The Camera Obscura

“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.


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. Older camera obscuras are celebrated as cultural and historic treasures and new camera obscuras are being built around the world.” Jack and Beverly Wilgus


The make of the classic Camera Obscura (Latin for Dark Room) was not unlike my previous blog entry about pinhole cameras. Like a true ancestor to the modern camera, it could simply have been a box with a hole to filter in light, and it would project a vertically mirrored image of what it captured. Around the 18th century, designs were developed that used prisms and mirrors to flip this image, a marvel of evolution, given that recordings for devices like the Camera Obscura date back as far as 470 BC. While there could be pinholes, Camera Obscura traditionally did favor lenses, as the aperture lead for a brighter shot while still maintaining the focus.

As previously explained, there were two common uses for the obscura, as an artist’s tool and as a room that was almost an attraction. I had the pleasure of being in a Camera Obscura in Scotland, in the top of Edinburgh. It is a phenomenal construct; and I can see why it was and is still a popular attraction. From a drawing room to a scenic commodity to the father of the first permanent photograph, the Camera Obscura has quite a wake. Some articles seem to insinuate that it might be seeing a bit more vintage use and there might be another popular swing to it. Who knows? But I can’t wait to find out.





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