Camera obscura

Michelangelo: Sonnet XXX [30] Veggio co’ be’ vostri occhi 

Come luna da sè sol par ch’io sia:
Chè gli occhi nostri in ciel veder non sanno
Se non quel tanto che n’accende il sole.
Translation:
I am like the moon, alone,
which our eyes cannot see in the heavens
except that it is illumined by the sun.

The camera obscura (Latin; “camera” is a “vaulted chamber/room” + “obscura” means “dark”= “darkened chamber/room”) is an optical device that projects an image of its surroundings on a screen. It is used in drawing and for entertainment, and was one of the inventions that led to photography. The device consists of a box or room with a hole in one side. Light from an external scene passes through the hole and strikes a surface inside where it is reproduced, upside-down, but with color and perspective preserved. The image can be projected onto paper, and can then be traced to produce a highly accurate representation.

Using mirrors, as in the 18th century overhead version (illustrated in the History section below), it is possible to project a right-side-up image. Another more portable type is a box with an angled mirror projecting onto tracing paper placed on the glass top, the image being upright as viewed from the back.

As a pinhole is made smaller, the image gets sharper, but the projected image becomes dimmer. With too small a pinhole the sharpness again becomes worse due to diffraction. Some practical camera obscuras use a lens rather than a pinhole because it allows a larger aperture, giving a usable brightness while maintaining focus. (See pinhole camera for construction information.)

Camera obscura box

History

The first surviving mention of the principles behind the pinhole camera, a precursor to the camera obscura, belongs to Mo-Ti (470 BC to 390 BC), a Chinese philosopher and the founder of Mohism. Mo-Ti referred to this camera as a “collecting plate” or “locked treasure room”. The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 to 322 BC) understood the optical principle of the pinhole camera.  He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a plane tree.

The camera obscura was known to earlier scholars since the time of Mo-Ti and Aristotle. Euclid‘s Optics (ca 300 BC), presupposed the camera obscura as a demonstration that light travels in straight lines.

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.” In the 4th century, Theon of Alexandria observed how “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 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.”

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

The Song Dynasty  Chinese scientist Shen Kuo (1031–1095) 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. However, Shen Kuo alluded to the fact that the Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang 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. In fact, Shen makes no assertion that he was the first to experiment with such a device. Shen wrote of Cheng’s book: “[Miscellaneous Morsels from Youyang] said that the image of the pagoda is inverted because it is beside the sea, and that the sea has that effect. This is nonsense. It is a normal principle that the image is inverted after passing through the small hole.”

In 13th-century England Roger Bacon described the use of a camera obscura for the safe observation of solar eclipses. 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 camera obscura in Codex AtlanticusJohann Zahn’s Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium was published in 1685. This work contains many descriptions and diagrams, illustrations and sketches of both the camera obscura and of the magic lantern.

Camera obscura in Encyclopédie

[Above: Camera obscura in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers]

The Dutch Masters, such as Johannes Vermeer, who were hired as painters in the 17th century, 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, recently revived by the Hockney–Falco thesis. The term “camera obscura” was first used by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1604. The English physician and author Sir Thomas Browne speculated upon the inter-related workings of optics and the camera obscura in his 1658 Discourse The Garden of Cyrus thus-

For at the eye the Pyramidal rayes from the object, receive a decussation, and so strike a second base upon the Retina or hinder coat, the proper organ of Vision; wherein the pictures from objects are represented, answerable to the paper, or wall in the dark chamber; after the decussation of the rayes at the hole of the hornycoat, and their refraction upon the Christalline humour, answering the foramen of the window, and the convex or burning-glasses, which refract the rayes that enter it.

Camera obscura, from a manuscript of military designs. Seventeenth century, possibly Italian.

Early models 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, more easily portable models became available. These were extensively used by amateur artists while on their travels, but they were also employed by professionals, including Paul SandbyCanaletto and Joshua Reynolds, whose camera (disguised as a book) is now in the Science Museum (London). Such cameras were later adapted by Joseph Nicephore NiepceLouis Daguerre and William Fox Talbot for creating the first photographs.

Four drawings by Canaletto

[Above: Four drawings by Canaletto, representing Campo San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, obtained with a Camera obscura. (Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia)

Camera obscura box (18th Century)

[Above: 18th Century Artist using a camera obscura to outline his subject]

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camera_obscura

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6 responses to “Camera obscura”

  1. Clarissa Lin says :

    When somebody uses a camera which is what the European men or women obviously did in the 18th century as the x-rays proved that lead was present in the paintings (lead was a substance used in 18th century cameras), how could those European men with lots of guts live with themselves and call themselves artists? Just the fact that Vermeer and Rembrant or other French or Italian artists in the 16th and 17th centuries did that, how could they not feel ashamed. After using a camera obscura to produce the detail, and knowing that he cannot draw well, he does not know how to paint as a realist without using a camera? Using a camera is really mean of that European painter just paints over it and cheats and then takes credit for principal work done by a machine.

