the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

THE OTHER SIDE OF SOFT

A side-by-side comparison of the two main systems of “lensless” photography, the pinhole and the zoneplate. 

By MICHAEL PERKINS

PHOTOGRAPHERS (AND HUMANS IN GENERAL) ARE CONTRARY. Tell them they’re forever stuck with a bones-basic camera and they’ll spend every night and weekend either trying to devise a more sophisticated device or work three jobs so they can buy one. And the obverse is also true: present shooters with an infinite number of hi-tech choices designed to deliver unprecedented precision, and they’ll perversely start to pine for the “lost innocence” or “authenticity of the bare-bones rig.

What else can account for the recent surge in lensless photography, and the creation of images with cameras that are more technically handicapped than even one’s first point-and-shoot? Of course, the very first image capturing was done without a lens, with the ancient Greeks creating pictures on the inside back panel of a camera obscura box, using nothing but a small pinhole to generate a dim, soft-focused image of the chosen subject. The early nineteenth century replaced the hole with custom-designed glass optics, and photography moved quickly from a scientific experiment to a global rage.

Zoneplates create a dreamy, hazy over-layer on top of lensless cameras’ typical soft focus.

But, of course, for photographers, no part of their art’s history is really “past”, and so we now see a small explosion of new pinhole devices for both film-based and digital cameras, from specially manufactured pinhole body caps (used in place of a lens) to cardboard kits available as DIY projects to recently dedicated pinhole plug-in optics for the Lensbaby series of lenses. The idea remains the same: small apertures, virtually infinite depth of field, soft focus, and looong exposures.

The other variable in this craze is the popularity of zoneplates, which, unlike the refracted light in a pinhole, works with more  scattered diffracted light, creating a halo glow in the high contrast areas of subjects, as if the soft-focus is also being viewed through a gauzy haze. A zoneplate is really like a bulls-eye target, a plate where both opaque and transparent “rings” combine to disperse light widely, delivering a dreamier look than that seen in a pinhole image. The other big difference is that a zoneplate has a much larger light gathering area and a wider aperture, so while a pinhole opening might equate to a stop as small as f/177, the zoneplate could be as wide as, say, f/19, making handheld exposures (and visualizing through a viewfinder) at least feasible, if tricky.

Of course, both kinds of lensless imaging are extremely soft, rendering a precise depiction of your subjects impossible. However, if light patterns, shapes, and mood outweigh the importance of sharpness for a certain kind of picture, then pinholes and zoneplates are cheap, fairly easy to master (you don’t have much control, anyway), and a little bit like stepping back in time.

It’s contrary….but ain’t we all.

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One response

  1. Pingback: The Art Of Photography: Useful Tips And Techniques | Photography How To Work The Camera

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