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Pinhole Cameras

The pinhole camera at Antietam, Sharpsburg, Md

The pinhole camera in a field of Sorghum on the Battlefield at Antietam, Sharpsburg, Md 2012

A number of years ago, after years of shooting exclusively digital, I felt like I needed to slow down as a photographer.  I wanted to trade, at least occasionally, the ease, precision and instant gratification of digital photography for something that required me to spend more time with the subject – to really immerse myself in the meaning and composition of each frame.

I was missing the mystery of photography, the magic that happens in the box.  I wanted to put some of the guesswork and intuition back into my image making.  This led me to the pinhole camera.

My iPhone Pocket Light Meter records the position of the pinhole camera, exposure and GPS information for the above image at Manassas, Va in 2012.

My iPhone Pocket Light Meter records the position of the pinhole camera, exposure and GPS information for the image below at Manassas, Va in 2012.

To shoot with a pinhole camera is, quite literally, to get back to basics.

What I did not anticipate is that stripping back to this most basic method of shooting would somehow yield images that also seemed more elemental…

I soon realized these simple cameras had an uncanny and remarkable capability of depicting and rendering landscapes.  The cameras somehow looked deeper into the subjects and I actually found myself experiencing these landscapes and the photographic process in a deeper way.  For instance, after working with the cameras over time the handicap of having no viewfinder to compose with actually became a blessing.  I began to experience the entire landscape, walking into the compositions and then carefully positioning the camera to make the photographs; the process unhurried and deliberate.

Late day light is captured in this 2 minute exposure of the Henry House on the Battlefield at Manassas, Virginia in 2012.  This point of view, showing just the top of the Henry House, is intended and gives the Confederate perspective in the attack made here in August 1862.

Late day light is captured in this 2 minute exposure of the Henry House on the Battlefield at Manassas, Virginia in 2012. This point of view, showing just the top of the Henry House, is intended and gives the Confederate perspective in the attack made here in August 1862.

The pinhole camera has no “lens” per se.  The tiny fixed aperture creates a soft infinite focal plane – a canvas where details are obscured allowing the “feeling”of the landscape to come through.  The pinhole seems to capture the very essence of the subject.

An old train trestle spanning the Red River shrouded in morning fog. Clarksville, TN 2013.

An old train trestle spanning the Red River shrouded in morning fog. Clarksville, TN 2013.

This I believe is due to the rudimentary mechanics of the pinhole camera. The tiny pinhole of light simply enters the camera and is captured directly onto large format sheet film creating the image.  This minuscule amount of light entering the camera requires long exposure times; the wind blows, rivers flow, the clouds move, the earth rotates…taken over time each image is sort of a living record of a moment in time.

Where digital photography is like good non-fiction, sharp and detailed, pinhole photography somehow has the profound emotional honesty, the subjective truth of a great novel.  Each image carries with it a story, or many different stories.

The reenactors point of view on the Battlefield at New Market, VA. 2012

The reenactors point of view on the Battlefield at New Market, VA. 2012

In addition to this I’ve found that the soft quality of the pinhole photograph itself encourages the viewer to linger on the images.  While viewing the image the observer inadvertently fills out the blurred information with his or her own memories and experiences unconsciously becoming a participant in each image they encounter.

Late day light penetrates "the wilderness" on the Battlefield at Chancellorsville, Va 2013

Afternoon light penetrates “the wilderness” on the Battlefield at Chancellorsville, Va 2013

IMG_7117

These discoveries with the pinhole camera happen to coincided with a subject that had been an interest of mine since childhood, the American Civil War.  In 2009 as the 150th anniversary of the war approached I began to read exclusively on this subject and inadvertently tumbled down the “rabbit hole” of Civil War History.  My only desire after reading a small library’s worth of this material was to visit the wars’ battlefields.  And, I would bring the pinhole camera.

Civil War Pinhole Project 

The photographic journey began in July 2011 on the Battlefield at Manassas, Virginia, where, after spending a couple of days photographing the battlefield, I struck up a conversation with some living historians. The small group of confederate reenactors were participating in battlefield programs for the National Parks Service.  I decided to take a photo of these gentlemen and upon my return home, looking over the film, I realized that photo of these reenactors did something that I hadn’t noticed before.

When working with the pinhole camera over the years I tended to avoid portraits.  I was never happy with the way the camera rendered people.  But the soldier-actors because they were in uniform completely changed my perspective on this. Their uniforms brought a cohesion to the image and the slightly blurred, soft focus quality of the pinhole camera made the reenactors seem anonymous in a sense, rendering them as “every soldier” – This image also introduced period characters into the 19th century landscape I was marveling at… the Battlefield at Manassas seemed to come alive.

