Pinhole timescapes

I set out to discover, through a pinhole, images of the landscape left behind as I travel through it on my bicycle.

For some years I’ve been intrigued by the idea of moving a pinhole camera through the landscape to discover what images might be revealed. One of the first such images I made was in 2014 with my then new Harman TiTAN 4×5 pinhole camera. Taken through the front window of the top deck of a bus as it followed a cyclist along a busy Edinburgh street, the cyclist was rendered relatively recognisable in a streaked world of mystical shapes. It was an image that time and again has me taking a pinhole camera out for an adventure in time travel through the landscape.

Two years ago I blogged such an adventure with the pincam mounted behind the windscreen of my car (http://pinhole-time-travel). At other times I’ve carried a pincam as I walked or ran but the one thing that I could never quite work out was how to mount a pincam on my bicycle such that I could operate it while on the move.

The answer came to me a couple of months ago and gave me a new perspective for the image – I could mount a 35mm camera fitted with a bodycap pinhole to a board fixed to the pannier rack and operate it on the ‘B’ setting by a long cable release threaded through the frame and attached to the crossbar!

That the camera would face backwards to where I had been rather than forward to where I was going seemed appropriate to the idea of photographing what has been. The moment we think of as ‘now’ immediately becoming the past as it passes into memory (I sometimes wonder whether ‘now’ ever exists at all) and the long exposure of the pinhole image blurring the memory as so often happens in the mind.

My first attempt was with an old Zenit camera. It’s shutter has been dodgy for ages, slow and often sticking, but the ‘B’ setting worked – or at least it did! The vibration on the bike was too much for it. Although several successful frames were made, it was curtains for the shutter. My attempts at repair were to no avail but I had been prepared to make the sacrifice. With lessons learned I changed the Zenit for an Olympus OM1, this time with some cushioning and I’m pleased to say that the OM1 is going strong after a couple more outings.

The images may not be to everyone’s taste but they work for me! Getting the exposure ‘correct’ has been and continues to be a challenge. Scanning the Kentmere 400 negatives produced files that I found unworkable but I picked a few frames to print on Ilford MGIV FB glossy paper (all I have at the moment). Without further comment, these are what follow:

Amongst the trees, in search of the woods

In search of inspiration, I took a camera to Fife for a walk around Blairadam Forest Trails.

Grey skies and flat light don’t make for interesting photography and were a frustration on a day that I’d had in mind to get out with a camera.

However the pull of being out with a camera was too great to resist. I packed a bag with my trusty Vivitar V3800n, 28m and 50mm Pentax-K lenses, a few cassettes of Kentmere 400 cut from a bulk roll and headed off to see where the road might take me.

In search of inspiration for photo projects, I’ve been browsing the rather useful website of Forestry and Land Scotland (formerly the Forestry Commission) where access, trails, facilities and points of interest are well laid out. The road took me to Fife and the forest trails of Blairadam Forest, to the west of Kelty.

With uninteresting light and no firm plan, this felt more of a reconnaissance trip in search of inspiration for a future visit, or perhaps I just couldn’t see the wood for the trees! I looked for compositions that pleased me but the negatives I came back with were as dull as the day. Some digital intervention to the exposures and levels was necessary. Here are a few of the better images made.

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day 2019

Pinhole images through a vortoscope: Is it a first?

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day (WPPD) is celebrated annually on the last Sunday of April. For several years I’ve joined my friends in the Edinburgh Lo-Fi Photography Group for a pinhole photowalk and trying each year to do ‘something different’ with a light-tight space, some form of light-sensitive media and a very, very, small hole.

While the ultimate goal in celebrating the Day is to produce a single image that will be uploaded to the WPPD website, it is also a fun, social occasion with friends, a sharing of ideas, coffee, an interesting location, cake, pincam comparisons and inevitably food and drink in a pub or restaurant afterwards. To make the day interesting photographically I usually prepare several pincams and this year I carried three. My intention was to make one pre-planned image for WPPD19 and to simply have fun with the others to see how they turned out.

