In this activity, students construct their own pinhole camera to observe the behavior of light.
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 Standard Network (ASN), a project of JES & Co. (www.jesandco.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.
Click on the standard groupings to explore this hierarchy as it applies to this document.
- Colorado: Science
- a. Identify and describe the variety of energy sources (Grade 4)  ...show
- International Technology and Engineering Educators Association: Technology
- Next Generation Science Standards: Science
- 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)  ...show
- Develop a model to describe that light reflecting from objects and entering the eye allows objects to be seen. (Grade 4)  ...show
- 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.
Each group needs:
- 1 ½ gallon milk or juice carton (one per student)
To share with the entire class:
- Wax paper
- Masking/cellophane tape
- 3-4 flashlights (for groups to test their cameras)
|A beam of light with a small cross section.|
|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.|
|A picture that predicts what an image will look like. The light rays in a ray diagram are drawn as straight lines.|
Before the Activity
- Gather all necessary materials.
- Cut the top (the side with the pour spout) off each milk/juice carton.
With the Students
- Instruct students to tape a piece of wax paper over the top of the milk/juice carton.
- 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.
- When all students have finished, dim the overhead lights in the room and turn on the added light sources.
- 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.
- Students can move their cameras closer and farther away from the light sources and see what effect that has on the images.
- 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.
- 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.
- Who invented the first camera?
- When where digital cameras first developed?
- How many pictures are developed in America each year?
Activity Embedded Assessment
Additional Multimedia Support
State of Utah, History for Kids, "The Amazing History of Photography," accessed July 31, 2007. http://ilovehistory.utah.gov/index.html
Luke Simmons, Frank Burkholder, Abigail Watrous, Janet Yowell, Alison Pienciak
© 2007 by Regents of the University of Colorado.
Integrated Teaching and Learning Program, College of Engineering, University of Colorado Boulder
Last modified: February 5, 2016