Camera obscura and the beginnings of photography

Before there was photography as we know it today there were portraits and scene paintings, and also the camera obscura – or the pinhole camera, as it is more commonly known – which was an important step in developing the art.

The construction of the pinhole camera is simple, and you’ll likely be familiar with the device already. It is simply a dark chamber – the inside of a wooden or cardboard box, for example – a reflective surface like a mirror, and a small opening to allow in light. It’s so simple that you can make it at home, but it was also the precursor to all modern cameras.

history of photography_camera_obscura_2

The premise is equally simple. Light passes through the pinhole, is reflected by a mirror, and then the world outside is reproduced on a flat surface with colour and perspective preserved. Without a mirror the device still works, but the image appears upside down.


The pinhole must be precisely the correct size: too large and the image will be blurry, too small and it will be too dim to make out. When the image is projected onto paper an artist can make a quick study by tracing the outline of the scene.

The camera obscura is ancient – Aristotle is said to have understood the concept and Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn al-Haitham gave the first clear description of the device in the tenth century – but Giambattista della Porta is said to have perfected the pinhole camera, which he called an optic chamber, in the sixteenth century. He had to drop the idea, however, when he was arrested and charged with sorcery.

history_of_photography_camera_obscura_artistsRenaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used the camera obscura to study perspective, though few would admit to their experiments with the device; not only did it have a touch of the occult about it, but its use was also considered ‘cheating’ by artists of the day.

The camera obscura was a useful tool across the arts and sciences alike. For example, it could be used to study solar eclipses without damaging the eyes. In the thirteenth century English astronomer Roger Bacon used it for just that purpose.

Early models of the device were large; in some cases, an entire darkened room  was used, as by Johannes Kepler, the man who originally coined the term ‘camera obscura’.

As the technology developed it became more and more portable. Eventually amateur artists were able to use pinhole cameras on their travels, pausing to document the world as they passed through, but professionals also took advantage of the device. Paul Sandby, Canaletto and Joshua Reynolds used the camera obscura to aid them in the artistic process.

The camera obscura was later developed into early cameras, including the device used to take the first photographs ever made. Louis Daguerre – of the ‘daguerreotype’ –and William Fox Talbot are two of the men credited with turning the pinhole camera into a full-blown camera.

Pinhole cameras are still used widely today for education, art and amusement alike.