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Zone Plate Image-making

"There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone."

Halfway between pinhole and lens, you will find a small device called a zone plate. The zone plate is NOT a pinhole NOR a lens, so where does it fit in? Well, if you have worked with zone plates before you already know how wonderful, creative opportunities simply open up when you use one. If this is completely new to you, keep on reading!

Companion Book Chapters
Consult these chapters of The Pinhole Camera for additional tricks, tips, and help: Chapter 2 (Advanced Track), Chapter 2 (Creative Opportunities), and Chapter 8 (Retrofitting Cameras).

Copyright © 2010 Brian J. Krummel
I converted an old 120 Foldex 20 camera by removing the lens and adding a zone plate aperture.

Image captured on Kodak T-Max 400 film. Duotone added in Photoshop.

Defining a Zone Plate
A zone plate is a set of concentric circles, alternating as transparent and opaque rings, that focus light by using diffraction. Zone plates are typically designed by a computer program and printed onto clear plastic sheets. This aperture is mounted to your camera and positioned in front of your light-sensitive material, just as you would with a traditional pinhole. As the light passes through your zone plate, it is diffracted around each zone forming an image on your film plane.

image from wikimedia commons
Zone plates allow more light into your camera, thus permitting a shorter exposure time.
Characteristics & Application
A zone plate photograph is characterized by a soft or glowing image. The softness of a zone plate offers a much different emotional feel than a common pinhole. Larger quantities of light can enter your camera through a zone plate, and exposure times can be significantly shorter than a comparable pinhole exposure. This is one distinct advantage over pinhole usage.

Copyright © 2010 Brian J. Krummel
Primanti Bros.
Digital zone plate image captured with Canon Rebel T1i and commercial body cap.
Obtaining a Zone Plate
If you are interested in obtaining a zone plate for your camera, you really have two options: create one yourself or buy one.

There are precise formulas for calculating and creating your own zone plate, but that is beyond the scope and intent of this article. Some of the software tools, discussed in the Advanced Track of Chapter 2, permit the calculation and generation of zone plate templates. Additionally, there is a comprehensive outline available on the web which illustrates the creation process. Likewise, you can purchase individual pre-printed zone plates. I have had much success in retrofitting old folder cameras with zone plates offerred from Zero Image.

When buying commercial products, you can find zone plate cameras. One such instance in the Zero45 made by Zero Image. This large format camera accepts 4" x 5" sheet film holders. The interior mounted turret has a mounted zone plate as well as pinhole.

One easy avenue into zone plate image-making involves repurposing your DSLR. You can purchase a body cap for your DSLR. Vendors include Pinhole Resource, Skink Photo, and Lensbaby among others. Simply replace the lens on your digital camera with a body cap & zone plate assembly. Exposure times are easily determined and the digital format removes all exposure guesswork.
There are plenty of artists who are currently exploring the use and benefits of zone plates. Check out the Flickr groups, Zone Plate or Zoneplate for example, dedicated to Zone Plates for further inspiration, ideas, tips, and tricks.

Copyright © 2010 Juergen Kollmorgen
Hong Kong - Star Ferry
Zone Plate image taken with Leica M and Skink Pinhole Pancake

Camera: Leica rangefinder

Film: Fuji superia 100

Zone Plate: Skink Pinhole Pancake with zoneplate - 11 zones, f/46

Exposure time: about 3 seconds, camera mounted on little tripod

Zone plate image-making may seem too far removed from pinholing, but in my opinion it is simply another alternative to lensless imaging. If you want more detailed and scientific information on the topic, Wikipedia has an excellent article available.
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