One of the trickiest things to learn when shooting pinhole photos is how far away you need to be from your subject in order to get it in the frame. Part of this is understanding the relevance of the focal length of the camera, which is the distance from the lens (in this case, the actual pinhole, which allows light to enter the camera) to the focal point (in this case, the negative, a piece of photographic paper stuck inside the camera, opposite the pinhole).
The smaller the focal length becomes, the more the light has to bend for the image to come into focus on the negative. The more the light bends, the wider the angle of view becomes. So the shallower the pinhole camera, the greater the bend, and the wider the shot. Ergo, if you want to take a picture of something tall, use a shallow camera.
As you can see from the photo below, which chops off the entire top of the St. Jean Baptiste Church on Lexington Avenue while providing a fine photo of pavement, it took me a while to figure this out.
Again, gorgeous pavement! This is the Ralph Lauren building on the corner of Madison and 72nd and is less chopped off, but still too cropped. Another challenge of shooting on the street is finding a stable surface to put the camera on for 30-60 seconds, so the sidewalk is often the best solution, which results in low angles.
Sometimes I overcompensate and end up too far away.
Although the entire Park Avenue church below is in the frame, again, that sidewalk isn’t too attractive and the composition is a yawn. However, this is a good example to illustrate how in a pinhole photo, everything from the tiniest stone to a distant tower is in focus.
Okay, finally in the frame, nice balance with the foreground, but another glitch: the wind! So much for sharpness in this shot; one little gust and it’s all over.
Here I’m starting to get the hang of it. This is the jaw-dropping Ansonia apartment building on the Upper West Side and I’m about half a block away. Not crazy about the cars in the foreground, but pleased that the tower isn’t cut off.
Eventually, I realized that I would have better results with a shallower camera and built one. The previous shots are taken with pinhole cameras that are about 4 x 5 inches (10 x 13 cm) with a depth of 2 inches (5 cm). My new camera was 3 x 6 inches (7.5 x 15 cm) with a depth of 1/2 of an inch (1.25 cm). Holy moly! What a difference.
The building below, on the corner of 66th and Madison, is one of my favorite Upper East Side prewar apartment houses, with a beautiful cylinder of windows creating the corner of the building. It’s ten stories high, and I’m straight across the street. The downside is that because the camera is so shallow, its exposure time is much shorter than my other cameras, often 10 seconds or less. This allows people to appear in the photos, instead of disappearing as they do in a longer exposure.
I thought it would be fun to try the ultimate test, a skyscraper. The subject is the gorgeous Seagram building on Park Avenue and 53rd, designed by the fabulous Ludwig Mies van der Rohe with Philip Johnson in 1958. Yes, 1958! Hello, modernism! Such a fantastic building, and although it’s shot from partway down the block, the camera is on the ground and almost the entire building is in the frame. Look at the height! 38 stories tall measuring 516 feet, to be exact. The building next door made it all the way into the frame. Mission accomplished! To avoid those pesky pedestrians, I shot in the early morning on a weekend.
Of course there are days when I’m not in the mood to fuss and I use that old tried and true method of making sure something’s in the frame: just back up. Here’s the lovely Plaza Hotel, shot from Gapstow Bridge in Central Park.