Camera = Latin for room
Obscura = Latin for dark
Go into a very dark room on a bright day. Make a small hole in a window
cover and look at the opposite wall. What do you see? Magic! There in
full color and movement will be the world outside the window upside
down! This magic is explained by a simple law of the physical world.
Light travels in a straight line and when some of the rays reflected
from a bright subject pass through a small hole in thin material they
do not scatter but cross and reform as an upside down image on a flat
surface held parallel to the hole. This law of optics was known in ancient
The earliest mention of this type of device was by the Chinese philosopher
Mo-Ti (5th century BC). He formally recorded the creation of an inverted
image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a darkened
room. He called this darkened room a "collecting place" or the "locked
Aristotle (384-322 BC) understood the optical principle of the camera
obscura. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected
on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves
of a plane tree.
The Islamic scholar and scientist Alhazen (Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham)
(c.965 - 1039) gave
of the principle including experiments with five lanterns outside a room
with a small hole.
In 1490 Leonardo Da Vinci gave two clear descriptions
of the camera obscura
were large rooms like that illustrated by the Dutch scientist Reinerus
Gemma-Frisius in 1544 for use in observing a solar eclipse.
The image quality was improved with the addition of a convex lens into
the aperture in the 16th century and the later addition of a mirror to
reflect the image down onto a viewing surface. Giovanni Battista Della
Porta in his 1558 book Magiae Naturalis recommended the use of this device
as an aid for drawing for artists.
The term "camera obscura" was first used by the German astronomer Johannes
Kepler in the early 17th century. He used it for astronomical applications
and had a portable tent camera for surveying in Upper Austria.
The development of the camera obscura took two tracks. One of these
led to the portable box device that was a drawing tool. In the 17th and
18th century many artists were aided by the use of the camera obscura.
Jan Vermeer, Canaletto, Guardi, and Paul Sandby are representative of
this group. By the beginning of the 19th century the camera obscura was
ready with little or no modification to accept a sheet of light sensitive
material to become the photographic camera. Portable
and box camera obscuras from our collection are shown on another
page on this site.
The other track became the camera obscura room, a combination of education
and entertainment. In the 19th century, with improved lenses that could
cast larger and sharper images, the camera obscura flourished at the
seaside and in areas of scenic beauty. There are several pages that features
images of camera
obscura rooms such as this page on US park
camera obscuras from our
collection. Today the camera obscura is enjoying a revival of interest.
and historic treasures and new camera obscuras are being built around