February news update

Well, it's been an interesting month. We took delivery of a major donation – a motorised lens and mirror housing custom built for a camera obscura and worth £1500 – which forced us to revise our plans. And we're going to tell you all about it!

First the lens housing. It was donated by Tim Norgate who was building camera obscuras in Birmingham a decade ago and had similar plans to establish a permanent one in the city. His didn't come to fruition but he did commission the lens and mirror setup from Beacon Hill Telescopes and used it in temporary cameras in Cannon Hill Park.

It's a fantastic piece of kit and we're unbelievably grateful, but because it's designed to be used in a room the lens has a throw of 10ft. Our camera will be about a metre tall. So we're going to need a new lens.

We phoned Beacon Hill and spoke to the lovely Barry Watts, a 76 year old telescope builder and camera obscura enthusiast. While talking we discovered the guy he gets to make lenses is the only person in the country who serves the hobby market (the rest do scientific grade lenses which cost thousands) and he's moving studios soon, so won't be able to work quickly.

In short, because the throw we need is so short, the new lens is going to cost £550 and it probably won't be ready before the summer. We hadn't expected it to cost that much, so that was an interesting moment.

We've dealt with this by shuffling the budget around. The lens housing has upped the game substantially and means we're going to have professional standard optics. But it does mean some of the things we'd hoped to do will be postponed, specifically the fancy wheels, focussing mechanism and paint job. These will be good enough and we'll look to making them fancy in 2016.

We've decided the important thing is that Birmingham has a world class camera obscura. Thanks to Tim's donation we can do that now. It just might take a little longer to get all the pieces together.

Most importantly the delayed lens won't slow us down. We'll be using the same cheap lens as last year (£7 from ebay!) in the interim so as soon as Matt the carpenter has built the box we can be on the road!

Here's the revised budget:

Rewards: £627.00
Carpentner & Wood: £870.00 
Lens: £550.00 
Wheels / base: £150.00 
Lens housing extras: £100.00 
Contingency: £50.00
Painting: £50.00

Total budgeted: £2,417.00
Total raised: £2,291.44

That takes us £125 over budget, so we'll be doing a bit of extra fundraising. This shouldn't be a problem though as we've already had an extra £100 since the Kickstarter from people who missed out and wanted to contribute. And we have merchandising plans. So it'll all be fine!

In Other News

We've confirmed an installation at the Flatpack Film Festival in March. We will be making lots of small camera obscuras which we'll be hanging in the window of Home Deli on Church Street. We'll also be doing workshops where people can make their own. More details once they're completely ironed out!

We are now a Community Interest Company! In the short term this doesn't mean much but in the long term it helps us ensure this project is for "the community" and not just us.

The summer program is starting to come together. So far we've confirmed the CoCoMad festival and the Family Fun Day at Edgbaston Cricket Ground. If you'd like us to come to an event you're involved with, or have ideas of places we could take the camera, please do let Jenny know!


Our new mirror and lens housing

We had a visit today from Tim Norgate who runs Pinhole Solutions and is based in Bearwood. A few years ago Tim was making camera obscura in Cannon Hill Park with large tents but always wanted to build a permanent camera obscura in Birmingham. Sadly he never did, so when he heard about our efforts he immediately got in touch.

To cut to the chase, he’s very generously donated his mirror and lens housing to our cause, and it’s amazing. Here’s a video of it in action:

You’ll notice immediately that it’s motorised! There are two switches, one for the angle of the mirror and the other to rotate it. This means it can point up and down in 360 degrees.

The lens has a throw of a 8 feet, which is too long for our portable camera but will be perfect if we were to install it in a room. And we can swap it out for a shorter throw lens with ease.

The mirror is top quality – the same sort you’ll find inside a DSLR – and won’t give any ghosting that normal mirrors do. Excellent optics all round.

Our plan is to fix it to the portable camera but have it easily detachable so we can use it for other projects. One issue is going to be weather proofing, so on Tim’s suggestion we’re looking into a glass enclosure, similar to a bell jar, that could sit over the mechanism and keep it dry, while also looking amazing. So if anyone knows where were can get a custom made glass (or clear plastic) bell jar like this please get in touch!

