Buy The Book
HomeAbout The BookShopBlogNewsPinhole 101ContactJoin us on Facebook

Low Light Pinholing

Pinhole photographers love to brag and boast about the unique characteristics of the medium such as infinite depth of field and unique point of view; however, there are disadvantages as well. The top two "gotchas" to pinholing are slow exposure time and motion blur. Those disadvantages should be treated as meer obstacles that require problem solving and solutions.

This article focuses on shooting pinhole in a low light situation, which only amplifies the problems of pinhole. Not only is this feat challenging, it is often so frustrating that many newbies walk away from the art form completely discouraged. Many photographers will simply avoid dimly lit scenarios to side-step the inevitable, but low light conditions often provide wonderful images (with the proper exposure, of course!) We will introduce the common factors and problems of low light image-making, and suggest possible solutions.

This concept is much too large for this small discussion; however, an extended discussion can be found in my new book, The Pinhole Camera. Buy a copy today for more detailed information on this topic. Ready for a quick overview? Let's get started!

Companion Book Chapters
Consult these chapters of The Pinhole Camera for additional tricks, tips, and help: Chapter 2 (Advanced Track), Chapter 3 (Advanced Track), and Chapter 4 (Advanced Track).

Copyright © 2009 Brian J. Krummel
Burial Site. 2009
A museum is a wonderful location to shoot pinhole images. The displays are often exciting and presented in the most dramatic lighting conditions.
Selecting a Camera
The first decision you must make is whether to use a film-based or paper-based camera. For me, it is not a difficult decision. The additional speed of film makes it my number one medium for this type of work. The slow sensitivity of photographic paper will be magnified and exposures will range between 30 minutes and several hours.

Select your favorite film camera for your next low light project, whether it is a 35 mm matchbox camera or a homemade 4" x 5" creation. Your camera selection may be based on your intended subject matter as well. If you are walking around the neighborhood, then any type of camera is suitable. Although if you decide to photograph in a public place, such as a musuem, you may want a small, non-descript roll film camera.

In the next few paragraphs, you will need to know the f-stop of your pinhole. If you have purchased a commercially produced camera, the f-stop should be available in the product documentation. For do-it-yourself enthuisiasts, you can calculate the diameter of your own pinhole. Complete instructions can be found in Chapter 2 (Advanced Track) of my book.

Copyright © 2009 Brian J. Krummel
8BAnners MA camera
These images were created with a 120 mm roll film camera on Kodak Tri-x 400 film.
Selecting Film
Choose a fast film such as 400 ISO or greater. A faster film speed will permit shorter exposures; however, the grain of the film is typically more noticeable in your print or negative. I selected Kodak Tri-X 400 film for this series because I knew that I could push the film speed to 1600 ISO and then compensate for this during the film development. By using a film speed of 1600 ISO, I was able to reduce my exposure times to 40 seconds or less.

Copyright © 2009 Brian J. Krummel
Flights. 2009
The bold lines and symmetrical shapes of the landings were very intriguing. I placed my camera on the marble ledge (foreground) and gently opened the shutter.
Understanding Light & Film Reciprocity
I have underestimated my understanding of light on many occasions and lost a potentionally wonderful image. As a photographer, the best concept that you can really grasp is that of light. Many automated cameras remove the need for us to really comprehend the very essence of our selected art form. If you understand the way light works in conjunction with light-sensitive materials, you will have a greater chance at capturing the "wow moments" of life via pinholing.

As previously stated, there really is so much more detailed information in Chapter 4 (Advanced Track) regarding proper exposure principles. Consult the book if any of the following material is contextually too thin.

The sensitivity of film decreases with prolonged exposure time. When you expose a piece of film for more than a second, the film requires more light (a longer exposure) to properly form an image. This is referred to as Reciprocity Failure. This general breakdown of a light-sensitive material is usually the culprit in improperly exposed negatives.

Copyright © 2009 Brian J. Krummel
Watching From a Distance. 2009
Mythical scenes can be found at the museum. I recorded several images of dinosaurs while my children ran around, astounded by the prehistoric skeletons.
Making an Exposure
As it applies to pinhole image-making, if your meter reading is longer than one second you must increase the exposure time accordingly. A typical pinhole exposure lasts at least one second, so this rule of Reciprocity Failure is very important to understand.

Use a light meter to obtain an exposure reading. If you do not have a handheld meter, you can use the meter within a camera. You will have to adjust your reading to match your pinhole's aperture. Here is a quick example to clarify. If your in-camera meter registers an aperture of f/22 at the shutter speed of 1/4 of a second, the equivalent exposure time for f/90 is 4 seconds. A four second exposure requires some compensation and the adjusted exposure time is now 12 seconds. Follow the chart below for more examples and remember this guideline when photographing in low light situations.

F-stop Shutter Speed Exposure Compensation Adjusted Shutter Speed
22 1/4 None N/A
32 1/2 None N/A
45 1 second 1.5 1.5 seconds
64 2 seconds 2 4 seconds
90 4 seconds 3 12 seconds
125 8 seconds 5 40 seconds
180 16 seconds 5 80 seconds
250 32 seconds 12 6 minutes 24 seconds

A handheld meter is more useful than a camera-based meter because you can usually select an aperture setting close to your camera's f-stop. My handheld meter reads up to f/90. That is the same aperture as my 8Banners pinhole camera which I am using for much of my recent work, so it's very convenient.

Lastly, long exposures will require more care. You must keep your camera stationary for the whole exposure, so use a tripod or other support device for the sharpest images. If you are in a museum, you may not be permitted to use a tripod. In that case, set your camera on the floor or on a bench.

Copyright © 2009 Brian J. Krummel
Parthenon. 2009
This scale model of the Parthenon is captured in life-likeness. The spot of illumination adds a sense of realness which almost convinces you that you are viewing the actual location.
Processing Your Film
If you increase your film speed, such as I did with these images, you have to adjust your film development. The standard development time for my Kodak Tri-X 400 film is seven minutes in Agfa Rodinal at a 1:25 dilution. When I pushed my film speed to 1600 ISO, the film development time increased to 18.5 minutes. Wow, big difference! An excellent resource for film development can be found at DigitalTruth Photo.

Copyright © 2009 Brian J. Krummel
Sarcophagus. 2009
I placed my camera on top of the glass display for this interesting shot of an egyptian sarcophagus.
Do not be intimidated by low light image-making. Photography is as much of a science as a creative art form and with a little knowledge, you can capitalize on each opportunity or location that presents itself.
Did you enjoy the tips & tricks?
Let us know! Post a message on our Facebook page today with your thoughts and reactions. Buy our book today to learn more about pinholing.