Camera obscura and the beginnings of photography

Before there was photography as we know it today, there were portraits, paintings, and the camera obscura.  Also known as the pinhole camera, it was a vital step for the  developing art of photography.

What was a pinhole camera?

The construction of the pinhole camera is simple, and you will probably be familiar with the device already. It is simply a dark chamber, like the inside of a wooden  box, with a reflective surface such as  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.

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How it works is just as simple. Firstly, light passes through the pinhole, and is then reflected by a mirror. This reproduces the world outside on a flat surface with its 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.

When was it invented?

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 10th century.  However, Giambattista della Porta is said to have perfected the pinhole camera, which he called an optic chamber, in the 16th century. The invention was so confusing and radical to medieval society that  he was arrested and charged with sorcery.


Early uses

Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo used the camera obscura to study perspective, though few would admit to experimenting with the device. Not only was it connected with the occult, 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, 13th century astronomer Roger Bacon used it to study solar eclipses without damaging the eyes.

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’.

Entering the modern age

As technology developed, the camera obscura 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. 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. Sound interesting? Take a look at our article about Abelardo Morell- the modern master of the camera obscura!

What do you think of the camera obscura? Would you like to use one? Let us know in the comments below.