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Introduction to the Camera Obscura

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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 fifteenth century and by the mid-sixteenth 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 seventeenth 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 nineteenth century, when the first photographic experiments were taking place, the camera obscura had evolved into three distinct forms; One form was 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. A second type was in the form of a portable tent. A lens and mirror at the apex of the tent produced an image on a horizontal desk inside the tent. The third form was 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, Niepce, Daguerre and Talbot.


Select bibliography

Coe, Brian, Cameras – From Daguerreotypes to Instant Pictures, Marshall Cavendish Editions, London, 1978, ISBN 0 85685 448 4

Hammond, John H, The Camera Obscura – A Chronicle, Adam Hilger Ltd, Bristol, 1981. ISBN 0-85274-451-X

Scott, Peter, ‘What Came First, Camera or Photograph?’ in The Photographic Collector Vol 4 No 1, Spring, 1983 pp 90-105


Camera Obscuras today

Camera Obscuras were at their most popular during the nineteenth 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 422540

The Camera Obscura, Castlehill, Edinburgh EH1 2LZ | 0131 2263709

Great Aberystwyth Camera Obscura, Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth. Contact: Mr Griffin, Cliff Railway House, Cliff Terrace Aberystwyth, Dyfed SY23 2DN | 01970 617642 (open from the weekend before Easter until the end of October)

The Observatory, Dumfries Museum, Church Street, Dumfries DG2 7SW | 01387 253374

The Clifton Observatory, Litfield Place, Clifton Down, Bristol | 01272 741242

The Old Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF | 0181 312 6774

The Camera Obscura, The Water Tower, City Walls, Chester. Contact: The Grosvenor Museum, 27 Grosvenor Street, Chester CH1 2DD | 01244 311610 (open from April – October)

The Camera Obscura, Portmerion Village, Penrhyndeudraeth, Gwynedd LL48 6ET. Contact Mr Llewellyn: 01766 770228. 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 685685


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

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