Camera obscura

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This article is about an optical device. For other uses, see Camera obscura (disambiguation).
A diagram of a camera obscura.
Camerae obscurae for Daguerreotype called "Grand Photographe" produced by Charles Chevalier (Musée des Arts et Métiers).
An image of the New Royal Palace at Prague Castle projected onto an attic wall by a hole in the tile roofing.

A camera obscura (Latin for "dark room") is an optical device that led to photography and the photographic camera. Camera obscura was independently invented by both the Arab physicist, Ibn al-Haytham, who published his Book of Optics in 1021 AD and also the Han Chinese polymath and genius Shen Kuo who published many papers including his famous scientific book Dream Pool Essays around the same time as Ibn al-Haytham. Both Ibn al-Haytham and Shen Kuo created their innovative pinhole cameras after observing how light traveled through a window shutter. And both scientists realized that smaller holes would create sharper images. Ibn al-Haytham and Shen Kuo are both credited with inventing the first camera obscura. 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, inverted (thus 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 largest camera obscura in the world is on Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth, Wales.[1]

Using mirrors, as in an 18th-century overhead version, it is possible to project a right-side-up image. Another more portable type is a box with an angled mirror projecting onto tracing paper placed on the glass top, the image being upright as viewed from the back.

As the pinhole is made smaller, the image gets sharper, but the projected image becomes dimmer. With too small a pinhole, however, the sharpness worsens, due to diffraction. In practice, most camerae obscurae use a lens rather than a pinhole (as in a pinhole camera) because it allows a larger aperture, giving a usable brightness while maintaining focus.

Role in the modern age[edit]

While the technical principles of the camera obscura have been known since antiquity, the broad use of the technical concept in producing images with a linear perspective in paintings, maps, theatre setups and architectural and later photographic images and movies started in the Western Renaissance and the scientific revolution. While e.g. Alhazen (Ibn al-Haytham) had already observed an optical effect and developed a state of the art theory of the refraction of light, he was less interested to produce images with it (compare Hans Belting 2005); the society he lived in was even hostile (compare Aniconism in Islam) towards personal images.[2] Western artists and philosophers used the Arab findings in new frameworks of epistemic relevance.[3] E.g. Leonardo da Vinci used the camera obscura as a model of the eye, René Descartes for eye and mind and John Locke started to use the camera obscura as a metaphor of human understanding per se.[4] The modern use of the camera obscura as an epistemic machine had important side effects for science.[5][6]


Further information: Mathematics and art

The earliest extant written record of the camera obscura is to be found in the writings of Mozi (470 to 390 BC), a Han Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohist School of Logic. Mozi correctly asserted that the image in a camera obscura is flipped upside down because light travels in straight lines from its source. His disciples developed this into a physics theory of optics.[7][note 1]

The later Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) was familiar with the principle of the camera obscura.[8] He viewed the crescent shape of a partly eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve and through the gaps between the leaves of a plane tree. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle noted that "sunlight travelling through small openings between the leaves of a tree, the holes of a sieve, the openings wickerwork, and even interlaced fingers will create circular patches of light on the ground." Euclid's Optics (c. 300 BC) mentioned the camera obscura as a demonstration that light travels in straight lines.[9] In the 4th century, Greek scholar Theon of Alexandria observed that "candlelight passing through a pinhole will create an illuminated spot on a screen that is directly in line with the aperture and the center of the candle."

In the 6th century, the Byzantine-Greek mathematician and architect Anthemius of Tralles (most famous for designing the Hagia Sophia), used a type of camera obscura in his experiments.[10]

In the 9th century, Al-Kindi (Alkindus) demonstrated that "light from the right side of the flame will pass through the aperture and end up on the left side of the screen, while light from the left side of the flame will pass through the aperture and end up on the right side of the screen."

Then a breakthrough by both Han Chinese polymath and genius Shen Kuo and Arab physicist Ibn al-Haytham (AD 965–1039) occurred when both scientists independently invented the world's first Camera Obscura. Ibn al-Haytham described a 'dark room' [11] and experimented with images seen through the pinhole. He arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images were formed only by means of small holes and that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall.[12]:91#5:p379[6.85],[6.86]

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), familiar with the work of Alhazen in Latin translation and after an extensive study of optics and human vision, published the first clear description of the camera obscura in Codex Atlanticus (1502):

If the facade of a building, or a place, or a landscape is illuminated by the sun and a small hole is drilled in the wall of a room in a building facing this, which is not directly lighted by the sun, then all objects illuminated by the sun will send their images through this aperture and will appear, upside down, on the wall facing the hole.

