Despite photography taking mainly a digital form nowadays, there is still immense value in the tactile side of photography, especially in regard to teaching photography. With education being based more in the home at the moment, it can be the perfect time to introduce someone to photography using the simplest and most basic tools. Pinholes are of the most primitive examples of photography but are also some of the most perfect tools with which to teach the basics of exposure without needing to complicate it using abstract modes, shutter speeds, f/-stops, or other potentially confusing settings. Additionally, another great thing about pinholes is their adaptability—namely, that they can be made to contain any size film or paper desired.
One of the easiest and best ways to make a pinhole camera is to begin with the proverbial tin of oats, or really any cylindrical and opaque vessel you have into which you can poke a hole. But for a pre-made or more precise and full-featured option, B&H carries a wide array of pinhole cameras, including a variety of handsome wooden ones from Lensless, a DIY Pinhole kit from Gift Trenz, the Ilford Obscura, or the robust and exacting Harman TiTAN. Beyond these, you’ll need to get some film or paper to begin shooting. Alternatively, for an all-in-one kit, Ilford also has the Obscura Pinhole Camera Kit, which includes the Obscura camera along with 10 sheets of film and 20 sheets of paper. Also, beyond the camera and film, the final pieces of equipment needed for pinhole shooting include chemistry and (possibly) trays. If working with cyanotypes, you’ll just need water; if working with just darkroom paper, you’ll need paper chemistry; and if working with film, you’ll need film chemistry—and with either paper or film, you’ll need fixer. In either case, you can refer to my Develop Film at Home guide for some additional tips on the chemistry setup needed for at-home work.
With the camera, film, and chemistry in hand, the fun begins: shooting! In the purest sense, pinholes foster an exploratory style of shooting and reward experimentation. Before seeing your first exposures, you may not know exactly how the focal length feels, what the proper exposure should be, and generally how the framing will be. It’s hard to get everything right on the first go, so mistakes are bound to happen—embrace them. It’s also important to take notes while shooting: How long was your exposure? What was the lighting like? How was the camera positioned? What kind of film or paper is being used? Keep copious notes to streamline the process in the future. As the experienced photographer showing someone else these basics of photography, you’ll also want to explain the whys and hows of notetaking and how it can benefit the picture-taking experience.
Moving one step further into sophistication, another useful tool for teaching the fundamentals of photography is a toy camera, such as those from Lomography and Holga. Many experienced photographers come to or become familiar with toy cameras long after learning the basics of photography using other means, but I’d propose that these playful tools are well-suited for the inexperienced image-makers. To begin, the number of controls they feature are far fewer than overwhelming digital or modern film cameras, which allows users to focus more on the core principles of simply making an exposure and developing a photographic vision.
The Holga 120N, for example, is one of the most recognizable cameras around and is an ideal platform for developing one’s photographic skills. It offers one shutter speed plus a bulb setting for long exposures, a choice of two apertures, and zone focusing control. Most importantly, though, it functions like a bridge between a fully automated point-and-shoot and a fully manual camera. Similar, but taking more widely available 35mm film opposed to 120 like the Holga, is the Lomography La Sardina. This is another straightforward camera with a handful of manual controls, but relies mainly on photographic vision for successful shots. Either the Holga or a simple Lomo camera will be an ideal choice for beginners because they won’t overwhelm, and will allow for ramping up an understanding of how the photographic process works.
With the above in mind, here are some more detailed recommendations of ideal starter pinhole and toy camera setups for newcomers to photography.
The Ilford Obscura Pinhole Camera Kit is an ideal starter set, and to complement it I’d further add the 8 x 10" trays mentioned above, along with Kodak Dektol, D-76, and Fixer for chemistry, and then an additional box of Ilford Harman Direct Positive paper for a simpler method of making positive prints, and a pack of pre-coated Cyanotype Paper as another way to make prints from your negatives. This will give you a very easy-to-use camera, along with a very useful amount of film to begin shooting with, paper to print on, and chemicals for processing everything.
Toy Camera—35mm Setup
The La Sardina, from Lomography, is one of the simplest 35mm cameras available, due to the few manual controls it has (or needs) and an uncluttered design for intuitive use. Along with the camera, I’d recommend picking up some trusty and reliable Kodak Tri-X 400 film, Bjorn’s Film Developing Kit, and then the Lomography Smartphone Film Scanner as a quick and convenient means for viewing and assessing your shots before moving to printing or a higher-resolution scanning method.
Toy Camera—120 Setup
For jumping right into medium format, the Diana F+, from Lomography, is a classic toy camera to get you started, and pairs well with one of the other exceptionally versatile black-and-white films available, Ilford HP5 Plus. Pair these with Bjorn’s Film Developing Kit and you’ll have everything needed to shoot and develop, and then, to take it one step further, I’d look into some pre-coated Cyanotype Paper, trays and a contact printing frame (a simple sheet of thick glass will work). The larger size of medium format film makes it more suitable for printing than 35mm, so going this route is an ideal way to jump straight into contact printing to make small final prints.
What are your thoughts of starting someone’s photography practice with pinholes and toy cameras instead of jumping straight into digital? Do you think there’s still merit in having a background in film photography and the basics of light and exposure? Let us know your thoughts in the Comments section, below.