The Great Pinhole “Lens” Photography Shootout

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Many photographers ("You know who you are," says the face in the mirror) scour the Web's plethora of lens reviews looking for that magical new or vintage lens that offers unmatched sharpness, contrast, and color rendition. Yet, it is the pinhole that casts aside all of those wish-list items and delivers a unique photographic experience. Digital or analog, regardless of format, the pinhole camera and modern pinhole "lens" (they aren't really lenses because they have no optics) make for a great way to experience a different and fun side of photography. With several pinholes on the market, let's look at what you can expect from the different options.

Rising Wide pinhole
Rising Wide pinhole

What Is a Pinhole (Lens)?

The pinhole is just that—a pin hole. All the light needed to make a photograph passes through that tiny hole and onto the film or sensor. The pinhole is a version of the camera obscura—a method of reproduction that dates back thousands of years and, in (relatively) modern times, one of the earliest forms of photography.

Modern photographic 35mm lenses often have apertures that stop down to f/22 or f/32. The pinhole takes your photography from that pedestrian level of tiny aperture to the world of triple-digit f-stop numbers. Because the aperture of the opening is so small, the photographer gets to deal with the (usually) undesired side effects of slow shutter speeds, digital noise, and the discovery of how much dust you can accumulate on your sensor!

Yes, I can remove dust from pinhole shots in post processing. No, I didn't do it for all the photos in this article.

If you want to get more information before I dive into the different pinholes, check out my article "Tips for Digital Pinhole Photographs." I also highly recommend reading Jill Waterman's interview of photographer Abelardo Morell, who uses a pinhole to create some of the most amazing photographs you will ever see.

Rising Wide pinhole.
Rising Wide pinhole

Modern Pinholes

Some photographers create their own do-it-yourself pinholes using a lens cap, but there are a few commercial off-the-shelf options available and that is what we will be reviewing here.

Lensbaby recently released its Obscura pinhole that combines a bit of technology with the ancient art. Thingyfy also has elevated the art of the pinhole, introducing pinholes with variable apertures and even a zoom pinhole! Rising takes the lens cap treatment to precision levels, while SLR Magic and Lensless literally deliver the experience with a lens cap for your camera.

Testing and Comparison

I headed out to a few scenic overlooks and urbex sites with a quiver full of pinholes to shoot similar images with each to show how each pinhole produces its own unique results.

Because many pinholes go in and out of stock, I couldn't test some specific versions that I wanted to, but I did have examples from each company that currently makes pinholes for digital (and film) cameras.

As I proved above, I can remove dust in post-processing, but having the patience to do that for dozens of images escaped me. Please forgive my laziness (and dirty sensor)!

Rising Wide pinhole.
Rising Wide pinhole

Lensbaby

No stranger to the world of "special effects lenses," Lensbaby has once again entered the pinhole market, this time with a pair of similar optics that feature a layer of coated glass to keep dust from reaching your sensor on long days of pinhole fun.

The Lensbaby Obscura duo

Lensbaby Obscura 50

The Obscura 50 with Fixed Body is available for Nikon F and Canon EF (EOS) mounts. As indicated by the name, the pinhole has a similar field of view as a 50mm lens. I used an adapter to mount the Nikon F version on my camera for a 75mm equivalent field of view.

Lensbaby Obscura 50 with a Novoflex Nikon-to-FUJFIILM X adapter on the FUJFILM X-T1

The Obscura has thin coated glass covering the pinholes (the only "lens" in the comparison that will keep dust off your sensor, although I would be surprised if a lot of dust made it into a pinhole). And, bringing Lensbaby creativity to the genre, it has three different pinhole settings:

  • Zone plate—f/32 featuring a central hole surrounded by smaller pinholes for an effect like a sieve but with a (relatively) sharper center section

  • Pinhole sieve—f/64 shoots through multiple holes to create varying artifacts, glare, and glow

  • Pinhole—f/161 single pinhole

f/32
f/32
f/64
f/64
f/161
f/161
f/32
f/32
f/64
f/64
f/161
f/161
The Lensbaby Obscura 50, showing how the different pinhole settings respond to light outdoors and when pointed at LED lights

The Obscura 50 feels like a manual focus lens with a focus ring near the business end of the optic. Selecting one of the three pinhole options requires you to reach into the body of the Obscura from the front and turn a selector dial deep inside the lens—not a very fast way to change your settings, but nothing is really fast when it comes to pinhole photography. Cleverly engineered, the selection disc is placed off-center so that as you spin to your next pinhole, the opening finds itself in the center of the Obscura (and your sensor or film).

