If patience is a virtue, then Satan’s in the kitchen, whipping up canapés for my impending “Welcome to Hell” party.
Every couple of days, I venture out — camera in hand — for a quick 8 km walk. On an average day, I’ll push about a dozen frames through a camera — rarely bothering to pause for the 1/60th of a second it takes for the shutter to complete its journey across the film plane. Occasionally, with reservation, I might slow down slightly when I snap a photo. But a full stop? Who has the patience for that? Blurry schmurry. I’ve got things to do.
Related to my impatience — and the reason why Satan’s also enlisted a crack team of demon sous chefs to prepare some delightful amuse-bouche offerings — is my pathological need to be unencumbered. I don’t want useless crap weighing me down or impeding my freedom of motion. No backpacks; no bulging pockets; no bulk; no weight. One look at the preponderance of compact cameras in my cabinet will confirm this. The heaviest, most ponderous cameras I own are probably the Leica rangefinders.
So with this is mind, what’s the silliest camera I could possible buy? A large format camera, you say?
Surely, you don’t think I’m that foolish!
OK. I’ll admit — overcome by a completely unrealistic notion that I would somehow magically become someone I’m not — I did purchase a large format camera earlier this year. But in my defense, it’s “only” a 4×5 (not an 8×10); has a pinhole (rather than a bulky lens); and is made entirely of plastic — placing its weight squarely in line with other cameras in the cabinet. But if you think these caveats somehow exclude me from the rank of “imbecile” on the Levine and Marks 1928 IQ Classification Scale, we need to dive a little deeper.
The camera in question is a “Pinsta” — a modern 4×5 pinhole kickstarter camera, designed to capture images on direct positive paper, rather than on a negative. What distinguishes it from other direct-positive pinhole cameras is the way it doubles as a portable darkroom — enabling you to develop the print right inside the camera. I suppose this is what puts the “insta” in “Pinsta” — at least if you’re the sort who measures time in “eons.” The manufacturer also advertises it as a camera “that fits in your pocket.” Seeing as it makes a twin-lens Rollieflex look svelte, I’m assuming the Pinsta folks must also be in the couture business, and that their new PinstaPocket™ baggy burlap ready-to-wear SackPants™ collection has yet to hit the Paris runways.
So — bearing in mind my Hell-bound tendency toward impatience, and my accompanying pathological insistence on unimpeded mobility — let’s explore, point-by-point, the various conflicts betwixt myself and this camera.
To begin, it’s a large format camera — designed to take exactly one shot before you need to reload it. And loading a large format camera isn’t as simple as popping in a new 35mm cassette, or unspooling a fresh roll of 120 film. Instead, it requires putting both the camera and direct positive paper into a changing bag; zipping it up; opening the camera; unboxing the paper; removing a sheet from the inner light-blocking plastic bag; fumbling around to feel which side is the emulsion side; inserting it in the camera; putting the paper back in the bag/box; reassembling the camera; unzipping the bag and extracting the camera.
After that, the camera needs to be mounted on a tripod, positioned and levelled — a further interminably exasperating act, which is exacerbated by the fact that the Pinsta is not a view camera. In fact, there is no viewfinder at all — no ground glass focussing screen; nothing. In order to know what is and is not in the frame, I need to crouch, squat, and contort my body to look through the camera’s little sight line aids — one pair for each of the four corners of the image.
And if this wasn’t slow enough, consider that the images are not being exposed on film, but on paper — paper that has an ISO of 3. Yes, THREE. Which is pretty drastic, considering I think ISO 100 film is borderline “too slow.” So recording onto a medium that’s 5 stops slower means standing around 32 times longer waiting for it to expose. For those of you thinking, “chill out, dude — 1/2 second isn’t that much longer than 1/60th of a second,” let me remind you that this is a pinhole camera. Which means I’m not shooting at f/8, I’m shooting at f/zillion (give or take — I haven’t bothered to do the math).