First was the ‘Not Just Any Belgian Collection Biscuit Tin’ pincam, then came the ‘All Butter Scottish Shortbread Collection Penta-pinhole’ pincam and finally, the ‘Olympus OM1n Vortoscopic Bodycap Pinhole’ pincam. Each will be explained below in some detail. (This will be a long blog post)!

The Not Just Any Belgian Collection Biscuit Tin pincam

Choose one pinhole from three … the lower landscape pinhole is uncovered

I last used this 90mm deep biscuit tin which holds a sheet of 10″x8″ paper, a few months ago while experimenting with SE1 emulsion on tracing paper. The success of that experiment was iffy at best but it did confirm the accuracy of the f/360 pinhole apertures (it has three to choose from) and the angles of view achievable. It seemed a safe bet to put it to use for WPPD19 loaded with a sheet of Harman Direct Positive Paper which would subsequently be developed in fresh Ilford Multigrade.

Our walk passed a large concrete arrow set in the grass. Apparently the arrow had served some purpose to the RAF during the second world war. It seemed an ideal subject for pinhole imagery. I set up the pincam on a high tripod, aiming downward and used the lower landscape pinhole so as to raise the horizon and include the shadow of the pincam in the image.

Using the lower landscape pinhole together with the pincam aimed downwards ensures the inclusion of the pincam’s shadow.

The All Butter Scottish Shortbread Collection Penta-pinhole pincam

The shutter is an old 5″x4″ darkslide fitted with high-density foam and magnets
Five pinholes concurrently uncovered to provide five overlapping image planes

Like the Belgian Biscuit tin, this pincam had been last used in my experiments with emulsion on tracing paper. It is much shallower at only 55mm and although very wide, the angle of view of each pinhole is insufficient to cover the 10″x8″ paper that fits inside the tin. By using multiple apertures light would be projected by the peripheral ones into the areas of the paper unexposed by the central one. This would also create the interesting idea of overlapping image planes.

The challenge would be to produce five near identical pinhole apertures. This would ensure evenly balanced exposures in the periphery while the central area would receive light from all five apertures. From experiments with three holes I reckoned I could meter the subject, divide by five and deduct that well-known pinhole unit of measure: the ‘bit’. I marked out and drilled holes in the tin lid. The f/160 pinhole apertures were created by pushing a dress-making pin part-way through squares of thin aluminium foil which were then measured for accuracy and consistency before attachement to the inside of the tin. Measurement was made by scanning each pinhole at 9600dpi, measuring onscreen at full size and comparing against the known measurement of a steel rule scanned and viewed at the same resolution and size.

steel rule vs pinhole. Scanned at 9600dpi and viewed on screen at full size, surprisingly accurate measurements can be made for consistency across several pinholes

The twist I wanted to put on the image made with this camera was based on the fact that the meeting point to start our walk was to be outside a theatre. Now the universal symbol for the theatrical arts is a mask and with the potential for the overlapping image produced by this pincam to ‘mask’ the subject, I thought I would take it a little further and make a mask for a member of our group to wear while posing for my WPPD19 image!

a simple papier-mache mask with a few splashes of acrylic paint

Unfortunately the person I had in mind (whose ‘big’ wild hair would have set off the mask very well) was unable to attend the meetup so I ended up wearing it myself and taking a selfie! I quite underestimated just how close the pincam to subject distance would need to be: this was taken at about 30cm – it really needed to be half that or even closer!

Not quite as intended – the jury’s out on whether this is worthy of WPPD19 submission.

The Olympus OM1n Vortoscopic Bodycap Pinhole pincam

It was while browsing my local craft store for mask materials that I spotted some 5cm square mirrors. Some years ago I had been introduced to vortographs, an interesting technique that once tried quickly found its way to the dark recesses of my memory. Something clicked and I decided it would be fun to make a vortoscope through which to make pinhole images. (A good starting point to learn about vortoscopism is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alvin_Langdon_Coburn)

A vortoscope is a gadget that produces kaleidoscope-like images. It is made up of three (I guess it could be more) mirrors formed into a tube-like construction of triangular section which is placed over a lens (or in my case, over a pinhole aperture). The resulting image consists of a central direct section surrounded by peripheral reflections. The ‘diameter’ and length of the vortoscope affects the size and clarity of each of these sections and the abstraction of the image.

