The Drink Can Camera

Although photographic paper hasn't changed much in 150 years it still has immense potential for pinhole photography and when combined with modern digital image capture, all kinds of wonderful approaches can be discovered. For most of these techniques the creation of a simple 'darkroom' will be required.

These wonderful devices have been a stalwart of mine for many a year, and can even allow 6-month duration exposures. Easy to make and use they are a wondrous way to introduce people to pinholing.

Qualities: Extreme wide-angle image of around 160 degrees with an effective aperture of f150 Distortions possible through the use of curved film plane and unlimited depth of field The opportunity to create negatives, the origins of photography. $30,000 cheaper than a Hassleblad H1

You will need: An empty aluminium drink can. A4 black card (Cereal packet thickness). Some black gaffer-carpet-duck tape. A rubber band and a pencil (from hereon called the 'gravitational stabilisation device') A small amount of black electrical tape. A pin.

Find an aluminium 440ml drink can. Aluminium is non magnetic (and can be tested on the magnet on the edge of a fridge door) and often have ALU written on them. Do not use steel, which is a nasty hard metal, therefore razor sharp and will result in you suing me!

Cut the top off with a can opener. If you don't know which one to use, take a few empty cans to the can opener shop and try them out. This also has the added advantage of not having to buy one! Sand the top edge with emery paper. This gets rid of the sharp edge and makes a good noise!

Cut an 80mm strip off the short edge of a sheet of A4 black card (80mm x 210mm).Cut notches along the edge then crease them over.

Cut out a circle of card the same diameter as the can (60mm).

Turn the can over (so you work on the 'non wobbly' base) and tape the strip of card tightly around the can.

Crease the notches over horizontally, place the circle of card onto the notches and use at least 3 strips of Gaffer tape to cover over the lid.

When you are content that there is so much gaffer tape even Gamma radiation couldn't pass through, take the completed lid off and place it over the open end of the can.

Making the pinhole.

As the paper negative is quite large, the need for the pinholes accuracy is less than the opportunity for ease of construction. (Don't worry about the size!) Find a point half way up on the can, which can be recognised. Push a pin into this point (it will pop in) and then gently remove it. Don't sand down the rough edge inside the pinhole as this is handy for feeling the position of the pinhole when loading the paper. Fold a small length of insulation tape onto itself to make a light proof shutter and stick this over the hole. Put a rubber band around the can and place a pencil through the rubber band. (The gravitational stabilisation device)

(If you are using large format sheet film rather than photographic paper, make an accurate hole 0.28mm in diameter).

Loading the camera.

Switch off the white light in the darkroom and switch on the red light.
Take the lid off the Pin Can camera.
Open up the photographic paper, take out a sheet and then reseal the packet.
Curl the paper lengthways into the camera so the emulsion is on the inside of the curl. (The shinier surface is the emulsion). There will be a gap of around 10mm, which is where the pinhole should be.
Make sure the paper isn't covering the hole then replace the cap.

Choosing your Subject.
You need to develop each photograph after each exposure so, initially take photographs close to the darkroom. The best images are graphic objects such as buildings which bring out the effect of the curved film plane enabling you to master the ultra wide image.

Standing the camera up (Vertical) or laying it on its side (Horizontal).
The camera standing up will give a horizontally wide view whereas lying it on its side (using the gravitational stabilisation device) will provide you with a vertically wide view. Either way, ensure the camera can rest throughout the exposure without being held 'steady'. Gravity is (usually) lot more stable than a shaky nervous hand!

Positioning it away from the sun.
If sunny, the pinhole needs to face away or sideways to the sun otherwise sunlight going straight into the pinhole will bounce around off the white photo paper and quickly fog your photograph.

Foreground detail.
Try to get objects really close to the pinhole. The ultra wide angle reduces the expected size in the final image. This angle of view, combined with the unlimited depth of field, means that objects ultra close to the pinhole will be in focus. Initially you could try placing the camera on text or a crossword puzzle or a mirror.

