Camera Obscura History

Camera obscura is older than this camera!

Have you wondered what camera obscura history might hold? This famous optical invention is one of the brightest spots in the history of the camera and--as a result--holds a deep history of its own. Keep reading to learn more about camera obscura history and its contribution to the photographic world.

A Brief Camera Obscura History

What Is a Camera Obscura?

A camera obscura is an early predecessor of the camera. It is a box or similar object that lets light in through a small hole on one side. On the other side of the object is a surface that will retain an upside down image of the scene outside of the object. Camera obscuras have been created out of soda cans and have also been as big as rooms; there is much variety as far as size goes.

Who Invented Camera Obscura?

The camera obscura was developed by Abu Ali Al-Hasan Ibn al-Haitham in the 19th century. An Arab scientist, Ibn al-Haithem specialized in optics. Spending much of his life in Cairo, Ibn al-Haithem was attempting to discover the rate of light and how it passes through objects. During his creation of the camera obscura, Ibn al-Haithem was attempting to establish the rate at which light passes.

Many attribute the principles that Ibn al Haitham used to create camera obscura to Chinese philosophy Mozi and Aristotle. Aristotle noted that the sun can pass through the leaves on the ground to former patterns and that a circular image can be created by the sun. Mozi is credited with being one of the first to mention the pinhole camera--a foundational idea to camera obscura.

Discovery of Camera Obscura

Ibn al-Haithem developed camera obscura to illustrate how the eye processes an image. He noticed that if there was a small hole of light in a box, the image would project upside down on the opposite wall. A small mirror could then be used to flip the image upright. While performing an experiment to show that light travels, he discovered that if one covered a small hole that was letting in light, the light coming through and projecting through the hole would also stop. This was compared to the way that the sun and moon act during eclipses. The camera obscura was created from this principle.

Development of Camera Obscura

Following Ibn al-Haithem's life, many scientists further developed the idea of camera obscura. Chinese scientist Shen Kuo added geometric principles to the idea in one of his later books. Roger Bacon highlighted the usage of camera obscura to safely view solar eclipses. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the first to use the device in relation to art. The term 'camera obscura' itself was developed by German Johannes Kepler in the 1600s.

Uses of Camera Obscura

Camera obscura has been used for many reasons throughout history:

  • Sun viewing
  • Painting
  • Drawings
  • Photography
  • Tourism

While it was originally developed as an optical model, camera obscura was soon after its development used in order to view sun eclipses without worrying about danger to the eyes. The usage moved on to being as assistant to both drawing and painting. For drawing, the 'picture' would be taken with camera obscura and the artist would then trace and build upon the image. A small, portable version was used for this purpose. For painting, it became helpful for noting more subtle image details. Room-sized camera obscuras were created at this point as the painter would paint from within the camera obscura.

In the modern age, camera obscura is often used to create experimental photography. It was still used as recently as the late 1990s by photographers such as Charles Schwartz. Large room sized camera obscuras are also created as tourist draws to large cities. Finding out how to make camera obscura is still a popular internet search.

Sites of Interest

If you're still interested in learning more about camera obscura, consider some of these links:

Camera Obscura History