A pinhole camera is a simple camera without a lens but with a tiny aperture, a pinhole – effectively a light-proof box with a small hole in one side. Light from a scene passes through the aperture and projects an inverted image on the opposite side of the box, which is known as the camera obscura effect.
Sometimes it is mistakenly claimed that for instance Alhazen (965–1039) or earlier philosophers already used pinhole cameras, while in most instances the "cameras" that were originally described were either natural occurrences of the camera obscura effect or experiments with darkened rooms (or chambers) with an opening much larger than a pinhole. The claims are mainly a result of many descriptions of the history of the camera lacking differentiation between the camera obscura effect, camera obscura rooms, camera obscura boxes (usually with a lens), or actual pinhole cameras. Most usage of the camera obscura before it was fitted with a lens in the 16th century can arguably be regarded as "hole cameras". However, this would mainly concern rooms that were darkened (leaving a small opening in a shutter) to study the behavior of light or the projected image of the sun.
The oldest known description of pinhole photography is found in the 1856 book The Stereoscope by Scottish inventor David Brewster, including the description of the idea as "a camera without lenses, and with only a pin-hole". One older use of the term "pin-hole" in the context of optics was found in James Ferguson's 1764 book Lectures on select subjects in mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, and optics.
Sir William Crookes and William de Wiveleslie Abney were other early photographers to try the pinhole technique.
The image of a pinhole camera may be projected onto a translucent screen for real-time viewing (used for safe observation of solar eclipses) or to trace the image on paper. But it is more often used without a translucent screen for pinhole photography with photographic film or photographic paper placed on the surface opposite to the pinhole aperture.
A common use of pinhole photography is to capture the movement of the sun over a long period of time. This type of photography is called solargraphy. Pinhole photography is used for artistic reasons, but also for educational purposes to let pupils learn about, and experiment with, the basics of photography.
Pinhole cameras with CCDs (charge coupled devices) are sometimes used for surveillance because they are difficult to detect.
Related cameras, image forming devices, or developments from it include Franke's widefield pinhole camera, the pinspeck camera, and the pinhead mirror.
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