014 and another was included in f/D, a book showcasing pinhole photography from all over the world, published in 2017.

I have become particularly interested in creating multiple exposure images, photographing a single object many times onto the same piece of film and altering its position to create a team of cyclists or a fleet of Viking ships.


A Viking fleet created with multiple exposures of a single metal model bought in Iceland

Some may shake their heads at the idea of fiddling about with out-dated, cumbersome techniques with no guarantee of a successful end result but I will always gain huge satisfaction from taking photographs with a little box made from cardboard and glue.

The primary drawback with pinhole photography is that long exposure times are required — even a picture taken in strong sunlight requires two or three seconds which means the camera and subject have to remain absolutely still. If you bear in mind that 1/60th of a second is the slowest recommended exposure time for hand-held camera work, two or three seconds is a long time by comparison. The second drawback is the fact that everything is in relatively soft focus which is no good for capturing fine detail.

If you want to try the process yourself you could buy a ready-made pinhole camera, make one from a kit, customise a found container or, if you enjoy making things, construct one completely from scratch. There are already plenty of how-to-make guides in print and online and some very interesting craftsman-made pinhole cameras and kits are sold through etsy.com.

Commercially produced pinhole cameras can occasionally be found at the Photographers Gallery shop in Ramillies Street, near Oxford Circus in central London, or at Mr Cad — an Aladdin’s cave of used photographic equipment — in Upper Tachbrook Street, Pimlico.


Wulfie Mayfield with the statue of Brunel on the university campus photographed by masters student Lali Adhikari with a pinhole camera

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