Photos on a Budget

Final Project Prototype

3D Printed/Laser-cut Pinhole Camera


In the past ten weeks, I’ve learned numerous new prototyping techniques, including how to use a laser cutter and a 3D printer. I was inspired to create a pinhole camera by my new-found interest in photography combined with my new prototyping skills.

Memories are priceless, yet many modern cameras are priced beyond the reach of countless people, so I decided to create an affordable prototype for that segment of the market.

The polylactic acid (PLA) filament used for the 3D printer is fairly cheap. If wood is bought in bulk for the laser cutter, it is also inexpensive. The costliest equipment would be the 3D printer and laser cutter themselves. However, many universities offer this equipment for free.

I used the 3-D printer to make the basic shapes and necessary attachments for the camera — for example, the knob that advances the film and the winder that engages the take-up spool. I used the laser cutter to create the main frame of the pinhole camera — for example, the body and the extension of the camera. This way, people who can’t afford to buy an expensive camera can still use the pinhole camera to take pictures with much of the same aesthetic appeal of a real camera.


There are three main reasons to create a prototype: namely, to evaluate its desirability, feasibility and/or usability. Firstly, how much would people who can’t afford expensive DSLR cameras really want it? Secondly, how hard would it be to produce the camera en mass? Finally, how hard would it be for the consumer to both assemble and use the camera?

I have created an open source platform developed on Rhinoceros software so anyone who is able to access a laser cutter and a 3D printer can print and laser cut it themselves. I have made the files editable so the community can customize the camera to their own needs and design. This way they can change the thickness of the holes to be able to print the frames on their own materials.

For this prototype I laser cut the first iteration with chipboard and the second iteration with birch wood. I used chipboard for the first to ensure my design fit properly, and then proceeded to use birch wood for a more polished and sturdy final product.


Competitive Analysis

I first started by researching what is already available in the market. I saw several different laser cut and 3D printed pinhole cameras. However, I could not find one that combined both the laser cutter and the 3D printer. Another aspect I noticed was that many of the laser cut cameras had 50+ pieces. My main goal was to keep the camera as easy to assemble as possible.

I then researched the functionality of how pinhole cameras work. I referred to the book, Pin Hole Cameras — A Do-It-Yourself Guide by Chris Keeney. I would highly recommend this book to someone who has never created this type of camera. I learned a lot about the technical side of how a camera works and how that translates to how a pinhole camera functions. For example, I learned about the difference in exposure time on film vs. paper negative and how the lower International Organization for Standardization (ISO) films tend to yield better contrast and color saturation.

Initial Sketches

I then started by sketching out my ideas on paper. I envisioned how the laser cut pieces would fit together as well as how they would fit with the 3D printed pieces. I visualized what materials I would need to protect the film from the wood. I contemplated what was the best method to let a small amount of light in when taking the picture.

Initial Sketches

Rhinoceros Design

3D Print Design

During my competitive analysis, I found a 3D printed open source design for the film spool and take-up spool on The design on the website worked perfectly with my laser cut frame. Therefore, I decided not to reinvent the wheel and used the file on

Below is the link to the top and bottom parts connecting to the film canister:

Below is the link to the take-up spool:

Below is a video of the film spool in action:

3D Printed Film Spool in Action

Once I 3D printed the objects, the parts attached to the film canister and the take-up spool tended to stick while turning in the camera. Therefore, I designed a bottom part to attach on the outside of the frame. (I created two holes on the bottom of the frame.)

Below is the link to the bottom attachments to the spool of the Rhino file:

I also noticed that the take-up spool did not fit the laser cut pieces exactly, so it would leak light inside the camera. Therefore, I imported the file into Rhino and modified it.

Modified Take-Up Spool

Below is the modified take-up spool Rhino file:

Unfortunately, as you can see by the pictures below, the modified pieces did not print correctly. Therefore, I had to improvise and use the black felt to outline the initial 3D printed part to make sure no light leaked into the camera.

Below are images of the failed 3D printed modified parts:

Failed 3D Printed Parts


I first designed for the chipboard because it was significantly cheaper and faster to laser cut. I measured the thickness of the board which was 1.5 mm and made all my holes 1.48 mm to make sure it could force-fit together.

1.5 mm Thick Chipboard Pinhole Camera Design

I first laser cut two of the pieces to make sure the holes fit properly before printing the whole design.

First Laser Cut Pieces

I had to laser cut several iterations of it to make it perfect. For example, the size of the circle for the top had to be modified several times to fit the 3D printed parts exactly. I also modified the “view finder” to be smaller for aesthetic purposes.

Below is an image of the numerous pieces I modified and re-cut:

Iteration of Laser Cuts

The right image is of the inside of the camera with compartments for the film. The middle image is when the light is exposed inside the camera. The left image is when the camera is closed and no light is exposed inside the camera.

Assembled Chipboard Pinhole Camera Frame

Below is the chipboard pinhole camera frame Rhino file:

Birch Wood

Once I had the design exactly how I wanted it on the chipboard, I started redesigning it for the birch wood. The wood has a different thickness so I had to resize all the holes in Rhino. I measured the wood to be about 3.19 mm thick. Therefore, following the similar thought process as the chipboard, I made the holes 3.12 mm to be able to assemble with a force-fit rather than using glue.