Aiming the camera.
A good angle for the pinhole to rest would be as shown.

Using the Gravitational Stabilisation Device.
Adjust the pencil around the can so the camera rests exactly where the pinhole is required. (See picture)

Removal of the tape - shutter
Peel of the tape completely (I daintily replace the tape with my finger) and let go of the can. Any slight wobble will be only a small percentage of the final exposure time.

Exposure times.
A good estimate for exposure time outside would be for 5 seconds in sunlight, 12 seconds when cloudy. It is best to make a test exposure owing to the variations of the brightness of lighting, reflectance of the subject and variety in counting speed (some people take an eternity to count to 12!)

Photographing indoors.
Because indoor lighting is darker than daylight, indoor exposure times can be quite long. This can be anything from 10 minutes to several hours. It is still well worth trying though as it can be enough time to enjoy a cup of tea or five, whilst marvelling at the light-forming properties of a tiny hole. Remember to keep the illumination behind the camera rather than shining it into the pinhole.

Tips when exposing.
Avoid camera shake by relying on gravity rather than trying to hold the can steady.
Don't point the camera towards the sun.
Take care in removing and replacing the shutter, before and after the exposure.
Avoid taking photos during a hurricane.

Replacing the shutter.
Gently replace the shutter ensuring you have covered the hole (there is potential for blind panic at this time so take care!). Deftly place your finger over the hole then, holding the camera towards the ground, carefully replace the shutter. Then it's back to your darkroom.

Roving with the camera.
If roving further afield, to take several exposures you could take a changing bag with you (a light tight bag which can be found cheaply on ebay) or make and pre-load several cameras. The photo paper can stay in the light tight can indefinitely.

If you fill the can with water and hold the can underwater you can take an underwater pinhole photo, (although the light proof cap will get a bit soggy!). Due to the requirement for being close to a darkroom the choice of available subjects may be limited.

Using a biology clamp.
These rather spooky looking devices are very useful for angling the Pin Can camera at any position you choose. Angling the camera down will give an 'n' shaped horizon angling up will give a 'u' shaped horizon.

Making a darkroom.

The camera ideally needs to be used near a darkroom so you can process the results soon after taking the photo (then re take it when it messes up!)

To create a darkroom you will need:

A dark room (!) This will be required for both loading the photographic paper into the camera as well as developing the exposed image.
Card or 'rubble sacks' are cheap blackout materials.
Developer, Stop bath and Fixer (Mixed with water to the correct proportions).
A red 'safelight' A rear red bike light will do.
3 trays for the chemicals
Access to water for washing the prints after the developing process
5 x 7 photographic paper (DO NOT OPEN unless in red light).
A sign in big scary letters saying KEEP OUT! (To prevent nosy people coming in and fogging the photographic paper)

Darkroom construction

Place the three trays down in a row on a flat surface. From left to right you will have: Developer - Stop bath - Fixer. It is also good to have a 'dry' area away from the chemicals where you can put the camera and the photographic paper.(I almost wrote the words 'best practice' then, aaaaah!)
An extra red light can be useful to increase the illumination.
If there is no sink in your darkroom a tray or bowl with some water in is useful to place fixed photographs before being taken to a sink for full washing.

Mix the chemicals with water to the proportions shown on the bottles and pour them into their respective trays. The chemicals should ideally be at room temperature 20 C (ish) but don't worry too much about this. Put the tongs over the edge of the dev tray (They always fall in, but its all part of the fun).

Removing the photographic paper from the camera and developing the image.
Switch off the white light and switch on the red. (It may be worth waiting for a few seconds for your eyes become accustomed to the dark).

Take the lid off the camera and twist the photographic paper out of the can.
Put the can down and slide the photo paper under the surface of the developer.
Keep the chemical moving over the surface by gently rocking the dish every few seconds. The image should start to appear.

