Camera Obscura – the Precursor of the Photographic Camera.


By T. V. Antony Raj


Drawing of a Camera obscura box
Camera obscura box


The photographic cameras were a development of the device generally known in Latin as camera obscura meaning “darkened chamber/room”. This device projects a faint upside-down image of the scene outside onto a viewing surface on the wall of a small darkened room where a small hole on the opposing wall lets in light from outside the building. A highly accurate representation of the image can be produced by tracing the projected image onto paper.

The term “camera obscura” itself was first used by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604.

Camera obscura has been known to ancient Chinese and ancient Greek philosophers as far back as the 5th to 4th Century BC, who have described the basic principles of optics (and the camera).


A line drawing of Chinese political philosopher and religious reformer Mozi
Mozi, Chinese political philosopher and religious reformer.


The first surviving mention of the principles behind the camera obscura or pinhole camera is attributed to Mozi (Mo-Ti) (470 to 390 BC), a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism. Mozi referred to this device as a “collecting plate” or “locked treasure room.” He noted that an inverted and focused image is formed when light passes through a pinhole into a dark area. He is the first recorded person to have traced the inverted image to create a picture.


Greek philosopher Aristotle
Greek philosopher Aristotle


In the 4th century BC, Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) noted that “sunlight travelling through small openings between the leaves of a tree, the holes of a sieve, the openings wickerwork, and even interlaced fingers will create circular patches of light on the ground.” In 330 BC, Aristotle understanding the optical principle of the pinhole camera described observing a crescent shaped image of a partial solar eclipse projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve and through the gaps between the leaves of a tree.

Again in the 4th century, Greek scholar Theon of Alexandria observed that “candlelight passing through a pinhole will create an illuminated spot on a screen that is directly in line with the aperture and the centre of the candle.


Euclid of Alexandria


Euclid’s Optics (ca 300 BC) is the earliest surviving Greek treatise on perspective. In this work, Euclid presupposed the camera obscura as a demonstration of the fact that light travels in a straight line.


 Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.
Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey.


In the 6th century, Anthemius of Tralles, a Byzantine mathematician and architect designed the Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later an imperial mosque, and now a museum in Istanbul, Turkey. He used a type of camera obscura in his experiments.

The Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang, a miscellany of Chinese and foreign legends and hearsay, reports on natural phenomena, short anecdotes, and tales of the wondrous and mundane, written in about 840 AD by Duan Chengshi (d. 863) during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), mentioned inverting the image of a Chinese pagoda tower beside a seashore.


Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī - the Philosopher of the Arabs.
Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī – the Philosopher of the Arabs.


In the 9th century, Abu Yūsuf Yaʻqūb ibn ʼIsḥāq aṣ-Ṣabbāḥ al-Kindī Al-Kindi (Latin: Alkindus) (c. 801–873 CE), an Arab philosopher, mathematician, physician, and musician also known as “the Philosopher of the Arabs” and unanimously hailed as the “father of Islamic or Arabic philosophy” for his synthesis, adaptation and promotion of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy in the Muslim world, demonstrated that “light from the right side of the flame will pass through the aperture and end up on the left side of the screen, while light from the left side of the flame will pass through the aperture and end up on the right side of the screen.”


Ibn al-Haytham, considered by many historians to be the father of modern optics
Ibn al-Haytham, considered by many historians to be the father of modern optics.


In the tenth century, the Arabic scholar Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham often called Ibn al-Haytham or Alhazen, a Muslim scientist, polymath, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, wrote in his Book of Optics (1015-1021) about observing a solar eclipse through a pinhole. He added that a sharper image could be produced by making the opening of the pinhole smaller. Alhazen gave the first clear description and early analysis of the camera obscura and pinhole camera. While Chinese philosopher Mozi, Aristotle, Theon of Alexandria, and Al-Kindi had earlier described the effects of a single light passing through a pinhole, none of them suggested that the image projected on the screen is an image of everything on the other side of the aperture. Alhazen was the first to successfully project an entire image from outdoors onto a screen indoors with the camera obscura.

Shen Kuo (1031–1095), a Chinese scientist of the Song Dynasty experimented with a camera obscura and was the first to apply geometrical and quantitative attributes to it in his book of 1088 AD, the Dream Pool Essays.

In 13th-Century, Roger Bacon in England described the use of a camera obscura for the safe observation of solar eclipses.

On January 24, 1544, mathematician and instrument maker Reiners Gemma Frisius of Leuven University used a camera obscura to watch a solar eclipse. In the following year, he published a diagram of his method in De Radio Astronimica et Geometrico.

Camera obscura‘s potential as a drawing aid may have been familiar to artists by as early as the 15th century:

  • Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519 AD) described the camera obscura in Codex Atlanticus.
  • In 1685, Johann Zahn built the first camera obscura that was small enough for practical use as a portable drawing aid. His work “Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium,” published in the same year has many descriptions and diagrams, illustrations and sketches of both the camera obscura and of the magic lantern.
  • It is held that Giambattista della Porta perfected camera obscura. In later editions of his Magia Naturalis (1558-1589), he described it as having a convex lens which helped in spreading knowledge about it. He compared the shape of the human eye to the lens in his camera obscura. He provided an easily understandable example of how light could bring images into the eye. In 1558, he was the first to recommend the method as an aid to drawing.
  • In his work “Saggio sopra la pittura”, Count Francesco Algarotti (December 11, 1712 – May 3, 1764), an Italian polymath, philosopher, poet, essayist, anglophile, art critic and art collector, dedicated one chapter to the use of a camera ottica (“optic chamber”) in painting.
  • It has been widely speculated that 17th century Dutch Masters, such as Johannes Vermeer, known for their magnificent attention to detail made use of devices such as camera obscura; however, the extent of their use by artists during this period remains a matter of considerable controversy.

Early models of camera obscura were large; comprising either a whole darkened room or a tent as employed by Johannes Kepler. By the 18th century, following developments by Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, portable models became available. These were extensively used by amateur artists during their travels. However, they were also employed extensively by professionals, such as Paul Sandby and Canaletto. Joshua Reynolds’ camera, disguised as a book, is now in the Science Museum (London).

The largest camera obscura in the world is on Constitution Hill in Aberystwyth, Wales.

Later, such cameras were adapted by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, Louis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot for producing the first photographs.




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