But for now we’re just happy to have such a wonderful piece of kit. Here’s some more photos of it:

2015-01-21 17.04.44

2015-01-21 17.05.51

2015-01-21 17.05.44

2015-01-21 17.05.30

2015-01-21 17.05.16-1


January Update

(Edited version of Kickstarter update)

Hope you had a good Xmas break. We’re now ready to get back to it, so here’s a quick update on what’s been happening.

We met with our carpenter, Matt Moore, last week to talk through our plans. We chose Matt because he can bring an artistic sensibility to the project along with being a competent chippy, so the camera should look great as well as be a hard-wearing contraption. We’re hoping he can start work next month.

We also had a generous donation of some lenses from Tim Norgate at Pinhole Solutions in Birmingham who we met last year. Tim become obsessed with the camera obscurae a few years ago but his kit has been in the attic. It’s now being put back to use. Thanks Tim!

Immediately after the Kickstarter ended we put in an application to the Arts Council for funding to develop Birmingham Obscura into a sustainable resource for arts and education through an enhanced program of events this year. We’ll hear if we’re successful on Feb 5th but even if we’re not (arts funding, like everything, has been cut to the bone in recent years) we’ll be out and about a lot.

The first thing we’ll definitely be doing is an installation for the Flatpack Film Festival. The exact location is still being negotiated but expect a giant tent camera somewhere in Birmingham City Centre in the last week of March.

We’re settling in nicely at Birmingham Open Media (BOM) in the centre of Birmingham. The studio has been cleaned up and kitted out so we can do whatever we need to do in there. We’ll also be running a series of events over the spring in association with BOM. Some will be about the project sharing our learnings, some will be more like workshops. Once these are scheduled we’ll let you know.

Inspirational Obscurae

Inspirational Obscura: Torre de Tavira / Torre Tavira

In our search for camera obscura around the world we’re often told of one in Portugal and having found it we then discovered it shares a name with another one in Spain. The Torre de Tavira is a converted water tower on the Algarve while the Torre Tavira is in an 18th century watchtower in Cadiz. Not only do they share the same name and a sort-of similar language but they actually face each other over the Gulf of Cadiz, as seen on our Map Of Obscura

Camera Obscura Of The World-2

So we’ve sifted through the collective search engine results and here’s what we’ve found.


Moving in to BOM

As you’re probably aware, we’ve been running a Kickstarter for the last twenty days to raise money to build the new camera and it’s going tremendously well – on target for £2,000 and maybe even more – so it’s time to start seriously planning for the future. 

One of the major changes for the new year is we’re actually going to have a base to build the camera and run what is most definitely by now a business. That base is Birmingham Open Media, aka BOM, a new space for art and technology in central Birmingham.

BOM is run by Karen Newman, a curator who’s previously worked at the Open Eye and FACT galleries in Liverpool. BOM’s focus is photography, but not in the usual sense. Certainly there’s a darkroom (one of very few in the city) and a professional studio for hire in the basement, but BOM is for people who want to explore the fundamentals of making images in more depth, be it new developments in digital imaging or the basic technologies that gave birth to the medium in the 19th century. 

When we’re thinking about our camera obscura, and what we want to do with it, this overlap between art and technology is pretty much where we want to be. It’s art because it makes people see the world in a different way and challenge their preconceptions. And it’s technology because we’re working with optics and light, literally putting people inside a camera so they can experience how it works. Everything we do over the next few years will try to respect this balance. 

Or to put it more simply, we want to be here. 

And BOM also wants to be here. So it makes sense for us to be at BOM.

There are other, more practical, reasons for being based at BOM. The first is access to space. We’re going to be in Studio 1 which is on the ground floor next to the cafe, which we’ll be kitting out to suit our needs, such as they are. 

Feel the potential! 