I made mine from a pack of 5cm square mirrors which I cut to size with a glass-cutter, a toilet roll core, copious amounts of hot-melt glue and some sticky-back foam. The bodycap has long been adapted for pinhole but to be sure I did re-make the pinhole aperture to the optimum 0.29mm for the 49mm projection distance when mounted on my old Olympus OM1n camera.

I was pretty pleased with the results. The camera was loaded with Kentmere 400 film from a bulk roll and subsequently developed in Ilfosol 3. I make no apology for showing all of the images here, warts and all, because I think they are quite cool! These have been scanned and slight adjustments made in Afinity Photo for exposure and levels. Most of the images were between half and one and a half stops underexposed which was probably down to my poor metering!

WPPD19: which image to submit?

At the time of writing, I have not yet decided which of all the pinhole images made on the day I should submit as my WPPD19 image. I’m open to suggestions.

Pinhole day this year was the first in a long time that I can remember having good, almost too good, weather for pinhole photography. It was unusual for me to come home with nothing I could call a failure!

The best thing about the day? Time spent with friends, sharing our enjoyment of simple image-making pleasures.

A final anecdote

We came across many bird watchers, apparently drawn to reports of two rare species of duck having been spotted along the coast where we were walking. Like us, each of them carried the tools of their hobby: while ours were tin cans and changing bags, theirs were tripods, spotting scopes and big digital cameras with huge long lenses surely capable of resolving the tail-feather detail of sparrows in flight at 1000 metres!

One of them was passing me when he spotted the Olympus round my neck: “Oh! What sort of lens is that? I’ve not seen one of these before.” he asked. Willing to be engaged in a spot of photographic gear talk I removed said ‘lens’ from the camera to show the pinhole end of the device. “It’s not a lens, it’s a vortoscopic bodycap pinhole.” I replied.

Oh dear! The clues were written all over his face. This conversation was going nowhere. It was quite clearly considered that I was some wacko with a screw loose! I need to invest time in the study of ornithology.

All change, Catch up, Carry on

A catch-up on the year’s photographic endeavours, somewhat disrupted by retirement.

My last blog was posted in March! Here’s what’s been going on: (Warning – It’s a long one!)

All change

The opportunity to retire came my way at the beginning of the year and having decided to accept it, the rest of the year has been taken up with preparation, the deed itself and now readjusting to the life of a retiree.

For the past twenty one years my sister and I have run a small optical practice in a quiet seaside town. The subject of our inevitable retirement and how we might bow out had been discussed off and on and we had a range of possible outcomes in mind. These ranged from one day having to shut the door and walk away, through the more likely scenario of being made a derisory offer with strings attached by one of the big groups, to the dream of someone walking in the door with an offer to buy and to pay the price we asked.

As it happens, dreams do come true! Somebody wanting to expand their existing single practice got to hear of our thoughts and in January I took a phone call that set the rest of the year in motion! A date for transfer of the business was set – 31st August. At first it seemed that we had plenty time to prepare but even by April it was already clear that time was running short! Indeed looking back, from then until the moment we handed over the keys was an uphill race against time, lawyers, surveyors and accountants. We were racing up a hill like lemmings and the cliff edge was 31st August when we would throw ourselves into the abyss of retirement.

Retirement too has been unexpected, at least so far. I can only describe it as a very weird time: After a couple of weeks I was ready to go back to work, as one would after a holiday, but I wasn’t on holiday. Six weeks into retirement I was still waking up at 5am to start my working day. By November I was feeling adjusted to some semblance of a new Monday to Friday routine but somehow I lost track of weekends. It was as if Saturday and Sunday didn’t exist! Even now at the end of December I can’t say I’ve yet settled fully into this new lifestyle.

