Written by Stefan

Pinhole Portraits

For as long as I’ve been using a pinhole camera I’ve wanted to photograph the annual New Year festival in Urnäsch, Switzerland, known as Silvesterkläuse, in which participants march through the village wearing elaborate “beautiful” or “ugly” costumes and masks. Unfortunately the January 13 event always fell after my Christmas visits to Zürich, so I never managed to get there. But this past January I turned 50 and came up with a cockamamy way to celebrate. If I can’t get to Urnäsch, I reasoned, I’ll bring it to me.

Well, sort of. I concocted an event I called “Fifty Years, Fifty Portraits” and spent Sunday, January 12 in my studio in DUMBO taking pinhole photographs of almost sixty willing friends, family, and toddlers who were up for having their portrait taken with a mask. I used the word “mask” loosely — some people brought their own home-made or store-bought masks, some used traditional Swiss masks and old military gas masks I had, and others used nothing, or just simple props. For the most part I asked people to hold their masks, so that their hands were part of the portrait. The results were dark — some even creepy — but I think they turned out well. I’m still delivering digital prints to the participants, and am planning to produce a Blurb book with a selection of the portraits, so the project is still ongoing.

You can see some of the final portraits here and a few contact sheets from this shoot below.



I followed this event up with another series of portraits, this time organized in collaboration with friends at TRUNK, a women’s design collective in DUMBO. We offered people the opportunity to have their photo taken (commercially) through the month of February as a sort of anti-Valentine’s Day portrait. I photographed close to 20 individuals, couples, and families, lighting them less harshly than in the 50/50 series and aiming more for just moody, not creepy. I was delighted with the results and am planning to produce another Blurb book with a selection of these portraits

You can see some of the final portraits here and a few contact sheets from this shoot below.

A big thank you to everyone who participated in these photo shoots — especially the many brave youngsters who stood still in front of my weird camera for so long!


My Lo-fi Technology

I’ve taken a hiatus from this blog for the past four months, mainly because my wife and I had a second child in March. But I’m starting to feel almost human again and have begun to find time to devote to my photography. I have a number of posts in the works but decided to start by going back to the beginning — with some basic technical information on my cameras and film.

To some degree my interest in pinhole photography has always been shaped by a low-level aversion to technology, so writing down these details presents enough challenges that I actually have to look up some of the specifics. In any case, for those of you that find this stuff interesting, here’s the background on my lo-fi technology:


The camera I’ve used for most of the past 25 years is a small cardboard box built by my friend Randal Hunting. Randal followed the basic structure of a camera designed by Peter Olpe, a teacher who for many years used pinhole photography in his classes at the Basel School of Design. Olpe developed a design that worked well enough that he sold it commercially, and recently I’ve been using one of these models. The pinhole on Olpe’s camera is slightly smaller (.20 mm) than the one on my first camera and the resulting images slightly sharper. The focal length is roughly 28 mm. Exposure time, depending on the available light and film speed, is between 1-6 seconds in bright sunlight, 2-16 seconds in overcast light, and up to several minutes or more in low light.

Randal also very generously made me a more complex variation on his initial camera, one that allows exposing two frames at a time, thus creating panorama images. I love the proportions of these photos, as well as the lack of a wide angle effect, the result of a curved back on the camera.

I also have a Santa Barbara 4×5 sheet film camera that I’ve used over the years. It produces terrific shots, but the challenge with a large format camera like this is obviously that taking photos is a more complex undertaking than with roll film. But if you’re up for it, or just have to have the large negatives, the Santa Barbara is a nice camera. It’s available for purchase on

