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Introduction to the Camera Obscura

What is a camera obscura and where can you see one? Read on for a potted history, list of UK camera obscuras and helpful contacts.

The history of the camera obscura

If a small hole is made in the window blind of a darkened room, an inverted image of the scene outside the window is produced on the opposite wall of the room. (The name ‘camera obscura’ comes from the Latin and means ‘dark room’). This ability of a pinhole to form an image appears to have been known to the Ancient Chinese as early as the 4th century BC and was first described outside China by the Arabian scholar Alhazen in about 1030.

A clear description of the formation of images by a small hole in a darkened room is contained in the manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci in the 15th century. By the mid-16th century, lenses had begun to be used to increase the brightness and sharpness of the image.

At first, camera obscuras were always a room in a house. By the 17th century, however, smaller, portable versions had appeared. Various forms evolved, including tents, sedan chairs and pocket models. Portable camera obscuras were used widely by artists as aids for sketching. For this purpose the most popular form was the reflex box camera obscura, in which the lens formed an upright image on a sheet of translucent paper after reflection by an inclined mirror.

At the beginning of the 19th century, when the first photographic experiments were taking place, the camera obscura had evolved into three distinct forms:

  1. A darkened room with a lens and mirror in the roof, producing an image on a table within the room. Such camera obscura were a common sight at seaside resorts and pleasure parks. A few examples survive today.
  2. A portable tent with a lens and mirror at its apex, producing an image on a horizontal desk inside the tent
  3. The portable box-form camera obscura which produced an image on translucent paper. It was this this type of camera obscura that eventually lead to the development of the photographic camera when it was used by the inventors of photography: Wedgwood, Niépce, Daguerre and Talbot.

Select bibliography

  • Coe, Brian, Cameras: From Daguerreotypes to Instant Pictures, Marshall Cavendish Editions, London, 1978, ISBN 0856854484
  • Hammond, John H., The Camera Obscura, a Chronicle, Adam Hilger Ltd, Bristol, 1981, ISBN 085274451X
  • Scott, Peter, ‘What Came First, Camera or Photograph?’ in The Photographic Collector Vol. 4 No. 1, Spring 1983, p90–105

Camera Obscuras today

Camera obscuras were at their most popular during the 19th century. Today, only a few survive. As well as original Victorian examples, however, there are some modern camera obscura. For example, in 1990 the Department of the Environment sponsored the building of a camera obscura for the Gateshead Garden Festival. When the festival closed, the camera obscura was bought by Hove Borough Council and installed as a visitor attraction at Foredown Tower Countryside Centre.

The following is a list of British camera obscuras. Please note that some of them are not in working order and not all of them are open to the public.

  • Foredown Tower Countryside Centre, Foredown Road, Portslade, East Sussex BN41 2EW | 01273 422 540
  • The Camera Obscura, Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2LZ | 0131 226 3709
  • Great Aberystwyth Camera Obscura, Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth. Contact: Mr Griffin, Cliff Railway House, Cliff Terrace Aberystwyth, Dyfed SY23 2DN | 01970 617 642 (open from the weekend before Easter until the end of October)
  • The Observatory, Dumfries Museum, Church Street, Dumfries DG2 7SW | 01387 253 374
  • The Clifton Observatory, Litfield Place, Clifton Down, Bristol | 0117 974 1242
  • The Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
  • The Camera Obscura, The Water Tower, City Walls, Chester. Contact: The Grosvenor Museum, 27 Grosvenor Street, Chester CH1 2DD | 01244 311 610 (open from April to October)
  • The Camera Obscura, Portmerion Village, Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd LL48 6ET. Contact Mr Llewellyn: 01766 770 228. Visitors by appointment only
  • The Barrie Pavilion, Kirriemuir Hill, Kirriemuir, Forfar, Scotland. The Camera Obscura is inside a cricket pavilion built as a gift to the town by the author J.M. Barrie. It is looked after by Kirriemuir Community Council. Contact: Robert Berry, 44 Cortachy Crescent, Northmuir, Kirriemuir, Forfar. Visitors by appointment only
  • The Camera Obscura, Douglas, Isle of Man. This has been purchased by the Manx government and is closed to the public pending renovation. Access can be arranged for serious researchers. Contact: Mr M.E. Fargher, Chief Executive, Department of Local Government Murray House, Mt Havelock, Isle of Man, IM1 2SF | 01624 685 685

Helpful contacts

  • Sinden Optical Company: Helen and David Sinden, Stella Haigh Lane, Addison Industria Estate, Wryton, Tyne & Wear NE21 ITE | 0191 499 0122 | Constructors and builders of camera obscura
  • Broadhurst, Clarkson & Fuller, Telescope House, 63 Farringdon Road, London EC1 M3JB | 0171 405 2156 | Fullerscopes
  • Mike Feast, Foredown Tower, Countryside Centre, Foredown Road, Portslade, E Sussex BN41 2EW | 01273 422 540
  • Edmund Scientific, 9066 Edscorp Building, Dept 15, Barrington, New Jersey 08007 USA | 001 609 573 6280 | Suppliers of optical equipment and devices
  • Peter Drew | 01706 815 816 | Maker of camera obscura

9 comments on “Introduction to the Camera Obscura

  1. Hello,
    Is there a dark camera in the museum of science and media in Bradford?


  2. Kirriemuir Camera Obscura is now run by volunteers and is open on Saturday, Sunday and Monday from April.

  3. I am a “retired” camera obscura specialist. I made the ones for The Old Royal Observatory at Greenwich and the one at Chester. I also made a tent camera obscura for the Foredown tower. I am currently “out of retirement” building one for a prestigious location in Northern Ireland, my 21st to date. We have a good camera obscura at the Astronomy Centre, open to the public in normal times.

    1. Hello Peter, although now on a state pension I am still an artist ( artists never really retire.) Do you know where I can get a reflex box type portable camera obscura e.g. similar to the one used in early 19thc by William Daniells which he used to produce his drawings for his aquatints in his ‘Voyage Around Great Britain’?
      Kind regards,
      Bruce Halcro

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