Confederate re-enactors at the Henry House, Manassas Battlefield, VA. 2011

Confederate re-enactors at the Henry House, Manassas Battlefield, VA. 2011

The idea of simply photographing Civil War battlefields for this project evolved at this point.  For the next trip in the project timeline, to the Battlefield at Shiloh, Tennessee I attended the 150th anniversary battle reenactment in neighboring Michie, TN in April 2012.  Standing on the sidelines with the pinhole cameras watching and photographing thousands of reenactors as they participated in this event was a revelation. The idea of  “seeing the war from the soldiers’ perspective” began to fascinate me.  I soon realized that to gain this perspective I would need to become a reenactor myself.

The Hornets Nest or Sunken Road at Shiloh.  Scene of intense fighting in 1862.

The Union position in the sunken road at Shiloh. This wagon road through the wilderness would become infamously known as the Hornets’ Nest and was the epicenter of the Battle of Shiloh on April 6th 1862

I spent the following days exploring and photographing the actual Battlefield at Shiloh with this perspective in mind.  I would photograph the battlefields from the 19th century soldiers’ point of view, directing the camera toward the same landscapes these soldiers took in as these battles raged 150 years ago.  These battlefield landscapes would be placed alongside the reenactment images to create a visual narrative.  Following the timeline of the “War Between the States” the images will culminate in a grand poetic commemoration of the Civil War Sesquicentennial.

About the Cameras

My first two pinhole cameras were made by a company called Leonardo and can be found online at a site called Pinhole Resource.

New 4 inch camera with internal "shutter" by Henry Falco

New 4 inch pinhole camera with internal “shutter” by Henry Falco

However, after using these two cameras for a while I enlisted the help of my brother, Henry Falco, a recording engineer and woodworking artist, to help expand my pinhole camera collection.  Henry has built me a whole series of pinhole cameras since.  The cameras accept traditional 4×5 inch and 8×10 inch film holders which can be loaded with sheet film, in the field, with a portable darkroom.  To help with the handicap of having no viewfinder I designed the cameras to approximate the focal lengths of the 35mm camera lenses I’ve used in my professional career as a photojournalist and commercial photographer over the last twenty years.

When determining the focal length in a pinhole camera we need to look at the depth of the camera; the distance from the pinhole to the film.  This distance from the pinhole to the film determines the focal length of the camera as well as determining the diameter of the pinhole needed to expose the entire sheet of film in the back of the camera.  Depending on the situation I can choose from seven different cameras;

3 inch, 4.5 inch, 6 inch, 9 inch and 14 inch large format pinhole cameras.  The cameras take standard 4x5 sheets film holders.

3 inch, 4.5 inch, 6 inch, 9 inch and 14 inch cameras

3 inch 4×5 camera – f228

4 inch 4×5 camera – f256

4.5 inch 4×5 camera – f287

6 inch 4×5 camera – f352

9 inch 4×5 camera – f407

14 inch 4×5 camera – f444

12 inch 8×10 camera – f323

(These approximate the focal lengths of a 22mm,  30mm,  35mm,  50mm,  70mm and a 120mm lens from the perspective of a 35mm SLR camera)

Film changing in the Field at Shiloh Military Park

Film changing in the field at Shiloh Military Park, Tn 2012

Working with the pinhole cameras can be challenging.  As stated, there is no viewfinder so composing takes careful consideration.  There is a limited amount of film and film holders I can carry.  This means typically taking only one frame of film per subject.  To attain a “sharp” image the camera always needs to be on a tripod.  There is no photoshopping or retouching in the Project images only basic toning/color correction and traditional darkroom techniques.

Working with these cameras at the reenactments with moving subjects can be especially difficult.   Moving back and forth over a landscape as the “battle” takes place I find that my focus on the subjects becomes very intense. I’m looking for a moment, a pause….I use my instincts and pray.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Link to the Battle Pages: Battles 1861-1862

Link to the Battle Pages: Battles 1863

Link to Battles Pages: Battles 1864

Link to the Slide Shows: Slide Show

Learn the Inspiration for the Project: About Page

26 Comments Post a comment
  1. mtittle #

    What the material in which the pinhole is created, and what’s the diameter of the pinhole?

    January 26, 2013
    • The actual pinholes are made of thin sheets of steel, diameters of the pinholes, their apertures, vary according to the focal length of the camera.

      January 26, 2013
  2. Great photos. What emulsions are you using?

    January 27, 2013
    • Using Kodak Portra 4×5 and 8×10 film…

      January 27, 2013
      • Thanks. I was using Polaroid 4 X 5, but I guess you know about that medium’s unhappy demise. Any thoughts on Pinhole digital?

        January 28, 2013
      • Mark, sorry about the delay in response….i guess when they can manufacture a CCD thats 4×5 inches and doesn’t cost 1 million dollars, yes, pinhole digital, but until then….
        BTW – there is a company that makes pinhole body caps for canon & nikon cameras. The only draw back is that its a fixed “lens”, a wide angle i believe, and I don’t know of anyone making caps with varying focal lengths…

        April 13, 2013
  3. Joe #

    wow, this is really fantastic! thanks for sharing all your work on your website.

