Camera Obscura | Then and Now

ūüď∑ This post was published over two years ago. Broken links prompted a re-post.


Brunelleschi’s Duomo, Florence | 17th Century | Library of Congress


The Camera Obscura technique has been with us for much longer than photography. The principle is that of a pinhole camera.

The device consists of a box or room with a hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside where it is reproduced, upside-down, but with color and perspective preserved.
The image can be projected onto paper, and can then be traced to produce a highly accurate representation. The first camera obscura was later built by an Iraqi scientist named Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, born in Basra (965-1039 AD), known in the West as Alhacen or Alhazen, who carried out practical experiments on optics in his Book of Optics

Today’s modern camera equipment adds wonderful new dimensions to this ancient art as highlighted in¬†National Geographic Magazine.¬†The¬†article in the May 2011 issue¬†illustrates how photographer¬†Abelardo Morell‚Äôs¬†camera obscura turns darkened rooms into magical landscapes. The process has been described by Aristotle, sketched by Leonardo, and been made an attraction at Coney Island among other things. But in 1988, Cuban-born Abelardo Morell, teaching an introductory photography course at an art college, was curious to step back in time.

On a sunny day, he covered the classroom windows with black plastic, making the space as dark as a cave, cut a dime-size hole in the material, and told his students to watch. Almost instantly the back wall came alive like a movie screen, its surface covered with a fuzzy image of people and cars moving along Huntington Avenue outside. Then the double take: The image was upside down, sky on floor, ground on ceiling, the laws of gravity seemingly gone haywire. Morell had turned his classroom into a camera obscura, a dark chamber, the Latin name for perhaps the earliest known imaging device and the ancestor of the photographic camera.

For Morell, a professor of photography, that day in the classroom was a revelation. “When I saw how these savvy, techie students were charmed and disarmed by the image on the wall, I knew this was something very potent.”

Morell maintains a personal website to highlight his work. His images are beautiful. His camera obscura work has progressed from the use of B/W film to color and now to digital, which allows him to see results immediately. He also devised a prism device to turn the images upright when cast on the opposite wall. Normally, they are inverted like these next two.




This next image demonstrates another innovation used by Morell which is borrowed from the past. It is the use of a light-tight tent with no floor. By placing the tent on different textured surfaces such as the old roofing material on top of a building, he is able to photograph the image painted onto unusual patterns.



In this short video, photographer Abelardo Morell talks about this creative style of photography. He is shown imaging the Golden Gate Bridge with his portable camera obscura tent.


Research of this topic led me to scholarly papers on the possible influence of Camera Obscura on artists of renown such as Vermeer. Numerous resources are also found here.

In addition, fellow blogger friend, Steve Gingold, pointed out the movie Tim’s Vermeer discussed in this video clip by Prof. Philip Steadman of UCL. The movie attempts to¬†illustrate how Vermeer might have used the camera obscura technique in his painting.


If you find this technique intriguing, try it yourself. My grand-daughter made some camera obscura images for a science fair in junior high. They turned out well for her.


21 thoughts on “Camera Obscura | Then and Now

  1. I’ve heard of this, but it still seems tough to understand how it happens. I feel like a little kid asking, “Why?” How does it do that, a property of light?


    • It is kind of mystical. I can see why early users might have been viewed with magical powers.

      Light travels from the surfaces of objects in straight lines. Light headed toward a small hole in a pinhole camera or camera obscura doesn’t encounter a lens to change direction. It goes straight through to a spot on the wall. Light from objects higher up goes through and down to a low place on the wall. Light from objects lower down goes to spots higher on the wall. Light from objects at left paint spots right on the wall. etc.

      Set up a camera on a tripod facing the wall and record an exposure of the scene.

      You should try it with a big cardboard box. Tape a piece of aluminum foil over a dime sized hole at one end. Cut a window at the side so you can look inside to the end opposite the foil. Push a large needle through the foil.

      Go to a room with a bright window. Aim the pinhole toward the window and look inside the box. The window should be there upside down.


  2. A good science exercise in cause and effect!

    I had an interesting experience viewing the camera obscura video-clip’s image on my iPhone. I first instinctively tried to view the reversed image upright by turning the phone upside down, but it’s circuitry automatically rights the image. The solution was simple – just tilt the top of the phone away from me and down, and view bent over.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. I’ve been so thrilled by the new images and information about Pluto. That mission is remarkable. I love to see smart people get something like this to happen just as planned. It makes my science-engineer genes tingle.


  3. I found out that the Austin Public Library has a copy of “Tim’s Vermeer,” so I requested it. I’m tenth in line, but given that the loan period is three weeks, we’ll likely be well into 2016 by the time the film comes my way.

    In the middle of reading your post, I happened to glance at the latest issue of Stereo World, where the stereo refers to 3-D images rather than sound. That made me wonder if anyone has ever constructed a camera obscura with two holes (or one movable hole) to create a stereo pair.

    Liked by 1 person

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