Hands-on Activity Create a Pinhole Camera

Quick Look

Grade Level: 5 (3-5)

Time Required: 15 minutes

Expendable Cost/Group: US $1.00

Group Size: 1

Activity Dependency: None

Subject Areas: Physical Science

NGSS Performance Expectations:

NGSS Three Dimensional Triangle

A drawing of a pinhole camera. Shown, light (and an image) enters a box through a hole, is reflected off a mirror ad the image is reflected onto another mirror on the top of the box. An artist draws the image as it appears on the mirror on top of the box.
Students create their own pinhole cameras
Copyright © Lawrence Berkeley Laborataory, Muller's Group, http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/Physics10/old%20physics%2010/chapters%20(old)/11-Light.html


In this activity, students construct their own pinhole camera to observe the behavior of light.
This engineering curriculum aligns to Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Optical engineers need to understand how light rays work in order to design and create devices such as cameras, lasers and fiber optics.

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Understand how light rays travel in straight lines are used in the processing of images.
  • Use light rays to create a photographic image.
  • Explain the basics of how a pinhole camera works.

Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

NGSS Performance Expectation

3-5-ETS1-1. Define a simple design problem reflecting a need or a want that includes specified criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost. (Grades 3 - 5)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Define a simple design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process, or system and includes several criteria for success and constraints on materials, time, or cost.

Alignment agreement:

Possible solutions to a problem are limited by available materials and resources (constraints). The success of a designed solution is determined by considering the desired features of a solution (criteria). Different proposals for solutions can be compared on the basis of how well each one meets the specified criteria for success or how well each takes the constraints into account.

Alignment agreement:

People's needs and wants change over time, as do their demands for new and improved technologies.

Alignment agreement:

NGSS Performance Expectation

4-PS4-2. Develop a model to describe that light reflecting from objects and entering the eye allows objects to be seen. (Grade 4)

Do you agree with this alignment?

Click to view other curriculum aligned to this Performance Expectation
This activity focuses on the following Three Dimensional Learning aspects of NGSS:
Science & Engineering Practices Disciplinary Core Ideas Crosscutting Concepts
Develop models to describe phenomena.

Alignment agreement:

An object can be seen when light reflected from its surface enters the eyes.

Alignment agreement:

Cause and effect relationships are routinely identified.

Alignment agreement:

  • Explain how various relationships can exist between technology and engineering and other content areas. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

  • Design solutions by safely using tools, materials, and skills. (Grades 3 - 5) More Details

    View aligned curriculum

    Do you agree with this alignment?

Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • 1 ½ gallon milk or juice carton (one per student)

To share with the entire class:

  • wax paper
  • masking/cellophane tape
  • pins
  • 3-4 flashlights (for groups to test their cameras)

Pre-Req Knowledge

Longitudinal and Transverse Waves (Lesson 1), Wavelength and Amplitude (Lesson 2), Frequency (Lesson 3), Light (Lesson 6), Electromagnetic Waves (Lesson 7).


Students, this is the very last activity in our sound and light unit. You have all done a great job learning about sound and light and how engineers use their knowledge of sound and light to help improve our world. Today we are going to create something really neat – our own little cameras!

We learned in our lesson that light travels in straight lines and is inverted when it passes through a small hole. Today we are going to see this principal in action. Let's create a camera!



Hundreds of years ago, images were etched in stone and later, with the advancement of modernization, onto various types of cloth or even paper. At this point, these images might actually have been paintings of landscapes, portraits or still life (such as a bowl of fruit or a plant). By definition, a picture is a precise copy of an image — a duplicate image, not just a redrawn copy.

So, before the creation of what we know today as digital cameras (or film cameras, which are still widely in use), what did people do to have a copy of a certain image? Well, in the mid 1600s, a dark room, also know as a dark chamber or camera obscura, was cleverly used to transfer an outside image onto paper inside a room. To explain, a large room has a hole in one of the walls. When lights enters the small hole, the outside image is reflected onto the opposite wall. An artist, standing in the room, would then draw the image as it appears on the wall onto paper.

Then in the mid 1800s, the use of a pinhole camera became more common. A pinhole camera was portable, allowing a photographer to take (i.e., draw) pictures that were previously unable to have been copied through the dark chamber or camera obscura. The pinhole camera works the same way as the dark chamber in that a small hole in the side of a desktop-sized box imports an image on the opposite wall. Because light rays travel in straight lines, the image is actually inverted. Mirrors inside the pinhole camera box reflect the image to the top of the box at which point an artist transfers the image onto paper.

Today, with the discovery of film and, currently, digital computers encased in small cases the size of a deck of cards allow multiple pictures to be taken in rapid succession. Photographers can pick and chose the pictures to keep and those to be discarded at the flick of a button.

Engineers have played a large role in the development of cameras from the earliest times — from the chemical solutions used to develop film to the state-of-the-art digitization capabilities of today's modern cameras.

Now, let's create our own pinhole camera just like the pioneers of the 19th century!

Before the Activity

Note: Two weeks before the activity, ask students to bring in a ½ gallon milk or juice carton from home. Ask students to thoroughly rinse the container with warm, soapy water. Remind students periodically to remember to bring in the cartons.

  • Gather all necessary materials.
  • Cut the top (the side with the pour spout) off each milk/juice carton.

