Camera Obscura

The Development of the Camera Obscura

“The camera obscura (Latin; “camera” is a “vaulted chamber/room” + “obscura” means “dark”= “darkened chamber/room”) is an optical device that projects an images of its surroundings on a screen.” []

A camera obscura is a box, or in earlier times, a room, that has a small hole in the front.  The light transfers through the hole and is inverted and projected on to a flat surface opposing the side with the hole in it.  This idea was fully explored and used in a functional way, (to create a photograph), in 1816.  The Frenchmen, Joseph Nicephore Niepce was the one responsible for its development known as, “the inventor of photography” (wikipedia).

 Above: An example of an old time camera obscura, large-scale.

Niepce create, what some might say to be the first photograph with a camera obscura.  Just as we have been experimenting with silver nitrate, Niepce started with silver nitrate and the moved on to bitumen.  We ended up discussing two unique aspects of his process, the solvent and the main surface of which he recorded his image.  Niepce used lavender oil to dissolve the excess bitumen, (very similar to our hypo process with the undeveloped silver nitrate).  Secondly, as we have been using Strathmore Cold press water color paper, he developed his image on a pewter plate.  The lavender oil reacted with the pewter and washed the unexposed bitumen off of the plate.


My development of the camera obscura was quite simple.  I have not yet tested it out, in regards to creating a physical photograph, but we have simulated this by using wax paper, and/or in my case tracing paper.

If you are creating your own, you will need the following materials:

-one cardboard box (size to be determined by the focal length of your lens)

-a utility knife

-masking tape

-a lens (your choice)

-a 8″ x 11 1/2″ piece of white tracing paper

-> First step-> Our group received lenses, (small cheap 1″d. lens, this does not need to be a high quality lens, but the higher quality the better your picture will turn out.)  Every type of lens has a different focal length.  *****TO DETERMINE THIS LENGTH YOU CAN USE ANY STRONG LIGHT SOURCE, WITH THE LIGHT ON ONE SIDE (BEHIND YOU) TAKE THE LENS AND FIND THE DISTANCE AT WHICH YOU CAN CLEARLY SEE THE LIGHT BEHIND YOU.  YOU WILL NOTICE WHEN IT IS FOCUSED******  For my lens it was appx. 5″.

-> Second step-> I used a box that I recently received my cellphone in, dimentions of 4″h 6″w x 8″l appx.

-> Third step-> On the side that was 8″ I cut it down to 5″ and leave that side open completely.  On the opposite side of the box, centered, I traced the outline of the end of the lens.

-> Fourth step-> Cut out the circle you have drawn on the front of the box. (make sure it is smaller than your lens by a tad, just so excess light does not seep in).

-> Fifth step-> Tape the lens to the end of the box, perfectly covering the circular hole made. Make sure to avoid placing tape on the lens, just the sides if you can avoid it.

-> Sixth step- Lay your trace over the completely open side.  If you are able, take the camera obscura to a place that has a bright light, cover your head with a blanket or something of that sort so when you look you can see the contrast of the image you are projecting on the trace from what surrounds you.  If that is correct and clear tape on the trace and your are good to go!!!  (If it is not, you might have to go back and re-measure your focal distance.)

Above: Standing in a darker area, facing a bright window, this is the way to be able to easily see the picture.

Above: The image projected on tracing paper.

Above: Lens side

****Key-note: many that I have seen have a mirror used to reflect the light back up.  I started with that, but for some reason could not figure it out, any tips you bloggers may have would be greatly appreciated.******

Hope you enjoy building your camera obscura! 


Here is a link that seemed rather interesting:

->Just as I mentioned earlier, camera obscuras were not always as small as the box we just created.  People used to view projections from a camera obscura as entertainment.  This video is very simple and straight forward describing a step by step process of creating your own room size camera obscura.  The final image is pretty interesting if you have a straight white wall.<-


Above:  “Inside-Out, Upside-Down and All Around” Part 4

JOYA artist Cristina Saez

Sunrise on the day of summer solstice, created via three ‘pin-holes’ in her camera obscura.  This I found rather interesting, she put each holw taking in the light at different angles, that is how she got an image with such depth.

Above:  Camera Obscura Image of the Empire State Building In Bedroom

Abelardo Morell (American, born Cuba 1948)

This is a 1994 Gelatin Silver Print (as will be discussed in the up coming blogs!)


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