Camera Obscura: Emerging Out of Obscurity

CAMERA OBSCURA

Last Updated on January 29, 2024

In the realm of visual art, there exists a captivating technique that has stood the test of time – camera obscura. This ingenious invention has been shrouded in obscurity for far too long, overshadowed by its modern successors.

However, in this blog post, we aim to shed light on the timeless allure and creative potential of camera obscura. Join us on a journey as we unravel the enchantment hidden within this extraordinary optical wonder. Embrace the past, embrace the present, and witness how camera obscura emerges from the shadows to captivate the hearts and minds of a new generation.

What is Camera Obscura?

Camera obscura, meaning “dark room” in Latin, refers to the natural optical phenomenon that occurs when an image of a scene is projected through a small hole as a reversed and inverted image on a surface opposite to the opening. The surroundings of the projected image have to be relatively dark for the image to be clear, so many historical camera obscura experiments were performed in dark spaces. The term “camera obscura” also refers to man-made constructions or devices that make use of this image-reflecting principle within a box, tent, or room.

A Brief History of Camera Obscura

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The origins of camera obscura are said to stem back to ancient China, where the philosopher Mo-Tzu first observed the visual phenomenon in around 400 B.C. In his writings, analyzing the characteristics of optics, Mo-Tzu describes how light can bounce off a subject, for instance, off of a man, and how a small pinhole can capture the light bouncing off of this man, creating an inverse image.

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Mo-Tzu’s observation in ancient China of the camera obscura phenomenon significantly advanced the understanding of optics and the behavior of light. His insight into how light reflects off objects and can be captured through a small aperture to form an inverted image was foundational.

When light rays bounce off a subject, such as a person, they travel in straight lines. If these rays are funneled through a small hole, like a pinhole, they re-converge on the other side, but because light travels straight, the rays do not scatter but cross paths, thereby projecting an upside-down image of the original scene. This phenomenon, as noted by Mo-Tzu, underscored the fundamental properties of light and its interaction with objects.

Later, in the 11th century, these ancient observations were further studied and documented in the Book of Optics by Arab scientist and philosopher, Ibn al-Haytham, allowing the mathematical mechanisms behind the Camera Obscura to be known in the Middle East and across Europe. Al-Hatham’s work significantly advanced the understanding of the camera obscura and the science of optics in ways that profoundly influenced the trajectory of both scientific thought and technological development in the Middle Ages and beyond.

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His exploration into the nature of light and optics moved beyond mere observation of phenomena to a deep, scientific inquiry into how light behaves. By understanding that light travels in straight lines and how it interacts with apertures and surfaces, Ibn al-Haytham was able to provide a mathematical basis for the camera obscura phenomenon. This was crucial because it transformed the camera obscura from a curious optical phenomenon into a tool that could be understood, predicted, and manipulated based on scientific principles.

Furthermore, his study of focal points and the refraction and intersection of light was foundational in explaining why the camera obscura produces an upside-down image. This understanding of image inversion and focus was critical in the development of lenses and later photographic technology.

Focusing on retina

Ibn al-Haytham’s assertion that vision occurs in the brain, with the eyes acting merely as conduits for light, was revolutionary. It shifted the focus of optical studies from just the properties of light to the process of perception, laying the groundwork for later studies in both optics and cognitive science.

His introduction of projecting the play of light onto a screen within the camera obscura was a significant technological advancement. It allowed for a more controlled and versatile use of the device, moving it from a philosophical tool to one with practical and scientific applications. This concept of projection and image capture is central to the development of photographic technology and modern optics.

In essence, Ibn al-Haytham’s work bridged ancient observational practices with the emerging scientific methods of the medieval period. His contributions provided the technical underpinnings and theoretical frameworks that were crucial for the later development of optical instruments, including the photographic camera, fundamentally shaping our understanding of light and vision.

Familiar with the studies of Ibn al-Haytham, Leonardo Da Vinci also tinkered with a Camera Obscura obsession. In the year 1502, in his Codex Atlanticus, Da Vinci wrote and published diagrams explaining in detail the functioning of the Camera Obscura. Tents and portable rooms were even used to capture specific landscapes.

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Soon after, the Camera Obscura combined with a converging lens to turn the inverse image into an accurate right-side-up representation of the outside world. With the introduction of a converging lens, camera obscura became an even more popular artist’s tool for photo-realistic drawing and painting.

1619 Scheiner Oculus hoc est frontispiece
Detail of Scheiner’s Oculus hoc est (1619) frontispiece with a Camera Obscura’s projected image reverted by a lens.

The Camera Obscura box was developed further into the photographic camera in the first half of the 19th century when camera obscura boxes were used to expose scenes to light-sensitive materials to capture and record the image. By placing these materials where the camera obscura’s image was projected, they found that the light could imprint an image onto these surfaces, capturing a moment in time.

