What is a Camera Obscura?

Like the best things in life, the camera obscura is very simple. Light enters through a hole in the top of the camera and is focused on a screen on the bottom. But unlike a modern camera, the camera obscura does not create an image you can take away. You see the image by being inside the camera itself. 

Camera obscura is Latin for “Dark Room” and they have existed in various forms for over three thousand years, though the process was first scientifically outlined by Arabic scholar Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen) circa 1000AD and formalised during the European Enlightenment as lenses improved.

Then, in the Victorian era, they became attractions, often found in seaside resorts and on country estates.

The process is very simple but the effect is strangely magical. Seeing the world projected onto a flat surface while inside the machine itself is a delightful experience which never fails to bring a smile.

Why, in our image-saturated world, people seem to love it is the big question and we don’t really know the answer. Maybe it’s the isolation of the dark chamber. Maybe it evokes that amazement people must have had when, for the first time, they were able to see an accurate 2D rendering of reality – something we take for granted these days.

This flatness was picked up by artists and architects who used the camera obscura as a tool to get perspective and reflections correct. (David Hockney did some great research into this.) This is why we want to have a drawing desk integrated into our camera.

Above all the camera obscura is the grandfather of the modern camera. From the high-end DSLR to the tiny cameraphone, all cameras work in the same way. Seeing this process scaled up to ‘giant sized’ by the camera obscura helps us understand today’s cameras and other optical technologies that are such an important part of modern life. Essentially, they’re all just boxes with holes.