Full Chisel Blog

October 26, 2008

Camera Obscura

Filed under: Historical Material,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 3:57 pm

As opposed to Camera Obvious, my attempt at humor.  This is a rather ancient device, I am sure invented shortly after optical lenses were developed (not quite true).  Well, I have always wanted one, but they are not readily available (not quite true).  I would also like a Camera Lucida, but that is another story.

Well, today while at my local swap meet, I bought this.  And while it is not a camera obscura, the lenses are what I need.  This was probably made in the 1920’s and is an opaque projector.  Called a Postoscope – Display Artists Projector.  The mirror is not a front surface mirror, drat, however the optics are good enough.


Fancy, right?  Nice wrinkle finish and a couple of 150 watt bulbs, the handle is missing, but that is not what I need.  At first I couldn’t get it to focus for my intended use, as it was intended to project an image a fixed distance.  I needed it to focus on infinity (or as close as is theoretically possible, for those physicists among us) and it didn’t work.

I then consulted my friend Sir George and we discussed the objectives of my quest to turn these lenses and mirror into a camera obscura.  I explained that the lenses were different, one is flatter on is convex surface.  He being the brilliant mind that he is, suggested that I turn the lens tube around.  Well, that clearly brought everything into focus.

So my $8.00 investment was a good one.  I may use the lens tube as it is, but I am fairly sure I will make a wooden replacement, some nice mahogany veneer laminated into a tube.  Now you may ask what the hell is a camera obscura and why am I interested in making one?  Good question, glad you asked.

The camera obscura in an archaic instrument, the originals were actually probably invented before optical lens and shortly after the invention of the mirror, as this can be done with a pin hole, no lenses needed.  The idea is that it captures an image and projects it onto a piece of paper and that image is then drawn on the paper.  This works overhead or from beneath and was developed into a variety of different drawing appliances.

It looks like some of the Masters may have used these to aid in their paintings and illustrations.  It was popular in the late 18th and early nineteenth century and still continued in popularity after the introduction of the photographic process in the early 1840’s.  Samuel F.P. Morse, yes the inventor of the telegraphic code, among other things brought the Daguerre process to America.

This is on my list of things to do, however as for now I am busy enough, but will fiddle with it from time to time, as it is not terribly complicated, well it shouldn’t be, but I may add a few flourishes as I think this is a tool that I will use on a regular basis.

Speaking of the local swap meet, the lovely lady was there again today, it was a pleasure to see her, although I didn’t buy anything from her.  I walked up behind her as she was unloading stuff from her truck and said “We have got to stop meeting like this!’.  She got a chuckle out of that and I went on to tell her that she is becoming a celebrity on my blog.  She wasn’t sure how to take that and another friend who happened to be at the same place said something about the pictures posted on the web, throwing me under the bus.

Well after some explaining the actual context in which she was referred to was on the up-and-up and there was nothing untoward, except beating her up on prices.  So I gave her my card with the blog address, so she can rest assured everything was proper.  She then told me her name, but she has requested anonymity, so she will just be the nice lady at the swap meet.

Then after I had gone through the rest of the stuff and was on my way out, I went by her place and she said she had some other tools including a Miller Falls wooden tool box and some blacksmithing tools she wanted to sell.  She told me where she lives, not far away and asked for my phone number.  I like it when pretty ladies ask for my number. 




  1. In my past life I was a photographer and used a modern equivalent of your camera obscura all the time. It was a great selling tool for portraits. One wall of my office was 20′ long and painted flat white. When I put a proof in the machine its zoom lens always seemed to be set to maximum for some reason, and the projection always looked like a postage stamp. The customers always ended up buying larger portraits than they had planned on. I have no idea why ; )

    Comment by Mitchell — October 27, 2008 @ 10:44 am

  2. Mitchell,

    I think this will be a fun project to make and a handy tool for capturing images for illustrations. If the projector were in better condition I would not dismantle it, however the wiring is risky, handle missing, so it will get a new life in a camera obscura.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 27, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

  3. Hi Stephen

    I enjoyed your article, and the fact you have made a camera obscura so economically. I run a public Camera Obscura in Edinburgh that has been around since 1853. Our lens system was changed in 1947 and is complex, but the original lens was found a few years ago and is a simple one that I hope to reuse in a second camera obscura on our rooftop. If you want to know more about our Camera Obscura have a a look at our website http://www.camera-obscura.co.uk
    In the meantime I am going to see if I can lay my hands on a postoscope like yours.

    Comment by Andrew Johnson — October 28, 2008 @ 5:41 am

  4. Andrew,

    Welcome, and what a great Job you have, nice site. Apparently there was a large rooftop mounted here in Salt Lake City in the 1860’s, but I haven’t found any photographs yet, just references. And there was a reference to a small camera obscura that was brought out in 1847 with the first pioneer settlers came here to Utah.

    With photography new at that time, people were fascinated by these images and those made by the camera obscura and camera lucida. A camera lucida is also in my future, I have photographs of an ‘Improved Drawing Instrument’ that doesn’t have any shaped lenses but uses flat glass.


    Comment by Stephen Shepherd — October 28, 2008 @ 9:16 am

  5. this is the best place to buy camera obscuras and camera lucidas. http://ancientmagicarttools.com/

    Comment by Les — May 22, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

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