    Sound affairs”, please correct this part re: It has been widely speculated (wrong) 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 (it is a bit of controversy but more like people not being honest about public information re: Dutch painters etc. that people should know the truth). . It is a scientific fact and not called “speculation”. Some European are artists and they have eyes are on their heads. To create that kind of extensive detail, you need to stand so close that you are one feet away but then you can only see the face and neck and not the body. However, you need to stand at least 4 metres away and the naked eye (even with 20/20 vision) cannot see that amount of magnificent detail without getting dizzy-only a machine or camera obscura could capture that kind of magnificent detail-that is obvious!

  2. Lolita says :

    During the 17th and 18th century, Vermeer and Le Brun and various other European artists used a camera obscura which is not the same as painting because Vermeer and other European artists were tracing. Some camera obscuras produced a life size inverted photo that the European artist could trace for the oil painting. If supporters of Vermeer just try to be more honest and acknowledge the camera was used, and stop trying to cover up, they would come to an agreement that Joseph Pennell etc. have already proven that Vermeer and other neoclassical artists used a camera. Phillip Steadman is correct when saying that the camera obscura projected the images etc. and Vermeer traced them over with paint. He said that using a camera with an incredibly clear image (produced by the camera obscura) did occur in Vermeer’s case. Tracing is cheating. Vermeer is not that great and only a superhuman would do that. After 230-350 years, when the neoclassical artist used a camera, of course, the users of camera obscuras would not leave behind more evidence on purpose and the evidence gets hidden or some evidence was lost in the translation from Dutch or French translated to English.

  3. Yingtai says :

    Hello,

    The art galleries in 21st century in Europe or North America or elsewhere, if exhibiting these 17th or 18th century paintings should not mislead people and should at least tell visitors that the oil paintings of Vermeer were done with a camera-not ethical to hide this. The way the Dutch artist almost certainly used cameras and then totally lied in public as a living is disgusting and unethical. Drawing a portrait with a subject is NOT copying and is called artistic work vs. Copying is more like tracing or using a camera. Paintings of Vermeer and Elisabeth Le Brun cannot be perceived with the naked eye and were not paintings by them, Vermeer and Le Brun have no right to get worldwide public fame 300 years later today, and have their paintings published and then taking false credit for tracing or using camera obscuras. For example, if you invite friends over for a meal, and you did not cook the meal, that would be ridiculous to say you cooked the meal and if you lied like that regularly.

    I, Yingtai Xiang have a rare talent for art because as a child, teenager and adult because I pursue a different field and I am modest about it as a young person. Also, as a Chinese girl, I Yingtai Xiang can draw and paint better without practicing the way Vermeer, Le Brun would have practiced 1400 hours per year during 300 years ago. Vermeer, Rembrandt or Le Brun who would have hired instructors and practiced full-time but when using a camera, means that Dutch or European artist is not actually good at drawing/painting, those are two different things. Smart people have noted that Vermeer and other 18th century people were known to hide camera obscuras in their attic.

    90% of the population cannot draw, do the most simple stick figure cartoons or stick figures and are not artistic. The other 10%, some may be able to draw or paint but at different abilities, are not the same level.

  4. Jason says :

    Clarissa is right, you need to stand so close that you are one feet away but then you can only see the face and neck and not the body. However, you need to stand at least 2 metres away (and not 4 metres) and the naked eye (even with 20/20 vision) cannot see that amount of magnificent detail (even standing 2 feet away) without getting dizzy-only a machine or camera obscura could capture that kind of microscopic detail-that is obvious! Vermeers paintings has more like camera details and Vermeer was not a magnificent painter like that.

    Picasso is not a bad man but Pablo Picasso is weird for some of his distorted paintings. As Picasso draws distorted images, he become a famous painter until a long long time afterwards for his impressionist art. Picasso draws distorted art (Blue Period, Cubism, triangles and squares ) and is NOT an extraordinary artistic talent during his early years or after.

  5. Jason says :

    Clarissa is right that you need to stand at least 2 metres away (not 4 metres) to get the whole picture and the human eye cannot get, cannot capture that amount of detail-but a camera would. Vermeer was not a magnificent painter like that.

    Picasso is not a bad man but Picasso, Spanish painter is weird for some of his distorted paintings. As Picasso draws distorted images, he become a famous painter until a long long time afterwards for his impressionist art. Picasso draws distorted art (Blue Period, Cubism, triangles and squares ) and is NOT an extraordinary artistic talent during his early years or after.

  6. Kelsey says :

    Clarissa, Quote: Just the fact that Vermeer and Rembrant or other French or Italian artists in the 16th and 17th centuries did that, how could they not feel ashamed. After using a camera obscura to produce the detail, and knowing that he cannot draw well, he does not know how to paint as a realist without using a camera?” Do you mean Vermeer or the other man cannot draw well-fine , Torrentius, without the camera hidden in the attic, these western artists, mentioned as masterpieces (?) are not actually great at drawing but acting immature by using a camera is plagiarism or worse than plagiarism to garner wide public fame or attention in Europe or North America. For example, Imagine going to class or work and handing in somebody else’s work business plan or accounting report and that is totally unethical-no different from what Vermeer or other 17th or 18th century artist did, more like cheating realists.

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