The process has played havoc with the pursuit of my hobby but there have been occasions when I’ve been able to grab a camera for a brief fix of image making. Unfortunately I’ve had no time to indulge myself in the process of immersion in any one train of creative thought. Experiments haven’t been followed through, prints haven’t been made and consistency has gone out the window.

Catch up

So here’s what I’ve been up to when not preparing for or adjusting to retirement.

April

I managed a couple of outings on my bike with the Intrepid and of course I couldn’t miss Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day!

May

My other hobby is cycling. Somehow I found cycling an easier way to escape than photography. However, I’d acquired an e-bike with the intention of setting it up to do the donkey work of lugging my camera gear around!

June

Another cycle ride, this time to Queensferry to find images of the bridges across the Forth.

July

The present incumbent of the Office of President of the United States of America made a visit to the UK and spent a couple of days playing golf at one of his golf courses in Scotland. Donald Trump wasn’t particularly welcomed here. The media focussed on attempts by protestors to disrupt his golf but made little of several city-centre stopping demonstrations. I took my Vivitar v3800n SLR out, loaded with Kentmere 400 to record the mega-demo through the centre of Edinburgh, thoroughly enjoying a type of documentary photography I haven’t done for years!

August

My artist friend Oonagh has been mentioned in previous posts. We’d intended for months to meet up for Coffee, Cake and Cameras and I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity we had to do so in Anstruther at the beginning of August. I truly value any time spent in the company of creative people and Oonagh is no exception. We had a wonderful day each exploring in our own way, she with an underwater camera and a stereo pincam, and me with a Brownie 127 and Vest Pocket Kodak both loaded with cross process colour film and an experimental multi-coffee tin pincam.

Sadly my multi-coffee tin pincam experiment was a failure or perhaps it just worked differently from what I expected, so nothing to show from it. However, Oonagh brought me a present: A set of three 35mm film canister pincams, each with a magnet set in the lid to aid secure mounting on a metallic surface (I later found a tin lid that could be held in the QR mount of my tripod – perfect!)

contact printed paper negs – Oonagh’s filmcan pincams – views from Seafield Law

September

I met up with a group of friends to visit the SS Explorer at Leith Docks. Built as a research ship, it is one of the last surviving steam powered side trawlers still afloat and is being restored by a group of dedicated volunteers. We were privileged to have the opportunity to go on board and take photographs. I took Oonagh’s filmcan pincams loaded for paper negatives and my Vivitar v3800n loaded with Kentmere 400.


October

Just one photo outing this month, to capture some autumn colour with the Intrepid 4×5 on FP4+ black and white film 😉

November

Just one image this month, taken while out on an early morning cycle with one of Oonagh’s filmcan pincams.

scanned paper neg – Oonagh’s filmcan pincam – Murieston Trail

December

I’m beginning to put some thoughts together for photographic projects but my output so far kind of emphasises their experimental nature! I have but two paper negatives to show for my efforts so far but I’m working on it. This image was made in a biscuit tin pincam on 90gsm acid-free tracing paper coated with SE1 Emulsion. There’s a lot of perfecting to be done regarding my coating method and estimating exposures but my goal is to obtain a contact printable paper negative. That should be worth a few future blog posts!

scanned SE1 Emulsion on tracing paper negative – Biscuit tin pincam – Eliburn Reservoir

Carry on

My new life as a retiree is beginning to take shape and there is light ahead even if the tunnel is longer than I had expected.

I’ve taken up the noble retirement pursuit of Volunteering, in my case at the West Lothian Bike Library where I’m getting proper training as a bike mechanic and also as a led-ride leader. WLBL aims to make cycling available to all and has a wide range of adaptive bikes and trikes that are available to those with support needs. It also accepts donations of old bikes which are assessed and refurbished either for sale or for donation in response to requests from Social Services. A couple of days a week gives some structure, routine and purpose to my time in worthwhile activity.