The simple “Sunny 16 rule” isn’t quite as simple when you’re dealing with these sorts of film speeds and aperture openings. So I need to spend a bit of time staring at the scene — peering into the shadows; gazing at the sky; and assessing the overall dynamic range — all in an effort to make a total wild-ass guess as to how long the exposure should be. Usually, on a typical overcast Vancouver day, it’ll take several minutes for enough light particles to march single file through the tiny opening to expose the paper.
Once I make my wild-ass guess, I enter it into my iPhone’s timer app, open the Pinsta’s shutter, and stand around for the next several minutes — waiting for the paper to record an image, and wondering why I don’t just take a shot with that very same iPhone, and move along.
Also, as someone who likes to practice the fine art of invisibility whilst taking photos, I can assure you this is not an invisible act — the changing bag on the ground; the tripod’s footprint; all that crouching and squatting and scrutinizing of some big goofy black box — people will notice you. They mill about, looking quizzically at the process, yet they remain oblivious to the fact that an actual photo is being taken — passing in front of the “lens”, or even parking themselves there in an effort to work out what I’m doing and why I’m now just standing around doing nothing but looking bored.
When the alarm goes off and I close the shutter, a full fifteen minutes will have passed between the time I decided to take a photo and actually took it. Alas, the process doesn’t end there. After all, I can’t take another photo until I’ve developed and removed the film I just shot.
This is where things get particularly interesting, since I’m now required to extract three large syringes from a giant backpack — one filled with developer; one filled with fixer; and the third filled with water for washing — and inject them, one-after-the-other into the body of the camera.
Needless to say — in the middle of an urban location with an epidemic of open drug use — anyone juggling syringes full of brown liquid does not exactly garner positive attention. At this stage, I know I need to move quickly before the cops arrive — but it’s hard to be quick when you’re developing a print.
The contents of the first syringe get injected into the camera and the whole box gets swirled around for a minute or two, making sure fresh developer constantly flows over the print. The syringe protrudes from the camera the whole time — waiting for me to suck the liquid back out of the box and horrify anyone still in the vicinity.
Next I inject the fixer, which requires about 5 minutes of swirling and swishing before it too gets sucked back into the syringe, followed by another syringe, which injects water, which washes the print for another minute or so.
At this point, I crack open the camera, whip out a knife (exhibiting yet more anti-social behaviour) and use it to pry the saturated, shiny, dripping wet print from the camera back. I shake off the excess fluid, sandwich the print in a drying frame, seal it in a ziplock bag, and slide the whole thing into one of the backpack’s outer pockets.
The camera gear gets dried off; the syringes get put away; the tripod gets folded up; the changing bag gets rolled up, and the entire shebang gets stuffed back into my multitude of bags and packs, ready for the next spot.
And speaking of spots, I can really only photograph a maximum of three locations before the chemicals are exhausted — and, truth be told, that third development is rather woeful. So, unless I plan to haul all this around for the purpose of taking only two photos, I need to also carry an additional jug full of pre-mixed developer; another full of pre-mixed fixer; and a third filled with water. I also need to carry an even larger, empty jug for disposing of the exhausted chemicals.
So basically, it takes me 30 minutes to take the same photo I could have taken in 1/60th of a second with any other camera.
Shooting with the Pinsta is not just a ridiculous drain on the amount of time I have left on earth — it’s an equally ridiculous burden on my need for unencumbered mobility. On a normal photo excursion, I carry — in one hand — a single camera with only the lens that adorns it. A tiny, empty bag is slung over my shoulder — just in case Vancouver does its thing and begins to drop rain from the sky. But a Pinsta-based photo excursion means packing a full size backpack, a large shoulder bag, and a tripod — basically the same amount of gear the average college graduate uses to travel the world in their “gap” year.
Fortunately, I can endure anything — even an assault on both my patience and mobility — should the results prove worth it. Alas, one look at the smattering of photos contained within this article indicate they are not. There are far easier ways to take grungy photos — one of which will be featured in Part Three of this trilogy.