I first printed a sample piece to ensure that it would force fit properly.

Birch Wood Force-fit Test

Once I knew it would fit with a force-fit method, I resized all the holes.

3.12 mm Thick Birch Wood Pinhole Camera Frame

I then set the laser cuter to cut through birch wood that was 3.19 mm thick. This ended up not being thick enough and some parts were not cut all the way through. I had to force it out with a knife which ruined the wood as you can see in the images below.

Damaged Birch Wood Pinhole Camera Frame

I then tried to assemble the camera and realized that not all the holes matched up as displayed in the images below. This was because when I resized all the holes, I did not think about which direction I was extending the hole. I had to go back into the design and make sure all the holes were extended on the same direction and re-cut it.

Mismatched Birch Wood Pinhole Camera Frames

Below is the final version with the correct dimensions of the birch wood pinhole camera frame Rhino file:

I then poked a small hole in the shim stalk and cut two thin strips of black felt.

Shim Stalk and Black Felt

The black felt was glued onto the section inside the frame that would touch the film. This way the wood did not scratch the film. The shim stalk was used to let in a very small amount of light inside the camera.

Shim Stalk and Black Felt Glued with Wood Glue


Final Product

The main goal of the camera was to keep it minimalistic and simplistic.

The final product consists of:

  • 14 wooden parts that create the frame
  • Five 3D printed camera parts
  • One film canister
  • Two thin trips of black felt
  • Small piece of shim stalk with a hole in the middle
All the Parts of the Pinhole Camera
Final Version of the Assembled Pinhole Camera


  • 3.12 mm thick 12" x 16" Birch Wood: $3.34
  • Black felt: $0.54
  • Shim Stalk (thin metal): $.1.05
  • PLA Filament: $0.85
  • Film: $3.56

Total Cost: $9.34

Point-and-shoot to DSLR cameras can range anywhere from about $100 to $2,000. So, $9.34 to create a pinhole camera is nothing in comparison.

For this project, though, I spent more than $9.34 because I had to redesign several times.

User Study

I conducted five usability studies to see how easily participants could assemble the pinhole camera without any directions. I followed a typical usability study and made sure that the participants knew how these types of studies work. I asked them to think aloud, and let them know that I was testing the pinhole camera, and not them. I had only one task for the participant to complete.

Task: Please open the box and assemble the pinhole camera to the best of your ability.

I asked all the participants to tell me when they were done assembling the camera.

Usability Issues

From the usability study, here are some issues which arose when assembling the camera:

  • Participants had to guess which pieces fit together.
  • Participants struggled with understanding which piece of the 3D printed parts fit on which side of the film canister.
  • Some participants could not figure out how to assemble it completely or they misunderstood how certain parts fit together.
  • The 3D printed parts attached to the film canister were too loose and kept falling off.
  • The participants could not figure out a logical order in which to assemble the parts.
  • Once the participants were shown how to assemble the pieces, they were able to do it in a quarter of the time with ease.
  • One part of the frame did not fit perfectly because the birch wood that it was cut on was warped.

Pinhole Camera Demo Video

Below is a storyboard that I created for the one minute video demo:


Below is a one minute video demo of different types of people in different locations assembling the pinhole camera.

Demo-Style 1 Minute Video


What Worked Well

The minimalistic and simplistic approach worked really well. If there were any more pieces to the camera, it would have confused those trying to assemble it, as well as taken a lot longer.

Once the participants assembled the camera, they really liked the design. Some even said,

“I would definitely want this as an art piece for my room! It’s so cute!”

The one minute demo video above was a big hit when I showed it to friends and family.

Future Improvements

Design is an iterative process that will never be fully done. There is always something that can be improved upon or looked at from another perspective.

Below is a list of design improvements based on the usability study:

  • Make the holes 0.01–0.05 mm smaller for a force-fit design. Currently, you would still need to add a little wood glue to ensure that it would not fall apart.
  • Add numbered labels to the laser cut pieces in order of how to assemble it.
  • Create a diagram and/or a video that demonstrates how to assemble the pieces.
  • Label the 3D printed parts to show which were the top and bottom of the film canister.
  • Create a document explaining what a pinhole camera is.
  • Paint the inside of the camera black to make it as dark as possible. This would also help people assemble the frame by knowing which side should face out.
  • Laser cut on a very flat birch board. Avoid warped wood at all costs.

What I Would Do Differently

If I were to do this project again, I would want to incorporate all the future improvements mentioned above. However, the biggest issue I had was limited time. This was a one-week project on which I spent 30+ hours. In addition, there were so many people trying to use the laser cutter and 3D printer that I had to be really efficient with my time. There was always a line so I would work on different parts of the project and make sure the design was as perfect as possible so I didn’t waste precious time with the equipment. This is definitely a project that I will want to perfect in the future.

Next Steps

The next step for this project will be to develop the film from the pinhole camera. Then I’ll modify the design of the camera based on how the pictures turn out. I would also like to design different patterns on the frames in Illustrator to make each one unique and personalized depending on who it is for.

Overall, doing this project was an amazing learning experience, familiarizing myself with the Rhinoceros software, 3D printing, laser cutting and photography.