AT A TIME when mobile phones can take photos and there's a new digital camera offering ever higher resolution every few months, a group of amateur photographers are bucking the hi-tech trend by going back to basics with pinhole photography.
'It's fun,' says Alvin Hui Hau-wing, a recent convert. 'The effect of a picture from a pinhole camera cannot be generated with digital technology. The mood is totally different from what you capture with ordinary or digital cameras. It's not about purchasing expensive cameras and equipment. Everything is about returning to basics.'
Hui and his friends got hooked on the technique after taking part in a workshop, two years ago, on Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day. The annual event, held on the last Sunday of April, was launched in 2001.
'At the time, most of us had never come across pinhole photography before,' he says. 'We found out there was a Pinhole Photography Day through our online forum and someone suggested organising a session to introduce the method.'
The group invited veteran pinhole photographers to discuss their hobby, and made cameras from cardboard boxes and black tape.
Pinhole cameras operate without a lens. Essentially a light-sealed box, the device allows light reflected from an object to enter through a tiny hole at one end, and the image is captured at the other end on material infused with light-sensitive chemicals.
While modern cameras capture images in a fraction of a second, with a pinhole camera, the process can range from minutes to hours. But these most basic cameras often produce the softest, most atmospheric pictures.
Pinhole cameras are easy to make. Beginners often use paper boxes, soft-drink cans or biscuit tins. Enthusiasts have taken images using discarded refrigerators, empty rooms and even the photographer's mouth.
To mark Pinhole Photography Day last year, Hui and a group of friends including Dicky Chan Kwok-sang and Yuen Chi-ho, converted a lorry into a camera and captured the street scene on a huge piece of Polaroid paper placed at the back of the truck.
Although commercial pinhole cameras are available, enthusiasts say part of the pleasure is designing and constructing your own. Chan made his first with cardboard, but has since moved on to more durable and elaborate materials.
'We learn from our previous designs and keep improving our cameras,' the 32-year-old says.
Pinhole photographers soon develop their own approach, says photographer Martin Cheung Chun-yeung. While he was a student working at a Chinese restaurant in Australia, for instance, Cheung turned to a readily available resource: roast duck.
'If anything can be converted into a pinhole camera, why not roast duck?' he says. A graduate of the Victoria College of Arts in Melbourne, he explains his roast-duck camera as a witty way of combining Chinese and western culture.
Cheung says pinhole cameras encapsulate a fundamental function of photography: to record the passage of time. 'The nature of pinhole is long exposure,' he says. 'When you try to capture an object, there may be overlapping images. You can feel how time passes from seeing the picture.'
Though widely used in Europe, the US and Japan in the 19th century, the technique was largely abandoned when cameras with lenses came on the market in the early 20th century. Pinhole photography became a fringe technique adopted by some professional photographers, artists and scientists.
But the technique has regained some of its appeal in recent years. Photographer Kasan Ho Chi-yuen attributes the revival to a few factors: the re-emergence of commercial pinhole cameras, the launch the Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day, and dedicated publications that are introducing the technique to a new generation.
Among the most influential is Otona No Kagaku, a Japanese magazine, which released an issue on pinhole photography two years ago. Local magazines have also focused on the subject.
Ho says that besides being inexpensive, pinhole encourages people to explore other aspects of photography such as optical theory, physics and history. He cites how in the fifth century BC, Chinese philosopher Mo Zi recorded getting an inverted image on a screen through a pinhole device. Ancient Greek scholar Aristotle also wrote about pinhole image formation.
As an amateur, Chan believes pinhole work has given him a better understanding of general photographic theory. With a digital camera, factors such as exposure time and aperture barely crossed his mind. 'But, after I started exploring pinhole photography, I've gradually learned more about the basic concepts,' he says.
Ngai Dau Artspace in Sheung Wan is helping to promote alternative photography, and over the past five months has held occasional workshops and online exhibitions. The gallery's co-founder Ceci Liu Wai-yee laments the fact that most young people can only envision cameras with LCD screens. 'People have forgotten about the most basic nature of photography,' says Lau.
'When we talk about photography today, most only think about digital cameras, and how to use Photoshop to produce different effects. But there are actually a lot of interesting things in photography that people don't know about.'