Last week a friend forwarded me a link to a new Kickstarter project, ONDU Pinhole Cameras. This family of of six wooden pinhole cameras is made by Elvis Halilović, an industrial designer, photographer, and carpenter in Slovenia. The cameras look gorgeous, and on the basis of that alone I bought one. Beauty aside, the cameras include some features I particularly like. The designs are simple and clean, with a minimum of moving parts and pieces, all held together with strong magnets. The simple design means that changing film should be relatively painless (my current camera is wrapped in black plastic and held together with glue tape, so changing film takes some doing). The cameras come with a standard tripod mount, something I’ve been dreaming about for years. And finally, in contrast to the inevitable wear and tear my cardboard box cameras sustain, the ONDU promises to be sturdy enough to last a life-time. Pinhole sizes on the ONDU cameras range from .20 to .30 mm, while the focal length ranges from 25 mm to 60 mm. Unfortunately I’ll have to hold my breath until October to get my camera — ONDU’s Kickstarter campaign has been so successful that they have a long list of orders to fulfill.


Olpe’s camera, as well as the Ondu, are both designed to hold medium format film. 120 film has a protective backing, which allows you to change it in broad daylight. It also has numbers on the backing, which enable you to determine how far to roll the film for each exposure. I generally use Kodak T-MAX (100 ASA) or Kodak Tri-X (400 ASA) for my black and white film and Fujicolor Pro for color — again, either 100 or 400. A low-light film I haven’t tried yet, but hope to soon based on reviews by the folks at is Ilford’s Delta 3200 Professional.

A special thanks to Peter Olpe and my friends Randal Hunting and Brad Clemmons (who studied with Olpe in the mid 1980s), without whom none of this pinhole business would have come to pass.

Olpe camera

Peter Olpe’s 6×6 pinhole camera, made from the Olpe & Bussiek assembly kit.

Hunting camera

Randal Hunting’s homemade panorama pinhole camera.

Santa Barbara Camera

4×5 Santa Barbara pinhole camera.


ONDU 6 x12 multi-format pinhole camera. Photo © ONDU 2013.

Top banner photo © Bluebarn Pictures 2011.

Out of Focus Wins Award

I’ve held off writing a follow-up post on Peter Olpe’s Out of Focus: Pinhole Cameras and Their Pictures until my copy of the book arrived from the publisher. This ended up taking three long months, as the first copy either got lost in the mail from Switzerland or was pocketed by a knowing postal worker. But the book finally arrived — just in time for Christmas — and I’ve been pouring over it ever since. It’s terrific!

The exciting news to share at the outset is that Out of Focus, which includes six of my own photos, won a “Silver” prize at the esteemed German Photo Book Awards in November. The Awards honor photographers, graphic designers, writers, and publishers for their presentation and production of photography books. The jury awarded “Gold” and “Silver” distinctions to 22 books, and recognized another 173 titles with the “Nominated 2013” designation. An exhibition that includes the award-winning and nominated titles will travel across Germany and on to Bucharest and Rio de Janeiro during 2013.

It’s no wonder Out of Focus won this award. Designed by the author, who studied with Armin Hoffman and taught for over 35 years with Wolfgang Weingart at the famed Basel School of Design, the book is impressive from cover to cover. With 432 pages and 850 illustrations, the tri-lingual volume (German, French, and English) includes essays on Olpe’s life-long work with pinhole photography, wonderful images by Olpe and 30 international photographers, and photos of his many self-made cameras. And the production quality is spectacular. This is what happens when you get an author like Olpe, a Swiss art publisher like Niggli Verlag, and generous funding from various Swiss cultural institutions.

Out of Focus includes work by such illustrious photographers as Jim Goldberg, Olivero Toscani, Georg Aerni, Herlinde Koelbl, and Alec Soth. They, along with all the contributing artists, were invited to participate in a barter trade with Olpe whereby they would use one of his cameras in exchange for contributing images to the book. The resulting collection of photos is terrific. And although Alec Soth only submitted one image to the book, I was particularly excited to find him among the contributors  — I’m a big fan of his work.

