A man looking at a pinhole image. Pinhole photography is the oldest form of photography

Pinhole. The Oldest Form of Photography

A man, looking at a pinhole image

You can say pinhole photography is the oldest form of photography. It’s not the oldest form of image making. I almost wrote that it is the oldest form of image making, but it is not true. Humans have been making images for thousands of years. Not all the pinhole imagery used cameras. However, Eric Renner, who wrote a book called “Pinhole Photography” mentioned the earliest mention of pinhole optics came from China, from a person called Mo Ti, around 400 BC.

 So, it’s old. Pinhole photography is ancient. Digital photography has taken over the world of photography. However, there are many people–in particular, in the Western Hemisphere–exploring analog techniques of the 19th century. I discovered most of these techniques when I studied the “History of Photography” with the Photography Society of America. As a note of interest, I am a member. People across the globe mark, or celebrate, the Annual Pinhole Day on the 24th of April.

What is Pinhole Photography?

The anatomy of a pinhole camera

If you ask me to pause and explain what pinhole photography is, I will do so. First, you don’t need a sheet or roll of light-sensitive paper, or a digital sensor, to make a pinhole image. You will need these things if you make a pinhole photographic image. So now, I want you to pause and reflect. If this is the oldest form of photography, why don’t you need a light-sensitive paper/sensor? Since the word photography loosely means, ‘drawing with light’, then logic dictates that you don’t need a sheet of film, or sensor, to take a pinhole photograph.

However, you will require the following items if you want to create a permanent record of the image–a photograph. So, what do you need?

What Do You Need?

You need:

1. An enclosure sealed off from extraneous light.

2. A tiny aperture

3. And a source of light.

You will need a flat surface at the far end. This is imperative to avoid getting a weird image. Therefore, you can seal off your windows by covering them with black paper, seal off any light leaks, make a tiny aperture in the paper, and create an image.


If you follow my train of thought, you will realize you can create an image using your entire wall as the ‘screen’. Extend the logic further, and then you may figure you can convert almost anything into a pinhole camera–including a box of cereal. Don’t forget: this is the oldest form of photography. And people in those ancient times did not have modern digital cameras.

The Resultant Image

A simple ray diagram of a pinhole image

If you follow the ray diagram on the image, you see in this section; you will see an inverted image. This is normal. I don’t know how many of you remember your optics lessons in school. If you do, then you may recall that a convex lens creates an inverted but real image that is behind the lens. In contrast, a concave lens creates a virtual, upright image that is in front of the lens.

The image created by a pinhole camera is real, inverted, and always falls behind the aperture.

My Own, Truncated Explorations

I have wanted to explore this genre of photography, but Covid intervened. Since the start of Covid, the price of chemicals has shot up, along with everything else. Therefore, I forced myself to make some compromises. I have done a little work in pinhole photography. However, when I was exploring this, the oldest form of photography, I realized I had to re-evaluate many basic concepts I have always taken for granted. But more on that next time. Before I go, I leave you with two self-portraits I shot in Manali. I remember the evening well. It was below freezing, and I took almost thirty or forty photographs before I got a result that was half-decent.

It is time to praise the man. Me!

A Few Resources

If you are keen to explore the subject, you may explore these sites. The link to Eric Remmer’s book on Amazon India is my affiliate link

Pinhole Photography Eric Renner

Published by Rajiv

I have been around the block a bit. I've lived in four countries, and in many parts of my country. I have been fortunate enough to meet some really good people, and some really lousy ones, all of whom have taught me much. I am passionate about photography, writing, Indian history and continuing on this grand journey towards death.

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