Solargraph: Building Guide

So recently as an attempt to further branch out in my hobby that is photography, I stumbled upon an interesting kind of pinhole camera: a solargraph. A solargraph is a pinhole camera designed to create a six month long exposure. Yes, six months. That’s quite some time for a pinhole camera to stay in one place and do it’s thing, but the results from these things are remarkable. Here’s an example of what a solargraph could potentially do, if set up and built correctly:

I saw several different solargraph images a few months ago at a photo club I regularly attend and decided to try this out for myself. Obviously I had a lot of questions about how to do this, so for those of you looking to try building one of these yourselves, here’s a little guide to how I built mine, complete with visuals.

1. Get all of the materials needed for construction. The things I used on the camera itself are:

  • a black 35mm film canister (black is preferred, most ilford films come in black canisters if you need one)
  • aluminum from a drink can
  • black electrician’s tape
  • RC neutral toned paper, matte
  • index card cutout for the shutter flap

The materials I used to build it are:

  • scissors
  • index card (you really never know when you need one of these, turns out they’re very useful)
  • aluminum drink can
  • ruler
  • knife (a box cutter works better, I found this out later)
  • sewing needle
  • pen for marking
  • tea. Tea is good for the soul, and will help you relax if you’re the high strung type. Fortunately i’m not and it served a tasty beverage while I worked

2. Take your index card and sketch up a 1x1cm square, this will be your guide to cutting out the hole in your film canister in a bit. Once the square is cut out, place it on the film canister and secure it with some tape if you’d like.

3. Take your knife or box cutter and cut out the square using the guide you’ve just made. This can be a bit tricky, but with some patience you will get a nice square cutout in your film canister.

4. Now take your index card again, and this time draw up a 2x2cm square and cut it out. This will be used to cut out a square from the drink can. If you have an abundance of tin foil that you want to use instead of the drink can go ahead and use that, although I prefer the can’s aluminum because it’s more rigid.

5. Cut out the square from the can and proceed to make a hole in it using the sewing needle. The hole should be roughly 0.5mm in diameter, you can check this by actually measuring the diameter of your needle if you really want to, but pinholes aren’t that precise so if you’re off slightly you’ll be alright. Unfortunately the only picture I have of the hole is when it was only partially done, at least at this stage. I have a better shot coming up later.

6. Once the hole is created, place the aluminum square over the hole you just cut out in the film canister and tape it up with electrician’s tape. Make sure that the aluminum is secure once it’s taped. Go ahead and use as much tape as you need for this, a little extra security never hurt anyone, well at least not in pinhole cameras ;)

7. Create a shutter for your pinhole camera. This is as simple as taking a chunk of black tape and putting it over the pinhole, seriously. However, since my vision isn’t the greatest I needed something to distinguish my shutter from the rest of the tape that I used, so I created a small handle for it out of the index card (I told you these things are handy!) and placed it under the tape so it sticks out a bit. You people with not-so-great vision might want to do this as well.

8. Before cutting your paper down to size and inserting it under a safelight, test your design for light leaks. take off the top of the film canister and shine a flashlight at the shutter to see if any light gets through. Do this in a dark room, if you have any light leaks they’ll be more visible that way.

Unfortunately, I don’t have any visuals for these next few steps since they were done in a darkroom, but hopefully you’ll get the idea through written instruction ;)

9. In a darkroom with the safelight(s) on, take out your paper and cut it down to size. What size, you ask? Well, that depends on your film canister. Measure your film canister’s height and diameter and then use this formula: πd. That’s Pi times the diameter for the circumference. This will be your short end of your paper rectangle, and the height you measured will be the longer end.

10. Next, mark your paper with the dimensions you figured out in the last step and cut out the paper. Adjust for how much space your canister’s cap takes up, and for the pinhole.

11. Insert the paper into the canister, covering all of the inside surface area except for the pinhole. Close the canister (make sure it closes easily, you don’t want to ruin your paper) and use a lot of electrician’s tape to hold the cap secure.

12. Congratulations! The building portion of the project is complete, now comes the setup. Choose a day to start the exposure. Most people like to start these on the summer solstice or the winter solstice, but hey sometimes you just can’t make those times, nothing wrong with experimentation!

13. Set up the camera. Have it face south if you’re in the northern hemisphere and north if you’re in the southern hemisphere. Setting up outside can be tricky, for six months it has to weather the elements so get creative with how you want to protect your camera and keep it sturdy. Gluing pencils either horizontally or vertically is a great way to mount a camera if you’re attaching it to something like a pole, but there are a million ways to do this.

