Fascinating History: How Trapping Light in a Box Changed the World


It’s amazing what humanity has done with such simple machines.

For example, when humans invented the wheel we discovered it moved things faster. Then, we invented tools, and found that they made our work much faster, and easier. We created weapons to improve our hunting prowess, and they did.

Those all changed life as we know it, however...

Out of all the natural inventions and discoveries, one stands out for entirely re-shaping our culture.

That’s what happened when we discovered the phenomenon of photography and the camera obscura.

It may have taken hundreds of years for it to unfold into the amazing technology we see every day, but there is this basic fact.

This technology all begins with one concept:

The way light moves and how we perceive the images it creates.

In a world where we have televisions, cellphones, and the digital camera, it’s hard to imagine how it came to be. And rightly so, because it’s conception is quite obscure.

Wait, what?


One that produces an image, very much like a projection.

Traditionally, the camera obscura is a variety of objects that have several things in common.

Such as a dark room and a tiny hole in the wall.

An image of what's outside on the other side is projected, upside down, on the opposite wall when light shines through the hole. Manifesting in a variety of ways, it's observed throughout history, and its applications have been used in numerous ways.


The invention (or discovery) of the camera obscura has greatly influenced the world as we know it.

And the way it works is actually quite interesting.


When you think of the camera obscura, two fundamental things should come to mind:

light and reflection

That’s what’s required to make the camera obscura work.

More accurately, that’s the best explanation as to how it works. How light moves and the fantastic illusions it can create.

But the way the camera obscura works is surprisingly simple: build a dark room where no light can get in. Then make a hole as small as a pin.

The world outside is somehow projected onto the dark wall when the light forces its way through this tiny hole. Like a photograph, or a painting. There’s only one fundamental difference.


The image is upside down.

Once the image is there, there’s a lot you can do with it. But we’ll get to that in a minute. How it gets there is far more interesting.


Light moves in a straight line. That doesn’t sound too confusing. But once you realize what that means, it gets a little strange.

Imagine the camera obscura is on an X and Y axis. The hole in the wall, or the aperture, is the point of origin. If light only moves in straight lines and has to pass through the point of origin, since that’s the only point that light can travel through, there’s no way the image can’t be upside down.

The top of your subject will start on the upper left side of the plane


but will be in the bottom right of the plane after passing through the aperture


once it passes through the point of origin, the bottom of the subject will be on the bottom left of the plane but in the upper right.

Hard to believe the invention of the camera as we know it began with that crazy optical illusion.

The magic of optical illusions

man writing

Image: CC by SA 4.0, by Uwe Kulick, via Flickr

Humans are inventive creatures. And we love art.

A lot.

To the point where we take a look at that naturally occurring phenomenon and utilize it to reinvent an art style. When the picture first shined through that pinhole and projected onto the wall, we set a precedent for a few different things.

First of all, we found a way to make quick paintings. Don’t think of it as cheating, as it's quite ingenious, but painters could now paint along the lines and creature picture perfect images. The versatile use of the camera obscura allowed artists to paint landscapes in less than a day and, just as humans do, mass produce art.

For the time, that’s as immediate as art got.

Secondly, it was the first projector. Projectors serve many purposes throughout history. After the invention of celluloid film reels, it's penultimate purpose was fulfilled. But we’ll get back to that later.

Lastly, it was a camera:

The first camera.

While it doesn’t fulfill our modern idea of how a camera functions, it is the technological pre-cursor behind every beautiful photograph we’ve ever seen. Behind every television set or computer screen is a complex network of mechanisms directly descended from the camera obscura.

And it’s all the byproduct of our fascination with this one optical illusion.


It’s construction is surprisingly simple. If you were so inclined, you could build one in your home and see for yourself.

Give it a try.

You can find the materials anywhere and for fairly cheap. There are actually several different ways you can do it, but the idea is always the same.

One way to do it is with a shoe box.

Any shoe box will do, and all it takes is thirty minutes of your time. All you’ll need is a shoe box, small magnifying glass, tape, and laminated tracing paper.

taping box


You can accomplish the same effect with various household objects, from cereal boxes to toilet paper rolls. They all function in the same way and produce the same effect.

