Learn About Cameras: Make a Camera Obscura

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Learn About Cameras: Make a Camera ObscuraI’m really excited about our activity for the letter C in my ABCs of Photography series: camera obscura.  Yes, we’re going to make another cardboard camera today!  I promise it’s pretty simple.

Now, in case you’re thinking: “camera whatzit?”  Bear with me a minute.  The term camera obscura is from Latin, and means “dark room.”  Camera obscura is defined by Dictionary.com as follows:

a darkened boxlike device in which images of external objects, received through an aperture, as with a convex lens, are exhibited in their natural colors on a surface arranged to receive them: used for sketching, exhibition purposes, etc.

It’s basically a pinhole camera but without film… a pre-film camera or projector.  A giant eyeball, if you will.  The camera obscura demonstrates perfectly how a camera captures images and flips them upside down.  And you can make one without too much trouble!

Now, I thought about showing you how make a fancy camera obscura… but the fact is, many such tutorials already live on the web.

  • How To Convert Your Room Into a Giant Camera Obscura – this link is really neat, it talks about how you can make a room-sized camera obscura!  You’ll need a room, and a bunch of cardboard (enough to cover the windows).  Probably some tape too.  And this would work best in a room that faces north.
  • Creating effective camera obscuras – I have to tell you, this page has a lot of neat ideas for creating a variety of camera obscura models.
  • Create a Camera Obscura – This PDF by Getty walks you through how to make a camera obscura from a cardboard box.It’s a little more advanced than the method I’ll explain shortly, as it uses a lens to focus the image.

So I decided, once again, to keep things simple. Because simple is easier, and therefore better.  And, chances are better you’ll actually work up the energy to try this activity yourself if it’s not too complicated!

Making a Cardboard Camera Obscura

When a delivery arrived one morning in the “perfect” camera obscura box, I knew what we’d be doing for the letter C of my Photography ABCs series.  This activity is perfect for older kids to do on their own, but for younger ones, you’ll need to do most of the creating (or at least cutting).

I took the cardboard box, which conveniently came with a cardboard insert, and poked a small hole (about the size of a pea) in one end.  In the opposite end, I cut a viewing window (the size of a business card).  In case you’ve caught on, the measurements are all relative here — go with the flow and just approximate!  If you’re ambitious, you could even convert the simplified aperture camera we made into a camera obscura, that would have been crafty of me to demonstrate, huh?

Inside the box, using the cardboard insert, I created a window panel cut out.  To this piece, I taped a piece of parchment paper.  Now, to get a crisply focused image, you’ll have to experiment with the placement of this panel and how far away it is from the pinhole (er,… pea-size hole).

Here’s a diagram I made showing how to make the camera obscura:

Make a simple camera obscura, using materials you have around the house!

I have to admit, I did initially make a real pinhole opening, but found that it didn’t let enough light in for this to be practical.  So that’s why I revised my “pinhole” opening and made it more the size of a pea.

Here’s a bird’s eye view of how everything is put together:

Bird's eye view of the camera obscura

Then you’re all done. Close up the box, and peek in through the viewing window you made earlier.

After checking to make sure it worked, I handed the cardboard camera obscura over to Toby.  He was so excited to, once again, see a “picture” of the deck — this time inside the camera obscura.

Here are some photos of our cardboard camera obscura. Note that the box is open so you can see inside — you’ll have to close it and make sure it’s somewhat lightproof in order to see anything projected inside. Click on any image to enter gallery view mode.

How Does It Work?

So, onto the over-simplified explanation of how this all works.  The light enters through the small hole, which focuses the light in a way similar to how a magnifying glass (or a camera lens) focuses light.  We’ll cover how lenses work later on in this series, don’t worry!

The image is then projected onto the surface for viewing.

Bird's eye view of the camera obscura

If your kids are anything like mine, it will be worth mentioning that eyeballs work like this too.  Toby got a kick out of knowing that his eyes turn everything he sees upside down.

Well, that’s that!  I don’t want to drag this post on much longer, because you’re probably dying to go get started, right?  I have to say, for my toddler, being able to hold the camera obscura in his hands and “aim” it at different things was fantastic.  Toby loved “taking pictures” with the camera obscura and seeing life upside down.

Make sure to check back next week for the next post, where I’ll share an activity for the letter D – will it be Digital? or Depth of Field? Learn About Double Exposure 🙂 If you can’t wait to find out, feel free to distract yourself by revisiting last week’s activity where we learned about Bokeh.


The ABCs of Photography - An Educational Series for KidsJoin Betsy as she works through the alphabet in this educational series for kids… The ABCs of Photography!  We’ll cover topics from A to Z, with activity ideas for both younger and older kids

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2 Responses

  1. Tanya @ Mom's Small Victories
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    This is really cool. Thanks for sharing with Small Victories Sunday Linkup and hope you join us again this weekend! Pinning to our linkup board.

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