Art, Education, J. Paul Getty Museum, Photographs, Film, and Video

Friday DIY: Create Your Own Camera Obscura

The camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”) is an optical device that projects an upside-down image of what’s around it. A forerunner of the camera, it’s been used by artists from da Vinci to Vermeer to create paintings and drawings. Artworks made with the aid of a camera obscura often have a remarkably photographic vibe, like this light-drenched view of the Bay of Naples from the 1700s. In the Victorian era, the device was used as a seaside attraction—you can still see evidence of this at Santa Monica’s own camera obscura, open to the public since 1907.

The Camera Obscura on Ocean Blvd. in Santa Monica / Jason Festa

The Camera Obscura on Ocean Blvd. in Santa Monica. Photo: Jason Festa, CC BY-NC 2.0

Artist Abelardo Morell takes a unique approach to this device, as he makes entire rooms into camerae obscurae, then uses a long exposure to capture the image. This video explains the effects he achieves with this approach.

Ready to make your own? Here’s a step-by-step activity sheet with a template to help you make your own camera obscura in a cardboard box.

If you want to turn your whole room into a camera obscura, here’s an easy-to-follow tutorial that also describes how how snap a good picture of it.

As you can see, the supplies are simple—cardboard, a plastic ring or lens, a knife, and duct tape. The magic happens when light passes through the lens you’ve cut from one of the boards, following a long-known law of optics to project an upside-down version of the view onto the opposite wall.

Ambitious student Edwin Castro, one of the 8th-graders who participated in the Getty’s Community Photoworks program under the guidance of Morell, tried to make a room-size camera obscura himself, and told me this:

If you put the black plastic on the windows and turn off all the lights and just put one hole, the image outside will come inside, but flipped. I actually tried it—my mom came home and was staring at it, and I was like “Hi Mom!”

Whether or not you have parental permission, making your own camera obscura is a fun optical experiment!

Camera Obscura Image of Santa Maria della Salute in Palazzo Bedroom, Venice, Italy / Abelardo Morell

Camera Obscura Image of Santa Maria della Salute in Palazzo Bedroom, Venice, Italy, 2006, Abelardo Morell. Inkjet print, 40 x 30 in. Lent by the artist, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York. © Abelardo Morell, courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

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      September, the month to harvest grapes, isn’t just for the modern Virgo.

      Libras and Scorpios are in on the labors of plowing and sowing fun for the month. Since the Middle Ages the zodiac symbols have shifted with changes in the months of the calendar. 

      Zodiacal Sign of Virgo, about 1170s, Unknown. German, Hildesheim. J. Paul Getty Museum.
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