How to make a pinhole camera out of a duck

How to make a pinhole camera out of a duck

Photographer Martin Cheung explains his love of pinhole photography and how to do it yourself

how to make a pinhole camera

If there’s one thing to be learned from Hong Kong photographer Martin Cheung, it’s that anything can become a camera.

Soda can? Sure. Wood box? Of course. Roast duck? Why not?

All it takes is a pin, some photographic paper and a bit of patience.

I like the passiveness. Its like a monk meditating.

Over the next two weeks, as part of the Detour 2010 festival of art and design, Cheung will team up with fellow photographer Beatrix Pang to offer free pinhole camera workshops in English and Cantonese.

Outside of Detour, Cheung also holds regular workshops at Daydream Nation's studio on Star Street (also learn guitar from Mike Orange at Daydream Nation).

Cheung’s first exposure to pinhole photography came a decade ago when he was at art school in Melbourne.

“I got a very good result, great exposure and quality,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is easy. What’s the big deal?’”

But when he tried to make another pinhole camera, the results weren’t so good.

“I kept failing,” he says. That’s when he became intrigued.

Pinhole cameras operate according to the most basic principle of photography by forcing a lot of light through a tiny hole in a light-proof container. The light projects an inverted image onto the opposite side of the container. The aperture is extremely small -- equivalent to f/180 -- so it takes around half an hour to properly expose an image.

Photos made with pinhole cameras have a rough-hewn quality from the long exposure and the imperfections caused by using repurposed materials. It’s about as far from modern-day digital photography as you can get, which is why Cheung became so smitten with it.

“Normally, taking photographs is a bit like hunting an animal -- you see it and you want to shoot it like with a bow and arrow,” he says. “It’s a very masculine kind of thing.”

But pinhole cameras demand patience, and they’re inherently unpredictable, which forces the photographer to relinquish control over the photographic process.

“Instead of taking, taking, taking, you just have to wait,” says Cheung. “I like the passiveness. It’s like a monk meditating.”

Today, Cheung specializes in pinhole photography, and he is often hired to do commercial work, which helps support his art. He has become so comfortable with the medium that, despite its technical limitations, he is able to create almost exactly the image he hopes to produce -- effectively taming what is meant to be an unruly form of photography.

That’s why, when he has time, Cheung likes to make cameras out of ducks.

The idea first came to him when he was working in a restaurant in Melbourne’s Chinatown.

“Roast duck is such a symbol of Chinese cooking, so I wanted to see how the duck saw Chinatown,” he says.

He bought a duck, made a pinhole in its stomach and tried to record an image. It took a few tries -- Cheung realized he had to refrigerate the duck so that its oil wouldn’t overwhelm the photo paper -- but he finally managed to produce a recognizable image.

how to make a pinhole cameraBuying the roast duck.

“I like the duck because it’s hard to know what to expect,” he says.

Each duck’s skin has a slightly different color and texture, which gives the photo a distinct hue.

The photographic paper is wrinkled by bones and stained by oil, which can create some unusual effects.

how to make a pinhole cameraShooting with the duck.

Though Cheung has been experimenting with the “duck cam” for 10 years, he says he still hasn’t been able to fully flesh out his artistic intent.

It would be more meaningful if he could cook his own duck from scratch, he says, but his prowess in the kitchen does not match his talent for photography.

That hasn’t stopped him from pressing on.

Most recently, he bought a duck from Bruce Lee’s ancestral village in Shun Tak and used it to photograph the Lee statue at the Avenue of Stars, an odd and amusingly subversive response to the snap-happy tourists who flock to the statue.

how to make a pinhole cameraAnd the greasy results of capturing bruce lee through poultry.

“We’re so used to pushing a button and then getting the output we want right away,” he says. “Pinhole photography is not so simple. It doesn’t always give you an answer.”

You might not be ready to make a camera out of a duck, but paper shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

As part of the Detour festival Cheung and Beatrix Pang will lead free pinhole photography workshops every weekend afternoon from November 27 to December 12. There’s room for just 20 participants, and only the December 4 session will be held in English, so reserve a spot by emailing

If you can’t make it to Detour, don’t worry. Cheung also holds regular workshops at Daydream Nation, the new fashion boutique-cum-creative center in Wan Chai.

how to make a pinhole camera
It takes less than 15 minutes to make a simple pinhole camera.

Cheung starts with a sheet of thick black paper and a stencil.

Cut a small opening in the front of the camera and create some flaps to hold it together.

“This is actually the part most people have trouble with -- folding it together,” says Cheung.

how to make a pinhole cameraCreating the pinhole is the most important part. Cheung holds a pin against a small sheet of metal, spinning it around until a hole is created.

After inspecting the hole with a magnifier, he polishes it with sandpaper and colors it black with a marker. Black duct tape serves as the camera’s shutter.

In the final stage, Cheung puts the camera in a light-proof bag and inserts a film cartridge loaded with photographic paper.

He seals the camera with tape. After exposing the paper, the camera goes back in the bag and the film cartridge is transferred to a small machine that develops the photo paper Polaroid-style.

how to make a pinhole cameraLong exposures using natural lighting in Martin Cheung's photography.


Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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