We chose this above a larger space downstairs because it’s easy for people to visit. Whenever we’re working on the camera you’ll be able to knock on the door and say hi. This is important not just because of the way the camera is funded but because we value your input and, in many cases, skills. 

Which is the third reason for being based here. We’ve been quite open about how were figuring out a lot of this as we go along, particularly the optics and carpentry stuff, and BOM is one of those spaces that encourages openness. We’ll be able to tap into the pool of expertise here, and the networks that spread out from it, rather that just get frustrated when things don’t work.

Today was spent clearing out the room and thinking about how we’ll use it. We’ll be fitting it out over the next fortnight. 

We officially start building the camera in January and will post the dates we’ll be in on this site and, of course, to Twitter. Hope to see you there! 


Report: Fun Palaces Weekend

A few weekends ago on 4th and 5th of October, we were at Fun Palaces (I say ‘we’, Pete was honeymooning and then teaching, so my brother came up to help me out). It turned out to be a particularly interesting weekend, mainly due to the wide range of individuals whom we introduced to the Camera Obscura.

For those of you who don’t know, Fun Palaces is an National Arts Council initiative new this year, but based on an old idea. You can find out more about it on their website.

On Saturday morning, we started off at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It was a difficult location at first, as it was the first time we had been at an indoor event, and on a dull, rainy morning the light was not ideal. However, as the sun came out, the room brightened a lot and we began to get a clear image.

We had some intriguing comments, especially from some younger children, one saying that they could 'see a house' – referring to the selection of windows, another said 'I can see the eyes' which didn't make any sense until we looked into the box again. Do you see them? Can you also spot the 'ghost' window?


The day also involved a series of visits from some Buddhist monks, as there was a series of Buddhist celebrations in relation to 150 years since the Buddha statue was offered to the museum. We also had a fantastic encounter with a visually impaired lady, who patiently waited for the image emerge, and as the sun came out brightly, we could hear her explain from inside, what she could see. Her guide dog seemed curious/concerned about what was going on!


IMG_9327 IMG_9332

On Sunday, we moved to outside The Rep, by wheeling it through the Paradise Forum. This was a far quieter day, as we were in a rather large, open space. Although there were far fewer people, we got an equally wide cross section of people. With it being quieter, we did get to play around with the camera, adjusting the focus and trying different distances from buildings.



A big thank you to Lousie Alden and Kenny Webster, especially for helping us manoeuvre  the camera through the museum and carry it down several flights of stairs; to Katerina Pushkin and Jenny Smith for inviting us to The Rep's Fun Palaces and for providing us with free tea and coffee, and of course our temporary glamorous assistant Tom:

IMG_9348p.s. apologies for the delay in posting, it had been sat in drafts for a couple of weeks!

Inspirational Obscurae

Inspirational Obscura: London Photographers’ Gallery

photogallerycamobs 094

The Photographers’ Gallery in London has a camera obscura and it's a little different from the norm.


Report: Moseley Folk Festival

We had a fantastic time with the camera at the Moseley Folk Festival. While our other outings this summer have made us feel we might be onto something good here, the Folk Fest confirmed it. There’s no going back now.

Our original plan was to move around the site and point at different things, but MoFo (as it’s known) gets rather full of blankets and chairs rather quickly, so after a trial down by the stage on Saturday morning we moved to a hillock overlooking the back of the field, right by the beer tent and on the way to the toilets. In other words a perfect place to meet people.


We can’t say how many people looked through the camera that weekend. It was easily in the hundreds. And all of them loved it.

Inspirational Obscurae

Inspirational Obscura: Isles of Scilly

In July I was lucky enough to go to the Isles of Scilly, something I can highly recommend, and was delighted to hear they had a camera obscura on the main island of St Mary’s. It’s currently not listed on maps but you’ll find it at these co-ordinates. From the south beach at Hugh Town, look for this sign.

2014-07-21 13.41.12

Inspirational Obscurae

Inspirational Obscura: Greenport, Long Island

While searching for something else (as is always the way) I came across this rather delightfully designed camera obscura in Long Island.