The Pinhole Photography of a Filmmaker

All images by Steven Dempsey. Used with permission.

“What matters most to me as a photographer is not just capturing the beauty of a thing or person, but also conveying a particular feeling.” says photographer Steven Dempsey. Indeed, his mind is in the advanced stages of the creative process. “A pretty picture by itself is just that but when I can find a way to give it soul, then that is truly a beautiful thing.”

Born in Dublin, Ireland, Steven moved to New York with a rock band. When that crashed and burned, he took up oil painting before getting into web and graphic design. “Static imagery led to an interest in video and I created Americonic Films with director/composer Glenn Scott Lacey. My interest in moving images eventually steered me to my strongest passion to date, photography.”

For Steven, the creative process became really interesting when experimenting with Pinholes.

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Phoblographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Steven: I can’t remember having any particular passion about it when I was a kid. I was a musician so most of my creative energy was consumed with that. When my wife and I moved to a neighborhood near Seattle, there was a lake in our backyard and we both became interested in birdwatching. I bought a video camera and my wife got a still camera. I put little films together of wildlife on the lake. it became a big thing to show these films at a “movie night” for my neighbors.

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I met a film composer online and we began working together. Soon we were shooting music videos, documentaries and short films. The economy tanked and video opportunities kinda disappeared. At that time, I became more interested in still photography and a friend of mine sent me a Canon 5D Mark II to review its video functionality for his website. As great as the video quality was, I found myself shooting stills for most of the time.

Capturing all of the nuances of life around me in a single still frame is a challenge I relish. The very fact that there is no movement and the composition is confined to two dimensions already transports it into another world for me. That’s what I find most interesting in photography, the notion of capturing a genie in a bottle, as it were.

Phoblographer: What made you want to get into shooting pinholes?

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Steven: I’m always experimenting with old glass to find a look that is unique in my photographs. I even converted an old pocket bellows camera from the early 1900s to fit onto my camera. The lens is uncoated and blooms like crazy when there is a strong light source but the photographs have a feel I don’t get when using my regular digital lenses.

I knew about pinhole photography for years but never thought of trying it on a digital camera. Part of my resistance was the less than inspiring digital pinhole imagery I saw online. The analog/film pinholes I saw, on the other hand, were really impressive but I didn’t want to get into buying and processing my own film. I was determined to try digital pinholing for myself and squeeze everything I could out of the format.

I came across a tutorial about how to make a body cap pinhole on YouTube and decided to give it a try. The key to getting the best quality from a pinhole is to make the hole as round as possible and the right size for the specific camera. My first attempts were crude. I used a body cap with aluminum foil and I couldn’t get the hole quite right. The shots, however, had a definite magic to them and I was hooked. Over time, through trial and error, I have managed to create some decent pinholes using more robust material.

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Even though the science of pinholing makes sense, coming from a long history of the Camera Obscura, it still blows my mind that I can actually capture an image without using a lens.

Phoblographer: You’re a filmmaker, so what attracts you specifically to the pinhole format? Do you see it capturing a really long scene in one still image?

Steven: Capturing moving images for as long as I did definitely has an influence on my interest in long exposure photography. I guess it’s natural for me to think in terms of motion. Shooting pinholes with the tiny aperture of the hole (my latest one is f/200) yields results that are somewhere between videography and photography. In my work, I’m breaking away from capturing a moment in the traditional sense and bringing together a span of time into one coherent image. Whether or not that means seconds or minutes or even hours, the concept is the same. I think viewers look at pictures like these and their brains actually imply the movement itself…filling in the gaps.

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Phoblographer: Why only black and white?

Steven: While I do shoot traditional color landscape and portrait photography, my true passion lies in finding ways to encapsulate ideas or atmospheres rather than faithfully rendering a scene. My choice of black and white helps to create a timelessness in my photographs. Nothing takes me out of a fantasy faster than seeing something like a car or modern clothing or a traffic light…anything that dates the image. I want the viewer to feel like the photograph in front of them could have been captured today or a hundred years ago. Color would not sell that illusion, it muddies the simplicity of my ideas.

Phoblographer: Lots of your pinhole work seem to be about using shapes, contrast, lights, darks, etc to get the scenes that you are. How does this relate back to your creative vision?

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Steven: Pinhole photography, particularly in the digital realm, is not sharp. In fact it is quite soft and fuzzy so there are certain things I just don’t bother shooting. For instance, I try not to include a lot of foliage because it just looks like a mess in this format. Using bold shapes or chiaroscuro keeps the focus on the basic concept. I want the viewer’s eye to go directly to the subject and not be overwhelmed by a lot of indistinguishable blobs in the background.

I like to include at least one person in my shots when possible. It adds a certain life to the composition. I think it’s easier to become immersed in the story of the photograph when there is something we can directly relate to, like a human. We can put ourselves in his or her place or maybe we can put more emphasis on the story being told. The person in my photographs is mainly me but I try to keep my features as anonymous as possible. I’m kind of fascinated by the photographs of the 1800s where apertures were tiny and shutter times were excruciatingly long. Inevitably, people and movement turned to a blur. There is a ghost-like quality to these photographs that I try to emulate in my own work.

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Phoblographer: What are some parameters, thoughts and ideas that you’re always keeping in mind when you shoot pinholes?

Steven: As in all methods of image capture, I am constantly aware of the limitations of my medium. Digital photography does not have the dynamic range of its film counterpart so, when possible, I look at scenes and frame them in such a way that they are within the range of camera’s abilities.

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Similarly, when I’m shooting pinholes, I have a sense of what works and what doesn’t before I even set up the camera. As I mentioned before, I try not to include elements in the shot that will literally muddy up the composition with anything that has a lot of small detail. I try to find big bold textures and interesting lighting and then put them together in the simplest composition I can construct. I shoot all my photographs in RAW so that gives me some extra stops to work with. I also use the unsharp mask in Photoshop to try to coax some more detail out of the file.

Phoblographer: Talk to us about the film and cameras that you use. How do you feel that they help you to specifically create the artistic vision in your mind?

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Steven: In still photography I used to be a Canon guy. I started out with the Canon 5D Mark II and moved up to the Mark III when it became available. Like many other photographers, I was attracted to mirrorless cameras because of their smaller size but good quality images. I chose the Fujifilm X-T1 (my current camera) for its functionality but also for aesthetic reasons.

I’m all about the tactile quality of things I interact with. A notebook with a beautiful cover, a sleek phone, a leather chair, etc. The X-T1 has a huge appeal to me in terms of it’s retro styling and easy access to manual controls. I’m not sure why exactly but I’m more inclined to get out and shoot photographs with my Fuji than ever before.

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