Teaching Materials - Exercise

Handmade camera obscura

Name of Artist Educator: Lai Lon Hin
Excercise Category: Class Prelude

In earlier times without modern camera, people relied on camera obscura to aid their drawing, so as to record the image.

Concept / Inspiration:

In earlier times without modern camera, people relied on camera obscura to aid their drawing, so as to record the image.

Camera obscura is a primal way of projecting a subject to become an image. It is also the technical principle behind the development of modern camera. In earlier times, people relied on this optical device to aid their drawing, so as to replicate the image as objectively as possible.


To let students understand the technical principle of imaging of modern camera by making the camera obscura themselves.

Materials / Equipment:

  • Cardboard box (1 per 1 student)
  • Tracing paper (A4 size) (1 per 1 student)
  • Black Duct tape X 2 (for 18 students)
  • Parcel tape X 1 (for 18 students)
  • Focusing Cloths (To cover up other lights indoor, quantity and size depends on the environment)
  • Pen
  • Cutter
  • Computer
  • Projector



Workshop Description:

Part One l Introduction of camera obscura (20 minutes)
1. Introduce the concept of camera obscura with video clips or images.
camera obscura demonstration
How to use in earlier times: Light from an external source passes through the lens and is reflected by a reflector and projected on a matte glass surface. Putting a semi-transparent paper on the glass, painter could trace the silhouette of the projected image.

Part Two l Creating a camera obscura (30 – 45 minutes)
1. Cut two rectangular holes at each end of a paper box, one hole must be visibly larger than the other one.
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2. Tape the tracing paper to the end of paper box with the larger hole.

3. Tape the other end of the paper box with black duct tape. Create a small hole on the tape with a pen or anything sharp. The hole should not be too big – big enough for a ball pen to pass through but not more. Beware of the gaps between the edges of paper box flaps, tape the flaps down whenever necessary, so that light can only pass through the hole on the tape.
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Part Three l Operating the camera obscura (30 minutes)
1. Block out the light in the classroom. Light is only allowed through a small window.
2. Students take turn to put their camera obscura in front of the window, i.e.the side with a hole faces the window (as close as possible), the side with tracing paper faces the room. Images outdoor would be projected on the paper.

Note 1: The darker the room, the clearer the image. Therefore, it is better to black out the room and allow light to pass through one window.
Note 2: The outcome is also heavily dependent on weather, the activity should be carried out on a sunny day or when sunlight is strongest around noon.
Note 3: Reference “Pinhole Photography” by Chris Wong. Create a camera obscura in the same way, but the image projected will be processed differently. “Camera Obscura” is only an optical phenomenon that projects images to tracing paper, the effect is instant but temporary, however, “Pinhole Photography” involves both optical and chemical theories that allows an image to be developed on different materials.

Expected Outcome:

Through hands-on experience, students will learn the difference between camera obscura and photographic camera, for example, images projected by a camera obscura is blurred, they are also temporary: once the device is removed, the images will be gone; images taken by a photographic camera are clearer, they can be also preserved in the form of photos.

Actual Outcome:

As only one light source was allowed in the room, students took turns to experiment with the camera obscura concept. Some students lose their excitement in the latter half of the class. Instructor could encourage students to play with the device at home and experiment with different sceneries.

Student Feedback:

Students found it quite interesting that image could be produced without any mechanical elements.

Reference Materials:

Before Photography – Photographic Processes Series