Camera Obscura and the Optical Way

Camera Obscura

Throughout my photographic career I have oft heard of the fabled camera obsura, the great-grandfather of the modern camera. In fact I have made one or two of the devices on my own to demonstrate how it functions for some of my students. The camera obscura is, for those not aware, an optical device developed thousands of years ago. At the time, it was discovered that if one takes a darkened room and punches a small hole on one side, the outside world will be projected on the opposite wall upside down. Almost anyone who has studied photographic history will likely have heard that artists of the renaissance used the camera obscura to paint a scene as realistically as possible.

Figure 2 - From Leonardo Da vinci's manuscripts

Figure 2 - From Leonardo Da vinci's manuscripts

Aristotle (300 BC) discussed the device in his work Problemata, and Leonardo Da Vinci (1452-1519) was somewhat obsessed with it. He considered the camera obscura to be a form of ‘artificial eye’, and was disturbed by the fact that the image was shown inverted, which led to reason that our eye sees the world the same way. It was Leonardo that proposed installing a lens in camera obscura, however it was not until the mid 1500’s that this was put into practice. The addition of lenses and mirrors made the device a practical tool for artists of the time.

Figure 3 - Medieval Manuscript

Figure 3 - Medieval Manuscript

This coincided with a movement in Europe to create dimensionality and perspective in art. Until this era most artwork was somewhat stylized and presented in two dimensions. The only sense of perspective that existed was that of stacking subjects on top of each other as shown in Figure 3. Filippo Di Ser Brunellesco (1377-1446) is credited with first developing a technique called linear perspective that would define the look of artwork from that period onward. Donatello, Michaelangelo and the rest of the ninja turtles would make it famous.

The third dimension afforded by linear perspective kicked off a revolution in art, and the confluence of the camera obsucra’s technological advances and the art world’s new appetite for three dimensions led to it’s adoption as a tool. For the first time it enabled artists to create incredibly accurate representations of a scene.

Essentially An artist would hang his canvas in the darkened room and trace the scene projected on his canvas. To quote Giovanni Battista della Porta, the camera obscura made it ‘possible for anyone ignorant in the art of painting to draw with a pencil or pen the image of any object whatsoever’. A number of artists were known to own these devices and art historians continually argue over who used it and who did not.

For most of us in the photography world this is where our interest and knowledge of the camera obscura trails off. This footnote in the history of photography gives us a sense of the source of camera construction. However there was more to camera obscura and it’s influence on photography than meets the eye (pardon the pun).

What most of us don’t know is that the camera obscura also introduced the world to the concept of depth of field. Keep in mind that the diameter of the hole would have a profound effect on DOF, and subjects at varying distances in the scene would be out of focus. This would be also affected by the type of optics installed in the camera obscura.

Now imagine if you will that you are a great Italian artist, and you are locked in your camera faithfully recreating a scene. You find yourself working in the area of your scene where the image trails off into fuzziness caused by circles of confusion. What do you do? Well most artists at this point would begin to compensate for the flaws in the camera obscura’s design and fill in these areas sharply. But as with all things revolutionary, one day an artist did not.

Figure 4 - "Officer and the Laughing Girl" Johannes Vermeer

Figure 4 - "Officer and the Laughing Girl" Johannes Vermeer (Click for High Res)

Now the weirdness of this is blunted by our modern perception of photographic images. But consider that at the time no one outside of scientists or artists had familiarity with the effect of optics on the image of a scene. Consider what you would think if you commissioned a painting from Vemeer and he painted parts of it…fuzzy.

Paintings of this sort would have been incomprehensible, eccentric, and frankly weird at the time. And yet Vermeer persisted. He captured halation of highlights, abstract reflections of glass and other elements only seen through optics and did so more faithfully than any other artists of his time. Wile Vermeer was not tied necessarily to the image created by the optics of the camera obscura, he certainly introduced the world to that view. His later work drifts into the realm of the abstract, buut throughout his life he created works with optical elements in them.

Figure 5 - "The Girl in the Red Hat" Johannes Vermeer

Figure 5 - "The Girl in the Red Hat" Johannes Vermeer (Click for high res)

If you look closely at the detail in Figure 5 (It is very high res so you may need to zoom out a bit), you can see the fuzziness that depth of field created in the foreground and background elements of the painting. Particularly in the way he painted the lion-head detail of the chair that is in the background. This painting style established a softness that served to isolate his subject and draw the viewers eye. I wonder if this had been his intent, or merely replicating what his camera saw. How wonderful an idea to think that he had done it for subject isolation. In either case it is clear that it was intentionally painted this way and makes the image appear, well, more photographic.

In all things photographic we defer to the work of the great masters. We base our rules of composition (rule of thirds), crop ratios (all based on canvas sizes of the past), and lighting (Rembrandt) on their work. It is also remarkable, to me at least, that perhaps we also use DOF to highlight our subjects because of the work of Vemeer and the camera obscura.  The fact remains that almost all things photographic have been done already. The interesting thing is that most of them were done before the first “photograph” was even exposed.

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  1. Julie April 26, 2014 at 7:17 am #

    Great article!

    • shawn.kent May 12, 2014 at 12:54 am #

      Thanks so much!