Paper Cameras: a Lesson in Imperfection

From the Not dead Darkroom project, autumn 2018.


Cut, fold, cut, tape, fold, glue, fold, tape, wind, roll, and repeat. I fiddle and fumble gangly long fingers pressing smooth lines into the mat texture of thick paper. Re-folded and unfolded, pressing jagged oval ridges out to make room for sharp edges. This is taking the expertise built from every arts and crafts lesson I ever attended as a child, and possibly all four years of my fine arts degree. Finally, I can see it starting to take form; this paper-craft awkward-double-box, strung together with elastic bands, is becoming a camera! No lens, no light meter, no mechanical gears or micro wiring is involved in this little light weight marvel. This fruit of my labour holds a small hand-rolled film of ten frames, turned by hand, exposed by a small hole pierced through paper, opened to the world by way of nothing more complex than the lifting of a small black flap. All this because I wanted to take a photograph. So why this much work, can’t your phone do that?


Making a pinhole camera out of paper is one of the most recent steps I’ve taken on a somewhat unintentional journey towards simplicity. My whole life, I’ve sought out the newest, coolest, flashiest gadgets of complexity to enhance my productivity, my enjoyment, my existence: from GameBoys to iPods, laptops to the no-distractions dedicated writing app I’ve been typing this into on my iPad using my water-resistant compact wireless keyboard. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still very much in love with my digital technology, but the more I’ve tried to perfect my life with these binary augmentations, the more I’ve craved something simpler, tangible, even less efficient. I found myself back at my roots with a film camera in hand, and this simple meditative old craft — although far from being a cure-all — seems to have me more focused, more relaxed, even using my time more efficiently. What it takes to line up a single shot, focus by hand, adjust aperture, pick a shutter speed, and then to develop and process the image from film to print is completely redundant by today’s standards. And yet, this redundant out-of-date process has done more for me than 112 deleted productivity apps (and counting) have yet. So I thought to myself, why not go back further…

By the time I entered my first photography class in high school I already considered myself something of an expert on the subject, because of my father’s profession and the exposure (pardon the pun) to film photography since childhood. If I’m being honest, when we got our first assignment to make a pin hole camera from a tin can, I thought it a little beneath me and wanted to skip it. Thankfully, Ms. K, taking pity on my naïve overconfidence, would have none of it. There was a whole world behind that tiny opening that gave my love for the craft new life. My passion for photography only expanded from there as I learned to recognize and enjoy just how little I knew in this field. Going back to my roots, it only seemed to make sense to remind myself how much I don’t know.

That old tin can sat at the side of my desk, in and out of storage boxes, and eventually under a persistent layer of dust on one of my bookshelves. Walking by it, pulling books out, cramming new ones beside it, rearranging and reorganizing, it always looked at me with a question in its pin-poked single eye, “are we going out today?” But I just couldn’t ever seem to find the time. Back into storage, moving across the country and sitting in a box. One day, I was clearing out my storage unit when I came upon a box filled with old prints, a couple dozen negatives in archival sleeves, and my pinhole camera staring up at me. It must have been longer than I thought since last we looked each other in the eye; something must have fallen or been bumped along the way. It’s face had been flattened, top out of shape, and far from light-tight anymore, it was crinkled like a piece of paper. I felt like I owed it to my tin companion to revisit its craft. Unfortunately it was too far gone to shoot with again, but the fragility of that paper-crinkle-like dent gave me an idea. Before I knew it, I was folding and cutting, taping, gluing and stringing elastic bands before poking a tiny hole of studied precision with a needle through paper. With the successor to my old tin friend ready to go — and my old tin friend sitting back on my desk to remind me of its many lessons — I began looking forward to the unknown with renewed giddy naïveté.



“Ten more minutes, please…?”
“You get five, then it’s time to go! Okay?”
“Don’t say fine.”
“*Yes*, mom, five minutes.”

In the park across from my studio this scene plays out on its own. Two players alone on the stage, a couple of geese wait at the wings; they’re up next but don’t dare start their set until they hear their cue. I’m at a bench, feigning a fussing over my new paper toy so as to maintain the status quo. In reality, I’m waiting for my cue as much as my down-clad brethren. With an armrest in place of a tripod I steady my paper camera at the edge of my bench. Lining up its printed arrow with my opening, a frame of trees on an industrial backdrop, nothing there… yet. I’m visualizing the scene about to unfold: five minutes will run out, another negotiation with take place but patience will have run its course this time — a desperate last minute attempt will be made — the geese this child has been forbidden from chasing will finally be placed on the bargaining table as the last minute leverage they were no doubt always meant to be.

From stage right, she’ll begin her pursuit, sending our national symbol tumbling into stage left where I’ve set my shot. Knowing how long these bold creatures have waited for their turn on stage, I doubt they’ll fly away completely. With any luck — because of the lengthy shutter speed needed for a manually operated pinhole camera to expose its film — I’ll get my perfect moment with a blur of feathers centred between a branch frame that will seem to be zooming in out of darkness, all on a still and unrelenting factory wall. I see my moment coming, I think about how this is the wonderful joy of analogue. A flick of the wrist, up goes my taped-on shutter, close and slip… oops… a little too hard… My camera, much lighter than what I’m used to handling, falls to the ground, it’s pinhole lens facing up towards the bright fall sky. In my mind, I hear the film screaming its last scream. “I’m melting!” Overexposed. An painful sense of defeat floods my stomach. I rush to cover the pinhole up in vain, I know, I know, it’s too late. All I can do now is accept reality, take a breath and move on. “Now that’s the joy of analogue!” I hear a voice in the back of my repeating it over and over again; not taunting, strangely, though uncomfortably, it reassures me, and somehow I’m in love with this moment.


