Early Photography Pinhole cameras & Camera Obscuras

Pinhole Principles

Around 400 BC, Chinese philosopher Mo-ti recorded an inverted image formed by light rays passing through a pinhole into a dark room.

The pinhole effect is based on the scientific law of optics. Light travels in a straight line. When light rays pass through a small hole, the rays cross and reform the image upside-down on a flat surface.

Early Pinhole Principle Use

Aristotle (384-322 BC) observed the sun during a partial solar eclipse using leaves and a hole in a filter to view the phenomenon.

Leonardo Da Vinci gave two clear descriptions of using pinholes to view solar eclipses in his notebooks around 1490.

By the mid-1500's , large rooms were used to observe solar eclipses.

Around the same time, the produced image quality improved with the addition of a convex glass lens replacing the pinhole. This was followed by the addition of a mirror to reflect the image down onto a viewing surface.

Camera Obscura

German astronomer Johannes Kepler first used the term camera obscura (latin for "dark room") in 1604 to refer to these rooms and boxes.

He used camera obscuras for astronomical applications and used a portable tent camera obscura for surveying upper Austria.

Two uses would evolve for the camera obscura: art and entertainment.


During the 1600's-1800's, artists used camera obscuras for drawing and painting. Both portable, boxed camera obscuras were used along with room-sized ones.

This easily led to the photographic camera in the early 1800's with the addition of a sheet of light sensitive material to the camera obscura.

Art Controversy: Talent or Copying?

(c. 1665) Vermeer
View of Delft (c. 1660) Vermeer

A camera obscura is believed to have been used by Vermeer in the above paintings along with the background painting. It is still debated in the art world of whether he was that talented of an artist to paint in such camera-like detail or whether he was using a camera obscura to aid in his painting.

Other period art

Portrait of Man Holding Gloves (1648) Rembrandt
Portrait of a Man Seated in an Armchair (c. 1640-1650) Dutch painter

Background image is Young Heardsman with Cows (1655-1660) Cuyp


In the 1800's, an improved lens could cast larger, sharper images.

Buildings were made to combine education and entertainment through the use of large room-sized camera obscuras. These buildings thrived at seasides and in scenic parks.

(c. 1870's) Central Park, NYC

Pinhole Cameras Today

the life of a pinhole photographer - Justin Quinnell

Make your own room-sized camera obscura

The background image was made from cardboard shades and a pinhole in one spot.


Created with images by exfordy - "Camera obscura image, Havana" • auspices - "solargraphy - first attempt" • paukrus - "Solar Eclipse" • exfordy - "Camera obscura image, Havana" • cogdogblog - "2016/366/135 Eclipsed Media in 1764" • irinaraquel - "Johannes Vermeer - Girl Interrupted at Her Music" • nathanh100 - "Vermeer, 1665" • irinaraquel - "Johannes Vermeer - View of Delft" • shrinkin'violet - "an original sign perhaps?" • Clive Varley - "CameraObscuraGreenwichObservatory"

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