How to Make a Camera Obscura at Home

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To fully appreciate the technological advancements of our modern day cameras, it’s important to consider the initial science that inspired the medium of photography as we now know it. Practice this ancient art of photography and make your very own room with a view.

Words by Aaron Chapman

Photography by Abelardo Morell

Camera obscuras form the basic principle of photography with the use of a lens (or pinhole in this case) and light travelling through it. The camera obscura is in essence, a room or device that allows light to pass through a small opening, which projects the external image inside the room or device. The image is projected upside down, much the same as the way our retinas see the world before our brains correct the image. As camera technology developed, mirrors were used in these boxes or devices to flip the projection its right way. 

This simple yet sorcery-like concept has been an artistic tool for artists throughout the ages. The invention of the camera obscura is contested, but without delving into a history lesson, let’s just say that its oldest mention dates back to around the 5th century BC. 

Though performed throughout history, Abelardo Morell’s projects of New York and other popular locations in the United States spring to mind immediately as an exemplar of work using the camera obscura technique and an indication of what’s visually possible with dedication, time and ingenuity.

“Your house is just one novelty-sized camera for viewing the world outside your window.”

The best part about making a camera obscura at home is that you can do it with materials most likely already in your cupboard, and of course, it’s a fun experience for all ages. My three-year-old daughter and I turned her bedroom into a camera obscura and we both had a blast! Okay, she thought it was only kinda cool. But the point is, making camera obscuras can be a great activity for children and experienced photographers alike.

Let’s get started.

Materials Needed

1. Cardboard, builders’ film, black sheets or garbage bags

2. Tape

3. Scissors

4. A window (obviously)

If you don’t have the above materials required or any substitutes lying around the house, make a quick pit stop at your local hardware store. 

Step 1: Darken the Room

Now, to darken the room. The visual impact of this activity relies heavily on darkness so don’t take any shortcuts. Use cardboard, black sheets or black garbage bags to cover the windows of the room, securing them tightly with tape. 

Tip: It’s sometimes easier to measure the window first and then cut your material accordingly before taping to the wall. And if you’re covering the window with cardboard, it’s definitely easier to gouge a hole in the middle of the cardboard curtain before taping to the wall. Remember to measure twice, cut once.

Step 2: The Lens

Now the windows are completely blocking any incoming light, it’s time to make the pinhole. Depending on the material used, this can be really easy. If using builders’ film or garbage bags, fashion a small hole, about the size of a 10 cent coin into the material in the middle of the window area. 

Step 3: Turn Off the Lights

Kill the lights. Now wait. Your eyes will immediately begin to see the inverted outside world on your walls. The longer you allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness, the brighter the projection becomes.

Once you’ve mastered this simple method and seen its results, you can begin experimenting with different hole placement and different sized pinholes.

Camera obscura by Aaron Chapman.

Room With a View

Too cold to go shoot this weekend? Too hot? Wherever you are in the world, know that your house is just one novelty-sized camera for viewing the world outside your window. 

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Aaron Chapman

Aaron Chapman is a visual artist and writer based on the Gold Coast, Australia. Chapman’s poetry and prose has appeared in international publications while his photography has been widely exhibited on Australian shores at venues including Head On Photo Festival and the Centre for Contemporary Photography, and during Bleach Festival as part of Super Souvenir. In 2019, Chapman was a Moran Contemporary Photographic Prize semi-finalist, and a finalist in the Australian Life Photography Competition at Art & About Sydney.

2020-07-15T02:29:44+00:00Categories: Photography|Tags: |