A long-time fan of plastic cameras, Argentinean writer and photographer Lorraine Healy is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera. In this article, Healy continues on her journey of learning how to use pinhole cameras, looking at a couple of new medium format cameras and a couple of helpful phone apps.
A few weeks ago I wrote about using Holga pinhole cameras, both in 120 format (which, in my case, had been an old Holga S modified by Randy Smith of HolgaMods) and the 35mm version. As I was falling more and more in love with the whole pinhole aesthetics, I kept noticing that the photographs I admired the most were taken with pinhole cameras called Reality So Subtle, made in France by an Irish gentleman called James Guerin—and when I got to the website I found some examples of the extraordinary pinhole work made by Lomo friend @oleman. Call it the terrible Gear Acquisition Syndrome, call it curiosity, but I ordered one in the 6x6 format, which comes with a thread for attaching filters. The camera is CNC-machined, with a laser-drilled pinhole and a focal length of f160. It has framing lines engraved into the body of the camera, for better framing. It fits together perfectly, it is sleek and beautiful and worth every penny of its very reasonable cost (€85 + shipping).
Then a friend recommended Clint O’Connor’s Pinhole Flyer, a camera entirely made in a 3D printer, also in 6x6 format. It functions the same way as the RSS6x6: you load it from the top, then secure the lid—as if you were putting the lid on a coffee can. Though it fits very well together, the Flyer comes with the added detail of a strong rubber band to keep everything in place. While it has the same f/stop as the RSS camera, the Flyer’s angle is more or less the equivalent of 30-32mm. I figured the RSS6x6 was about 17mm equivalent, so pretty wide. The Flyer is cheaper, shipping at $49 including a new roll of film. Both manufacturers offer more choices in formats, but 6x6 square was what I wanted.
So pinhole cameras, film, what else? A reliable light meter! I have an old school hand-held Sekonic, but I had heard great things about a couple of phone apps specifically geared for pinhole photography. One is Pinhole Assist, by Au Bord de la Piscine, and the second one is Pocket Light Meter, by Nuwaste studios. There are many, many light meter apps available for cell phones, and maybe you have found one that is absolutely perfect. If so, please share!
After I received each camera, I proceeded to test them, of course, trying to get the length of exposures, light conditions, type of film, etc., all right and perfect from the start. Big surprise: did not happen! My first problem with the RSS6x6 was getting used to its very wide angle. I’m not a wide-angle photographer by disposition, although I do love the results. But I have to teach myself to see in those much wider terms. So my first few shots with the RSS and it's 17 mm equivalent pinhole, were surprisingly well-exposed (thanks to my hand-held meter) but everything looked far, far away.
I sent the results to James Guerin, the manufacturer of the RSS cameras, who suggested optimal distance from the yellow life jacket locker would have been at most one foot, or 30cm. Then he explained that the framing lines on the top and sides of the camera were to give me an idea how far the frame extended. Once all of that made perfect sense, I started trying to get closer to the “main object” of the shot.
With the Pinhole Flyer and its 35mm equivalent focal length, I had less trouble framing the shots, but of course, as with any pinhole camera, getting the right length of exposure was a learning process and continues to be. I took the Flyer to the Oregon Coast, where I was attending a long exposure class with a photographer I greatly admire, Zeb Andrews. His pinhole work is truly exquisite. To make things a little harder for myself, I decided to stick to black and white film. I liked the shots I got, like the one below, but I did not get the exposure right. A bit of Lightroom later, it looked like what I had imagined it would be.
I discovered that one of the problems I was having had to use with the issue of reciprocity failure, a factor that needs to be taken into account and that depends on the kind of film one is using. The Pinhole Assist app has the capacity to factor in reciprocity failure (RF) for the exposure it measures and the film being used—and you can save the settings for camera + film used and go back to them time and again, with RF always taken into account. Where this wonderful app is not as effective, is in keeping a useful record or memo of the exposure you used. Where the Pocket LightMeter app offers a photo of what you were shooting, along with space for notes, Pinhole Assist provides all the info on a not-very-practical Excel spreadsheet that looks like this:
Traveling in Argentina this past few week, I decided I would really practice my pinhole workflow. I took the light and unbreakable Pinhole Flyer and shot 18 rolls of film (b&w, slide, negative). As for the lightmeter apps, I came up with a combination that I hope has served me well (I don’t know for sure, I’m getting the film developed!): I first measured the exposure, set the camera and the type of film, with the Pinhole Assist app; then opened the Pocket LightMeter app, recorded a shot of the image and in the notes wrote my real exposure time—which was usually longer than the one recorded by the Pocket LightMeter app. Like this:
The Pinhole Assist app readings were one second for the sky and 7 seconds for the foreground and middle ground, as I recorded on the notes. Pocket LightMeter gave me a reading of four seconds. I ended up taking two exposures successively, the first one for the sky, the second one for the rest. I’ll see what worked after the film comes back.
The more I shoot these pinhole cameras, the more I love the whole process. Having always been a “fast mover” photographer, I find myself really enjoying this slower process and the images it produces. Now, if James and Clint could make a 35mm version of these two awesome cameras!!!
Lorraine Healy (@lorrainehealy) is an Argentinean writer and photographer living in the Pacific Northwest. A long-time fan of plastic cameras and she is the author of “Tricks With A Plastic Wonder,” a manual for achieving better results with a Holga camera, available as an eBook from Amazon.com.