DescriptionAn early camera with a pinhole aperture
and no lens
Time Period
Dimensions11 x 8 x 15 cm
LocationUCL Cabinet of Obsolete Media
Inventory nºUCL201739

From 1700 onwards, the pinhole camera became an object that acted as a pioneer in the development of cameras, which can be seen as a fundamental point in the beginnings of photography. The term ‘pinhole’ itself was first coined by Sir David Brewster in his book The Stereograph that was published in 1856, and it is a photographic camera, originally without a lens, that was activated by light but more specifically, the camera obscura phenomenon.[1] The phenomenon itself has been investigated as early as 5 BCE by the Chinese philosopher Mo Tzu in his writings about the passage of light through a small hole that results in an upside-down image on the surface that lies opposite the hole.[2] However, it was not until 350 BCE when it was more greatly examined by Aristotle in the Western world, through the appearance and understanding of a solar eclipse. This basic optical concept has also been used practically in situations to observe if any dangers approached, such as within the deserts of the Middle East by Nomadic tribes, whereby images of the outside world would be created from poking a small hole in the walls of the tent, given that the interior of the tent would be dark.[3] The camera obscura effect proved useful for many scientists, architects, and artists, from studying optics to rendering or tracing a particular image.

The body of the pinhole camera is essentially cardboard that is covered in leatherette. There are two viewfinders on the camera; one on the top surface to take portrait oriented photographs and one on the side for landscapes, which is explicated by the fact that these cameras were designed to be shot at waist-level. The two switches on the side controls the shutter, which obscures and exposes the aperture where the single-element lens sit and essentially determines the length of the exposure. The bottom shutter tab, if pushed either up or down, will open the shutter at a set speed and closes it again in a single, automatic process. However, if the top shutter tab is pulled out, pushing the bottom shutter tab up or down will leave the shutter open until it is tripped again to close the shutter. The internal mechanism resembles a clockwork-like structure, which is controlled by these shutter tabs that determine the exposure of the pinhole. The camera reveals a fully black hollow interior once opened from the back and the space converges towards the pinhole lens at the end. The knob feature on the side of the camera works as a film advancer – when twisted and pulled, after opening up the back wall of the camera, the internal container can then be pulled out, revealing a place for a film roll to be placed. This can then be placed back inside and the film will be ready to be wound and advanced using the knob.

Finally, the pinhole camera has become a timeless apparatus that is widely accessible and reproducible through a vast trove of instructions available on the construction of one’s own pinhole camera using cardboard and other everyday materials, which is also made possible through the solely manual processes in its function.                   


[1] Chernewski, Anita. “Pinhole History.” Alternative Photography. Accessed December 11, 2018.

[2] James, Christopher. The Book of Alternative Photographic Processes. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2016.

[3] Ibid.