With the Students

Note: at the start of this activity, set out some light sources for students to look at through their cameras. Large flashlights work well, as they are bright and can be appropriately directed.

  1. Instruct students to tape a piece of wax paper over the top of the milk/juice carton.
    A photograph of a juice carton, turned on its side, with a safety pin sticking out of the bottom. The pin was used to poke a very small hole in the bottom of the carton.
    The pinhole camera hole can easily be poked with a safey pin.
    Copyright © ITL Program, University of Colorado at Boulder, 2010. Photograph by Alison Pienciak.
  2. Ask them to turn the carton on its side and use a sturdy pin (safetey pin works best) or a small-diameter drill bit/drill to make a very small hole in the bottom of the carton (this would be the outside of the carton, not the inside). (Note: The effect of using different size holes will be a point of discussion later). They should make only one hole that is clean and smooth! Please see Figure 1.
  3. When all students have finished, dim the overhead lights in the room and turn on the added light sources.
  4. Ask students to look at the light sources through their pinhole cameras. Remind them to look through the waxed paper end. The image they see should be a bit fuzzy, but identifiable.
  5. Students can move their cameras closer and farther away from the light sources and see what effect that has on the images.
  6. Allow students to experiment with the size of the hole and see how that affects the image. Note: very large holes will not depict an identifiable image; instruct students to slowly increase the size of their pin holes.
  7. Gather students together and discuss how their camera worked. See below for discussion ideas. Students may take their cameras home at the end of the day.


light ray: A beam of light with a small cross section.

pinhole camera: A simple camera that uses a pinhole to focus light on a surface behind it. All images created by a pinhole camera are inverted – the top becomes the bottom, left becomes right. This can also be called a camera obscura.

ray diagram: A picture that predicts what an image will look like. The light rays in a ray diagram are drawn as straight lines.


Pre-Activity Assessment

Key Ideas Review: Discuss key ideas from the lesson again with the students. Do they remember what kind of engineer works with light? (Answer: an optical engineer) How does light travel? (Answer: in straight lines) What was the first camera called? (Answer: a camera obscura) See if any students would like to volunteer to draw a ray diagram on the board.

Activity Embedded Assessment

How Can We Make it Better? Remind students of the importance of iteration in engineering design, and encourage them as they work with their cameras to ask themselves: "How can we make it better?" Encourage students to experiment with new ideas and to be kind and helpful to each other as they share ideas amongst themselves.

Post-Activity Assessment

Class Discussion: Whose pinhole camera worked really well? Why? How does the size of the pinhole affect the brightness of the image on the wax paper? (Answer: The bigger the hole, the brighter the image.) How does the size of the pinhole affect the sharpness of the image? (Answer: The bigger the pinhole, the blurrier the image.)

Investigating Questions

  • Who invented the first camera?
  • When where digital cameras first developed?
  • How many pictures are developed in America each year?

Safety Issues

Remind students to be careful when using the pins and not to poke each other with them.

Troubleshooting Tips

To see a clearer image, place a patterned piece of paper, or one with shape cut out, over the light source (i.e., over the flashlight lens).

Activity Extensions

Students should be encouraged to examine various cameras, inside and out, to see the lenses and how the film is placed to record the images. You may be able to obtain inexpensive old cameras at a local thrift shop, which the students can take apart in class.

Activity Scaling

For upper grades, find some volunteers to make a much larger camera obscura. In this camera, the camera body should be completely enclosed with a viewport on the side to see the back where the image falls. It's also possible to buy film and place it at the back of this camera to take a long-exposure picture. Details can be found at http://brightbytes.com/cosite/what.html

For lower grades, activities should still be appropriate, although students may require more help in constructing their cameras.

Additional Multimedia Support

For an additional resource on making and using a pinhole camera, see Kodak's website at http://www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=11865&pq-locale=en_US&_requestid=45980


Get the inside scoop on all things TeachEngineering such as new site features, curriculum updates, video releases, and more by signing up for our newsletter!
PS: We do not share personal information or emails with anyone.

More Curriculum Like This

Upper Elementary Lesson
Pictures Please – Traveling Light

Students learn that light travels in a straight line from a light source and that ray diagrams help us understand how images will be created by a lens. This prepares students for the associated activity, in which they explore the concepts behind the workings of a pinhole camera.

Middle School Lesson
Light Properties

Students learn about the basic properties of light and how light interacts with objects. They are introduced to the additive and subtractive color systems, and the phenomena of refraction. Students further explore the differences between the additive and subtractive color systems via predictions, ob...

High School Lesson
Do You See What I See?

Students explore the concept of optical character recognition (OCR) in a problem-solving environment. They research OCR and OCR techniques and then apply those methods to the design challenge by developing algorithms capable of correctly "reading" a number on a typical high school sports scoreboard....


State of Utah, History for Kids, "The Amazing History of Photography," accessed July 31, 2007. http://ilovehistory.utah.gov/index.html


© 2007 by Regents of the University of Colorado.


Luke Simmons; Frank Burkholder; Abigail Watrous; Janet Yowell; Alison Pienciak

Supporting Program

Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder


The contents of this digital library curriculum were developed under a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE), U.S. Department of Education, and National Science Foundation GK-12 grant no 0338326. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the Department of Education or National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: August 10, 2017

Free K-12 standards-aligned STEM curriculum for educators everywhere.
Find more at TeachEngineering.org