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How little camera do you need to say something worth saying?

This is the question that I've been inadvertently exploring for a few years, progressing through increasingly reductive tools. The Chroma Cube might be my ultimate answer. It is very, very little camera. And it's cute, too.

The Cube can easily fit in a jacket pocket, and weights only slightly more than nothing. With a filter attached to the included adapter it looks a little bit like a camera, and with the adapter removed it looks like… well, a small black plastic box with two big knobs on the top and a shiny disk on the front. Both of these things are exactly what it is.

This is hardly a 'review', since I've only put three rolls of film through it, and we're still at the looking-for-the-light-leaks stage of our relationship. But I wanted to write a bit about my least amount of camera while the novelty is still fresh.

Riding bendy streetcars: Kentmere Pan 100 in ID-11, Fujifilm Acros 100 in Ilford Perceptol.

There are a couple of really solid reasons why this isn't the camera for me. But they can't be that important, since I still bought one, and there's one excellent reason why I did: the film advance indicator.

It's effective and perfectly simple to use. There's a white mark on a black dial to show how much the film needs to be wound; keep this in the same spot each time and the biggest hassle of a 35mm pinhole is solved. It's easier than dealing with the frame numbers on medium format.

It turns out that the film advance is even more effective than I thought it would be. The frame indicator is not just a white mark – the rotating disk is also flattened so the right position can be felt without even looking at the camera. Brilliant. I can't always see the back of the camera when I want to take a second photo of the same scene, and with just a bit of practice I can reliably advance the film while walking to the next promising picture spot.

One concession to miniaturization is that the back feels somewhat flexy; it has a subtle movement when I wind the film. That isn't the source of the intermittent little light leak that the camera had, but I still put a little tab of low-tack black masking tape across the back regardless. It's not as if I need to reload the film very often, and it's a 'film reminder' that stops me from fiddling with the magnetized door. Otherwise it's just too satisfying to open and snick closed.

(Updated one week later:  Steve at Chroma got in touch with me to help resolve the little light leak, which only took a minor tweak to fix – it was just a matter of figuring out the right minor tweak. And isn't that photography in a nutshell?)

Adverse reactions. Ilford FP4+ and Kentmere 100, both in ID-11.

The shutter design on the Cube is quite clever. It's opened by a long tab that extends beyond the side of the camera, and then closed by the long tab that emerges on the other side of the camera. Using two hands (and a solid tripod) makes it easy to activate very briefly, for shorter shutter speeds than most pinholes can manage. And because the shutter is opened and closed from the sides, the filter adapter can be pressed flat against a window to reduce reflections, or the front of the camera can be placed directly against a fence or other barrier. Pinhole cameras with front-activated shutters can't get past obstacles like this, so it expands where and how the Cube can be used.

The magnetic filter adapter is one of my favourite things about the Cube. (It's threaded for ø49 filters, but in the lead photo I've stepped it up to fit the set of ø55 colour filters that I already had on hand.) It attaches to the front of the camera with two hidden magnets, so it's very easy to remove and attach as needed. I wish I had at least one or two more of them – it would make swapping filters so much easier. I never seem to have the right contrast filter mounted.

Even if I used colour film, which I don't, it would be nice to have a couple of different strength ND filters on hand. A two-stop is usually enough to get out of the problematic sub-second exposure time, but sometimes I like to stretch things out much farther than that.

And speaking of stretching, it's also worth noting that the Cube has only a modestly wide field of view, unlike the absurdly wide view that medium format pinholes seem to prefer. It has frame guides for the horizontal field of view, but not the vertical. Composition can be hit or miss, quite literally. And there's not much leeway for cropping after the fact.

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The Cube's negatives are tiny. It reliably records 52 square 24mm x 24mm frames on a roll of 36-exposure film. A square medium format camera puts twelve frames on a roll of 120 film, creating negatives with five times the surface area. Compared to that the Cube is decidedly low-fidelity with much grainier photographs. This presents some challenges. It also provides some opportunities.

It goes back to the question that I started with: how little camera do I need? It's hard to have less camera than this, but it's still enough if I'm looking for light, shape, and mood. It's not enough if being able to read small text is important to understanding a photo. (It's surprising how often that applies for me.) But there's a certain charm and vérité to the coarseness of 35mm film in a pinhole camera. There's also the charm of the Cube not being a film-hungry monster.

