Review: The Ondu Pinhole "Nothing Camera"
I believe that all serious photographers should dabble with different mediums and processes for making photographs, just like great modern musicians would study the works of the classical masters. Unlike music, which has thousands of years of history, photography is a relatively new discipline, one whose history is measured in decades.
I learned to take photographs on a film camera, long before digital cameras existed in the consumer market, but it was my return to film as a professional that really propelled my artistic vision. Using film will teach a digital photographer patience and will cement those fundamental photography principles. By far I prefer to shoot medium format film - it is more expensive than 35mm rolls, but the size and feel of holding an image that size is truly powerful.
Within film (or analog) photography there are a variety of sub-disciplines, one of which is pinhole photography. For a long time I thought pinhole photography was a bit gimmicky; you find kits for making pinhole cameras out of old oatmeal containers in the craft section of the bookstore. I didn't feel the urge to make an oatmeal flavored photograph - I prefer to work with precise machines rather than tape and glue (which is reflected in my art class grades on my old report cards!)
And then I met Ondu.
Ondu is a company of two Slovenian brothers who started on Kickstarter making craftsman pinhole cameras. While I didn't participate in their first campaign, I recently got one of their Mk II 6x9 medium format cameras from their second campaign, which is what I'll be reviewing today.
Pinhole photography is really better described as 'nothing photography', which is why I prefer to call the Ondu the 'nothing camera.' Unlike other cameras, which include buttons, shutters, and glass lenses, a pinhole camera has none of that. There is no lens. Nada. There is no shutter and there are no buttons. It is essentially a wooden box with a small hole in it, and it makes photographs.
Pinhole photography is based on the concept of the "camera obscura" - if you aren't familiar with that terminology, I recommend pausing for a moment to read this wonderful explanation before returning. We'll wait for you.
If you are cheating and reading ahead without understanding the camera obscura, then you'll just have to assume a pinhole works on magical principles. Or you can stop cheating and I'll give you the link a second time, because I'm nice.
Now that you understand how a pinhole camera works, let's look at the Ondu camera I received, which is the 6x9 version that accepts 120mm medium format film. The camera, which is handcrafted, is one of the nicest feeling cameras I have played with, despite having no ergonomic grips. I think that feeling is attributed to the wooden body and artisan look - you can tell this camera didn't come from a mass production assembly line. The unique character and coloration of the wood makes every camera unique. And when you feel like the camera itself is a piece of art, then you expect it to make fine art (which it does!)
How to Ondu
On the front of the camera is a rectangular wooden piece that covers the precision made pinhole and acts as the shutter. The 'shutter' has an embedded magnet to help it stay closed and prevent light leaks, and a stop on the front to prevent it from flapping around wildly. On top of the camera are two wooden knobs, again embedded with magnets for security and to make the camera light tight. These knobs control the advancing and winding of the film. Also on the top is a laser engraved approximation of the field of view and a bubble level. The back is held on with four magnets and has a small window to help you see and count the frame advances. And the bottom has a tripod mount. There…. I just described this camera's physical characteristics in more detail than I have ever described another camera. What takes pages to describe on a digital camera took 3 sentences. Impressive.
The Ondu includes a basic set of instructions, which mostly deal with loading the film. The operation of the camera itself is about as simple as it gets- all you have to do is decide the correct shutter time, aka how long to keep the wooden flap open. To help calculate this, Ondu offers a laser engraved wooden chart to help you guesstimate the exposure times. While the chart is handy, I used the Lumu Pinhole app on my smart phone.
Side note: you probably upgrade your iPhone every few years as the new ones get released. If you need a light meter, just pull that old one out and clean it off and load it with the Lumu apps and buy yourself a Lumu light meter. Voila, you have a light meter. And put the phone in airplane mode and the battery lasts a long time. You’re welcome.
Before we can start shooting we need to load the film, which is where I encountered my only problem with the Ondu, and I’m not sure if Kodak is actually to blame. I started by loading some Ilford Delta 100 black and white film. The little window in the back of the camera showed the start arrow, and proceeded to wind to the number 1. Wonderful.
After a few rolls of black and white, I decided to load some Kodak Portra160. I started winding and saw the start arrow in the center of the window on the camera back. Kept winding….. nothing. Obviously, at some point after more winding I realized there was a problem, but I was a bit helpless to do anything about it. I wound backward to try and rewind the film a bit… no numbers. The way that 120mm film is rolled means it will only tolerate so much of this back and forth before it starts to jam up - I had wasted a roll and took no shots. Shame its also the expensive color film (maybe best not to think about that).