I think this book could have a noticeable and positive impact on the world of pinhole photography, and hope the award will give it some help in this regard. In the DIY movement pinhole and other lo-fi cameras like the Diana, Lomo, and Holga are hugely popular. But aside from the work of artists like Ann Hamilton, Abelardo Morell, and Vera Lutter, the fine art world (at least here in the US) seems to have a rather suspect opinion of the medium. More than one person I spoke with at a recent portfolio review advised me point blank that pinhole photography is not taken seriously by curators and critics. Hopefully this beautiful and compelling book will go some ways towards rehabilitating that reputation.

Out of Focus will be available for sale in the US at Amazon on February 27, 2013, or you can buy it now on Amazon UK or Amazon Germany.

The images below show the book cover and spreads of photos by Stefan Killen, Thomas Bachler, Tobias Madörin, Oliviero Toscani, Christian Vogt, and Peter Olpe. The last photo shows some of the many pinhole cameras Olpe made.


Grimm Switzerland

Turning bucolic Switzerland into a dark, mythological landscape has often struck me as a little impolite. After all, my Swiss grandmother taught me to sing goofy, patriotic folk songs while hiking the mountains, and to think of this beautiful country with simple, upbeat pride. Maybe that’s why I’ve generally shied away from photographing my motherland with black and white film, which easily turns any subject into something dark and foreboding.

But it wasn’t so long ago that Switzerland, like much of rural Europe, was in fact poor, dark, and, mythological — a far cry from the affluent and pristine country we know today. Until Rousseau and then the Romantics rehabilitated their reputation, the Swiss alps were viewed as a hellish landscape inhabited by demons. In the high mountains, where villages were cut off from the lower valleys for months at a time during the winter (see the terrific Swiss movie “Alpine Fire”), farmers kept totemic masks made from gnarled branches and cow’s teeth over their doors to ward off the evil spirits that visited their homes during fierce winter storms. There are any number of traditional Swiss festivals that still include frightening monsters and ancient mythologies (see Carsten Peter’s photography book, “Alpendämonen,” or “Demons of the Alps”). This was not just culture as entertainment — this was a response to the fears of everyday living, to the spirits howling in every gust of wind.

Mary Shelly famously wrote Frankenstein on the shores of lake Geneva, drawing inspiration for the dark novel from her experience in the nearby mountains.  Wind and rain, thunder and lightning, and barren, rocky glaciers provide the dramatic landscape for a story of confrontation between man and monster.

Even Tolkien, who traveled to Switzerland in 1911 on a wave of British tourism that began with the Romantics, found inspiration in the Swiss Alps for his mythological Middle Earth. He explored Wengen and Grindelwald — just across the deep Lauterbrunnen valley from Gimmelwald (see my photos) and was so taken with the region that, according to at least one author, some of the names that populate Middle Earth have their beginnings in this landscape.

My friend Erika suggested these black and white images of Switzerland are kind of Grimm’s fairy tales meets the Blair Witch Project. I’ve never had the stomach for horror movies so I can’t speak to the Blair Witch comparison, but I like the Brothers Grimm association. Scratch the surface of any bucolic Swiss landscape and you find all the dark woods, evil stepmothers, witches, wolves, and trolls you could hope for.



Mp3 Experiment Nine

More often than not the best photos I get on a shoot are not the ones I went looking for, but the result of something better landing in my lap.

One day this past July I took the ferry to Governor’s Island, hoping to get some good shots of the ferries that carry visitors to the city’s new favorite playground. After arriving on Governor’s Island from Brooklyn I promptly boarded another ferry to Manhattan, intending to come back to the island but wanting an opportunity for more ferry images. While then waiting in line for the boat back to Governor’s Island I suddenly found myself in the middle of an excited, cheering, and headset-wearing mob. Apparently I’d stumbled upon some sort of happening.

I followed the crowd on to the ferry, then off again at Governor’s Island and into the island’s interior fields. Suddenly everyone began moving in unison, apparently responding to instructions on their headsets. When participants pulled out white sheets, put them over their heads, and started walking around like a huge throng of ghosts, I began shooting as fast as possible. Fortunately I’d reloaded my camera after disembarking from the ferry, so I was able to make a half dozen exposures before the sheets came off and people moved on to the next instructions. I elected to go my own way at that point, but was hopeful I’d gotten some good photos.