I have no doubt this would be a dream camera for someone who isn’t me, or isn’t anything like me. A hermit monk perhaps; or maybe someone who breeds pack mules; or, at the very least, someone whose personality aligns, rather than clashes with their romanticism. There are definitely people for whom the Pinsta will unlock their creativity, rather suppress it; who will bond with the workflow, rather than rebel; and who will use it to create works of art that trample everything I’ve done in my 30+ years of hit and run photography. But in my hands it is, without peer, an object of sheer folly. In the words of Dirty Harry, “a man’s got to know his limitations.”
Personal Enjoyment Factor : On a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being most enjoyable), it rates a negative 3 – ’nuff said.
Convenience : On a scale of 1 to 10, (10 being most convenient), it rates a negative 8 – also ’nuff said.
Long Term Potential : Craigslist
© 2022 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THE ARTICLE : This is Part 2 of a three part series exploring the use of cameras totally at odds with the expectations and demands of 21st Century life. Part 1 is here.
ABOUT THE PHOTOS : As with all cameras, the image is inverted on the film — but because I’m shooting to direct positive paper, the usual film-to-paper image reversal does not occur. Sure, since I’m simply photographing the 4×5 prints for publication, I could just flip the images in Photoshop — but that seems contrary to the spirit of this camera, so all images remain reversed — exactly as they appear on the physical prints.
Also, I should note that the introductory photo — which shows some of the gear required for a basic Pinsta excursion — is missing a few items, such as the aforementioned knife, plus some towels for drying the camera between shots, and a few large ziplock bags for protecting the wet prints — increasing the bulk and the burden beyond what you see here, and what was able to fit on my table. And yes, “The Making of Skeletal” was, indeed, shot with the iPhone while I was standing around, waiting for the Pinsta exposure to finish.
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Wow, that IS pretty cool. Glad you’re trying it out for me…
Can you shoot glass plates in that thing, just to complicate it further?
All hail Oskar Barnack! He know what he was doing.
Be well, I have a 5×7 pinhole camera, too. Looks good on its shelf.
I’m more of a tin plate sorta guy… at least in that delusional part of my brain that conjures up such silly notions. Like your 5×7, the Pinsta has also taken up residence on the camera shelf, but I just keep thinking something like a Mamiya 6 would look SO much better in its place (speaking of romantic notions). Besides, my 6×6 Medium Format pinhole camera seems to be every bit as (in)capable as this, and is a whole lot easier to deal with. But, honestly, my favourite ‘pinhole’ camera came courtesy of my old homemade “psychopathilux”, which was nothing more than duct tape, stuck over an M9 lens opening and stabbed with an X-acto knife… proving (in my case) that the stupidity of my youth was far superior to the stupidity of my dotage…
I cranked up my little-used time machine. Showed this to Fox Talbot. He was scornful: “A positive only? No negative? Did you say this took place in the twenty-first century?”
Personally, I think the old boy would be mightily impressed — from scene to print in only 30 minutes? Those old salted paper prints would take a couple of hours just to expose a negative… Alas, he did seem to extract a higher quality image than I did, though…
Surely there must have been sample photos to show you what the result will look like?!?
But I certainly agree with the main gist here. I experienced the same issues when comparing my digital vs chemical photography.
Oh yeah… I definitely saw a few samples, which were quite reminiscent of my medium format pinhole images (which is a look I actually like). I’m sure, if I stuck with it, I’d eventually get photos I liked more than my medium format pinhole shots. And exposing on direct positive paper (with its extremely long exposure times) unlocks a lot of imaging possibilities… but… no.
Gotta thank you, Egor, for erasing any desire I might have had to try such an old fashioned method of photography. I’ll stick to my digital camera, yet rangefinder, and a 3L plastic bag + a rubber band in the coin pocket to face any Scandinavian rain (no camera bag – too much to carry around). Great pictures, though, in the article, but as we know, it depends not so much on the equipment.
Now that I’ve completed my ‘work all day just to take two murky photos’ boondoggle, I need to find a fresh new boondoggle to replace it with. Traveling around Scandinavia shooting pictures with a camera stuffed inside a plastic bag just might suffice… albeit at a much greater expense than the plastic Pinsta.