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This breakthrough was the cornerstone for developing photographic cameras. It allowed for the permanent recording of images from the real world, a process refined over the years through advancements in chemical processes, light-sensitive materials, and mechanical design, leading to the sophisticated digital cameras we use today. This journey from a simple projection in a darkened room to the ability to capture and preserve a visual moment demonstrates the seamless blend of optical physics and chemical innovation that is at the heart of photographic technology.

Fast forward to today and the Camera Obscura still captivates us. Check out this exhibition which used this play of light in modern exhibition space.

The camera obscura’s development underscores the paramount importance of lighting in photography. This ancient device, predicated on the manipulation of light through a small aperture, elegantly demonstrates how light defines and shapes the way we perceive images.

For photographers and visual artists, this understanding is crucial; it’s not merely about capturing light, but about harnessing its dynamic play to create mood, depth, and texture. The principles gleaned from the camera obscura teach that light is not just a component of image creation but the very essence of visual storytelling. This knowledge empowers photographers and artists to use light deliberately, transforming ordinary scenes into extraordinary visual narratives, and thus, continuing the legacy of exploration and innovation rooted in the camera obscura’s simple yet profound manipulation of light.

How to Transform Your Room into a Camera Obscura

The beauty of the Camera Obscura is its simplicity. You don’t need fancy equipment to see how it works, in fact, you just need a dark enclosed space and a small hole to see how it works for yourself!

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Willi Winzig, Walk-In Camera Obscura – Empty Kitchen, taken 2017.

What you’ll need

  • A Room with one Window
  • Thick black poster board or several large cardboard boxes. (as many as you need to cover the window and be thick enough to block all light!) —ps. fabric can also be used such as light proof curtains.
  • A blank wall opposite the window. If it is not blank, you can hang a white sheet over what ever is hanging there, as this is where your image will project.
  • A towel
  • An empty toilet paper roll
  • Scissors or Cutting Knife
  • Tape

Step 1: Find Your Space

You will want to use a room with a view that only has one window. Try to clear any clutter. Your image will be projected on the opposite wall so make sure it is free from hanging pictures or mirrors. If this isn’t possible, hang a white sheet on the opposite wall to use as a screen. 

Step 2: Cover the Window

Next, you will need to block out all the light coming into the room. Black out the windows by covering them with a black opaque poster board or thick cardboard. Alternatively, you can use special window film material to remove all light.

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Use tape to secure your covering to the window frame. Make sure the edges and corners are properly sealed. 

Now, before shutting out all the light completely, cut a square hole, or save an uncovered space, out of the middle of the window about the size of the palm of your hand.

Step 3: Prepare your Pinhole

Next, take your left-over letter-size piece of cardboard or thick window covering. With the toilet paper roll or with a similarly-sized cylinder, trace and cut out a circle from the middle of the paper. The size of the hole should measure approximately between 10-15mm in diameter.

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Tip: You can make several of these letter-sized pieces of cardboard with varying hole sizes to test out which yields the best results. The exact size depends on the distance between the hole and wall projection.

Reinforce the inside of your circle with duct tape. Then tape this board over your empty square on the window. Seal it well so that no light is leaking.

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Step 4: Let the Magic Happen

Close your door. Also, check if light is leaking in underneath the room door, and if so, cover the gap between the door and floor with a blanket or towel. 

Finally, turn off the lights! It may take a few minutes before your eyes adjust to the darkness but soon you will see the inverted projection from the outside view on the opposite wall. 

Walk-In Camera Obscura - Kulturei
Willi Winzig, Walk-In Camera Obscura – Kulturei. Temporary installation of a Camera Obscura in “Die Kulturei”. 2018 Mainz, Germany.

Out of the Dark

In conclusion, the journey of the camera obscura from a simple darkened chamber to a cornerstone in the evolution of photography is a testament to human curiosity and ingenuity. Its history has not only reshaped our understanding of light and vision but also significantly influenced the realms of art and photography.

The camera obscura illuminated the intricacies of how light behaves, how images are formed, and how the human eye perceives the world, bridging the gap between science and art. Artists used this tool to create more lifelike and perspective-rich artworks, while scientists and inventors harnessed its principles to develop photography, forever changing how we capture and preserve our visual experiences.

Engaging in a hands-on exploration of the camera obscura connects us intimately to this rich history. By creating and experimenting with a simple camera obscura, we not only pay homage to the pioneers of optics and photography but also gain a deeper, more visceral understanding of the fundamental principles that govern the visual world.

This hands-on experience grounds our understanding in a tangible way, bringing the abstract concepts of light, vision, and image formation to life. It’s a journey that transcends time, linking us to the past while deepening our appreciation for the technology that shapes our current visual landscape. In doing so, we see not just with our eyes, but with the knowledge of centuries, making each photographic image we capture or view not just a moment in time, but a part of a continuous, evolving story of human discovery and creativity.

FEATURED IMAGE CREDITS: A man and two angels making experiments with a camera obscura using the light of a candle. Engraving, ca 1600. Wellcome Collection, Public Domain. Digitally Painting by Sima Zureikat.
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