A camera obscura is a dark room or box with a pinhole. The light coming through the pinhole projects the image of the outdoors onto the opposite wall. It really is that simple. This technique has existed for millennia and was first written down in the 4th century BC. In recent centuries the experience has been improved with lenses, levers and ratchets to focus and move the image.
Going to see a camera obscura is a nice cultural outing with children. It’s always a brief visit but very interesting science. They are always in historic locations with a bit of a story too. It’s fun to shut yourself in a dark room and peer at the people unsuspecting people outside. It is like being inside a camera, and to me that is quite magical.
Camera Obscura in Clifton, Bristol
We’ve been to two camera obscuras in recent years. There is one housed in its own tower on Clifton Down in Bristol, just yards from Clifton Suspension bridge. In recent years it has been restored and is maintained by volunteers. There are quite a lot of winding steps to the top. In the centre of the circular room at the top there is a concave white surface. The image of the outdoors is focused on this surface. Using a handle, you can move the lens to look all around Bristol, watching people walk in far away streets.
Camera Obscura at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
I’ve previously written about Lacock Abbey where photography was invented. Here, visitors can see a camera obscura housed in a humble shed (or it may be a shepherd’s hut). This is a much simpler affair with just one view down the path alongside the stately home. The story here is that Fox Talbot greatly desired to be able to draw, but he had no talent. He tried using various projectors and a camera obscura to improve his skills but in the long run he invented photography instead. The rest, as they say, is history.
Taking photos in a Camera Obscura – Tips
By nature it’s very dark inside a camera obscura and photos will probably be shaky. At peak times people will keep coming in and out and opening the door which ruins the light. It’s also cramped and you can’t take in a tripod unless you are able to arrange a special visit with the owners.
- Shoot manual mode and use manual focus as well
- Turn your ISO up as high as it will go
- Open your aperture as wide as possible but only if you can shoot straight on at the image. If you’re shooting at an angle across the surface you will need to stop down to about f4
- Use a shutter speed of 1/50 or if you have steady hands try 1/40
- Brace your body and especially your elbows on the bench or wall
- Accept that your photo is going to be quite a dark one. Don’t aim to achieve a normal exposure.
- You could use a monopod for a couple of extra stops.
- If you can put the camera down on a seat then you can use a much longer exposure such as 1/8 or much longer, and perhaps turn your ISO down.
Have you ever visited a camera obscura? I’d love to know where there are more to visit so please comment below or tweet or email me.