Photo Corners

A   S C R A P B O O K   O F   S O L U T I O N S   F O R   T H E   P H O T O G R A P H E R

Enhancing the enjoyment of taking pictures with news that matters, features that entertain and images that delight. Published frequently.

Pinholed Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

22 June 2021

During yesterday's launch of the Lensbaby Obscura, the company conducted a launch party on YouTube and Facebook during which a number of beta testers talked about their experience with the new optic.

Roses. Canon Rebel XTi with Lensbaby Pinhole Optic Swap module (not the Obscura) at 1/40 second and ISO 1600.

We listened in a bit. It was illuminating (as we like to say a little too often even for our own taste).

The gist of the comments was that this peculiar option was a difficult one to like at first. Shooting pinhole is not like shooting with an 18-55mm autofocusing kit zoom. It was, the beta testers reported, a much different way of taking photographs than they were used to doing.

And it made them uncomfortable.

Chris Gampat, who published his review of it yesterday, didn't contradict that experience. He was particularly annoyed with how dirty it kept getting his sensor, although he said he had fun using it.

Eventually even the beta testers admitted they enjoyed using it.

Lensbaby CEO Craig Strong, who also designed the Obscura, explained, "We created the Obscura so that you could learn and grow while using a technologically advanced pinhole lens with options."


We had to chuckle at that. A technologically advanced pinhole? A pinhole is a tiny hole. How advanced can you get? Is a machine learning artificially intelligent pinhole somewhere in our blurry future?

Of course not.

In fact, the technology is so ancient there was even a Lensbaby pinhole before this one, which Strong to his credit mentioned right away at the launch party. It was not technologically advanced, though. Under a loupe you can see its ragged edges and because it was made with litho film, it's fragile.

Well, what's fragile about it? Only light is going to pass through it, after all.

We happen to have a couple of them. They were part of a set of Optic Swap modules that shipped together.

We dutifully tried them once upon a time on a Micro Four Thirds camera, kind of liked the effect and put it away because the stars have to be aligned to get anything recognizable out of a pinhole.

Soft Focus Module. Canon Rebel XTi at 1/60 second and ISO 1600.

We suspect that's what the beta testers were remembering.


The first problem is that as a pinhole, you are dealing with a very small aperture. Which is to say slow. But not only slow. Dim, too. So dim, you can hardly see anything at all through your viewfinder or LCD.

This makes it hard to see what you're doing in any light but bright sunlight. We're exaggerating but not nearly so much as a pinhole.

If you have trouble seeing anything, your sensor is having more trouble. You'll be shooting at very long exposures. The kind you can't really hand hold. But you'll hand hold. And you'll probably introduce some camera movement that will give your blurry images a painterly look.

That passes for creativity in some circles.

With the Obscura and also with the older Optic Swap module, you have an option to switch from the pinhole to a brighter aperture called a zone plate. We had to do that on our Canon Rebel XTi just to see anything in the viewfinder. It got our exposures down to 1/30 second in sunlight, which we consider creative problem solving.

Yes, we gave the old Optic Swap module a run yesterday after the launch party. The Obscura is pretty expensive for a hole. How much better could it be than the old module? The experience of shooting with a pinhole would certainly be the same.



One of the beta testers made the point that she really didn't enjoy shooting with it but she liked editing the images it captured.

And it's true that you really don't know what you've got until you take a look at it on your computer monitor.

Of the three images accompanying this piece, two were shot with the pinhole optic and one with a Lensbaby Soft Focus optic for comparison. The camera JPEGs were extracted from the Raw file.

We didn't edit any of them, though. What's the point?

Well, to answer that impertinent question, we did edit the Angel Trumpet image. We felt it was a little too, um, overexposed at 1/30 second and ISO 1600.

Since we captured it as a Raw file, we certainly did have some latitude in exposure but we also found Clarity and Dehaze made significant changes.

That, of course, begged the question of whether you can simulate the pinhole effect in your image editing software. Strong admitted as much during the party, but distinguished between the shooting and editing experience. Fair point. Except we didn't find the shooting experience to be much better than shooting blind.

When you Google "photoshop pinhole," you retrieve a lot of links but you quickly learn people are adept at defining "pinhole" to suit their mood. In some cases it means nothing more than applying a vignette. In others a desaturated image that has been blurred a bit will serve.

In our case, we wanted to know if we could replicate what the pinhole optic was doing.

We brightened Exposure and dropped Clarity in Camera Raw to start. We also added a lighter vignette. Then we used a Field Blur to defocus the image. We went back into Camera Raw and fiddled a bit more with Exposure.

We stopped thinking about matching the pinhole and enjoyed the edit.


Shooting pinhole is not sustainable. But it is challenging. And it can be fun depending on your personality. Shooting soft focus can be even more fun, though. And editing for a pinhole effect can really make you feel like the wheels have come off your roller coaster.

One of the beauties of Lensbaby's Optic Swap system is that you can nearly afford to try something as discombobulating as pinholing without buying a $300 specialty lens. You can save $100 buying the new Obscura in Optic Swap form or you can grab a used pinhole module for much less. You can even puncture a lens cap to make your own.

Strong said he wouldn't make anyone suffer if they didn't like the Obscura. And the company does have a Customer Happiness team to honor its 30-day return policy. "All Lensbaby products purchased from come with a 30-day money back guarantee, provided the Lensbaby is in new condition," the company said on its Return Policy page.

No obligation, in short. Which is exactly how we feel about pinholing.

BackBack to Photo Corners