Reinventing the Camera: Pinhole Photography in the Age of 3D Printing

Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day is held on the 4th Sunday of April each year, celebrating the artistry of pinhole cameras and the unique aesthetic that the technology offers. One of our team members went "down the pinhole" and discovered a new hobby, printing and modifying several cameras along the way. Cody, the maker who took the following photos, wrote about his experience. 



To anyone who owns or uses a 3D Printer, the idea of “why buy something when you can print it” rings true. Truthfully, that almost never happens but in some instances, you have little to no option due to the high cost or scarcity of components.   

Each project has to start with a plan or an idea. This was an exception as my knowledge base for the subject was non-existent.


Modern cameras take what was once an expensive and tedious process and simplify it to simply point and click. Smartphones make that process even easier since everyone carries a decent quality camera in their pockets these days.

Along the way, we lost the experience and knowledge of what goes into taking a great picture.

Sure you can go out and buy a digital camera, or if you are in to film photography, a vintage or antique camera. Why buy one when you can print one? 

two cameras close.jpg

Stripping a camera down to its basics and you are left with a box with a small hole that lets light through. In other words, a pinhole camera. The earliest recorded mention of a pinhole camera, or "camera obscura" as it used to be called, was as early as the 5th Century BC (“CS194-26: proj2”). A piece of technology from that long ago is a great option to try and bring into modern times.  

A 3D printed pinhole camera is a great example of a project that can be done even by the most inexperienced of photographers. Since it really only requires a few printed components and the components that can not be printed can be found in a recycling bin or a junk pile, this makes a great weekend project.   

Remember when going into this project, I started out with very little knowledge but luckily I was not the first person who wanted to try this and there were plenty of paths I could choose from.  

Of course when you search for 3D printed pinhole cameras there are a lot of different designs and options. One in particular jumped out from the rest and this was the terraPin ACE Pinhole Camera, Lulzbot Edition designed by Todd Schlemmer on Thingiverse (as seen on the right). 

two cameras angle.jpg 
Not only was this camera perfectly themed and about as easy a design as you can get, but the information and instructions for printing and building this camera were perfectly laid out and easy to understand and follow.

I quickly found out that the enemy of any 3D printed camera is light leakage. This is because many filaments, though they may appear to be opaque, will actually be a bit translucent and let in a little light. I opted for black PolyTerra PLA as it comes with a matte finish (will be important later) and appears to be good at keeping light out.

Following along with the STL print instructions, I finished up the major printed parts and even modified a couple parts to continue with the LulzBot theme of the camera.



Next came the actual pinhole. You can purchase laser cut pinholes to the highest level of accuracy, but this project was about learning, printing, and not spending money! So it did not take long to find an empty pop can and start cutting it up.   

The inside of a can does have a plastic coating, so sanding through that was the first step. Once done I quickly found out that it can be tricky to make a hole that is 0.2mm in diameter. So following along with the guide that Todd provided on his Thiniverse page, I was able to take a sewing needle and some vise grips and slowly bored a tiny hole into the thin aluminum. You could use something like aluminum foil as well, but I figured the slightly thicker can will definitely hold up to a little more abuse.  

Once done, I had everything I needed to build my first camera.    

Now, because you want to prevent light from getting inside and shining around, you want to have as flat of a surface inside as possible. So I painted the back of the pinhole I just made, and ensured that there were no other shiny surfaces inside the camera.    

Once assembled, I was able to pick up some 120 film and get that ready to shoot. 

One big part of shooting with a pinhole camera is knowing how long to keep that pinhole open allowing light to hit the film within. There are a lot of different ways to figure this out, but using a dedicated lightmeter app and some information about the pinhole size and film, this becomes almost trivial.

terraPin Ace double.jpg 
Another thing to note from using the camera is that you need to be absolutely still as any motion will simply become a blur on the image. Luckily this was already thought of as well in the design as there was a spot to mount a tripod on the camera. Another problem diverted due to forward thinking and design features.    

Once everything was accounted for and I was ready to start taking pictures, I just went out and took my time. Being film, you really need to pick your subjects carefully as you can’t easily delete and try again. That picture is there whether it was good or bad.

terraPin Ace two angle.jpg

Setting up your camera for a picture is easy enough though. Simply set up the camera on the tripod, line everything up, open the shutter to let in light, and hope for the best.

Aligning the shots was also thought about as there are a few lines on the top and side of the camera that allow you to look down and see the absolute edges of the scene that will be let into the camera. Otherwise, you are just guessing and hoping for the best. (You already are, but at least you have a better guess).

For the size of the film and the size of the camera design, I got 16 pictures out of the roll of 120 film. With the occasional shooting I did, it took about a month to really find the subject matter to take 16 pictures. Within that time frame of using up that roll of film, I came across another camera from Todd that makes really wide angle pictures and I guess I had more film to try so in for a penny in for a pound. 


Named after its monstrous cousins, the Kaiju 6x18 Pinhole Gamera (yes, Gamera!) takes massively wide panoramic pictures that, by its size, takes 6 cm tall by 18 cm long pictures. The process for building this camera is just as straightforward as the previous ACE pinhole camera, but the shape and pinhole sizes are a little different. 

Since there was to be more light passing through the internals of the camera body, I did opt for painting the inside with a matte finish using some black camouflage spray paint meant to prevent light reflection. Some people have used chalkboard spray paint as well to get a similar effect.


Kaiju progress.jpg

Finally, as this camera's lid was a bit larger, and held in a little less securely than the ACE camera, I did line the inside edge of the lid with some black yarn to act as a sort of light seal. This worked well, but I still managed to get a little light leakage that can be seen on some pictures taken during really bright days.   

Since it takes a wide picture, the rear of the camera has a curve to allow a wider range of light to shine through to the film. I was skeptical that there may be some odd artifacting to the film in the form of a slight skew or stretching of the image, but that was not the case. About the only artifact that is visible in the images is the far edges are slightly darker.



Once again, initial design makes using this camera very simple as well. Lines on the top allow for easy positioning and image framing. But because the pinhole on this camera is a little larger, pictures take just about twice as long to take than the smaller hole ones. This means that the camera really needs to be sitting completely still to get the best image.   

Taking proper light measurements, ensuring that everything is framed correctly, and the time for taking the picture is all very important because with this camera a single roll of 120 film only gets you 4 pictures! Messing up your pictures can both be frustrating and costly but if done correctly, the results speak for themselves.

Now, the pictures produced by these pinhole cameras may not be the sharpest images to have ever been taken, but to a lot of people that is part of the draw to these types of cameras. To me, there is a unique sense of life in the pictures that is missed with modern digital photography. That is because the light that forms these images on the film of a pinhole camera is the very same light that we see with our eyes. It's unaltered, unamplified, and unprocessed.

Because a pinhole camera captures these images in their raw and unfiltered form, this offers a direct connection to the viewer between the scene and the captured image. Whereas digital cameras will simply interpret that scene and convert the light going through it into digital information and manipulate it in countless ways.



These pinhole cameras offer a unique perspective on the world, unadulterated by the layers of digital interference. So even if you have no experience with film photography or have never tried your hand at using pinhole cameras, these projects might just be a great opportunity to open the doors to a new hobby that pairs perfectly with 3D printing. 

Learn more about Pinhole Day here.

Work Cited 
“CS194-26: proj2.” Berkeley, Accessed 21 August 2023.