On to the next shot. Sun is almost ready to set. I always forget how early it happens once fall starts. I’m going to need a longer exposure time. Looking down at the little exposure time cheat sheet I’ve stuck to the back of my contraption, I can’t quite decide whether I should expose my next shot at one second for the sun and clouds illustration, or three for the cloud on its own drawing. Tracing my fingers back and forth between the two, I try to press them together a little tighter; it’s not too cold out yet but for some reason my fingers go ice cold when I’ve been shooting outdoors for a while. Time to pick up the pace, that’ll get the blood pumping. I’ve got to get my shot in before the light goes away and we’re just getting to the golden hour, I can’t let that pass me by! Marching on, I’m determined to find my shot now.

Frantically trying to find what I will shoot, I can’t help but feel like it’s somehow wrong to be wandering around aimlessly hoping inspiration strikes before sunset. Before I know it, I’ve circled the block and I’m on the other side of the park I started at. I’m behind the baseball diamond, the bleachers look like the perfect makeshift tripod for a pinhole camera. Just my height, and from behind, I can stand at eye level with the top row. Camera set up in place, I put my keys on top to prevent it from blowing away and walk around to the back. The diamond expanding in front of me, rolling hills beyond that, and a couple of tattered flags resting wearily behind the lamp post beyond outfield. Lining up, I’m careful this time not to yank too hard. 3 seconds pass on my watch and a quick gentle close seals the shutter light tight.

With care, I twist the paper card knobs that wind my film one frame forward, climb up the bleacher backs and turn my camera around. A port-a-potty seems to be having a conversation with a tree, a lift and close timed in my head this round and their conversation freezes in light and silver; I roll again. A short wooden sign post opposite a bicycle chained up beside a dumpster, I take the shot. An electrical box across from an alley, one side looks well over a hundred years old but covered in new paint, its counterpart cant’t be far past its twenties but decorated to seem timeless in an unforgivingly industrial fashion; another frame! My walk continues and I can see them everywhere. Not the scenes I was hoping to be inspired by, it’s much simpler, all I’m looking for is a spot to rest my camera and the shots seems to be lined up for me, waiting to be taken. I’d forgotten how much pinhole photography dictates its own subject matter.


All I could focus on was visualizing, the technique I’ve come to rely on as a photographer to compose even my most spontaneous pictures. Had I been shooting digital, I probably would have gotten multiple takes of that perfect shot of geese a-blur amidst their industrial backdrop and stunning natural frame of branches and fall leaves. Had I been shooting with my trusty film SLR kit, I likely would have gotten my shot on the first go, a little more thrilling than the security of shooting digital, but I still would have lost out on a whole roll of shots that were to come. Using a tool that puts you at its mercy like a pinhole camera constructed out of paper, tape, glue, and elastic bands creates creative opportunities. Discovering these shots one after the other just by trying to appease my new camera’s strict demands hastily evolved from a tedious chore into a deeply gratifying process that was both thrilling and relaxing at the same time.



Unzip, into the dark bag, zip up, fumble cotton gloved hands with elastic bands, out comes the film from my little paper box. A few twists and turns and and SLIP, the film is rolling up smoothly along the developing reel. In a matter of seconds film and reel are tucked safely away in their light safe developing tank and I unzip the bag to begin processing my film. Turning the vintage hands of my father’s old darkroom timer, I can hear Ms. K’s voice in my head from all those years ago.

“Shooting is only the first half of making a picture! If you really want to make a photograph, you’ve got to be in the darkroom!”

The mantra she would so often recite is reassuringly ringing in my mind as if she were standing behind me saying it right now. There’s such a joy to this process: pouring chemistry, watching that old clock’s hand smoothly pass the seconds, rebottling, rinsing; in only a couple minutes my film is ready, done by my own hand. I think there are very few sensations as rewarding as pulling film out of a developing tank, being the first to see your photos, having just formed on a beautiful long strip of translucent film. Into the drying cabinet and fifteen minutes later, my roll is cut into two perfectly flat strips, lying on the light table, under the scrutiny of my loupe. Under magnification, I study the result of my work. Far from the perfection of the digital photographs I used to work with, and yet I can’t help but swell with pride as I inspect each frame; sun-rays, little light spots, and all.

A couple of these photos I remember shooting, a couple are a bit blurry as if the subjects were rushing through the shot, and others completely surprise me. Not a single photo meets the technical standards I’ve held myself to for so long, but every photo seems to keep bringing me joy. The unexpected nature, the perfect imperfection, the journey, the stories these ten pictures tell, all of it, this is the joy of analogue. Simple, meditative, and I feel so accomplished — productive — after only ten frames shot through a paper box.

Tape, rip, cut, fold, glue, and repeat. A few repairs here, cover a couple small light leaks there, a couple strips of electrical tape for feet to make it steadier, a new reinforced shutter flap, and a few more enhancements here and there. Time to trust the process all over again, my paper pinhole camera is just getting started…