My digital camera has bit the dust. Now I wonder how to take pictures without a camera.

Photography is an art of making images from the light field present at some particular location at some particular time. To sample that light with a lens or pinhole and a light-sensitive detector such as film or CCD is one popular means to record that light field in an meaningful and hopefully interesting way. But maybe that isn't the only means worth pursuing?

Artists have over time developed less representational ways to paint, more abstraction. We all know people who prefer paintings that are nice pictures of horses or landscapes, and don't get cubism or Kandisnky. But there's a huge part of art that explores perception, pure color fields, and so on. Fine art has gone way beyond just pretty pictures.

Has something similar been going on in photography? Sure there are abstract photographs but AFAIK all done using cameras. What non-camera means have innovative photographers tried for capturing light, and most importantly, which ones might I be able to do myself?


3 Answers 3


Great question! There's a rich history of photographic images created without a camera. The best known type is the photogram which (according to a purist definition) involves placing objects in contact with unexposed film then exposing it to light to capture silhouette and/or refraction patterns. A famous practitioner of this technique was the early 20th-century artist Man Ray who called his works "rayographs". One of the more imaginative photogram series I've seen involved burying film in soil then digging it up and processing it to reveal organic decay patterns.

Photograms aren't the only type of cameraless photography though. For example, I've also seen pictures created from x-ray images, and pinhole images created by covering a window with tin foil then letting light in through a pin-prick.

If you need some inspiration, how about these:

  • Check out the Photograms group on Flickr for ideas.

  • If you don't have easy access to film or developing facilities, why not get hold of a cheap scanner and try your hand at some digital photograms? (No doubt that'll send the purists crazy - double win!)

  • For some astonishing examples of what can be done with an old film camera body but no lens, look at the work of Alan Jaras on Flickr. [Disclosure: Alan is my father-in-law.]


One way of photographing without camera is to put the subject on a dark surface and leave it in strong light (e.g. sunlight) to bleach the uncovered material. A similar approach bordering with tattoo art is to put the object on your skin and get a tan.

You could also use a magnifying glass to focus sunrays on paper and use it to burn dots and lines, creating a "light painting".

Don't know if it counts as "without camera", but people have built cameras out of various stuff, like cardboard, scanners, an egg shell, or a human skull.


A camera is essentially a light tight box with a means to let a controlled amount of light in on one end and a means to record that light on the other.
A pinhole camera is nothing more than that at all, more elaborate cameras add mechanisms to exert more control over either the light and/or the recording medium.
Photography without a camera has existed for as long as people have made enlargements of negatives or slides on paper. The enlarger projects light onto a photosensitive surface, which records it. Effectively then the person making the enlargement is creating a photograph (literally, "writing with light") of the negative as projected through a lens.
An experiment could be to hold a sheet of photopaper to the wall of an aquarium situated in a dark room and on the other wall playing with different coloured laser pointers or dim light sources (maybe narrow neon tubes). I've never done this, but it could yield some interesting abstracts of colour space.


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