I subsequently learned that the event I’d stumbled upon, billed as “Mp3 Experiment Nine”, was organized by Improv Everywhere, a New York City-based prank collective that, in their own words, “causes scenes of chaos and joy in public places”. For this event participants (around 4,000) were instructed to bring an MP3 player (with instructions downloaded) as well as a loaded water gun, a shower cap, a white bed sheet, a hard flat object, a small soft object, and a small musical instrument. At 3:00 PM everyone pressed play on their devises and, for the next half hour, followed a series of instructions from “Steve, The Omnipotent Voice from Above” that culminated in a massive water gun fight. You can watch the Improv Everywhere video of the event here.

Here are a couple of the photos I took:


Recently, while digging around on Flickr for photos of the event, it occurred to me that I might find a shot of myself in the crowd. Sure enough, in a collection of images by Arin Sang-urai, I found one showing me hunched over my tripod.

© Arin Sang-urai Photography, 2012

9/11 Memorial Lights

Two months ago I went to lower Manhattan to photograph the 9/11 memorial lights. In the years since the terrorist attacks I’d never photographed them and didn’t know what to expect, either in terms of finding a good vantage point or knowing how long the exposures should be. I spent some time circling the lights along West Street and took one roll of film, bracketing the exposures between roughly one and three minutes. Then I got lucky and was kindly invited to the garage rooftop where the lights were actually located. It was already late and the ceremonies that had taken place there earlier in the evening were over, leaving just a handful of photojournalists shooting the lights for their respective media employers.

Excited, I shot two rolls of film before — ugh — my camera jammed and I was forced to call it a night. I was hopeful about the results and felt confident I’d gotten some good images, but I really never know if there’s anything good until I see the negatives. I picked up the developed film a few days later only to find that all the shots I’d taken on West Street were underexposed and that most of the shots I’d taken on the rooftop were either underexposed or had been ruined by a processing error. Disappointed, I didn’t look at the negatives again until last weekend when, to my happy surprise, I found that there were in fact a couple of good shots in the batch. I made some high-res scans, tweaked the images a little in Photoshop, and — bingo! Turns out I got one I love.

Good Website Exposure

Between the recent Dumbo Arts Festival and a couple of terrific online mentions, got some much-appreciated exposure during the last week.

If the crowds were anything like those at last year’s festival, then over 200,000 people showed up to the 16th annual Dumbo Art Festival. Over the course of the weekend I had over 700 visitors to my own studio and generated enough follow-up interest to get some solid traffic to my website.

And Immediately following the festival, Pinhole New York was mentioned by design blogger Khoi Vinh of A real honor and a big boon to traffic! If you enjoy smart writing on design, technology, culture and more, check out his site! was also picked up by, “a magazine, a shop, and a community dedicated to analogue photography”. With deep archives of articles, photos, and Lomo, Holga, and pinhole cameras to buy, is one of the motherships of the low-fi photography universe. Check out the article they wrote on my photos here.

And then just this morning posted a story and link to my site. A terrific blog with great articles, they bill themselves as a DAILY MIX OF CREATIVE CULTURE, a digital inspirational review network from the worlds of snow and street culture, graphic design, web design, illustration, photography, fashion, film and art, as a consistent source of inspiration for all involved – briefly speaking INTERNATIONAL STYLES. Check out the article here.

Thanks to all the visitors at the arts festival, and to and for their links to Pinhole New York!

Dumbo Arts Festival

Mark your calendar for the annual Dumbo Arts Festival, which runs September 28-30! I’ll be participating in the annual art extravaganza for the fourth year running, and if this year is anything like last (probably, since it’s again sponsored by AT&T), it’ll be a packed weekend. Last year I had over 800 visitors — no small feat in a building with 68 Jay’s labyrinthian hallways and ten floors of studios.