Now, if you’re really in the mood for building something, you can construct your very own camera obscura room, much as Alhazen did.


The human race is one that needs a lot of visual stimulation. We’ve always had “the eye” before it was “the photographer’s eye.” But we haven't always had the proper means to tell visual stories.

At least not like today’s standards.

In the earliest days of human civilization, our one and only medium was drawing. If we track our lineage as far back as we can, we find ourselves in a cave. On the walls of that cave are artistic representations of what everyday life was thousands of years ago.

historic rock art

Image: CC by 2.0, by EllenConnelly74, via Pixabay

There’s also the theory that the camera obscura effect inspired many cave paintings and paleolithic drawings. Huts made of animal skins as far back as 30,000 BCE were demonstrated to have similar effects to that of its small dark room design more than 20,000 years later.

In other words:

We saw animals and people in obscure shapes lined up to tell a specific story.


As we got smarter, so did our art and our storytelling. As early as 20,000 years ago, humans started getting creative with the way they created their images. Early humans began mashing different berries and things together to make different colors and even started adding a little three-dimensional flare to their art.

As time moved on, we got better and better and better. Artists were churning out realistic-looking portraits and tangible scenes that served as early photographs.

But with this craving for realism came a greater push. Inventive minds got together and figured out a way that we could create hyper-realistic images easier than ever.

After all, that’s what humans do best.

The natural phenomenon has presented itself to Earth’s greatest minds for centuries.

And there's one popular theory that links the phenomenon with the invention itself.

Screens were first installed on one side of the pinhole and the other by a man named Alhazen, or Ibn al-Haytham. Doing so could project a specific image from one screen to another.


He was also the first to discover the “classic” idea of what a camera obscura is. A dark room with that tiny pinhole in a curtain creates an inverted image of an outside scene on the opposite wall.


The phenomenon goes back as far as recorded history. Just like the ancient humans who found inspiration with this strange archaic camera, it may have played a role in Neolithic architecture dating back thousands of years.

And get this:

It's theorized that the camera obscura effect may have played a role in religious experiences with “phantoms made of light,” believed to be god-like figures.

But no one knows exactly where the first camera obscura came from since there’s evidence of its earliest form as far back as 5th century BC China. It was philosopher Mozi who first spoke of the device and its applications.

After all, China has always been a bit ahead of the game with art and just all-out inventiveness.

Mozi pioneered the idea that light moves in straight lines and when you force it through a tiny hole, it carries an upside-down image with it.

Image by steemit


Image: CC by 2.0, by Couleur, via Pixabay

Another famous philosopher, Aristotle, just 100 years later observed a similar phenomenon.​​

When a solar eclipse fell upon Greece in 4th century BC, Aristotle noticed that the light shining through the leaves projected the near-perfect image of a solar eclipse on the ground beneath him.


This light theory was further demonstrated when Al-Kindi, an Arabic philosopher and mathematician experimented with light and pinholes in the 9th century

As far as actual recorded history goes, the writings of the camera obscura began around 500 BCE with the aforementioned Mozi in his school of logic known as Mohism.

Truth be told:

We don't know how he experimented or witnessed the camera obscura, but the way he describes it sounds remarkably like the phenomenon.

That’s why it’s considered the earliest recorded documentation of it, rather than the paleolithic and Neolithic theory.

14th century

Da Vinci Vitruve Luc Viatour

Image: CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Leonardo Da Vinci is famous for a lot of things. One of those things is his curiosity about the human anatomy. After all, it was his Vitruvian man that medical professionals still use to this day.

His curiosity made him very fascinated with the camera obscura. Da Vinci found that the camera obscura was a perfect model to demonstrate exactly how the eye works after the research he conducted.

Our eyes, like little cameras, have apertures in the form of pupils that self adjust to let in the appropriate amount of light. It’s the perfect representation.

After Da Vinci used the camera obscura as a model to how the eye works, his fascination continued. Throughout his life, he drew over 270 different diagrams on how the camera obscura works.

