Development of the Camera Obscura

The camera obscura, or pinhole camera, was the precursor of the modern photographic camera. Its development as an artist’s tool in the early modern period shaped the course of both art history and philosophy for centuries thereafter.

Summary of Event

The camera obscura, or pinhole camera, uses the optical effect that occurs when a pinhole is made in the wall or side of a completely darkened room or box. Light rays from outside the camera pass through the hole and produce an inverted image within the chamber of whatever lies without. Camera obscura;development of
Della Porta, Giambattista
Leonardo da Vinci
Cardano, Gerolamo
Gemma Frisius, Reiner
Barbaro, Daniel
Leonardo da Vinci
Frisius, Reiner Gemma
Cardano, Gerolamo
Della Porta, Giambattista
Barbaro, Daniel

The term “camera obscura” is derived from the Latin words for “darkened chamber [room]” and was coined by the astronomer Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century. However, the basic optical principles were known in ancient times. The fifth century b.c.e. Chinese philosopher Mozi described an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a “locked treasure room.” In 330 b.c.e., the Greek philosopher Aristotle noticed a partial solar eclipse projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve and the gaps in tree foliage. The earliest known formal scientific description of the camera obscura was provided by Alhazen (965-1039), the Arabian physicist and mathematician.

By 1267, the principle of the pinhole camera had reached Europe. In that year, English philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon, who was familiar with the works of Alhazen, described the optical process behind the camera obscura in his De multiplicatione specierum (c. 1267; English translation, 1897). He used the camera obscura to observe solar eclipses, and it became a popular tool for astronomical observations in the Middle Ages. During the Renaissance, significant technical developments in the design of the camera obscura brought it closer to resembling the modern photographic camera. The camera obscura also came to be used as an artist’s tool. Camera obscura;tool for artists[artists]

The image created by the camera obscura is an image in true perspective, meaning that the image maps the world’s three dimensions onto a two-dimensional surface in a mathematically precise fashion. Perspectival images are often described as realistic—especially in their representation of depth—partly because a single human eye also maps the world in true perspective. Since most people have two eyes, however, there is also a significant difference between binocular human vision and the single point perspective created by the camera obscura. Thus, painting in true perspective requires technical skill and training, and the development of the camera obscura made it much easier for artists to practice the technique.

The earliest known diagrams and detailed descriptions of the pinhole camera date from about 1490. They are contained within Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, Codex Atlanticus and Manuscript D. These manuscripts were not deciphered and published until 1797, however. Da Vinci was experimenting with techniques for creating images in perspective. Using a darkened chamber with one or two pinholes, he noted that because the light rays crossed as they passed through the hole, the projected image was inverted or upside down.

On January 24, 1544, Dutch scientist Reiner Gemma Frisius used a camera obscura to observe a solar eclipse at Louvain. Camera obscura;tool for astronomers[astronomers] He included a drawing of this event in his book De radio astronomica et geometrica
De radio astronomica et geometrica (Frisius) (1545). This picture was the first published illustration of a camera obscura. The drawing shows a solar eclipse projected through a pinhole onto the opposite wall in a classical pavilion. Such large, darkened rooms were typical of the first cameras obscuras, which were used by astronomers. Because the image in a pinhole camera was dim, the only practical application of the camera was the safe observation of a bright object, the sun.

However, with the substitution of a lens for the pinhole, new applications and camera designs developed. A lens made possible a larger aperture that could allow much more light than a pinhole and a brighter, more brilliant image, without sacrificing sharpness. It could also be used to turn the image right-side up. In 1550, the first known reference to a pinhole camera with a lens appeared in Gerolamo Cardano’s famous scientific encyclopedia, De subtilitate libri
De subtilitate libri (Cardano) (partial English translation, 1934). He described placing a double convex lens or glass disc in the window shutter of a darkened room on a sunny day. Use of this lens increased the sharpness and intensity of the image projected onto a piece of white paper.

In 1558, in Naples, Italy, Giambattista Della Porta published his major work, Magiae naturalis (Natural Magick
Natural Magick (Della Porta) , 1658) in four volumes, which included the first complete description of a working pinhole camera. A second edition (twenty volumes) was published in 1589. Natural Magick was one of the most popular works on science in the sixteenth century, and it was the most comprehensive record of optical projection produced before the eighteenth century. Della Porta described using a double convex lens to improve image quality. He also explained his new idea of using a concave mirror to enlarge and correct camera obscura images, which had previously been small and upside down. He had discovered, in addition, that placing concave mirrors at an oblique angle would set objects in the image produced in proper perspective.

