History of Camera Obscuras

Role in the modern age

While the technical principles of the camera obscura have been known since antiquity, the broad use of the technical concept in producing images with a linear perspective in paintings, maps, theatre setups and architectural and later photographic images and movies started in the Western Renaissance and the scientific revolution. While e.g. Alhazen had already observed an optical effect and developed a state of the art theory of the refraction of light, he was less interested to produce images with it ; the society he lived in was even hostile towards personal images. Western artists and philosophers used the Arab findings in new frameworks of epistemic relevance. e.g. Leonardo da Vinci used the camera obscura as a model of the eye, René Descartes for eye and mind and John Locke started to use the camera obscura as a metaphor of human understanding per se. The modern use of the camera obscura as an epistemic machine had important side effects for science.


The earliest existant written record of the camera obscura is to be found in the writings of Mozi (470 to 390 BC), a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism. Mozi correctly asserted that the image in a camera obscura is flipped upside down because light travels in straight lines from its source. His disciples developed this into a minor theory of optics.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) was familiar with the principle of the camera obscura. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve and through the gaps between the leaves of a plane tree. In the 4th century BC, Aristotle 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." Euclid's Optics (c. 300 BC) mentioned the camera obscura as a demonstration that light travels in straight lines. 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 center of the candle."

In the 6th century, the Byzantine-Greek mathematician and architect Anthemius of Tralles (most famous for designing the Hagia Sophia), used a type of camera obscura in his experiments.

In the 9th century, Al-Kindi (Alkindus) 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."

Then Ibn al-Haytham (AD 965–1039), also known as Alhazen, described a 'dark chamber' and experimented with images seen through the pinhole. He arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images were formed only by means of small holes and that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), familiar with the work of Alhazen in Latin translation and after an extensive study of optics and human vision, published the first clear description of the camera obscura in Codex Atlanticus (1502):

If the facade of a building, or a place, or a landscape is illuminated by the sun and a small hole is drilled in the wall of a room in a building facing this, which is not directly lighted by the sun, then all objects illuminated by the sun will send their images through this aperture and will appear, upside down, on the wall facing the hole.

You will catch these pictures on a piece of white paper, which placed vertically in the room not far from that opening, and you will see all the above-mentioned objects on this paper in their natural shapes or colors, but they will appear smaller and upside down, on account of crossing of the rays at that aperture. If these pictures originate from a place which is illuminated by the sun, they will appear colored on the paper exactly as they are. The paper should be very thin and must be viewed from the back.

In 13th-century England, Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura for the safe observation of solar eclipses. At the end of the 13th century, Arnaldus de Villa Nova is credited with using a camera obscura to project live performances for entertainment. Its 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. Johann Zahn's Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium, published in 1685, contains many descriptions, diagrams, illustrations and sketches of both the camera obscura and the magic lantern.

Giambattista della Porta improved the camera obscura by replacing the hole with an old man's lenticular (biconvex) lens in his Magia Naturalis (1558-1589), the popularity of which helped spread knowledge of it. He compared the shape of the human eye to the lens in his camera obscura, and provided a readily comprehensible example of how light forms images in the eye. One chapter in the Conte Algarotti's Saggio sopra Pittura (1764) is dedicated to the use of a camera ottica ("optic chamber") in painting.

The 17th century Dutch Masters, such as Johannes Vermeer, were known for their magnificent attention to detail. It has been widely speculated that they made use of such a camera, but the extent of their use by artists at this period remains a matter of considerable controversy.

The term "camera obscura" itself was first used by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604. The term is based on the Latin camera, "(vaulted) chamber or room", and obscura, "darkened" (plural: camerae obscurae).



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