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Camera Obscura: What it is and how to build one

A camera obscura is a dark room with a small hole on one side through which, when the

conditions are right, an image of the outside world can enter. By creating a Camera Obscura

you’re basically building an enormous pinhole camera. The outside world is entering

through a small hole in the window into the Camera Obscura and is merging with the inside

world of the room.

Abelardo Morell Upright Camera Obscura- Piazzetta San Marco Looking Southeast in Office (Color), 2007

How does it work?

The explanation behind the phenomenon of the Camera Obscura can be found in the laws

of physics. Objects either absorb or reflect different wavelengths of light to determine their

colour and brightness. Light travels in straight lines. When some of the light rays that are reflected from a bright object pass through a small hole, they re-form as an upside-down

reversed image on the wall of the other side of the hole. Most rooms can be converted,

and it is much easier than you would think.

Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin's studio as a Camera Obscura. On the walls you can see the buildings, clouds and Hampstead Heath projected upside down.


The discovery of the Camera Obscura was at the conjuncture of optics, perspective,

astronomy and philosophy. Perhaps the Camera Obscura is as old as light itself. For

centuries it was used by scientists, primarily to safely observe solar eclipses because the

human eye is not equipped to look directly into the sun. Art historians have established that

Leonardo da Vinci used a Camera Obscura to paint some of his master pieces. Only since

then - around 500 years ago - artists have become aware of the possibilities of the Camera

Obscura and started using it as a help to paint realistic looking scenes. Sometimes glass

lenses were employed to enhance the hole to make the image sharper.

Contemporary uses

In the 19th century the principle of the Camera Obscura evolved into photographic cameras.

Since the discovery of fixing images permanently, photography moved rapidly towards

making smaller and technically more refined cameras with ever shorter shutter-speeds and light efficient lenses. But the ancient and simple form of the Camera Obscura still offers a lot

of room for creative exploration.

There is a strange relation between the upside-down of the projected image to the real

world which is wonderful to observe. One master of the Camera Obscura is the Italian

photographer Abelardo Morell who has created Camera Obscuras all over the world.

Abelardo Morell Camera Obscura- Central Park Fall, 2008

The image of my studio shows the inside of my Camera Obscura to document the meeting

of the projection and my studio. Another way of working with a Camera Obscura is to use

the whole room as your camera. You will be very limited with what you can capture so you

want to make sure that the room has a view that you want to capture. When using the room

as a camera you stick photographic paper on the wall of your Camera Obscura and expose.

There will be a bit of trial and error in establishing the correct exposure time. The exposure

time for photographic paper can vary from a few minutes to several weeks! The

practicalities of where to develop the paper are tricky to master and beyond this article. I

find it easiest to set up the darkroom in the Camera Obscura itself. Bear in mind that when

you use regular Black and White paper the image you are creating will be a negative. The

images taken with a Camera Obscura are very special and have a soft, slightly milky quality

with absolutely no grain.

Of course, you could forget about permanent image-making and just marvel and enjoy the

view in your Camera Obscura. How about inviting friends and interested strangers into your

Camera Obscura instead. Sitting in a dark space waiting for your eyes to adjust and then

slowly beginning to see the outside world entering upside down and side reversed through a small hole is a mesmerising experience. The Victorians loved Camera Obscuras and built

several as entertainment rooms of which some have survived until today.

Tips for trying this at home

What you need:

Black-out material large enough to cover the window(s) in the room you want to convert

into a camera obscura. Scissors and lots of tape. Maybe a ladder.

This is how you do it:

Chose the right room. Ideally the room has one window that faces North. You get more joy

out of viewing your image if the walls of the rooms are painted in a light colour.

1. Carefully cover the window with the black out material.

2. Check that no light enters the room and cover little lightwells with tape.

3. Cut a small hole in the black out material. A

s a rough guide a coin size hole works well for an average size room.

Sit in your room and admire!

Author: Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin

Images courtesy of the artists

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