As a result:

It drew a lot of attention to the camera obscura, and people were fascinated, from artists to scientists. For centuries, they toyed around with its possibilities.

15th century

shroud of turin

Image: CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The 15th century gave birth to another amazing phenomenon: the Shroud of Turin. A piece of material appeared to have the face of a man on it, but it was unclear. The material was white, and the face was hard to distinguish.

This discovery was somewhat unsubstantial until the discovery of photographic negatives.

Over the centuries, we discovered the effects of several chemical compounds that would later help us revert this image into something more distinguishable.

Albertus Magnus, Georg Fabricus, and Willhelm Homberg were the three central minds behind the discovery of silver nitrates abilities.

The discovery was:

Some colors could be darkened and others would lighten by exposing it to certain light.

Cool fact: The invention of photographic negatives preceded the photograph itself.

16th century

Giambattista Benedetti

Image by alchetron

In 1585, Venetian mathematician Giambattista Benedetti was the first to suggest a significant change. As you know, the image projected on the other side has always been upside down.

But with Benedetti’s suggestion to install a 45-degree angled mirror to turn the image upright. And it worked.

Kind of.

When the image was flipped to look right side up, it was backward. Obviously, that’s fairly typical of mirrors so in any case, this was a major breakthrough.

Despite the strange outcome:

This would become common practice for those who used the camera obscura. It opened up so many new doors and opportunities.

Little by little and piece by piece, the device would get more complex. It was no longer just a room with a hole in the wall. It was, once again, a machine of magic.

And the uses for the camera obscura became more and more creative.


Giambattista della Porta, not to be confused with Benedetti, is widely believed to be the first man to suggest that the camera obscura could be used by artists to create paintings or drawings. He suggested that artists could use it as a projector for painters to essentially trace over the projected image.

While there is no evidence of anyone practicing this until many, many years later, it definitely seems as though Giambattista was the first to say it.

Around Giambattista’s time, the camera made its first move into showbiz.


Fun scenes showing hunting, battles, parties, and exciting events were set up like plays. They built simple sets including trees, animals, and building replicas, all out of wood and whatever they had around.

Then, the camera was set up between the show and the audience and projected the performance onto a big screen.

That's right, folks. A movie theater.

Viewers couldn’t believe that what they were seeing was anything other than magic itself.


Johannes Kepler, the man who first coined the term camera obscura, wrote a book in 1604, detailing his many studies with the device. Ad Vitellionem Paralipomena is the name of the book, and in it, he details his recreations of the illusion.

And the best part is:

This is perhaps the most detailed break down of the camera obscura and how it works. But most importantly, Kepler, while expanding on what Da Vinci had originally said about the human eye functioning like the camera obscura, suggested something big.

leonardo da vinci

Image: CC by 2.0, by dimitrisvetsikas1969 , via Pixabay

Da Vinci said that the eye pulled in images much like the camera, but he never once offered an explanation to one major flaw: the image comes in upside down.

Kepler was maybe the first to suggest that the human brain can flip the image so that we see upright. All from experimenting with the camera and reflections in his many experiments.

Incredibly, he was right.

Spotting the sun

Kepler also tinkered with the camera obscura to observe solar objects that can’t be seen with the naked eye. While first suggested in ancient China with the Gnomons and sundials or when Aristotle first witnessed the detailed reflection of the sun, Kepler found that the camera obscura is a great way to witness solar events, such as a solar eclipse.

And his practice paid off:

It proved to work remarkably better than anticipated when Kepler spotted a sunspot that he thought was Mercury passing in front of the sun. It was a huge breakthrough.


Image: EnginKorkmaz


Image: CC by 2.0, by werner22brigitte, via Pixabay

Introducing: The Invention Of The Telescope.


In 1608, after years of observing planets and sunspots, Galileo Galilei invented the telescope. This was the first time in seeing sunspots up close and personal using the combination of the camera obscura and the telescope.

For the next few centuries, this big dark box phenomenon transformed into something more recognizable to modern society.


The applications of the camera obscura went down two artistic paths. A two-for-one deal and the name stayed the same throughout.

