Daily Picture Show

How To Turn A Pumpkin Into A Camera

Every year, this time of year, normal people nationwide gather 'round spreads of newspaper to carve glowing, ghoulish jack-o'-lanterns. And for about a month's-worth of sporadic lunch breaks, we, too, have been carving a pumpkin ... into a camera! Much to our amazement, it actually worked. Here's how we did it:

The pinhole is the simplest of all cameras. At its most basic construction, it's a lightproof container (as small as a matchbox or as large as a truck), with photo paper or film inside and a hole. The way it works is pretty simple, too:

Imagine you're standing in a pitch black room with a tiny hole in the wall. Your friend, who is outside with a flashlight, shines it at the hole. A tiny beam of light will pass through, appearing as a small dot on the opposite interior wall. As your friend moves the flashlight around, the beam of light — and the small dot on the wall — also move. Now your friend goes away, and instead it's daylight. The sun is reflecting off of every point in a breathtaking landscape — and those points are all shining through that tiny hole in the wall.

Things that are bright send more light in, things that are dark send less light. And a faint image of the outside world will appear on the wall opposite the hole — albeit upside-down and reversed. Before cameras, people would trace those images onto paper; the device, sometimes a small box, sometimes an entire room, was called a camera obscura. Today, we use light-sensitive photo paper or negative film. (Well, actually, today we just use digital cameras to photograph landscapes. But this is more fun.)

Here's the rub: It involves a lot of calculation. And a lot of guessing and checking. Things to consider: the ASA of your photo paper (or ISO of your film), the size of the hole, the distance from the hole to the paper and the time of day. There is a ton of room for error. In fact, it's mostly room for error. So we were really lucky to have a few successful images.

  • We brought the original negative into Photoshop, made it positive, flipped it on the horizontal axis, and brought up the contrast to sharpen the image. This is by far our best take — approximately an 8-second exposure.
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    We brought the original negative into Photoshop, made it positive, flipped it on the horizontal axis, and brought up the contrast to sharpen the image. This is by far our best take — approximately an 8-second exposure.
    Claire O'Neill and Mito Habe-Evans
  • This is what the image looked like after we processed it in the darkroom. It comes out as a negative, and must be reversed to a positive in Photoshop.
    Hide caption
    This is what the image looked like after we processed it in the darkroom. It comes out as a negative, and must be reversed to a positive in Photoshop.
    Claire O'Neill and Mito Habe-Evans
  • This was our second best attempt. Thumbs up, says Mito. Claire looks only mildly pleased. And a lot like Andy Warhol.
    Hide caption
    This was our second best attempt. Thumbs up, says Mito. Claire looks only mildly pleased. And a lot like Andy Warhol.
    Claire O'Neill and Mito Habe-Evans
  • Ehh, not quite.
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    Ehh, not quite.
    Claire O'Neill and Mito Habe-Evans
  • If you look closely, you can see our thumbs up. This was our longest exposure, at about 20 seconds. You can see clouds in the background, but unfortunately the rest of the image is too bright. Ghostly, you might say.
    Hide caption
    If you look closely, you can see our thumbs up. This was our longest exposure, at about 20 seconds. You can see clouds in the background, but unfortunately the rest of the image is too bright. Ghostly, you might say.
    Claire O'Neill and Mito Habe-Evans

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Word to the wise: Pumpkins rot quickly. We went through three throughout this process. And the image from our first camera came out completely black because the camera was not sufficiently lightproof. So our final camera was a fortress of impermeable darkness.

A pumpkin turned into a camera i i

The Fortress Of Impermeable Darkness (camera model #3) Claire O'Neill hide caption

itoggle caption Claire O'Neill
A pumpkin turned into a camera

The Fortress Of Impermeable Darkness (camera model #3)

Claire O'Neill

In the end, we highly recommend this project if you can find a darkroom. Although it's time-intensive, meticulous and, at times, a total pain, it's worth it to watch the image emerge in the darkroom. We had no idea what was on the photo paper, and were genuinely terrified we'd have nothing. But that's the magic of primitive photography: there's no instant gratification. It's all about process. And this, rest assured, is a serious process.

Happy Halloween!

Check out these other cool pumpkin cams we came across: one using photo paper and one using film.

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