TWO WEEKS TO FLATTEN THE CURVE HAS TURNED INTO NINE MONTHS AND COUNTING. When I realized that we’d be drifting in and out of various phases of lockdown and that travel was off the table at least until the end of the year, I decided I had to do something – anything – to salvage a year that was probably an economic write-off, and prevent it from being a creative one. The spring and a touch of cabin fever had inspired a frenzy of activity, shooting in the kitchen, around the house and on the street, but my travel photography blog had been dormant since the end of last year, and that needed to change.
Since I couldn’t go anywhere, the obvious thing was to treat my hometown as a destination – to find a way to answer a question I was often asked when I was on a travel junket somewhere: “So what’s worth seeing in Toronto?” A question for which I’ve never had an answer. So I made a list of places I could visit in Toronto, places that I thought would be worth a few photos, some places I’d never been before, and most importantly places I could go that were actually open under our constantly changing guidelines for social distancing.
Each outing was an excursion: I packed a tripod, water, snacks and a backpack full of gear, including the pinhole “lens” I’d bought on Kickstarter last year and received just as lockdown began. I’d spent the spring playing around with some park photos and a bunch of still lifes, but this was my opportunity to really test out just what was possible with this very basic, challenging piece of rudimentary, yet very engineered optics that had puzzled, frustrated and even angered other photographers who’d tested it out.
Even in bright sunlight I had to shoot with a cable release, locked off on a tripod, if I wanted to use the lowest possible ISO speed and mine as much detail as I could from the RAW files. Since focus wasn’t an issue – at a fixed aperture of around f165, everything is in focus from the horizon to the surface of the camera’s sensor – I had to worry about light and composition most of all. What I quickly learned was that most of the real work would end up happening later, during editing, in Photoshop.
I can see why other photographers would hate pinholes in general, and the Thingyfy Pinhole Pro X in particular: while technically in focus, sharpness is impossible, lens flare a constant threat, and true colour rendition absolutely out of the question. Every image file taken straight off of a memory card is raw material, but the pinhole images I worked with after each hike down some river or creek were daunting uphill battles, even after I’d spent twenty or thirty minutes retouching the spots and rings left behind by dust on my camera sensor.
Making any image work revolved around identifying the feature or shape or texture that would attract the eye, then going about a series of actions in Photoshop that isolated those features, sharpening their edges and shadows digitally, then subtly burying that sharpening in the soft, gauzy layers of the image. There was actual detail hidden each image; it just had to be carved out, then blended with the rest of the composition to maintain the dreamy feel of a pinhole image. It was a formula it took me weeks to refine, and I’m not sure I’ve gone nearly as far as I can with it yet.
Each image required at least an hour or two of work. I usually chose frames that had stark silhouettes or bright, highlighted areas against deep shadow. Even before the sharpening and blending, the best candidates had obvious graphic appeal that quickly made me realize that I was working toward a finished shot that had as much – if not more – in common with illustration or painting than photography.
There was a painterly quality to all of the pinholes, but the best images- to my eyes, at least – were ones that looked like they were engravings or rotogravures taken from an old storybook or magazine. I’ve made no secret about ending up in photography only after failing as an art student; I was a merely OK draftsman, but a very poor painter. And I’ve complained for years that modern lenses are often simply too sharp for my uses. So this ongoing pinhole experiment has been wildly satisfying, as it’s allowed me to become both the early 20th century illustrator and pictorialist photographer I have always longed to be.
Like most of my experiments, I’m still not sure where this one is leading me. The process has been a learning curve – always a gratifying experience – and while the results have been very different from what I was expecting when I pledged the price of this lens on Kickstarter over a year ago, they’ve been more than merely interesting, and at their best rewarding. There are some potential new directions for future work, and that’s never bad news.
Winter’s in sight, and more lockdown with it, apparently. I doubt if I’ll be out in the wilderness with my cameras for a few months, and I don’t want to stop experimenting with the pinhole. The burning question that I’ve been asking since I got it – “Will it portrait?” – has already been answered, with one quick but encouraging session during a recent shoot. Which is great news, especially during a year like this one. But more on that later.