    January 27, 2013
  4. Bill Lavery #

    Fantastic work! Early days of photography brought back to life. Question: in the Rappahannock River shot, isd that a 1952 Mercury on the bank in front of the cannon?

    January 27, 2013
    • Bill, i try and position myself and the camera so nothing from the 21st century is in these photos, but that can sometimes be hard…..

      January 27, 2013
  5. Linda #

    My son just asked to see real pinhole photos from the Civil War period. Any good sources you’d recommend? Thanks for the inspiring images and story of your civil war journey

    January 27, 2013
    • linda, thanks for looking at the blog. The pinhole camera actually predates the Civil War. By the time the 1860s rolled around photographers were using “much better” technology. Matthew Brady, famous Civil War photographer, used the ambrotype or wet plate, photography. His camera, and other cameras used during the Civil War generally could be focused and had lenses. Pinhole camera takes a photo without a lens, there is no focusing. That being said, i know of no pinhole camera photos from the civil war.
      I use the pinhole camera because of the way it renders the subjects, the soft and dreamy feeling it gives…

      January 27, 2013
  6. poppaernie #

    Great shots! What is your average exposure time?

    January 27, 2013
    • exposures vary quite a bit depending on the light and film speed. Average daylight exposure, on 160 speed film, in full sun, 4 – 12 seconds. Exposures on overcast days run 30 seconds to 6 minutes, again depending on the light, subject reflectance and other factors.

      January 27, 2013
  7. Mike! These are really amazing! Can’t wait to see more! Jonno

    June 17, 2013
  8. lizwelchman #

    mike – you are wildly talented and i truly enjoy looking at every photograph you take. the photos are amazing and very inspiring. great work. lw

    June 27, 2013
  9. Alan L. Wilson #

    Michael..I was a real pleasure to meet you at the “HighWater Mark” Sunday evening. Our conversation defiantly showed me that you” get it”. As you know, and I think I shared with you, as General Joshua Chamberlain said at the dedication of the Maine monuments at Gettysburg,”In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom,and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

    Your project has a way of giving presence to that vision that General Chamberlain so eloquently spoke of. Thank you again and I hope to see you on the fields of Gettysburg or elsewhere.

    July 10, 2013
    • alan, Hello. It was a pleasure to meet you as well. Thanks for the comments on the pinhole work, it is a labor of love. Your comparison with the Chamberlain quote, to my work, is touching and what im striving for , in a sense, with the project.
      Hope to see you out there again. Ill be posting the entire Gettysburg work in a couple weeks, please check back.
      Thanks again
      Sincerely,

      Michael Falco

      July 10, 2013
  10. Superb blog! Do you have any tips and hints for
    aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own blog soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out
    there that I’m completely overwhelmed .. Any suggestions?

    Kudos!

    July 23, 2014
    • Thanks for your comments. I recommend WordPress. It takes a little getting used to but after a while it’s pretty easy to navigate..good luck

      July 24, 2014
  11. I love your work, especially the Civil War pinhole series. I have been playing around with pinholes on my digital camera and have not quite gotten the hang of it. I thought it was just something that wouldn’t ever amount to a decent photo. I’m very excited to start trying my hand at some glass plates but your work has really made me want to investigate pinhole more. Do you ever offer classes or know of any books that could help me get started?

    http://www.worldturndupsidedown.blogspot.com

    September 30, 2014
    • Stephanie Ann,

      sorry for the late reply. I don’t offer classes in pinhole photography but Im sure there is a book out there for you. I would go to a website called, Pinhole Resource. That website is were i purchased my first pinhole camera, there are a number of galleries and books offered on the site. Im a professional photographer by trade based in NYC and picked up pinhole cameras as an exercise in slowing down. You can see some of my editorial work at http://www.falcphoto.com
      Good Luck and let me know if you have any other question….mike

      January 9, 2015
  12. Kelly Harris #

    Technical question, how do you know how long to expose each individual photo?

    January 9, 2015
    • Kelly,
      Hello, thanks for visiting the blog. Each pinhole camera has its own fixed aperture setting so the exposure of an image would vary between cameras. In the field I use a light meter, an iPhone app, that tells me what the exposure should be and then i typically double the exposure to compensate for reciprocity failure. Im using Kodak Porta 4×5 film at 160 and 400 iso. Might sound complicated but I actually don’t even use the light meter anymore. Depending on the camera, in full sun, on iso 160 film, the exposure range from 2-10 seconds. The only variable you can play with when working with the pinhole camera is time….the pinhole apertures are so small that the difference between, say 10 seconds and a 30 second exposure, is actually not that much, the negative is only slightly denser and totally workable. I frequently extend the exposure times beyond the meter reading to enhance the blurred effects from wind etc.

      January 9, 2015

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