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Picturing the weather with solargraphy

A solargraph captured in the Netherlands by Jan Koeman
A solargraph captured in the Netherlands by Jan Koeman

Alexandra Pope, staff writer

December 25, 2011 — Creating a stunning record of the seasons is easy. It just takes an empty beer can, some photographic paper, and patience.

One of Jan Koeman's beer can cameras
One of Jan Koeman's beer can cameras

Solargraphs trace the sun's movement across the sky over a period of months, usually from one solstice to the other.

Jan Koeman, a professional photographer and astronomy enthusiast from the Netherlands, has created dozens of these images using pinhole cameras made out of empty beer cans.

“I read an article about (solargraphy) in a photography magazine ... and I immediately started doing my own experiments,” Koeman said in a phone interview. “I'm always trying to find new locations for the cans to make it more beautiful and more special.”

Jan Koeman (seated) edits a solargraph produced by a fellow astronomy enthusiast
Jan Koeman (seated) edits a solargraph produced by a fellow astronomy enthusiast

The resulting images are also an interesting visual record of the weather over the time of the exposure.

On cloudless days, the sun leaves a flawless white streak across the image. On a variable day, the line may appear broken or mottled, and on overcast or rainy days, no lines appear at all.

“It's very interesting to be able to visualize the weather with a simple instrument that costs nothing,” Koeman said.

Koeman recently planted more pinhole cameras. He is looking forward to comparing the fluctuations in the weather in his home province of Zeeland over a period of years.

“As an astronomer, I'm also interested in weather and climate conditions,” he said. “Last year was very strange in the Netherlands because summer was very wet and cloudy, but spring and fall were very sunny and hot. It was completely upside-down and you can see that from the solargraphs.”

How to make a pinhole camera

  • Empty, rinse and dry a beer or cola can
  • In a darkroom (or windowless bathroom or closet), place a piece of photographic paper around the inside of the can with the sensitive side facing inward
  • On the opposite side, push a 0.5 mm sewing needle or pin through the can to make a hole about 2 cm from the bottom of the can. Cover the hole with a small piece of black electrical tape
  • Close up the top of the can with several layers of electrical or duct tape
  • Tape the can upside-down to a pole or other vertical south-facing outdoor surface being careful not to dent the can
  • Leave it for the desired amount of time to capture the movement of the sun!

Have you captured a neat weather image? Send it to us! You could see your work on air.

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