Lensbaby Obscura 50 Example Images:

f/32
f/32
f/32
f/161
f/32

Lensbaby Obscura 16

Internally similar to the Obscura 50, the Obscura 16 is, by appearance, functionality, and size, a completely different pinhole designed specifically for mirrorless cameras. This pancake-form-factor optic is available for the Canon RF, FUJIFILM X, Leica L, Micro Four Thirds, Nikon Z, and Sony E mounts. The Obscura 16 is equally at home on APS-C or full-frame cameras, where it renders a field of view like that of a 16mm lens on a full-frame, 24mm on a 1.5x APS-C, and 32mm on Micro Four Thirds.

Lensbaby Obscura 16 on the FUJFILM X-T1

Like the Obscura 50, there is coated glass covering the three different pinhole options, and those three options are identical, save their virtual f-stops. On the Obscura 16, the options are:

  • Zone plate—f/22 featuring a central hole surrounded by smaller pinholes for an effect like the sieve but with a (relatively) sharper center section

  • Pinhole sieve—f/45 shoots through multiple holes to create varying artifacts, glare, and glow

  • Pinhole—f/90 single pinhole

f/22
f/45
f/90
f/22
f/45
f/90
The Lensbaby Obscura 16 shows how the different pinhole settings respond to light outdoors and when pointed at LED lights.

The Obscura 16's size and pancake look make it a great accessory for casual walking around. Selecting one of the three pinhole options is a bit easier than on the Obscura 50, since the inner rotating bezel is easier to reach than the selection disc on the 50. Overall, the lens has a great tactile feel.

Lensbaby Obscura 16 Example Images:

Thingyfy

Another company taking pinhole photography to new places is Thingyfy, with its trio of pinhole options.

One thing to note about the three Thingyfy options: The pinholes have front threads that allow a filter to be added, which will help to keep dust from reaching your sensor.

The three Thingyfy pinholes.
The three Thingyfy pinholes

Thingyfy Pinhole Pro

I tried the Pinhole Pro, with its adjustable aperture for FUJIFILM X, and its 26mm field of view. The aperture isn't labeled in f-stops, but the pinhole opens from 0.10mm to 0.80mm on a clicked "aperture" ring.

The Thingyfy Pinhole Pro on the FUJIFILM X-T1

The Pinhole Pro is aluminum, so it has a solid feel, and the clicked detents on the pinhole diameter selection ring are nice, but you need to make sure you get the ring precisely aligned because you will get severe vignetting if it's not lined up correctly.

10mm
20mm
30mm
50mm
80mm
10mm
30mm
50mm
80mm
The Thingyfy Pinhole Pro’s different aperture settings outdoors and with LED lights

The Pinhole Pro comes in two versions: There is a 50mm option for Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mounts, and a 26mm version for FUJIFILM X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E.

Thingyfy Pinhole Pro Example Images:

Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X

For hundreds (thousands?) of years, pinhole shooters dreamed of having a zoom pinhole. Thingyfy finally delivered the world's first zooming pinhole that allows you to recompose your pinhole art without moving your feet!

The Thingyfy Pinhole Pro on the FUJIFILM X-T1

The Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mount version zooms from 40-60mm with a fixed 0.25mm pinhole while the FUJIFILM X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E version zooms from 18-36mm with the same pinhole.

40mm
50mm
60mm
40mm
50mm
60mm
The Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X showing off its zoom capabilities

Again, an aluminum body gives the Pinhole Pro X a solid, quality feel. The Thingyfy pinholes feel like modern versions of vintage lenses when mounted on the camera.

Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X Example Images:

Thingyfy Pinhole Pro S

Thingyfy's Pinhole Pro S is its most basic pinhole—devoid of an adjustable pinhole or a zoom with a beautifully wide angle of view. While stripped of modern conveniences like the zoom and adjustable pinhole size, the Pinhole Pro S does have the pancake form factor—slimmer and lighter than its stablemates. Also, again, the aluminum construction feels great in the hand.

The Thingyfy Pinhole Pro S on the FUJIFILM X-T1

There are two versions of the Pro S: the Canon EF, Nikon F, Pentax K, and Sony A mount versions have a 37mm focal length and the FUJIFILM X, Micro Four Thirds, and Sony E mount versions are a very wide 11mm.

Thingyfy Pinhole Pro S Example Images:

Lensless

Not only does Lensless make pinhole body caps for modern cameras, this company also makes traditional large format wooden pinhole cameras that are beautiful to look at and use.

The Lensless Pinhole Body Cap features a thin brass plate at its center.
The Lensless Pinhole Body Cap features a thin brass plate at its center.

Lensless Pinhole Body Cap

The Lensless Pinhole Body Cap for Canon EF and Nikon F mount cameras is simply a camera body cap with the center drilled out. Filling the hole is a 0.005"-thick brass plate with a tiny 0.01" pinhole drilled in its center. The Lensless Pinhole Body cap gives an approximate 50mm field of view and an f/200 aperture.

The Lensless Pinhole Body Cap on a Novoflex Nikon-to-FUJIFILM X adapter on the FUJIFILM X-T1

Representing the smallest pinhole option, the Lensless Pinhole Body Cap is also the most economical of the pinholes tested and is a great way to get into the fun with your Canon or Nikon lens, or with the body cap adapted to your mirrorless camera's Canon EF or Nikon F adapter.

Lensless Pinhole Body Cap Example Images:

Rising

Similar to Lensless's body cap style, the Rising pinholes take the body cap style a bit further with a large aluminum cap center drilled with a tiny pinhole.

The Rising Wide pinhole.
The Rising Wide pinhole

Rising Standard Pinhole

With the widest number of applications of any pinhole, the Rising Standard Pinhole is available for Canon EF, Canon FD, Copal #0, Hasselblad V, Leica M, Leica R, Minolta MD, Nikon F, Pentax K, Samsung NX, Sony A, and Sony E mounts.

The Rising Wide pinhole on a Lomography Leica-to-FUJIFILM X adapter on the FUJIFILM X-T1

The Copal #0 is a tiny f/256, Pentax K is f/227, the Canon EF and Nikon F clock in at f/222, the Leica M enjoys f/131, the Canon FD, Hasselblad V, Leica R, Minolta MD, and Sony A at f/128, the Samsung NX is at f/102, and the Sony E measures f/82 with various angles of view for each combination.

Due to logistics challenges, I did not get to test a Rising Standard for this article, but I did use my personal Rising Wide for Leica M mount that has an f/182 and a 35mm field of view.

Rising Wide Example Images:

SLR Magic

Our last pinhole is from lens maker SLR Magic. This, unfortunately, is the one pinhole I did not test because I do not have a Micro Four Thirds camera. The SLR Magic Toy Pinhole for Micro Four Thirds provides a 12mm focal length (24mm on the Micro Four Thirds camera) at an approximate f/128 aperture. This pinhole is similar in design to the Lensless and Rising with its body cap form factor.

SLR Magic Toy Pinhole for Micro Four Thirds
SLR Magic Toy Pinhole for Micro Four Thirds

#Pinhole

With a relatively low monetary hurdle to clear, with digital cameras, getting into pinhole photography has never been easier or more fun. I would encourage everyone to step away from the lens—temporarily giving up the dream of optical perfection—and take some pinhole photos. While the aesthetic isn't for everyone, it is simply a cool way to make a photograph when you think of how all the light from the scene is traveling through that tiny little pinhole.

And, if you are really adventurous, try a multi-year exposure with a Solarcan Pinhole Camera!

What are your thoughts on modern or classic pinhole photography? Do you have questions about the pinholes tested? Let us know in the Comments section, below!

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