Around 1685, a man named Johann Zahn created an entirely new way of using the camera obscura. A new model, one that is smaller and portable. It was called the “Pinhole Camera,” or “Box Camera Obscura” and it’s quite possibly the biggest step towards modern cameras.

Oculus Artificialis

Image: CC by SA 4.0, by ThePublicDomainReview, by Flickr

You see, Zahn was an expert on light and how it moves.

Not to be confused with Kepler: (designer_start) Please add an arrow or a quick jump button to Kepler above and back again to here. (designer_end)

The camera obscura was used to paint during the 17th century by Johannes Vermeer. And it was just as Giambattista della Porta predicted!

Now, the term camera obscura referred to several different, but similar devices.

To paint and to project images

The invention of the photograph


A lot happened in the wake of the industrial revolution. The population boomed, and things got hectic in the years leading up to it. Humans were all about mass producing goods and creating short cuts for the things we want.

This meant a lot for the camera obscura.

New advancements in industry and technology meant a greater interest in what the camera had to offer.

The 19th century brought in lenses with sharper images and better quality. The camera obscuras around this time resembled cameras in a lot of ways. However, tracing and drawing over images was still the general use of this artist tool.

Then came the invention of the photograph.


The earliest known photograph is the famous, hard to decipher View From the Window at Le Gras.

Photographer Nicephore Nipece took the picture on a plate of light-sensitive material.

Here's how it happened:

The light that came through the camera’s aperture and burned the image on to plate. The photo itself was either taken in 1826 or 1827, though no one is quite sure of the specific date.

Nipece took the photo of a few towers and the countryside out the window of his estate in France. Due to the primitive light-sensitive technique, he had to mount the camera to hold completely still.

It needed a loooooong exposure time.

view from window

Image: CC by 2.0, by Rebecca Moss, via Wikimedia Commons


But here's the interesting part:

It was the earliest form of photography. The light-sensitive material would be perfected, turned into a paper, and used in Polaroid cameras centuries later.


With the discovery of the photograph, things began moving at a fast pace.

In 1878, something spectacular happened:

It was only a matter of time before great minds, playing with the still fresh concept of automatic photography, would put together the first “movie.”

While not exactly a Blockbuster filmmaker, Eadweard Muybridge, an inventor, got into a debate with a colleague about how a horse runs. The question was whether or not the horse's hooves ever left the ground or not.

Muybridge believed that, at some point, the horse's hooves had to leave the ground entirely, suspending the horse in midair for a fraction of a second. His colleague said this just simply wasn't true.

So he put together a little customized track to test out his theory.

Lining the track with perfectly timed cameras, he insisted on proving his point in the most spectacular way. As the horse ran down the track, the cameras went off one by one. The horse and the rider were captured perfectly within every frame.


As almost an accidental byproduct, flipping through the photos quickly created the very first motion picture ever.

And that's not all:

The Galloping Horse inspired the Edison corporation to create its new innovation: the Kinetoscope.

The Kinetoscope essentially created a way to take multiple pictures at once. Every single frame being its own photograph. The machine gun of cameras in a time where muzzleloaders were still new.


If you Google the L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, you’ll notice it has an iMDb rating and a film score. You could say that makes this the first official movie ever made.

The Arrival of the Train was created by the Lumiere brothers, who have gone down in history as the “inventors of the cinema.”


Coming in at only one minute long, this 1896 silent black and white video stirred up a lot of attention -- -both good and bad.

The thing is:

When the movie premiered in a French cafe, the audience panicked. They thought the train was seconds away from crashing into the cafe since they hadn't seen a moving picture before.


At the beginning of the 20th century, America created what set itself apart from most other countries. Our new muse, film, only strengthened our obsession with the art of photography.

And the world changed:

Cinemas opened up across the country and became a new past time. The two paths the camera obscura took -- the photograph and the projector -- reunited after centuries apart to create a new form of art altogether.

Silent films.

The pioneers of filmmakers used the kinetoscope. Artists, made up of mostly inventors, made very creative works of art. The earliest movies were simple scenes, much like the first shows put on by the camera obscura.