You will catch these pictures on a piece of white paper, which placed vertically in the room not far from that opening, and you will see all the above-mentioned objects on this paper in their natural shapes or colors, but they will appear smaller and upside down, on account of crossing of the rays at that aperture. If these pictures originate from a place which is illuminated by the sun, they will appear colored on the paper exactly as they are. The paper should be very thin and must be viewed from the back.[13]

The Song Dynasty Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) experimented with a camera obscura, and was the first to apply geometrical and quantitative attributes to it in his book of 1088 AD, the Dream Pool Essays.[14][verification needed] However, Shen Kuo alluded to the fact that the Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang written in about 840 AD by Duan Chengshi (d. 863) during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) mentioned inverting the image of a Chinese pagoda tower beside a seashore.[14] In fact, Shen makes no assertion that he was the first to experiment with such a device.[14] Shen wrote of Cheng's book: "[Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang] said that the image of the pagoda is inverted because it is beside the sea, and that the sea has that effect. This is nonsense. It is a normal principle that the image is inverted after passing through the small hole."[14]

In 13th-century England, Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura for the safe observation of solar eclipses.[15] At the end of the 13th century, Arnaldus de Villa Nova is credited with using a camera obscura to project live performances for entertainment.[16][17] Its potential as a drawing aid may have been familiar to artists by as early as the 15th century; Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519 AD) described the camera obscura in Codex Atlanticus. Johann Zahn's Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium, published in 1685, contains many descriptions, diagrams, illustrations and sketches of both the camera obscura and the magic lantern.

Camera obscura, from a manuscript of military designs. 17th century, possibly Italian

Giambattista della Porta improved the camera obscura by replacing the hole with an old man's lenticular (biconvex) lens in his Magia Naturalis (1558-1589), the popularity of which helped spread knowledge of it. He compared the shape of the human eye to the lens in his camera obscura, and provided a readily comprehensible example of how light forms images in the eye. One chapter in the Conte Algarotti's Saggio sopra Pittura (1764) is dedicated to the use of a camera ottica ("optic chamber") in painting.[18]

The 17th century Dutch Masters, such as Johannes Vermeer, were known for their magnificent attention to detail. It has been widely speculated that they made use of such a camera, but the extent of their use by artists at this period remains a matter of considerable controversy, recently revived by the Hockney–Falco thesis.

Four drawings by Canaletto, representing Campo San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, obtained with a camera obscura (Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia)

The German astronomer Johannes Kepler described the use of a camera obscura in his Paralipomena in 1604.[19] The term is based on the Latin camera, "(vaulted) chamber or room", and obscura, "darkened" (plural: camerae obscurae). The English physician and author Sir Thomas Browne speculated upon the interrelated workings of optics and the camera obscura in his 1658 discourse The Garden of Cyrus thus:

For at the eye the Pyramidal rayes from the object, receive a decussation, and so strike a second base upon the Retina or hinder coat, the proper organ of Vision; wherein the pictures from objects are represented, answerable to the paper, or wall in the dark chamber; after the decussation of the rayes at the hole of the hornycoat, and their refraction upon the Christalline humour, answering the foramen of the window, and the convex or burning-glasses, which refract the rayes that enter it.

Early models were large, comprising either a whole darkened room or a tent (as employed by Johannes Kepler). By the 18th century, following developments by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, more easily portable models became available. These were extensively used by amateur artists while on their travels, but they were also employed by professionals, including Paul Sandby, Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds, whose camera (disguised as a book) is now in the Science Museum in London. Such cameras were later adapted by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot for creating the first photographs.


Public access[edit]

