Finally, we come to the end of this little series regarding my approach to pinhole cameras. It certainly doesn't cover everything I could tell you about these cameras and there is constantly more that I am learning as I go along, too. But hopefully it has paved the way a bit, or provided some inspiration. If we are both really lucky this series has inspired more questions than answers and those questions will lead to photographs... pinhole photographs preferably. I mentioned earlier in this series that the way I began wrapping my head around using these cameras was to identify their key characteristics and once I did so, I looked for images that where strengthened by the use of these features. We covered the necessarily long exposures of pinhole cameras and how that blurs motion over time. Then we talked about the infinite depth of field and foreshortening that comes from the amazingly small apertures they use. To close out, I want to now talk about their impressionistic way of rendering scenes.
Pinhole cameras are not sharp cameras. Let us start there. Some pinhole cameras are sharper than others, but in all my experience even the sharpest pinhole cameras are softer than my Holga, let alone any of my other lensed cameras. How sharp a pinhole camera's image is depends on a few factors. The first factor in determining image sharpness is how cleanly made the pinhole is. A perfectly round pinhole that is laser drilled so as not to have any rough edges or burrs and is drilled through a super thin layer of brass foil is going to project a sharper image than a pinhole made by punching a hole via sewing needle through a relatively super thick piece of aluminum soda can. The second factor is the diameter of that hole in relation to the distance it sits from the film or digital sensor. The longer the distance the larger the pinhole should be and vice versa. For every distance there is an ideal diameter and the closer the pinhole is to that diameter the sharper its image will be. I mention these things because since pinhole cameras are easily made at home, there is a large variety of pinholes. Some are punched in paper or cardboard, some are hand-drilled in aluminum foil, others are laser drilled or chemically etched. The resulting image quality then can be all over the board. I would daresay that the average pinhole image could accurately be described as somewhat vague in its details, ethereal, abstract and yes, very impressionistic. As the pinholes get better these adjectives become a bit less prominent. By the time you get into pinhole images made by companies like Zero Image which are sort of the Leicas of the pinhole world, some audiences are surprised to learn that the images were made by pinhole at all. Despite how ridiculously sharp Zero Image cameras are, for pinholes at least, they are still soft and they are still impressionistic. There is no way to get around this, nor should one try. Embrace this impressionistic quality, don't avoid it. There are other admirable qualities than sharpness, after all.
Just as my pinhole cameras taught me to think differently about time, they have also taught me to think differently about sharpness. Sometimes I feel like we get just a tad hung up on lens and image sharpness. It's true, a spectacularly sharp image can be beautiful and engrossing at times but then again there are other times where I don't care to see the detail of every blade of grass in the foreground. In fact, if I am busy looking at all that detail I might be distracted from looking at the rest of the image, or the message within it. And so that is the final piece of the puzzle for me. I go out with these cameras and I don't look for detail; I look for other elements such as light, color, mood, atmosphere. My mind doesn't get lost in the rocks or the grass or the myriad other tiny, tiny details. And if it does I'll use my Hasselblad rather than my pinhole.
I used to joke that the way I would previsualize some of my pinhole photos was to take off my glasses. I have less than perfect vision... not bad mind you, but not great either. The world loses its hard edges when I don't have my glasses on. The thing is, it is surprising how sometimes I can see more with my glasses off than I can with them on. I can more easily see the play of light across ocean cliffs or the form of a falling waterfall cutting through rock, or the reflection of a mountain range reflected mysteriously in a still lake. Without my glasses I may not be able to count branches in a tree or grains of sand at my feet, but I can better see a certain character of a forest or the history of a beach.
Lastly, I don't look at nearly as much painting as I should but one of the most moving experiences I ever had with painting came in a visit to the Orangerie in Paris. There, in circular rooms, massive panoramic paintings by Monet are housed. They are incredible. I was engrossed. There is so much to see in those scenes, yet the small details themselves are largely non-existent. Monet manages to convey more through impression than many do through specific detail. That is how I try to use my pinhole cameras, to convey through impression rather than specific detail. Hopefully it works because I cannot paint to save my life.
So here we are, at an ending. Thank you for sticking through this series and reading all the way. I appreciate the comments I have gotten thus far with previous posts. I will very likely write further pinhole essays in the future but for now I want to wrap this up and move on to other topics. If you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section, I'll do my best to answer every one or to make up something that at least sounds convincing and entertaining. Now, by any and all means, go make pictures.