In fact:

Tiny sets made of wood and metal with just a few actors and maybe some animals. The very limited technology could only create black and white silent images. The intense flicking sound of the celluloid film being pulled swiftly through the projector were the only things heard.

You can probably hear the projector now.

One of the earliest and most ambitious films was The Great Train Robbery in 1903.

There you have it:

The first action movie. It was a true story of something that happened only three years earlier. It was later partially colorized using actual dye.

guy in box

Image by cameraobscura

guy in box

Image by brooklynmuseum

guy in box

Image by petapixel


While the concept has largely stayed the same, the device itself has gone through an intense evolution. You may think that the “darkened room” doesn’t apply to a portable camera, but it functions essentially the same way.

Consider this:

The tiny hole in the wall has since been replaced with an aperture that lets in a certain amount of light, based on its settings. That light comes in and burns the projected image onto light-sensitive paper. Over the years, this technology has improved greatly.

When we look at a photograph, it’s almost like we’re there looking at it because it’s capture exactly how it is. The chemical burn slates of concrete the original photographs were or the paintings created within the dark chamber of a camera obscura are a far cry from that.


But photography isn’t just still images:

It’s also film.

Watching a film might be the best example of what humans can do (and what they really, really want to do) with the natural optical illusions. Film is literally all about what we can create out of nothing.

And that's all thanks to the camera obscura, tens of thousands of years in the making.



Modern high-end cameras like DSLRs still use the camera obscura.

The lens functions exactly the same, even if the camera itself is digital. The image goes through the aperture and through a system of mirrors, which is corrected by the time it gets to the other end.

But the fact is:

Unless you’re using a Polaroid camera or processing and developing your own photos, we have very little need for the nitrate chemicals and photosensitive materials.

Now when the image is captured, it’s captured digitally.

Instead of capturing light and darkness, it’s basically just code. It's tiny pixelated squares made up of numbers instead of grain and film “noise” muddying up the quality of our pictures.

Long story short:

We don’t use the camera obscura like we used to. They way we use modern cameras function relatively the same, but the classic camera obscura may not serve as anything other than inspiration for what we can create.


Movies became the principal form of entertainment during the 1930s and 19040s. It was considered the “golden age of cinema.” They were bright, endearing and highly entertaining. The art form of motion pictures became a million dollar industry and became, arguably, America’s biggest trade.

And we can’t forget the role the camera obscura played in this through projectors.

While most modern movie theaters have since switched to digital projectors that accept hard drives of movies and previews, some of the older ones still use the classic projectors.


The old camera obscura devices used a form of projection to create images and take pictures. That technology hasn’t gone away and who knows if it ever will.

Because even if movie theaters don’t use projectors, many people still own them for their own personal use. And does this remind you of school?


Movies have come a long way since silent films and not just with the addition of sound and color. We now have:

  • 3D films
  • IMAX cameras
  • And thousands of movies out each year.

This million dollar industry is now a billion dollar industry. People from all around the world come to California just for a chance to be in the movies.

But it’s not just America.

The influence of films has spread far and wide. From Bollywood to Nollywood, and even further east, going full circle since the dawn of the camera obscura.

Once again, we have the camera obscura to thank.


guy writing

Image: CC by 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons


Image: CC by 2.0, by PublicDomainPNG, via Pixabay

The pioneers of the camera obscura would barely recognize the technology today. To say it’s come a long way is an understatement.

After all:

The optical illusion was originally discussed almost 40,000 years ago.

We enjoy our movies and favorite television shows on TVs, the byproducts of thousands of years worth of camera obscura experiments and tinkering.

But even without the art of cinema and televised entertainment, remember:

We still owe it to the camera obscura for the invention of the telescope. Without that, where would we be and what would we know about space?

It was the camera obscura that taught us that light moves in a line. We were taught about how light is reflected and obscured through different objects from the camera obscura. So, without the greatest minds tinkering with this phenomenon, what we would know about how light moves?

Imagine if we never observed that optical illusion. The world would be a very different place.

Which art form inspired by this optical illusion do you appreciate the most? Whether it's film, TV, space, or something else, tell us all about it in the comments!


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