For the past couple of months, I’ve been searching for the right sequence of cuts and folds to turn a piece of paper into a camera. Specifically, I wanted to make a working camera within an educational pop-up book—one that connects the dots between design and science / structure and function. Happy to report: it is finally real! The final book explains—and actively demonstrates—how a structure as humble as a folded piece of paper can tap into the intrinsic properties of light to produce a photograph.
Here is how it works (detailed instructions typed out below.)
As far as 1800’s tech goes, pinhole photography is an great example of material acting as more than the sum of its parts. If you’re in the market to be blown away by something you normally ignore: make one over the holiday. You don’t need this book—all that you need is a lightproof box with a hole in the front (mini-hangtag safety pins yield a perfect 0.3–0.4 mm hole) and some light-sensitive material loaded in the back. The results achieved by such humble means is a feat of true cosmic piggybacking—showing that objects we make (even from the most lo-fi materials) can be structured to tap into impressive forces at play in our world.
This is an example of the type of photo it takes. Photo taken with an iPhone versus photo taken with a folded-piece-of-paper-in-a-pop-up book:
The convex surface of the lens of a normal camera merges light beams from a varying angles to produce focus at the focal point. A lensless camera accepts light through a single hole in a flat plane (from a single angle.) Because of this, there are no mechanics to “focus” a pinhole camera—it is a projection from a single beam, much like a camera obscura. The result is that objects near the camera and objects far away from the camera have the same exact amount of focus. Take this image of a fence, the Williamsburg bridge, and the Empire State Building—which is fuzzy, but each structure has an equal degree of focus:
To see more results: I’m posting sample photos taken with the cameras with #thisbookisacamera on the social things.
The book itself comes with detailed instructions and a starter pack of B/W Ilford photo paper (any 4×5” or smaller light-sensitive material can be used). There is nothing to assemble, but if you want to use it as more than a book, you need to feel alright with the concept of pouring developer into an old takeout food container and sloshing it around in the dark… while counting. Been prototyping this for a while, so this totally sounds like a normal human-in-a-dark-room activity. I tested it for a very long time and now my neighbors are probably questioning my sanity:
Why it works
The reason why a hole in a lightproof box can perform a function similar to real photographic equipment is due to light’s intrinsic tendencies. Light steadfastly moves in a perfectly straight line. In a normal environment, light beams bounce around ambiently—their cacophony of trajectories eager to fog a piece of photographic paper with a muddy multitude of images.
The chaos wrought by multiple beams became clear here—where I maladroitly forgot to patch a second pinhole I was testing. A double image was produced:
The book explains the tendencies of light beams this way:
Why work on some piece of antediluvian technology while sitting in a studio surrounded by high-tech tools like lasers, Graphtec cutters, and Illustrator?
For the past few years, I’ve been trying to better understand forces at play in the analog world through a process of subtraction. To do this, I’ve been disassembling everyday tools, stripping off their normal interface, and reducing them down to their functional minimums.
The value in this eccentric hobby is best illustrated with a past work-example: We frequently take for granted that music occurs because “we pushed play,” but what truly enables sound to reach our ears? In 2011, driven by sheer determination to recreate an experiment from a 1980’s Mr. Wizard episode, I made this paper record player invitation for my friends Mike and Karen’s wedding. Using only humble materials and handmade construction, this “device” corrals minute soundwave vibrations from a needle up into a paper tunnel, which in turn amplifies those waves into audibility. We knew this thing would be super-cool if we got it to work, but even we were surprised by the result. With a gesture, the paper device effectively demystified the exact thing that tech obscures: it syncopates the experience of sound with touch — demonstrating the different sensory ways that vibration manifests itself (a fact that is nevertheless difficult to grasp when stated verbally.) It essentially connected what we had been told was true about sound with what we could actually feel, firsthand.
Thinking with your hands—and showcasing the wonders of the physical world—turns out is addictive. I got hooked on the slow (but varied) thrills of paper engineering. In pockets of time between projects, I’ve devised fifteen functional, but rough prototypes for lo-fi pop-up devices that I hope to one day make real. Six of these contraptions will appear in a forthcoming book, which is being mass-produced by Chronicle. This Book is a Planetarium morphs from being a planetarium, to a spirograph, to a musical instrument, to a perpetual calendar, to a decoder ring, to a speaker. The pop-ups are supported by text connecting the dots between form and the hidden forces at play in the physical world. It will be at Barnes and Noble and Wal-mart and everywhere come Spring.
The remaining nine prototypes were deemed too complex for mass production. However, when the release of This Book is a Planetarium was pushed back*, I was eager to self-publish one of the rejects. This pinhole camera is one of those rejects— refined to stand on its own, but will also enhance the collection when it materializes. That is the plan.
(*I should mention: the planetarium book is still coming! Navigating the mass-production process is far more challenging than working directly with a printer.… but I have faith that it will eventually be great…)
How I’ve been prototyping a book like this
I began by hand cutting-and-folding rough sketches (the 3-D equivalent to napkin doodles), then refining the rough builds in Illustrator, outputting them to a Craft Robo cutter, then tinkering with them further using an x-acto knife. It is always a messy mash-up of analog intuition and digital refinement. Initially, I was convinced that some configuration of nested box shapes would yield a perfectly lightproof space (similar to the light traps one sees in darkroom entryways) — so I looked at (and dissected) many pop-up books involving boxes trying to find a way to implement this plan. (Def. regretted the book dissection, but after speaking with many pop-up experts: all pop-up books have the blood of other pop-up books on their pages.)
