The Magic of Camera Obscura


As a photographer, you probably have a pretty intimate relationship with your camera. You spend a lot of special moments together, capturing amazing shots at studios, concerts, parks, on sets, and locations all over the world. But have you paused to think about how your camera even works? Although there’s several different manufacturers and thousands of variations of camera types (DSLR, mirrorless, film, etc), not to mention different body and lens combos, all cameras function based on the scientific principle of “camera obscura.” Derived from Latin, camera means ‘chamber' or 'room’ and obscura means 'dark' or 'darkened,' so the physical concept is referred to as a 'dark room.' When light enters the room through a tiny entry point, it casts a reversed and inverted image of the scene that exists where the light is coming from. This entry point has evolved to become the camera shutter and glass lens, and the room has become the camera body. Modern cameras take advantage of camera obscura by using either light sensitive film or digital sensors to capture the image that is reflected by the light. 


So how can we experience camera obscura ourselves? The natural optical phenomenon can be proven by building a pinhole camera, which is essentially a box with a small hole in one end. Although they will be invisible to your eye, the light rays that enter the whole form a cone on either side of the hole which is what causes the final image to be rotated upside down. You can actually create your own simple pinhole camera with a shoebox, a pin, duct tape, and a few other supplies; check out the video tutorial below to see all of the instructions. You can also examine the effects of adjusting aperture size by experimenting with different sized holes. You'll find that the smaller the aperture is, the sharper the image is, but the dimmer it becomes since less light is let in. Test it out and witness the magic of camera obscura! You'll develop a whole new found appreciation for how amazing your camera truly is. 


We found a photographer, Abelardo Morell, who has taken advantage of this science and captured its magic in a whole new way. He created a photo series entitled Camera Obscura, which features photos of inverted images created by the phenomenon. What's incredible about this project is that he turns entire rooms into pinhole cameras by blocking out the windows and incising a small hole in the material. The space becomes the dark room, and the back wall becomes the canvas for a dreamy, upside down reflection of the outside world. He then uses a film camera to capture the scene that appears on the wall.  He has taken this concept all around the world and created some truly phenomenal images. Below are some examples of his work; to learn more about his process check out this video.  To read about Abelardo Morell, visit his website

Photos by Abelardo Morell

Cameron Kirkland