14. Once the camera is set up take off the shutter and wait. Check on the camera occasionally to make sure it’s still doing it’s thing. After 6 months, put the shutter back on and bring the pinhole camera back to the darkroom.

15. Next up is the tricky part. Once the camera is back, go to your computer room and switch off all of the lights. Make sure that your scanner is set to a pretty high resolution (900+ DPI should do it), take the paper out of the canister and without developing it hit “scan” on your scanner. Make sure the paper is flat of course. (Don’t ask me how this step even works, because I have no idea!)

16. Open up photoshop or whatever editing program you use and bring the image there. Invert the colors and flip the image if you need to, and play around with the brightness/contrast settings if you wish.

That’s it! You’ve just completed your six month long journey with solargraphs. Not too bad, and you can do it all at home for free, granted you have access to a safelight of course ;) That’s all for now, happy solargraph making!


36 thoughts on “Solargraph: Building Guide

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  2. Is that color photographic paper? I guess that is a given but when I searched “RC neutral toned paper, matte” I got a lot of B&W hits and you don’t even develop the paper which is miraculous to me so It seems worth asking.

    1. It’s actually black and white paper. I’m not sure exactly how this works, I haven’t been able to find a great explanation of it but my guess is that with the extremely long exposure the chemicals on the paper start to break down and the result is a color effect.

    1. Yes you can, I believe there are some guides out there that show solargraphs being made with cans as large as empty paint cans.

  3. What do you mean by “Insert the paper into the canister, covering all of the inside surface area except for the pinhole?” Just to clarify, are you saying to make the paper slightly shorter than the canister’s circumference, so the two ends of the paper don’t quite touch and that opening aligns with the pinhole?

    1. You don’t develop the paper from the solargraph. When the six month period is up, you open the container and the image is already on the paper. However, since the paper is still light sensitive, the ideal environment to open the canister in would be a room that is as dark as possible (think darkroom) with a scanner in the room. Place the paper on the scanner, make sure your scanning software is set up, then hit scan.

      I’ve heard of people using stop baths and other chemistry to try and keep the image from degrading once it’s been exposed to light but I don’t know how effective they are, or the details of the exact chemistry used. If you find something, post it here in the comments!


  4. Perhaps an easier way to determine paper size would be to return to the card stock or even heavy construction paper and create a template from that to use as a guide in the darkroom to rapidly create a sized piece of photo paper.

    1. I like this idea, much more methodical than my way that’s for sure! If the film canister size is used as a control, you could develop several solutions for creating solargraphs, or derivative designs based on them.

    1. You’re right in that exposing the paper to light will ruin the photo, but initial exposure won’t be enough to degrade the image too much. If you don’t use fixer before scanning you will actually see the image degrade in a matter of minutes.

      I’m not sure what the best method is for fixing this kind of photo is, other pinhole websites or forums might have that solution. If you find something, let me know, as I am also interested!

  5. Hey! Great summary.. I read about the Solargraph a few years ago but was too lazy to try it.. now I will follow your instruction.. just a simple question: why do you use the tin part of the can to create the pin hole instead of just punching a hole into the film canister? this would save a lot of effort and possible light & water leaking problems, right?

    THX and again: great work!!


    1. I used the tin because it was easier to put a hole in something flat than in a round film canister that had no support below the immediate wall. You could just use the canister if you can make it work.

      1. On second thought, the film canister, even though black, may still leak light. Also, the thickness of the canister wall, might modify the optics (the thinness of the aluminum might be important). The best way to find out, would be to try both methods.

    1. You could potentially do it for a shorter period of time if you increase the size of the aperture (opening on the camera). Otherwise if it remains the same size your image will be dimmer and will potentially not turn out.

  6. Rather than cutting a 1x1cm square hole in the canister, how about using a brad-point wood drill [either 1 cm or 3/8″]. Place the lid onto the canister [to help prevent the canister from deforming under the pressure of the vice] and then put the canister in a vice. Apply minimal pressure while drilling [i.e. drill slowly]. This is best done with a drill press, but if all you have is a hand drill, [wear decent leather work gloves and eye protection!], then when the bit cuts through,let the bit “fall through” rather than tensing and trying to stop the drill bit from falling. It may strike the back of the canister, but that’s OK. The idea is to prevent the drill bit from snagging the edges of the hole and tearing it up.

    Or, start with a 1/8″ twist drill, then widen that hole with a 1/4″ twist drill then, finally, a 3/8″ twist drill.

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