Della Porta recommended and explained the use of the camera obscura as an artistic tool or guide to drawing. He suggested that artists trace the outlines and shapes of a projected image and then paint in the colors later. He also suggested that the camera be used for copying paintings and painting portraits, with the sitter positioned at the right distance in front of the aperture. Della Porta’s book, which eventually was issued in more than fifty editions in various languages, helped popularize the camera obscura.

In 1568, Venetian nobleman Daniel Barbaro published La pratica della perspettiva
Pratica della perspettiva, La (Barbaro) (the practice of perspective), one of the most important works on perspective at the time. In this book, Barbaro suggested replacing the pinhole with a biconvex lens. He also recommended placing a disk with a small hole in the center (diaphragm) over the lens to restrict the aperture, thus increasing the depth of field of the image. He believed this camera would help artists draw in perspective.

With these significant technical improvements to the camera obscura, it became a practical tool for artists as well as astronomers during the Renaissance. By 1600, the camera obscura was movable and appeared in the form of light wooden tents and sedan chairs.


During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the camera obscura continued to be a useful tool for artists, including Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) in Venice, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) in the Netherlands, and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) and Paul Sandby (c. 1730-1809) in England.

Canaletto was the greatest view painter of the eighteenth century. By bringing the camera obscura onsite to project scenes onto canvas or paper, he could quickly and accurately draw views of buildings and places. The Correr Museum in Venice has two models of his original camera. Studies of the paintings of Vermeer suggest that he used a camera obscura with a lens to help achieve the special tonal and lighting effects in his work. The celebrated English portrait artist Sir Joshua Reynolds owned and used a type of camera obscura that folded flat into the form of a book when stored. Paul Sandby, the great English landscape painter, engraver, topographical draughtsman, and founding member of the Royal Academy, also utilized the camera.

By the end of the seventeenth century, completely portable, small hand-held box cameras had appeared. In the early nineteenth century, the design of the camera obscura allowed for the insertion of a light-sensitive sheet, and the modern photographic camera was constructed. In 1826, French inventor Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce (1765-1833) placed a metal plate covered with a chemical called bitumen into his camera obscura. Camera obscura;and photography[photography] He then captured the world’s first photograph or permanent image from nature.

Further Reading

  • Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990. The first half of this book details the development and the cultural meaning of the camera obscura from the sixteenth century through the early nineteenth century. Includes illustrations, an extensive bibliography divided between primary sources and contemporary studies, and an index.
  • Galassi, Peter. Before Photography: Painting and the Invention of Photography. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1981. Catalog of an exhibition of paintings, together with a critical essay, which together explore the reasons photography was not invented earlier than it was. Discusses the fundamental differences between Renaissance conceptions of vision and art and more modern conceptions. Includes illustrations and bibliography.
  • Gernsheim, Helmut, and Alison Gernsheim. The History of Photography: From the Camera Obscura to the Beginning of the Modern Era. London: Thames and Hudson, 1969. This standard book in the field gives a complete history of the camera obscura. Includes illustrations, notes, and an appendix.
  • Hammond, John H. The Camera Obscura. Bristol, Avon, England: Adam Hilger, 1981. This comprehensive history of the camera obscura includes numerous illustrations and an extensive bibliography.
  • Hockney, David. Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters. New York: Viking Studio, 2001. Hockney shows how some of the great artists used lenses and mirrors as painting aids. The “Textual Evidence” section includes excerpts from historical texts about the camera obscura. Includes beautiful illustrations.
  • Pollack, Peter. The Picture History of Photography: From the Earliest Beginnings to the Present Day. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1969. The chapter on the early beginnings of photography discusses the camera obscura. This 708-page book includes illustrations and a bibliography.
  • Steadman, Philip. Vermeer’s Camera: Uncovering the Truth Behind the Masterpieces. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Includes a long chapter on the history of the camera obscura. Contains illustrations, notes, an appendix, and a bibliography.
  • Wolf, Bryan Jay. Vermeer and the Invention of Seeing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. The chapter “Inside the Camera Obscura” analyzes the relationship of the device to the art and intellectual history of the seventeenth century. Includes illustrations and extensive bibliographic notes for each chapter.

1456: Publication of Gutenberg’s Mazarin Bible

1462: Regiomontanus Completes the Epitome of Ptolemy’s Almagest

c. 1478-1519: Leonardo da Vinci Compiles His Notebooks

1495-1497: Leonardo da Vinci Paints The Last Supper

c. 1510: Invention of the Watch

Nov. 3, 1522-Nov. 17, 1530: Correggio Paints the Assumption of the Virgin

June, 1564: Tintoretto Paints for the Scuola di San Rocco

1572-1574: Tycho Brahe Observes a Supernova

1580’s-1590’s: Galileo Conducts His Early Experiments