The concept of the camera was in existence long before an actual camera existed. Greek philosophers including Aristotle described something called a camera obscura, which consisted of a lightless room with a single aperture (a hole through which light can pass into the camera). But it wasn't until 1850, when light sensitive emulsions were developed, that the first photo was taken using a smaller version of the camera obscura known as a pinhole camera. Today, you can make your own pinhole camera using a few easy-to-find household items.
A pinhole camera looks very different from the commercially marketed SLR or digital point-and-shoot camera that has become the popular image of a camera. A pinhole camera has no glass lens, no plastic body and no digital imaging chip. A pinhole camera has few moving parts and can be constructed from cardboard. Many pinhole cameras have been made from shoe boxes or oatmeal containers. One of the largest pinhole cameras ever made was constructed out of an airport hanger on an army base. Pinhole cameras have also been made from seashells and even a station wagon and an old refrigerator. If you can turn something into a light-proof box, you can make it into a pinhole camera.
To make a basic pinhole camera, you need a box, such as an oatmeal box, a small-gauge sewing needle, some tinfoil, electrical tape, black paint and a sheet of light-sensitive photographic paper. Always keep your photographic paper in a light-proof container and load it into your camera in a light-proof room. You can load the paper by touch in a dark closet, or use a darkroom with photo safe lights to place it in your camera.
To make the camera, start by cutting a 1-inch hole into the side of your box with a detail knife. Then cut foil to 2 inches square. Puncture the foil with the head of a pin to make the pinhole aperture. Tape the foil to the inside of the box with electrical tape so that it covers the 1-inch hole and the aperture is in the center of the hole. Then reattach the square that you cut from the cardboard box to the outside of the pinhole so that the door hinges to the box with the tape. Paint the lid black so that no light can filter through. Then tape the paper to the inside of the box. Tape the lid around the seams with electrical tape. To take your photo, set your pinhole camera on a sturdy surface that will not shift, and pull back the door from your pinhole. Reattach the door when you have finished with your exposure.
Determining the exposure times for your pinhole camera can be tricky. You must figure it by determining the size of your pinhole, which is figured by dividing the distance from your light-sensitive material to the hole by the size of the hole (which was the size of the needle used to make the hole). This size is measured in F-stops. Then you must take a reading of your ambient light using a light meter set to an F stop of 16. Finally, figure out how much smaller your pinhole is than a pinhole measuring F /16, and calculate the change in time. For example a pinhole of F/256 is 8 stops smaller than F/16. For a simpler method, you can find an online pinhole calculator such as the one at mrpinhole.com/exposure and input your measurements.