Woooooooooooooooooooooow! Innit Fab!!!!! Who needs pixels!

DON'T PANIC the print needs to stay in the developer for a whole minute (well to tell you the truth 2 minutes but impatience usually wins the day!).
After the image has appeared, use the print tongs to pick up the print.
Drain off excess developer and transfer the print into the stop bath.
Rock the dish for 30 seconds, keeping fresh chemical covering the print.
Drain again and place into the fixer where the print should be completely fixed in 3 minutes in rocking solution.

After 3 minutes you can turn on the white light (making sure before that you have packed away the photo paper!

If the photograph comes out too dark, it needs less exposure time; if too light it needs more.

Place the fixed print into a sink with running water for 4 minutes. This will wash the chemicals off the print. The print can then be stood up to dry.

Troubleshooting and adjusting your exposure.
If the photograph is too dark you need to give the photograph less exposure. If it is too light you need to give more. If you can see some detail, you are close to the correct exposure and you could initially try 50% more or less exposure. (Paper has very small exposure latitude compared to film, so you have to be more accurate with the exposure) The best weather conditions are when it is bright but overcast.

Re-loading the camera.
In the red light, load thecamera with photographic paper for the next shot and replace the lid, (as well as re sealing the photo paper packet!

Dry hands.
As well as avoiding contact with chemicals, having dry hands will also avoid getting fingerprints on your photographs. Always try and use the print tongs for moving prints from one chemical to the next. Rubber gloves could also be useful here (although someone has just told me that people can be allergic to rubber gloves! Tsk, tsk, where will it end?)

Saving and reusing the chemicals.
All the chemicals should last for at least 25 sheets of paper before they start getting peeky. (You can tell when this happens as the stop bath impressively turns from yellow to blue!). The developer can go off a bit quicker as it reacts with oxygen. If it goes a murky dark brown or the consistency of porridge it is probably worth replacing.

Buying chemicals and photographic paper.
The chemicals and paper are available from the internet and possibly some good photographic shops, but check before you go. In our digital age it's getting trickier to find on the high street but all the materials are easily available on the web.

I thought I had better put one of these in to stop you from suing the pants off: my wife, my son, my daughter and me!

The chemicals are fairly inert although its best to avoid swimming in the stuff.
Developer is an alkaline and can react with peoples skin (although no more so than some washing up liquids). Stop bath is acetic acid; similar to the vinegar you put on your chips, (and to save you the bother, I can assure you it doesn't taste as good, something I discovered through a fairly dumb experiment early on in my photographic career!)
Fixer is a weak acid, which can stain your clothes if you decide to splash it all over yourself, (unnecessary in all but the most extreme 'performance art' approaches of pinhole photography). Old fixer (especially film fixer) contains soluble silver and you should avoid drinking the stuff!
Avoid contact with eyes. If this happens wash out immediately with ample running water.
After pouring the used chemical into (larger) bottles for re-use, label them and put them in a cupboard away from all those people who might be tempted to drink horrid smelling liquid that looks like wee.

How to Make paper negatives into positives

Easy methods:
1 Get your mobile phone out and set the camera on 'negative' setting. Take a photograph of your negative print and Email the positive photo to your computer. When copying paper negatives in this way, ensure you avoid light reflections off the photographic paper.
2 Scan the paper negative onto a flat bed scanner. It may be worth placing a book on the paper negative to ensure it lies flat on the scanner. Use photo-imaging software 'to taste'.

Awkward methods:
1 Find a darkroom with an enlarger, sandwich the paper negative under a sheet of glass and on top of an unexposed sheet of photographic paper. Do test exposures and process to obtain a positive image.
2 Photograph the negative with a Drink can camera to get a positive image in a negative world. (Trickier than it seems this one!)

Stupid method:
1 Pin your paper negative onto a wall and stare at it for 20 minutes without blinking. Then close your eyes and for a second you will see the image in positive!

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