With the Cube recording 50+ photos per roll there's not much need to worry about film cost, even in this time of rising prices. The per-frame cost difference between emulsions is pretty minor, especially if you pay a lab to process and scan your film. I wanted to try it out with a couple of Ilford films as I learn the camera, but from now on I'll be staying with Fujifilm's Acros II. Its results are visibly smoother than FP4, and Acros also has far less reciprocity effect, making it an excellent choice for any longer exposures.

Structures. Kentmere 100 in high key, Acros 100 at the rail lands.

I mentioned earlier that I had some concerns about buying the Cube. In fact, there were three of them.

One: I've previously owned two square-format cameras. One was a Hasselblad 500-something, and the other was a teak pinhole made of hopes and dreams. I absolutely loathed them both. I also fundamentally dislike square format photos, finding them static, unnatural, and a poor fit for both the printed page and the electronic screen. My preferred ratio is 16:10, one mile by one kilometer, and I'll often stretch to an even more panoramic 5:2. I never shoot vertically.

Two: image quality. I already own a pinhole cap for my 35mm rangefinder, and another 3D-printed 135 pinhole with 60x24mm negatives, so I have some idea what quality this format is capable of. It's nothing close to the smoothness and detail – yes, detail – that's possible with a good medium format pinhole camera.

Three: have I mentioned how many frames it gets per roll? Pinhole photography is slow, measured, and best done with a tripod or other solid support. My 6x12 – 120mm – pinhole gets six frames per roll, and sometimes that feels like a lot; recording 36 frames on my hand-held auto-focusing matrix-metering Nikon F6 can take more than a weekend. Seasons can change between starting and finishing a roll in my 35mm rangefinder. Fifty frames… is a lot.

Even more shots per roll. Unintentional double exposure on K100, intentional on Acros.

So now that I've been working with the Cube for a little while, what do I think of it?

Before buying it I decided on a presentation format that will make good use of its square images at modest sizes, and one that lends itself to longer-format projects than I usually do. Now that the camera is here and I'm seeing what it's like to work with, I'm even more interested in its possibilities. I've already thought of a subject that none of my other pinholes could handle, and its modest film needs are inspiring me to take photos that I wouldn't otherwise take. Partly that's just to get through the roll, but as many good photos come from desperation as from discernment.

Image Quality isn't the reason to use a pinhole camera – image qualities are. And the Cube does have character. I'm still going to need a lot more practice at overcoming the limitations of a square frame as I learn how to take an interesting photograph with the Cube, which I have yet to do. Other people think that they're better at this than I am, and out of politeness I'll agree, but this is a hard shape to make work.

But most importantly, it's very little camera, and that's enough.


Technical details, for what they're worth:

The first photo, showing the Cube on a tripod, is absurd. The tripod is a Jobu Algonquin, which is a beast that's designed for birders with five-figure lenses. The ballhead is a Sirui K40x, which weighs five times more than the Cube all on its own. I use this set with heavy cameras for very long exposures under harsh conditions; the Cube was just along for the ride that day. To get a better sense of scale, it's wearing a 70mm quick-release plate and a ø55 filter on a step-up ring.

The various photos taken with the Cube each specify the film and were developed as marked; assume standard development times and temperatures if you're into that sort of thing. On a computer or tablet browser the photos probably show as pairs, and on mobile they're stacked, so the specifications are simply given in order rather than marked left/right.

Click on the photos to see them bigger if you're so inclined.

My Nikon film scanner can't figure our the square frames, and I'm too lazy to get out the flatbed that I use for my 120 film, so I digitized them with my Fuji XT2 and 80mm Macro lens on an LED light. Sean calls this "taking photos of photos" and he's correct about how absurd it is, but it works. The raw files are inverted with curves in Lightroom, and produce cropped frames that are about 3000 pixels across. Nine megapixels are enough for what I need, and a lab scanner didn't reveal any more detail.

The photograph of the film strips is about how it came out of my Sony P&S camera, reflecting subtle and irrelevant differences in the base colour of the film. If you look carefully you'll see that the right edge of many of the frames is darker – brighter in the inverted image. This was the small light leak that took a few tries to track down; because it didn't impinge on the image much I was never too worried about it. Paradoxically, maybe, I have more affection for the camera now that I've had the chance to take care of it. Overall I'm quite impressed by the design and build of the Cube – and if there's an updated v2 model I'll happily buy one of those as well.