The problem with this approach: if you’ve ever peered into a halfway-open pop-up book, you know that many of the “solid” shapes fold flat by opening on at least one side. Pop-up books offer only the illusion of cohesive form. Like an anamorphic drawing, they are whole and complete only from a single vantage point (an open book.) For example, a pop-up cube folds back in two dimensions along score marks that bisect each of its sides. As the bends at those score marks become more pronounced, they raise up to reveal open triangles. This kind of pop-up technique would ruin an undeveloped photographic image, regardless of the amount of nested perpendicular boxes because the action is always syncopated to the opening/closing of the book. (If anyone has found a solution to this particular spatial riddle, I want to know about it and will update this post!)
To achieve a truly lightproof shape, the corners of the box must be scored and bent in addition to its top and sides. The resulting form is a bellows (like an accordion.) Basically: Had I initially looked back to the design of early cameras, I could have saved myself a ton of time. (Noted: history.)
Once I had a rough plan, I began drawing my score/cut lines in Illustrator (arranging them on separate layers so that I can output the score lines with 50% of the force of the cut lines.) This is a prototyping trick taught to me by Jeff Rutzky, who is a bit of a Craft Robo expert.
The funny thing about this line of work is how disappointing the whole process is… until one day, it miraculously isn’t. The only great camera that I made was the last camera. However, I prototyped and destroyed at least 50 of them until I found one that succeeded in accommodating easily-procurable film/paper types, yielded a book-sized book, collapsed to a not-ridiculously fat shape, resembled a camera, produced reasonably sharp photos, and didn’t cost more to produce than a reasonable sales price. None of these things automatically worked — each requirement was its own separate a battle. Once I had the structure determined, I photographed the blank dummy and Photoshopped-on a design.
While researching, a friend recommended looking at Peter Olpe’s hundreds of different pinhole camera designs. The man is simply amazing: he is a Swiss graphic designer who has been crafting unique pinhole cameras for artists for years as a trade for their work. In his book, you witness the enormous effect that small design changes in the morphology of the camera body exert over the resulting image.
Make it yourself
Because of the potential for experimentation here, a DIY hand-assembly version of the dielines is published under a Creative Commons share-alike license. Please feel free to download the cut and fold lines to DIY it, to examine it, rip it apart, or to develop a completely new variation. (Although manufacturing your own version of the book to sell is not-ok.) Note: Use a thin, but truly opaque black paper. The book uses Mohawk Antique Vellum in Black in the lightest text weight, but Neenah’s Classic Crest text (in Black in the lightest text weight), and Curious Skin (in Black in the lightest text weight) also performed well in tests.
Download the template here.
This project would have been impossible without the support and help of the Creative Residency team at Adobe, the patience of Daniel Dunnam, copy-editing of Charles Purdy, product advice from Rena Tom, Structural Graphics, hotel ice buckets for acting as makeshift development trays, and the ambient generosity of DIY enthusiasts who pour their wisdom into freely-accessible things like the Pinhole Design Calculator. We also set up a paper camera photo booth at Adobe Max and it was super fun and churned out almost 900 GREAT photos. The proof, taken with a paper camera, of course, of my Creative Residency co-conspirators Libby Nicholoau and Becky Simpson Murphy:
How to use it as a camera (detailed instructions)
1.) Open the Book and lock the tabs to open fully
Achieving this specific focal length is important—the tabs also help to keep the book flat, rigid and hold steady.
Be sure to unlock those tabs before closing again! When bent backwards, they lose their functionality.
2.) Insert photo paper (or film…any light-sensitive material will do)
3.) Shoot a photo by raising the shutter for the desired exposure time.
Exposed photo paper will “keep” for months, so you can store your undeveloped photos in a light-tight envelope and develop them all at once if you want.
4.) Develop your photographic negative.
Be as DIY or as outsourcey as you wanna be. Here is a chart:
5.) Invert and correct it!
Analog cameras produce photographic negatives. The crystals in photo paper and film grow darker as they are exposed to light (so the sun will sow up as a black dot.) I’ve found that the easiest way to get from pinhole negative to corrected final photo is to snap the negative (in even lighting) and correct it with the free Photoshop Express app. (It is truly the most nimble way to get an image—been using it to prototype for months now as it is so much faster than scanning when you need a quick image.)
(Photography is an endless question-generating machine. Ask questions and I’ll put em in the FAQ below.)
User-submitted FAQ and further resources as they occur to me…
Q: Where do I purchase additional paper film?
A: Ilford’s 3.5 x 5 RC (resin-coated) paper is the easiest to use. However, you can also quarter standard 8×10 darkroom photography paper (in the dark!) or use standard large format sheet film (otherwise known as 4×5 film.)
Q: Does it only take black and white photos?
A: No. You can put any kind of light sensitive material into the camera and get a result! However, color photographs must be processed in the lab, which makes experimenting with exposure times less possible. The lack of immediate feedback from experimentation may yield a lower quality image. (Pinhole cameras are better suited for b/w photography as it enables a more nimble process of shooting, testing, adjusting, and shooting again.)