Camerae obscurae open to the public
Name City Country Comment WWW Links
Bristol Observatory Bristol England View of Clifton Suspension Bridge Clifton Observatory
Camera Obscura, and World of Illusions Edinburgh Scotland Top of Royal Mile, just below Edinburgh Castle. Fine views of the city Edinburgh's Camera Obscura
Dumfries Museum Dumfries & Galloway Scotland In Dumfries Castle. Claims to be oldest working example in the world Dumfries Museum
Grand Union Camera Obscura Douglas Isle of Man On Douglas Head. Unique Victorian tourist attraction with eleven lenses Visit Isle of Man
Camera Obscura (Giant Camera) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, California United States Adjacent to the Cliff House below Sutro Heights Park, with views of the Pacific Ocean. In the Sutro Historic District, and on the National Register of Historic Places. Giant Camera
Santa Monica Camera Obscura Santa Monica, California United States In Palisades Park overlooking Santa Monica Beach, Santa Monica Pier, and the Pacific Ocean. Built in 1898. Atlas Obscura
Long Island's Camera Obscura Greenport, Suffolk County, New York United States In Mitchell Park overlooking the Peconic Bay and Shelter Island, New York. Built in 2004. Long Island Camera Obscura
Griffith Observatory Los Angeles, California United States Slowly rotates and gives a panoramic view of the Los Angeles Basin. Griffith Park Camera Obscura
The Exploratorium's Bay Observatory Terrace San Francisco, California United States Offers a view of San Francisco Bay, Treasure Island, and the Bay Bridge [1]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ In the Mozi passage, a camera obscura is described as a "collecting-point" or "treasure house" (); the 18th century scholar Bi Yuan (畢沅) suggested this was a misprint for "screen" ().


  1. ^ Cliff Railway and Camera Obscura, Aberystwyth
  2. ^ Hans Belting Das echte Bild. Bildfragen als Glaubensfragen. München 2005, ISBN 3-406-53460-0
  3. ^ An Anthropological Trompe L'Oeil for a Common World: An Essay on the Economy of Knowledge, Alberto Corsin Jimenez, Berghahn Books, 15.06.2013
  4. ^ Philosophy of Technology: Practical, Historical and Other Dimensions P.T. Durbin Springer Science & Business Media
  5. ^ Contesting Visibility: Photographic Practices on the East African Coast Heike Behrend transcript, 2014
  6. ^ Don Ihde Art Precedes Science: or Did the Camera Obscura Invent Modern Science? In Instruments in Art and Science: On the Architectonics of Cultural Boundaries in the 17th Century Helmar Schramm, Ludger Schwarte, Jan Lazardzig, Walter de Gruyter, 2008
  7. ^ Needham 1986, 82.
  8. ^ Aristotle, Problems, Book XV
  9. ^ The Camera Obscura : Aristotle to Zahn
  10. ^ G. Huxley (1959) Anthemius of Tralles: a study of later Greek Geometry pp.6-8,pp.44-46 as cited in (Crombie 1990), p.205
  11. ^ "How does light travel through transparent bodies? Light travels through transparent bodies in straight lines only.... We have explained this exhaustively in our Book of Optics. But let us now mention something to prove this convincingly: the fact that light travels in straight lines is clearly observed in the lights which enter into dark rooms through holes.... [T]he entering light will be clearly observable in the dust which fills the air. – Alhazen, translated into English from German by M. Schwarz, from "Abhandlung über das Licht", J. Baarmann (ed. 1882) Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft Vol 36 as quoted in Sambursky, Shmuel (ed.) (1974), Physical Thought from the Presocratics to the Quantum Physicists, Pica Press, ISBN 0-87663-712-8, p=136.
  12. ^ * Smith, A. Mark, ed. and trans. (2001) Alhacen's Theory of visual perception : a critical edition, with English translation and commentary, of the first three books of Alhacen's De aspectibus, [the medieval latin version of Ibn al-Haytham's Kitāb al-Manāẓir], Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 2 vols: 91(#4 — Vol 1 Commentary and Latin text); 91(#5 — Vol 2 English translation). (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society), 2001. Books I-III (2001) Vol 1 Commentary and Latin text via JSTOR; Vol 2 English translation, Notes, Bibl. via JSTOR
  13. ^ Josef Maria Eder History of Photography translated by Edward Epstean Hon. F.R.P.S Copyright Columbia University Press
  14. ^ a b c d Needham 1986, 98.
  15. ^ BBC - The Camera Obscura
  16. ^ Burns, Paul T. "The History of the Discovery of Cinematography". Archived from the original on 2013-12-31. Retrieved 2014-01-04. 
  17. ^ Smith, Roger. "A Look Into Camera Obscuras". Retrieved 2014-10-23. 
  18. ^ Algarotti, Francesco (1764). Presso Marco Coltellini, Livorno, ed. Saggio sopra la pittura. pp. 59–63. 
  19. ^ Dupre, Sven (2008). "Inside the "Camera Obscura": Kepler's Experiment and Theory of Optical Imagery" (PDF). Early Science and Medicin. 13 (3): 219–244.