There has been a gradual realisation that I can take an actual holiday. Or for that matter, as many or as much holidays as I can fit in! I can go day trips any day of the week. On my bike I’m restricted to a fairly limited area unless I take the bike somewhere on a train and as my wife doesn’t cycle, too many bike trips tends to selfishness. Of course, retirement gives us the time to spend together that was denied us when I was working. We had a chat, or two, or three about it and took a liking to the idea of a campervan …

… So after much internet browsing, asking about and looking around we’ve put down a deposit. Sometime soon we should be hitting the road in search of places of interest and potential campsites. The prospect beckons of being on location for sunrises and sunsets that I wouldn’t otherwise get to, cameras, bike, coffee and cake all ready to hand in the back of the van.

And so the blog, like life, will go on.

Negative scanning experiments

I spent a day scanning and rescanning at different settings, the same negative to discover what works for me.

My ongoing frustration with viewing scanned images on my Light Moments blog and Flickr with my MacBook Air led me to spend a day experimenting with various methods of scanning and processing 35mm negatives.

Whether or not the method I use to scan and process my negatives has any bearing on their being viewable on any particular device is unlikely to be determined by these experiments but it might at least give me an idea of what output quality is achievable from my scanning setup.

My scanner is a flatbed Epson Perfection 4990 Photo, capable of scanning negatives up to 10″x8″ at up to a claimed optical resolution of 4800 dpi and a Dmax of 4.0. My scanning software is Epson Scan as supplied with the scanner and my editing software is Serif Labs’ Affinity Photo.

Poor weather during the week left me effectively snowed in at work for three days with little work to do. Fortunately I’d taken my camera and a couple of rolls of film with me and was able to spend some time taking pictures of the snowy scene in which I found myself. I’ve chosen a single frame from the processed negatives to illustrate the results of my experimentation.

The film is Kentmere 400 developed in Ilfosol 3 at the standard dilution of 1+9 and at 20°C, Ilfostop and Ilford Rapid Fixer. Scanned frames were output to TIFF files for processing. The files uploaded here were all resized to 1200dpi wide JPEGs at 85% compression quality.

For my scanning experiment I started with a 16-bit greyscale scan at 1200dpi to a TIFF file.  Exposure and image adjustment settings were the standard auto settings provided by Epson. The resulting TIFF was so rough that I didn’t bother attempting any further processing. Scans 2 and 3 were made with the same settings but at 2400dpi and 4800dpi respectively. At full size they show some improvement in resolution which is just discernible here, but not in image quality.

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Scan 1: 16-bit greyscale @ 1200dpi. Epson Auto settings. TIFF file size 3.4MB.
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Scan 2: 16-bit greyscale @ 2400dpi. Epson Auto settings. TIFF file size 13.5MB.
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Scan 3: 16-bit greyscale @ 4800dpi. Epson Auto settings. TIFF file size 53.9MB.

Based on what I could learn from the first three scans I decided to use 2400dpi for the next three.

Scan 4 was also a 16-bit greyscale scan but with manual over-ride of Epson’s auto adjustment of the histogram. I set the black and white points to just left and right respectively of the ends of the histogram, the grey point value to 1.00 and set the output to stretch the histogram from 0 to 255. I also unchecked the unsharp mask setting. The output gave me full histogram values to work with using Levels in Affinity Photo and to my eye produced a much more acceptable result.

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Scan 4:: 16-bit greyscale @ 2400dpi. Histogram manually set in Epson Scan, adjusted in Affinity Photo. B&W conversion in Affinity Photo. TIFF file size 12.8MB.

Scan 5 was made just as Scan 4 except as a 48-bit colour file. Not only does this give me the option to make adjustments to levels but also allows control over the conversion to Black & White and the opportunity to emulate the use of filters on the camera.

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Scan 5: 48-bit colour @ 2400dpi. Histogram manually set in Epson Scan, adjusted in Affinity Photo. B&W conversion in Affinity Photo. TIFF file size 40.5MB.

Pleased with the progress I seemed to be making, Scan 6 was also 48-bit colour but this time with all Epson settings turned off: No auto exposure or colour management, no auto histogram, no unsharp mask and no auto setting of the scan marquee. I was able to manually select for scanning, a little more of the negative than had been automatically selected by the Epson software, hence the slightly larger file size. I was also sufficiently pleased with this one that I took the time to spot and straighten the file once in Affinity Photo.

