SHERIDAN — What started as one of the earliest forms of photography has made a comeback in the art world in the form of carefully-crafted wooden boxes and a following of only the most patient photographers.
Photography started with the camera obscura, a darkened room with light admitted through a single tiny hole, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. Those once large rooms eventually translated into a pocket-sized, lens-free device known as a pinhole camera.
According to an August article in Forbes, pinhole cameras date back to China in 500 BCE, Forbes writes, and Arabic astronomer Ibn al Haytham first used one to view an eclipse around 1000 CE. The size of the pinhole determines the sharpness of the photo. The smaller the pinhole, the sharper the photo. With a smaller hole, though, the photographer sacrifices time as photos must be exposed for longer periods to avoid dim prints.
Businesses like Ondu in Slovenia made pinhole photography accessible by creating nine different camera body sizes that allow use of different types of film, including the commonly-used 35mm film.
Lance Roth, a recent resident of Sheridan, subscribed to the idea of pinhole photography after creating one of his own with an iPhone box while working toward his bachelor’s degree in photography at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley.
He successfully created one image with his homemade concoction immediately after construction.
“It wasn’t the best, but it worked and I think that was kind of what got me started,” Roth said. “(It’s) something so simple and I get super excited seeing images come out of that.”
His homemade image maker worked only once, so he decided to drop the tedious task for a few years and return to digital.
But the hustle of always needing the best technology on the market exhausted Roth, and he considered resorting back to the most simple form of photography — pinhole.
“(The race for the best technology) was really wearing me down and it’s not important,” Roth said. “I mean, it’s good to have, but I got too tied up in just thinking about what better equipment I could have than just making pictures.”
He purchased his first pinhole camera in 2016 from ONDU for $150. The camera itself, made of steamed walnut wood, simplifies the photography process down to a wooden box with no viewfinder to look through. Two knobs help turn the film inside the camera, sealed from any light by tightly-held magnets. Another slab of wood, serving as the shutter for the camera, seals the pinhole to allow light into the box only if lifted.
To determine how long the shutter must remain open to create a well-exposed photo, Roth uses the exposure chart included with the product upon shipping, as well as an exposure application on his cellphone.
Roth owns five pinhole cameras, each with different sizes and functionalities. The thinner the camera box, the wider the shot. A wildflower photo he exposed in the Bighorn Mountains shows an expansive field of purple and gold flowers, with a focus on a sunflower in front. Roth explained he stood only a few feet from the flower, yet the photo still turned out to look farther away than he anticipated.
Roth’s worked through years of trial and error but finds the task of creating the perfect shot invigorating, yet simplified.
“You just have to eyeball it, it’s funny,” Roth said.
His first experience with the panoramic camera left him with a roll of photos that had been exposed twice. He discovered that winding the film twice as much creates one complete panoramic photo, instead of two stacked on top of each other.
Pinhole cameras create softer photographs, as the only element adjusted during the process is exposure. Because of this, Roth uses a tripod to help stabilize the camera.
With pinhole as his reclaimed passion in the photography world, Roth is working to build his own 16×20 camera.
“I’m pretty excited with where I’m at now,” Roth said. “To me, it’s way (more fun) than digital ever was for me.”
Eventually, Roth plans to pick up wet plate photography, which requires a portable darkroom with chemicals that treat a piece of glass or aluminum and, once exposed to light, captures the landscape. Roth then would return the plate back to the portable darkroom and treat the photo on site.
For now, though, Roth continues with some digital photography and wedding videography, while making sure to fit time in for his pinhole passion.