Building an Instax Pinhole Camera

In a Chocolate Tin

4 min read by

My wife’s Instax Mini 90 is a fairly complicated machine that makes shooting instant film easy and fun. Today, I decided to see for myself how hard would it be to build my own shanty instant film camera.

Not having the tooling or the expertise of a top Japanese manufacturer, I decided to take a few shortcuts. The camera would take only one frame at a time, to be developed by hand in the dark (bath) room. It’d have a pinhole for a lens, that’d shoot at around 𝑓295 instead of Mini’s 𝑓12.5 with a bulb-mode-only shutter made from black electrical tape.

Fuji’s camera has a motorized retractable 60mm lens. Mine has a hole in tin foil that takes wide-angle shots.

The process.

A touch of black to alleviate light leakage.

Being a pinhole, the device isn’t that much more than a spray-painted box. The hole itself was carved with a knife and filled with tinfoil, which then got pricked with a needle. For “laser-like” precision.

Instax is a tricky film to expose. An ISO 800 emulsion, it can only be handled in absolute darkness and is a pain to manoeuvre out of the package, even in the daylight. I used this video to help me understand how to properly do it. It cost me a couple of ruined frames to get it right, mostly because it’s hard to tell which way is the front and which way is the back (Instax, unlike Polaroid, has to face its backside towards the light).

Developing Instax is a messy business. Like any other film, it needs a chemical bath after an exposure. In this case, it is the disgusting black stuff, kept in the tiny soft “pods” at the bottom of every frame. The pods are crushed, as the contents are spread evenly throughout the image with special rollers as the film ejects from the camera. I had a plastic tube that I used like a rolling pin on dough. This, of course, ended up exploding the pods all over the bathroom and spreading the goo not evenly.

By the time I figured out a passable technique, it was pitch-black outside. So I decided to photograph the twinkling lights we had in the apartment instead of taking a walk.

The results.

For each of the frames, I used two to four exposures, each from five to ten seconds in length. I took them about a foot away from the lights, hand-held or leaning against a table.

The camera works! The results are eery and strange, which is expected. The subject is a complete darkness with minuscule spotlights and the process is particularly experimental. It would be nice to see how this box photographs in the daylight.

The fact that there’s no lens didn’t end up affecting the shots beyond softening the focus. Even the exposure wasn’t that difficult to guess. However, I’d consider changing the technique for developing the film next time. Perhaps it’d be worthwhile giving it a go with the ready-made hand-crank-able rollers from Jolly Look. Or exposing the film, then inserting it back into the cartridge, covering the Mini 90’s lens and “taking a shot” so that the frame would go through the mechanized rollers.

This camera does look fairly elegant, but it operates like a Kodak box, circa 1888: the entire thing has to be sent to the “lab” to get the pictures. It has only one shot in the chamber and a crappy focusing device — but it’s pocketable!