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Scan 6: 48-bit colour @ 2400dpi. All Epson Scan auto settings turned off. B&W conversion and all adjustments made in Affinity Photo TIFF file size 46.3MB.

I was really very pleased with this. So much so that I repeated it at 48oodpi just to compare the resolution. The 4800dpi at full size is just noticeably better. I also made a slight change to the brightness – not sure I made the right call on that but like everything else that’s a subjective judgement!

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Scan 7: 48-bit colour @ 4800dpi. All Epson Scan auto settings turned off. B&W conversion and all adjustments made in Affinity Photo TIFF file size 185.1MB.

As I said at the top, none of this is likely to have any bearing on my MacBook Air problems (I’m beginning to see the problem being something to do with it, either hardware or operating system) but it’s been an interesting day making these comparisons. For the extra effort and disk space, scanning at higher resolution in 48-bit colour and with no Epson software intervention  makes a huge difference to what is achievable. And the beauty of making edits in Affinity Photo (and I guess any Photoshop-like software) is the flexibility and ability to go back to make adjustments.

Film: when ‘analogue’ becomes digital

A pinhole project in the making that prompts a question about digitising images made on film.

With a break over the festive season from the routine of work, I’ve had the chance to get stuck in to a photographic project or two (or three, or …).

Inspired by a photograph I saw some years ago in a book about pinhole photography and continuing from my last blog post, I made a body-cap pinhole to mount on a 35mm SLR, loaded the camera with a roll of Kentmere 400 film and took it for a walk through the woods. The pinhole was about 0.17mm diameter and mounted 50mm from the film plane, giving an aperture of about f/290. In the late afternoon winter light my exposure times for the 400ISO film ranged from about 20 seconds to over a minute.

My aim was to make images of the landscape as I passed through it, handholding the camera as steadily as I could in front of me with the shutter open on the ‘B’ setting, counting out the exposures in time with my footsteps. As with all things pinhole, this would be a serendipitous adventure into light, time and landscape.

With the first film exposed and developed (yes, I’ve been out again, repeating the exercise having learned lessons from the first) I had a choice to make. Would I scan the negatives, edit them and be done with viewing them on my computer screen, perhaps having prints made from the now digital files, or would I attempt to print them ‘old school’ in the darkroom? The negatives were all similar in being of limited tonal range with little discernible detail. It could be difficult to make anything of them either way.

I decided to do both! First, I scanned them then cleaned up dust marks and stretched the histogram in levels by setting black and white points. Images were obtained, albeit rather grainy and a bit harsh looking, that met my expectations and with which I was quite pleased.

Knowing that images were there to be seen, I picked a dozen or so frames, set up my darkroom and disappeared for a rather marathon printing session! My main challenge would be to get contrast into the prints from the very flat, mid-range negatives. Using split-grade printing I determined a base exposure with a grade 5 filter for the darks and grade 1 or 2 filters for the lights. The resulting prints were pleasing enough to be going on with, enough for me to see an ongoing project to develop as time allows.

What I found interesting was the comparison between scanned negatives, adjusted on-screen images from the scans, and darkroom prints made from the negatives. Here are three images all originating from the same frame:

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unedited scan of the negative (inverted)
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the negative edited with black and white points set in levels
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unedited scan of a darkroom print made from the negative

There’s always a wee voice at the back of my mind when scanning negatives that questions why I didn’t just use a digital camera – after all, once scanned I’m working with a digital file! It takes longer to make a darkroom print but the soothing red glow of a safelight is so much kinder on the eyes than the glare of a backlit computer screen and the end product in this example is more in keeping with the gentler, mysterious image that I had in mind when I set out with the camera. The digital version seems harsher, more contrasty, perhaps better defined if that’s what the viewer wants or expects and is certainly more reproducible, but the darkroom print has the feel of something crafted and unique – and to my mind it looks so much better too!

I guess both routes to an image have their place and of course the final irony is that to share the darkroom print here, I have to scan it and upload a digital file!