Saturday, 19 January 2019

RealitySoSubtle 6x6 Pinhole Camera


I'm sure you remember Barbarella. "An angel does not make love", said the blind angel Pygar, rebuffing the advances of Jane Fonda, "an angel is love".

Pygar was played by John Phillip Law, a hunk of a man who couldn't act but it didn't matter because he was ripped. He was one of a number of actors from the United States and Britain who moved to Europe during the late 1960s. Specifically Italy, because the Italian film industry was going through a boom. Italian studios wanted to sell their films in English-speaking markets, which meant that there was demand for good-looking people who could speak English - people who looked like move stars, even if they weren't.


Speak English or at least move their mouths in a way that looked as if they were speaking English, because they were going to be dubbed anyway. It must have been fantastic. As long as you looked good and could open and close your mouth on cue, and pretend to punch a stuntman, and pretend to fan a six-shooter, and I mean even I can do that. There was money to be made and who would want to stay in Britain in the post-war years? America was better off, but what if you were gay or had a thing for drugs, or wanted to hang out with European women? All of those things were easier in Europe than post-war America, and furthermore your dollars were like gold dust.

The wages weren't huge but it didn't matter because the cost of living in Italy was low in the 1960s. The trailblazer was Steve Reeves, who was born in Montana. He starred in the popular swords-and-sandal film Hercules (1958) and numerous sequels. He was quickly followed by Reg Park, British-born Mr Universe, who also played Hercules, or Maciste, or whatever, and when the market for sword and sandal films dried up there came spaghetti westerns and the likes of Frank Wolff and Thomas Hunter, and of course Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef and so forth. And also war films, because some European militaries still had M1 Garands and half-tracks and Sherman tanks etc, and lots of soldiers who could be loaned out to a film production company for some extra cash.

Even if the films didn't make much money they still turned a profit because wages were low, the studio facilities were going to be idle otherwise, the sets had already been built for more expensive films and the Italian scenery and sunshine was essentially free.


Furthermore Italy had a huge pool of attractive women who had grown up during the war years and were therefore thin and lovely, and again it didn't matter if they couldn't speak a word of English, they were going to be dubbed.

I imagine there must have been a band of Hollywood exiles in the 1960s, plying their trade in Europe - here in Britain we had Shane Rimmer and Ed Bishop as the stock Americans in Bond films and the like - soaking up the sun in San Tropez, living modest lives on the periphery of the film industry, and today we're going to look at the RealitySoSubtle 6x6 pinhole camera. It's a pinhole camera.


What is a pinhole camera? It's a camera that has a pinhole instead a lens. A camera is essentially a device that funnels photons onto a piece of film. Conventional cameras have glass lenses, which suck in light from all directions and carefully channel it through an aperture onto a piece of film; the bigger the glass and the wider the aperture the more light the camera gathers.


Pinhole cameras do things differently. They don't have lenses. Instead they have a teeny-tiny aperture, a pinhole, and photons just fall into it. If the hole was any larger the image would be a fuzzy mess, but because the hole is small only the best photons are allowed to enter. I'm not going to pretend to know the physics of pinhole photography. Here's a pinhole:


The pinhole acts like a nightclub bouncer at an exclusive nightclub. Imagine the Blitz Club in the early 1980s. Unless you dressed up like a human peacock you didn't get in. The Blitz Kids were insufferable, but they had spirit. Bravado. Derring-do. Or alternatively the pinhole in a pinhole camera acts a bit like your girlfriend's mother. It doesn't want any old photons spunking jizz all over its precious film, in fact it doesn't like the idea of anyone spunking anything over anything, so it turns away most photons except for an elite few.

The best spunk

In a way, pinhole photography is a bit like the process of human reproduction. The river has many fish, but only a few get to fertilise the mummy eggs, and only one of the ants is allowed to be queen. That's how pinhole photography works. The aperture is tiny, there's no viewfinder, you have to guess the composition, and because the aperture is tiny exposure times are measured in minutes, even in daylight. Moving objects turn into streaks and become invisible.

On the positive side pinhole cameras can be relatively small, and depending on the accuracy of the hole the central image quality isn't necessarily terrible, albeit that it's generally soft from diffraction. With sufficient light and a small tripod a pinhole camera can be used for general-purpose photography although if you want instant results a Holga is much more practical. You're supposed to make your own by sticking a needle into some tin foil, but I cheated and bought one from this chap here, nb we have no commercial relationship. He's French! Aren't we all.


The 6x6 model uses 120 film and generates a 6x6 image, although at least with my camera the negatives are slightly wider than they are tall. It has an aperture of f/137. The focal length is roughly 17mm in 35mm terms, e.g. very wide for medium format. RealitySoSubtle also sells 6x9, 6x12, and 6x17 wideangle and panoramic cameras, which are intriguing, but I can't scan larger than 6x9 so I gave them a miss. The company also has 4x5" and 8x10" models, which are handy if you're a bitter old retiree or you're married to a rich man and have nothing to do during the day.

I mentioned a paragraph or two ago that pinhole photography is awkward. For all the photos in this post I used 400-speed Kodak TMAX, but I still had to stand still for a minute shielding the camera from the breeze. I didn't bother with exposure calculations. It's difficult to blow out negative film, especially negative black and white film, and furthermore film becomes less sensitive as exposure times increase, so in practice if you just hold the shutter open for thirty seconds in bright sunshine, a minute or two overcast, you'll get usable results. Your enemy is underexposure, not overexposure.

From the back, looking forwards

RealitySoSubtle's cameras have a couple of user aids. The top plate has a pair of lines that approximate 17mm, although because of the position of the screws the lines face the wrong way. The top plate of the camera comes off to change film; the screws are knurled, so you don't necessarily have to use a screwdriver. There's a spirit level, which is indispensable because there's no viewfinder, or even an accessory shoe for a viewfinder. With every passing year my soul becomes more numb, my dreams less vivid.


Pinhole cameras have massive depth of field because they're stopped right down, which means that after a while all of your photos will either be wide landscapes or wide landscapes with something right up close to the camera. I hate wide landscapes because they're boring. RealitySoSubtle's cameras have a quarter-inch tripod mount and a flat base, which is incredibly useful given the lengthy exposure times. For the images in this post I didn't bother with a tripod mount, I just rested the camera on street furniture.


Have you ever read about London's pedways? During the 1950s and 1960s there were intermittent plans to separate pedestrians from traffic by building elevated walkways. The plans came to nothing and nowadays most of the walkways go nowhere, or are unusually large for what amounts to an elevated pedestrian crossing. If you've ever visited the Museum of London you may well have walked along a pedway, or seen out; it's just outside. That part of London, abutting the Barbican estate, is almost a monument to London's post-war recovery. The people back then had a vision of London that was slowly destroyed by poor execution and endless delays; their vision was overtaken by events but the spirit has a romantic aspect.


The idea that London could be planned by benevolent, chaste men of vision untainted by lust and greed appeals to some people. It's a fantasy. London is a wild animal, spears bounce off and it breaks free of its ropes. I mention pedways because I've always assumed that the area just outside London Bridge station is a pedway, but apparently not. It's just a bridge that connects London Bridge station to the pavement leading to London Bridge. London fools me again.