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Solargraph science

Published: 17 July 2020

Last month, families using the Newcastle-Staffs foodbanks got an extra item in their parcels. Ogden outreach officer, Scott Walker provided 150 pinhole camera kits to be sent out to local foodbank centres.

The aim of the project, which was funded by the Institute of Physics, was to help young people take part in interesting and enjoyable science projects.

“Putting the pinhole camera kits together and using them to track the sun is a really fun thing to do,” says Scott. “And let’s face it, we have all needed a bit of light relief and creativity recently.”

Scott provided the kits with a full set of instructions on how to set up the cameras with the photographic paper inside. Once they are set up, people will be able to track the sun and create their own solar photos.

“Sending the kits out through the foodbank allows us to engage with lots of different groups,” says Scott. “We are already thinking about other science kits we can put together for people to try at home.”

Below: you can read more from Scott about this pinhole camera project and his plans for future initiatives. You can also download the instructions and kit list and make your own pinhole camera.

A ‘hyper-local’ response to COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown period, there has been a real clamour to take teaching, learning and outreach online. There are many positive aspects to virtual learning, but I have real concerns that this can, and will, exacerbate educational inequalities due to the digital divide.

As such, I have been developing ‘hyper-local’ outreach and public engagement initiatives to engage with, and support, local communities and groups that have been disproportionately affected by the current crisis. One such group are those who are now having to access food banks and it is this community that the pinhole camera project is initially serving.

Scott Walker delivers the pinhole camera sets to Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks
Scott Walker delivers the pinhole camera sets to Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks

Collaboration is key

A significant part of the scientific research output at Keele University comes courtesy of the astrophysics group, astrophysics being the application of physics to celestial objects, and I am continually looking for ways to engage the local community with this research and highlight its relevance and importance.

It was around late April that I recalled an Ogden supported project by Real Photography Company. This Community Interest Company in Bristol had received Ogden funding to deliver a number of events based on light, including a pinhole photography workshop. Instantly, astrophysics and pinhole photography came together, and the solargraphy pinhole camera project was born!

In order to get this project off the ground, I knew that collaborating was key. I contacted Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks, who oversee six foodbanks within Newcastle-under-Lyme, the conurbation surrounding the university, to understand if this was something they felt would be of interest to their users. They were hugely positive about the idea and there was a real sense of being able to bring a small piece of ‘science happiness’ to those who really needed it.

The next stage was sourcing the required funding. Following a proposal to the West Midlands Branch of the Institute of Physics, I was granted ~£300 and this allowed me to create 200 DIY pinhole camera kits. These kits contained everything needed to build a simple pinhole camera, including instructions and photographic paper that records an image when exposed to light.

Simplicity of design

The beauty of the chosen pinhole camera design, and the length of exposure (which can range from a few days to six months!), is that the solargraph that is produced does not need to be developed in the same way as traditional photographic paper images, which use developer, fixer and stop bath solutions. The solargraphs can be ‘developed’ using technology that many people have in their pockets: a smartphone and photo editing app.

A pinhole camera in situ - attached to a tree
A pinhole camera in situ

The start of a long-term partnership

These kits were packaged and delivered to Newcastle (Staffs) Foodbanks Chesterton distribution centre and have all since been given to local families who are now getting involved and beginning to share their efforts online using the #UKSolargraph hashtag.

This is the first collaborative project with the local foodbanks and the initial feedback has been very positive. There has already been commitment from Higher Horizons+ (HH+ the local Uni Connect Programme) to match fund and provide a further 200 pinhole camera kits. I am already in discussions with the IOP and planning three or four other new science kits, each allowing the users to investigate a different scientific phenomenon over the next 12 months.

A nationwide school project

Following the success of phase I of the pinhole camera project, there has been huge interest from local schools to get involved. This has now developed into a full-blown UK-wide schools science project, courtesy of support from HH+ and Ogden Trust colleagues.

Starting in September, schools as far north as Scotland, and as far south as Cornwall and many places in between, will begin building and installing their own pinhole cameras in order to populate a nationwide database of solargraphs, supporting the Science, D&T and Art & Design national curricula. These will then be made publicly available to allow for a ‘research in schools’ style follow up project, where students can analyse and interrogate the solargraphs to see if it is possible to identify the approximate location from which the solargraph was taken, based on the shape and trajectory of the suns path across it!

Why not join in over the summer? Download the instructions and kit list and make your own pinhole camera. If you get your aluminium can from the recycling, then the cost per pinhole camera is less than 45p!

If any schools would like to get involved and want to know more about longer term research project then please get in touch:

Don’t forget to share your images using the #UKSolargraph

Scott Walker
Ogden Outreach Officer (Keele University)

A 6-month exposure of the Clifton Suspension Bridge by Justin Quinnell (
A 6-month exposure of the Clifton Suspension Bridge by Justin Quinnell 

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