A Cider-Can ‘Camera’ Captured Eight Years in a Single Photograph

The ethereal snapshot, recorded by a drink can left in an observatory for almost a decade, may be the longest-exposure image ever taken

The Longest-Exposure Photograph was Taken With a Beer Can
Regina Valkenborgh's photograph features 2,953 arcs of light streaking across the sky, recording the sun’s rising and setting over eight years. Courtesy of the University of Hertfordshire

In August 2012, arts student Regina Valkenborgh placed several cider cans lined with photographic paper on a telescope at the University of Hertfordshire’s Bayfordbury Observatory. Though she’d hoped to capture snapshots with these low-tech pinhole cameras, she eventually forgot about the project.

Eight years and one month later, reports Simon Ingram for National Geographic U.K., the English observatory’s principal technical officer, David Campbell, removed the makeshift device from the telescope and discovered what may be the longest-exposure photo ever taken. (In the words of Bird in Flight magazine’s Marina Gramovich, images captured with this technique “literally preserve time,” taking advantage of ultra-slow shutter speeds to record stationary subjects over periods ranging from minutes to years. Moving objects, like passersby and cars in city scenes, appear blurred, placing the focus on their static surroundings.)

Per a statement, Valkenborgh’s photograph depicts 2,953 arcs of light streaking across the sky, recording the sun’s rising and setting over almost a decade. The highest arches correspond with the summer solstice (the longest day of the year), while the lowest ones signal the winter solstice (the shortest day), according to Vice’s Samir Ferdowsi. A shadowy outline of Bayfordbury’s oldest telescope is visible on the left of the image, and the atmospheric gantry—a steel, bridge-like structure constructed at the end of 2017—can be seen on the right.

“I had tried this technique a couple of times at the Observatory before, but the photographs were often ruined by moisture and the photographic paper curled up,” says Valkenborgh in the statement. “I hadn’t intended to capture an exposure for this length of time and to my surprise, it had survived. It could be one of, if not the, longest exposures in existence.”

Valkenborgh, who is now a photography technician at Barnet and Southgate College and a visiting lecturer at the university, initially assumed that all of the cameras were ruined, as the majority of images left in the cans were unintelligible.

“Luckily, David had a look before he chucked it in the bin,” Valkenborgh tells CNN’s Amy Woodyatt.

Campbell managed to salvage the image, revealing a photograph that appears to rival the long-exposure record previously set by German artist Michael Wesely: four years and eight months.

But Valkenborgh never intended to beat Wesely’s record. Her interest in this form of photography arose out of sheer curiosity. After taking a number of successful long-exposure pictures, the then-Master of Fine Art student decided to tackle a more ambitious project. Per National Geographic, she created cameras using duct tape, 16-ounce Kopparberg cider cans and Ilford Multigrade photographic paper, then set out to take pictures without the aid of digital technology.

Speaking with National Geographic, Valkenborgh says, “My reason for using pinhole photography was because of its experimental nature.”

“I wanted to see if there was still value in the old analog style,” she tells CNN.

Pinhole cameras are indeed analog (meaning they use physical film to capture images). The earliest iterations of these basic devices date to the fifth century B.C., according to History.com’s Evan Andrews; renowned artists ranging from Jan van Eyck to Johannes Vermeer and William Henry Fox Talbot later used similar tools to refine their creations.

Rudimentary devices often made out of household objects like shoeboxes and aluminum foil, pinhole cameras consist of film and a light-proof box with a very small hole. When light enters the hole, it casts an inverted image of the camera’s surroundings onto a surface—in Valkenborgh’s case, the photographic paper that preserved the sun’s movements.

“The fact that a simple aluminum can lined with photographic paper can create something of scientific value in our technology driven world amazes me,” the artist tells National Geographic. “Photography is often used to centralize and immortalize our existence, and this image does the exact opposite. I see this as a poignant reminder of human life being part of something much bigger.”