photo of two agfa isolette cameras
Photos & Projects

Lens versus Pinhole – Battle of the Isolettes – By Rock

October 21, 2020

Since I posted a while ago now about my exploits with a 35mm pinhole mod, I have been contemplating pinhole photography at medium format. You may have also read a more recent ‘5 frames’ of mine explaining my like for old bellows cameras, including the virtues of the 1950s Agfa Isolettes. So when I came across an Isolette that had been converted to pinhole, I jumped at the chance to acquire it.

The Isolette i, being low-spec, is ideal for a pinhole mod. Mine has had its simple lens removed and replaced by a thin metal plate with a 0.39mm hole drilled in the centre. The shutter is set to bulb, so it’s just a matter of counting out the seconds in your head (not too scientific), preferably with the aid of a tripod and release cable. As my two Isolettes are basically near identical, I thought it would be fun to shoot them at the same time and compare the results afterward. Hence the title “lens v pinhole.”

For this fun experiment I wanted a reliable film and as I have a fridge full of Portra 400, this seemed the obvious choice. On a fairly sunny day at the end of June I set off on a country walk with both Isolettes in hand – well, one folded up in my pocket and the other attached to a tripod. I wanted to take in a local field of poppies as I imagined a striking burst of colour captured by both cameras, one just more abstract than the other.

My formula for pinhole exposure times relies on taking a reading at 1/60th second. On the day, this came out at f22 for ISO400. This was perfect for the regular Isolette: I could just set a combination of 1/200th with f11 and use the depth of field scale for zone like focusing. However, with the pinhole model this calculated to 1.8 seconds: not exactly great for counting out nor the lengthy exposures I would have preferred for pinhole photography. Portra 160 would have been ideal. No matter, rounded up, 2 seconds would have to do…

photo of countryside scenery

opening shot from the regular Isolette i – nice foreground detail with some lens flare

photo of countryside scenery

opening shot from the Isolette pinhole – a tad blurry but recognizable as countryside scenery

photo of a poppy field

the poppy field – this shot would have been much better a couple of weeks earlier when the field was at maximum bloom

photo of a poppy field

the poppy shot – not the best composition through the pinhole but at least it does not suffer from the lens flare

As I was kinda comparing results from two ‘different’ cameras, I decided on a few frames that were the same. The next two images were shot in the darker woods, so I guessed on opening up a couple of stops or in the case of the pinhole version, increasing the seconds fourfold to about 8.

colour photo of tree stump

pinhole tree stump – I like the effect of an 8 second exposure here

colour photo of a tree stump

Agfa Agnar lens version – which one do you prefer?

photo of woodland scene

local woodland – decent use of the hyperfocal scale, at a smallish aperture

photo of woodland scene

same scene – even smaller aperture at f220, just no glass!

photo of countryside scenery

Brockles Field and beyond – the scenery here is very lovely and peaceful

I probably spent a couple of hours walking the fields and woods, setting myself a slow pace in which to take the photographs. I used about half of each film (I blanked one frame by accident) as fancied an alternative set of photographs to complete my experiment, something less rural.

I originally thought about my local church and graveyard, but I’ve done that to death, if you pardon the pun. The local marina and light industrial estate near to the train station still has something to offer me. So, next morning, that’s where I headed, with the same set-up. It was slightly duller so I set the regular Isolette to f8, and decided on 4 seconds for the pinhole exposures  (I count ‘elephants’, by the way, as per the wonderful film Gregory’s Girl) .

photo of field with bridge in the distance

on the way to the marina – through the lens

countryside scene

pinhole version – composition a bit guesswork

photo in a marina

at the marina – the bridge in the background is the same as in the previous shots

photo of green building

green building – four seconds or ‘elephants’ for this one

photo of industrial estate

the industrial estate – courtesy of f8 and a lot faster shutter speed

photo of corrugated building

corrugated storage – feels like this building will fall down any second

photo of corrugated building

same building – different view through the pinhole

Overall, I enjoyed my photo-shoot with the two Isolettes. It was fun to do and a reminder to slow down. No real competition between the two, just two different approaches.  I won’t necessarily repeat the process: just one camera will do whenever I go out – just need to choose the regular one or the pinhole.

pinhole camera photo of countryside

closing frame – this simple pinhole shot is my favourite

In some ways, the process was more enjoyable that the actual image results. I am underwhelmed with some of the photos and was hoping for less sharpness to the pinholes. Maybe expecting something a tad more abstract as seen in my previous exploits with the converted 35mm Paxette. Think I will try black and white in the Isolette Pinhole next time and think a bit more about what I am shooting.

Thanks for reading. Some of my stuff is at here, and for an interesting use of an Isolette, check out David Hume’s post here. Cheers, Rock

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  • Reply
    Herschel Pollard
    October 22, 2020 at 12:03 am

    Nice work and write up. It’s always fun to see lens vs. no lens. Folders make for great, compact pinholes, too. My Nettar fits nicely in my front pocket…not bad for 6×6 negs.

    • Reply
      October 22, 2020 at 12:08 am

      Thanks Herschel. And, of course, there’s plenty of folders out there just waiting to be converted!

  • Reply
    Scott Gitlin
    October 22, 2020 at 3:48 pm

    The tree stump for me is a good example of how a pinhole capture can, with the right scene, surpass detail/sharpness.

    • Reply
      October 22, 2020 at 8:33 pm

      I like that one too

  • Reply
    October 24, 2020 at 10:35 pm

    Nice Gregory’s Girl reference! I use elephants all the time.

    • Reply
      October 24, 2020 at 11:14 pm


  • Reply
    October 25, 2020 at 2:52 pm

    Ooh great comparison! You probably know this already, but if you want a less sharp image you can make the pinhole bigger or smaller. If you measure the distance from the pinhole to the film (call it “f”), the optimal pinhole diameter is 2*sqrt(f*0.00055) mm. Maybe your 0.39mm pinhole is already close to optimal, which is why you’re getting sharp images. Another option is to try non-circular pinholes. The Swiss visual perception theorist Hans Knuchel came up with some ingenious designs (see here). His book, Camera Obscura (1992), has several camera designs as well as examples of photos taken with them. Unfortunately the book is rare and somewhat expensive. Here’s an image made with his diagonal slit camera.

  • Reply
    October 26, 2020 at 10:59 am

    I like the idea of non-circular pinholes. As photographers went tend to be programmed into thinking only in terms of circular apertures. So creatively, anything outside the box has to be worth a try

  • Reply
    Aloy Anderson
    November 18, 2020 at 2:53 am

    Great comparison, one thing I learned with pinholes is its good to experiment with bringing it closer to the film plane, maybe bringing the bellows as close as possible as if infinity, might be a bit sharper and be a tad more sensitive. those are very well kept cameras

    • Reply
      November 18, 2020 at 9:21 am

      The way this mod has been done, the pinhole is stuck in its position of around 85/90mm. No movement possible in the bellows, but I could possibly change the size of hole as I do have two others drilled in thin metal plates. Probably try b/w and longer exposures first, before trying to make alterations. Thanks for your comments Aloy. Cheers, Rock

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