Not wanting my expensive color film to be wasted, I decided to go back and study what happened to see if I could work out a solution. With the help of my Photo Sherpa I carefully re-wound the film back to the original starting point. Of course this is being done in daylight, so the film is trash at this point. I loaded it back into the camera and tried again.
Long story short, the way that Kodak printed the numbers on the back of these rolls meant the start arrow is visible in the center of the window, but the actual counting numbers are not. If you hold a light up to the window and point it the right direction you can barely make out the black ink enough, but that isn’t practical in the field. Using gaffers tape, I measured out the number of rotations of the film required between photographs to properly advance the film. Turns out the Ondu needs almost 1 1/2 rotations of the film wind knob to advance the 6x9 film. Now I have a little piece of tape stuck to the knobs to help me count out those rotations. And after doing the math and carefully measuring it out, I was able to shoot a few more rolls of Kodak color film.
I am inclined to hold Kodak responsible for this mistake because the Ilford film lined up perfectly in the counter window on the back of the Ondu.
As previously mentioned, operation of this camera couldn't be easier.... If you understand the principles of photography. But even if you don't, using a 'nothing camera' is certainly a great way to learn the fundamentals of photography without being overwhelmed with features and functions!
Operating the Ondu can be summed up in the following steps:
- calculate the correct shutter speed using a light meter, light meter app on your phone, or by taking a wild ass guess
- Mount camera to tripod and aim in the direction you want to get your photograph - remember there is no viewfinder or image review feature
- Open shutter
- Count in your head the exposure time. Be sure to say "Mississippi" as you count to keep the seconds accurate.
- Close shutter
- Advance film
Honestly, I am impressed I managed to turn that into a seven step process. Using it, it feels like only two steps are involved!
Since there are no lenses, aperture adjustments or a zoom, the camera is about a straightforward to operate as they come. It requires more steps to make a phone call then it does to use the Ondu, which is why I affectionately call it my nothing camera. There's nothing to it!
Getting Sharp Images
The term "sharp" is one of perspective. Compare the Ondu to a $10,000 Leica Noctilux f/0.95 lens and the Ondu will be laughed home. You have to reframe your expectations when using a pinhole camera, because there is no glass to create the sharpness and detail you expect from modern cameras. Images will be soft, but that's what makes them so awesome. When you finally get that one photograph, you can admire it with the knowledge that it was made with a lens-less camera. A nothing camera.
One thing I was keen to experiment with was the results on a tripod vs hand held. After shooting several rolls of film, I can safely say that it’s best to use the Ondu with a tripod. None of my handheld shots were close to sharp (even if the shutter speed was 1/20th - 1 second)— in fact there was a good amount of blur in them that could have been avoided through more consistent tripod use. So lesson learned, tripod it is!
I have been very pleased with the image results that I have achieved with the Ondu. While the sharpness certainly doesn’t compare to my Leica’s, its important to remember that a Leica has lots of highly engineered and refined glass that enables it to create sharp results. The Ondu has no glass - just a precision pinhole. And when you look at the images with the understanding that it isn't a Leica, then you’ll be very pleased!
The Ondu is most sharp in the center of the image, and has a fairly extreme vignette (typical of pinhole images) on the corners. The images are also very contrasty, which I rather like. It’s my style to have high contrast imagery, so the natural look suits me.
Usually my equipment reviews are long and drone on for pages about chromatic aberration, GPS features, blah blah blah….. writing this review has been a bit challenging because I feel like there is more that I should say, yet I’ve run out of words. Then again, I started this whole post discussing how the Ondu Pinhole is the ultimate nothing camera, so maybe it makes sense that I have so little to say!
If pinhole photography has ever interested you, or if you have an interest in learning more about the basics of photography without becoming bogged down in the camera, then I would highly recommend the Ondu. The construction quality is superb, and the camera just begs to be taken out and used. The nothing camera brings a whole new sense of excitement and anticipation to photography - with no concept of the framing, no ability to preview, and no precision shutter processes, the Ondu brings out the true skills of a photographer. That’s not to imply that pinhole photography is hard, but it’s a fun challenge, and the Ondu continues to reward my attempts with wonderful results.
In fact, I’m so pleased with my 6x9 pinhole camera from Ondu, that I just ordered their tri-focus 4x5 large format camera!