Here’s my page on the official festival website.

My studio will be open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 6:00 PM. I’ll be selling archival/editioned images and work prints, and exhibiting some of the 800+ shots I’ve taken around the City in the last few months. Come by if you can!

I’m at:
68 Jay Street
Suite 305

Directions: Take the F train to York Street (first stop in Brooklyn). Exit the station, turn right, and walk downhill to 68 Jay. I’m on the third floor.

Out of Focus Published

Six of my photographs are included in a beautiful new book just released by the Swiss art publisher Niggli Verlag. Out of Focus: Pinhole Photography and Photographs is by Peter Olpe, a long-time teacher at the famed Basel School of Design in Basel, Switzerland. The 432 page heavily illustrated book is a document of Olpe’s work with pinhole cameras and pinhole photography, and is gorgeous in the way only a Swiss author and publisher can pull off. Niggli’s books have won numerous design awards, including for “The Most Beautiful Swiss Books“ and “The Most Beautiful Books Worldwide.“

Out of Focus includes a half dozen of my pinhole photos (New York City bridges and area beaches), as well as images by 35 other international photographers, including Georg Aerni, Eric Renner/Nancy Spencer, and Alec Soth. Olpe, with whom I studied in 2006 as part of a three-week design course, invited me to contribute to his book and, needless to say, I have been thrilled to be a part of the project.

An exhibit at the Swiss Camera Museum in Vevey, Switzerland, is timed to coincide with publication of the book and runs from September 8 to January 13, 2013. The exhibit includes select photos from the book, as well as many of the pinhole cameras Olpe has made.

Out of Focus is something of a companion volume to Olpe’s book Drawing as Design Process: Courses, Themes and Projects at the Basel School of Design, also published by Niggli, which documents his work at the Basel School of Design where he taught, alongside Wolfgang Weingart and others, for 35 years. You can see Olpe’s own work on his website.

From Niggli’s website: Peter Olpe has been manufacturing customized pinhole cameras since 1978. In 2012 he donated 90 of his cameras to the Swiss Camera Museum in Vevey where the collection will be exhibited. In images and texts the book Out of Focus presents these cameras and, in addition, tells the story of the author‘s ever-changing interests in pinhole photography – a written documentation of Peter Olpe’s work as a designer, photographer, illustrator and teacher. Furthermore, the creative work of 36 photographers is presented, all of whom Peter Olpe invited to take photos with one of his pinhole cameras in a kind of “art barter”. His offer was simple. If the resulting images were of a quality to be used in the book and the exhibition in Vevey, the camera would pass into the possession of the artist. During the project, Olpe designed many unique tailor-made cameras for the artists – and just as many diverse and surprising photographs were created using them. 432 pages, approx. 850 illustrations, 19,5 × 22,5 cm, hardcover, French / English / German, CHF 78.–, Euro (D) 62.–, Euro (A) 63.70, ISBN 978-3-7212-0851-1

Out of Focus is not yet available for sale in the US, but I’ll let you know when it arrives in bookstores.

Recent NYC Photos

Since March of this year I’ve been on something of a pinhole bender. I’ve taken over 70 rolls of film (120), amounting to over 800 images. The photos are of NYC architecture, ferries, subways, the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Green-Wood Cemetery, the High Line, Times Square, the Brooklyn Bridge, 42nd Street, the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, the Easter Parade, the AIDS walk, and more.

After taking photos of the city on and off — generally pretty aimlessly — for much of the past 21 years, my shooting has suddenly come into much more focus, so to speak. I’m working on several related projects and am taking photos with specific subjects and concepts in mind. I also started using a new camera (still a small cardboard box wrapped in black plastic and electrical tape) that has a smaller aperture, and the images are noticeably sharper.

Most of the new photos I’m posting here are included in the PHOTOS > NEW IMAGES slide shows. I’ll also post some of them individually in the blog when there are stories worth telling.

I hope you enjoy them!