190622 Pinhole - matthew piers robertson • photography writing creative toronto

Like my train photo set, this was taken with a pinhole lens on expired 35mm Kodak Tri-X that was pushed two stops. The pinhole is built into a body cap, with about a 28mm focal length, but it doesn't quite cover the whole frame. It vignettes asymmetrically, so part of one corner will come through black, and I can't quite predict which one. Cropping to remove this changes the 'lens' to be more like a 35mm perspective, albeit unpredictably. 

Is it strange to want a "better" pinhole? It's typical for me, perhaps, but even I see that it goes a long way to defeating the point.

Working with a pinhole on a rangefinder means that I can compose normally enough, and using film at iso1600 lets me hand-hold the camera. Using 35mm film is a little odd for the medium, with medium or large format providing nicer tones and a smoother result, and maybe even a little more detail. But working with film, for me, isn't about smooth detail – that's something digital can do. Coarse and textured is fine.

That said, I probably won't use Tri-X again. It has its devoted adherents, and for good reason, but they're all disconcertingly likely to use the word "street" as a genre. HP5 is also a classic, but without that trendy socio-economic baggage, and it's easier to scan.

These were taken with Ilford HP5+ at the box speed. (Click to see them larger if you wish.) They're smoother but not too smooth, and even at iso400 the pinhole can be hand-held. But the point of using the pinhole lens on this outing was to mark when I changed between the 35 and 50mm lenses that I used for most of the roll, because I can't always spot the focal length difference in the photos. And for those lenses, to minimize the variability of user error, I had the camera on a tripod.

Little cameras do very well on tripods.


The Tri-X was the fourth roll of film that I put through my rangefinder this year, and the HP5 photos are from the second.

For a long time, and for no particular reason, my prized M-mount Zeiss Ikon didn't work. First it was intermittently temperamental, and then graduated to simply being inert. I made some repair inquiries locally, had other people try it, and nothing helped. I was finally about to ship it overseas for service when I thought "let's just check it one more time." I did nothing different, but from that day on it has worked flawlessly.

So film roll number one was an expired Portra 400, a pleasant film prized for having no particular character, machine processed and unproblematic. Roll two was HP5+, as discussed, that I took to the islands because that's just where I go these days. It was my first traditional black and white – previously I've used chromogenic-but-monochrome Ilford XP2 – and proved that the camera was metering and exposing accurately. But none of that is a real test for a camera with opinions of its own.

So this is where the train comes into it. To really prove that a camera is working requires it to perform under pressure during important opportunities, so off we went to Ottawa. Roll three was HP5+ again, featuring my adorable and now one-year-old niece. I'd share some of those, except that I exclusively used the classic ZM 50/1.5 C-Sonnar, which is the wrong lens for the theme of the post. So instead we're back to the tri-x that started us off, which is the roll that I loaded while waiting for my hour-delayed trip back to Toronto.

I figured that gave the camera a chance to release some pent-up anxiety and break again, but it didn't take me up on it.

For roll five I went back to the Toronto Islands to explore the flooding, this time using Delta 100 and the more crisply technical ZM 35/2 Biogon lens. Those photos have already been posted in a couple of places around here, but again I didn't use a pinhole on that roll. So the train is where we leave things for now.

But at the very least, I'm finally convinced: for no particular reason, the camera is working reliably again.

And of course, now that I've written that out loud… it's time to use another roll and see if it's still true.