Make a Pinhole Camera


A pinhole camera is the simplest way to capture images.  It consists of a dark chamber with a tiny hole in the place of the lens.  These instructions will show you how to build your own pinhole camera with a viewing screen.

Things You Need

Heavy white paper
Tracing paper
(Touch or hover over each item for more information)

How To Make It

Pinhole Camera01 Pinhole Camera02 Pinhole Camera03 Pinhole Camera04 Pinhole Camera05 Pinhole Camera06

Things To Try

In a darkened room, hold your camera so that the pinhole is facing a brightly lit window or a candle flame.  Ask an adult to assist you if you are using a candle.  View the image of the window scene or candle flame in the pinhole camera's viewing screen.  Observe the orientation of the image on the screen.

Warning: This activity will destroy the camera and make it useless.
Try increasing the size of the pinhole incrementally.  Each time you enlarge the pinhole you will notice that the image grows both blurrier and brighter.  How does the size of the pinhole relate to the image on the viewing screen?  How might the image would change if you constructed a new pinhole camera with an even smaller pinhole?

How It Works

image formation through a pinhole

A pinhole camera, or camera obscura (meaning "dark room" in Latin), is a closed box or room with a tiny hole on one side[1].  The pinhole camera that you made in this activity was very small, but they can also be as large as an entire room.  The figure on the right shows light from outside the box passing through the pinhole to form an image on the opposite side of the box.  The image formed inside the pinhole camera appears upside-down when it projects onto the opposite of the box.

Designing a pinhole camera presents an interesting challenge.  The smaller the pinhole, the sharper the image formed by the camera.  However, smaller pinholes limit the amount of light able to pass through the camera, resulting in a dim image.  While enlarging the pinhole would allow more light to pass through (creating a brighter image), it would also make the image blurry.

It is not possible for a pinhole camera to capture an image that is both bright and sharp.  The lens camera, however, is designed to do exactly that.

Bigshot Connections

Fun Facts

The Largest Camera in the World

In 2007, an abandoned aircraft hanger at El Toro fighter base in Irvine, California was converted into the largest pinhole camera in the world.  The inside of the hanger was painted black, and all the cracks were sealed to keep sunlight from entering the building.  The side opposite the pinhole was covered with a large photosensitive cloth to record the image.  The resulting photo, the largest in the world, was nearly 108 ft (33 m) wide and 85 ft (26 m) high.

Viewing a Solar Eclipse

Viewing the sun directly, particularly during the solar eclipse, is very dangerous and can cause lifelong eye damage.  A safer way to view an eclipse is to use a pinhole camera.  Make a tiny hole in sheet of paper and hold it against the sun.  Hold another sheet of paper (or a paper plate) in front of the pinhole, allowing the sun's light to pass through the pinhole and onto the paper. This will allow you to view an inverted image of the solar eclipse.

Pinhole Eyes

The nautilus is a rare marine animal that has a "pinhole" eye.  While their eye structure is highly developed, it lacks a solid lens.  Instead, the pinhole eye is open to the environment.  Nautiluses have very poor vision because of the lack of light in their ocean environment.   The nautilus replaces the need for refined vision with olfactory ridges on their tentacles.   They use their tentacles to smell their surroundings to locate food and identify potential mates [3].

Squinting to See Better?

Do you ever notice yourself squinting as you try to see something that looks blurry?  By squinting, we create a smaller opening through which light can enter our eyes.  This creates a pinhole very similar to the one described in the project above.



[1] "Pinhole camera" Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Accessed: Jan 20, 2010.
[2] E. Renner, Pinhole photography: rediscovering a historic technique. Focal Press, 2000
[3] M. F. Land and D. E. Nilsson, Animal Eyes. Oxford university Press, 2002