How A Camera Obscura Works & How to Make One

The camera obscura, also referred to as a pinhole image, was used in the 13th century to observe the solar eclipse safely. Alchemist, astrologer and physician, Arnaldus de Villa used the invention around that time as an entertainment projector. However, photographers and other artists only started employing the camera obscura during the 15th century. So, what is this invention, and how does a camera obscura work?

Camera obscura is a dark room or a box that has a small hole in one wall. Light passes through the small hole and reflects the image of a scene outside the box onto the opposite surface of the hole. The projected view is presented as an inverted and reversed image.

This fantastic invention is still used by many photographers and artists today, and it plays a notable role in the history of photography. Let us take a look at how this creation works and why the camera obscura inverts and reverses the projected image. I have also put together instructions to help you make your very own camera obscura!

How A Camera Obscura Works

The camera obscura is known as the ancestor of modern-day or photographic cameras. In Latin, camera obscura means “dark chamber,” which perfectly fits this invention. A camera obscura can be a small, darkened room or box that emits light through a tiny hole.

Artists used it to help them trace the projected image to create an accurate representation and graphical perspective picture. In the 13th century, people used the camera obscura to study solar eclipses as well as a projector for entertainment. By the 15th century, photographers started experimenting with it too.

The camera obscura projects a scene outside the darkened room or box onto the opposite wall of the hole. The scene is then reflected as a reversed and upside-down image.

Today, this invention plays a significant role in photography and art.

camera obscura diagram


Why Is A Camera Obscura Image Upside-down?

The reason why a camera obscura projects an image upside down is quite simple. If you know basic physics, you are aware that light travels in a straight line, and it will continue traveling in a straight line until the light hits another object.

The most common example explaining why the image is inverted is capturing a candle through the pinhole. Say, for instance, we place the candle in front of the pinhole, then the light from the top of the candle will pass through the pinhole, continue in a straight line, and end up at the bottom.

The image is then inverted and reversed (left goes to right and right goes to left).

obscura upside down

How To Make A Camera Obscura

Are you keen to try this invention? There are numerous methods to make your very own camera obscura, but I have put together instructions for the easiest and quickest way to create one. You can surely find the supplies lying around your home. So, let’s get started!

  1. Assemble The Supplies

The necessary supplies are:

  • Scissors
  • Dark-colored tape (electrical tape or duct tape)
  • Pencil or pen
  • Sheet of white paper
  • Any box that can close using the tape or lid of the box

Any box size is appropriate; however, I suggest using one that is 10 to 12 inches wide.

  1. Create The Screen

Use the white sheet of paper, cut it to fit on one side of the box, and tape it to the inside. The white paper will be the screen that the image projects on.

  1. Make Two Holes

Make two holes straight across from your screen (the white paper you attached). Use a pencil or pen to make one small hole and the scissors to cut a second hole for viewing your image. The second hole should be large enough for you to see into the box.

The holes must be apart far enough apart so your head will not hinder the light from entering through the small hole you made with the pen or pencil.

  1. Tape The Box Shut

It is time to tape shut your box! Use the dark-colored duct tape or electric tape to close the box so no light will seep through the edges or corners when you look into the box. You can layer the tape to ensure no extra light shines through.

  1. Test Your Camera Obscura

Enter a dark room and hold the side with the two holes pointed toward a well-lit and clear subject. You can now look into the viewing hole you made with the scissors to view the inverted and reversed subject.

Here is a suggestion: Use your camera obscura to gaze at the sun!  It will not damage your eyes and has actually been used for hundreds of years to examine solar eclipses.

If you are having trouble seeing the image, try these techniques:

  • Make your pinhole bigger if the image is too dark or dim.
  • Slowly walk back and forth while moving your camera obscura side to side until you see an image. Remember, the scene you are trying to view is behind you, so it might be difficult to get it right the first time.
  • Turn of the lights in the room, leave one light lit. Move about five feet away from the light and face with your back to the lamp.
  • Use a cloth to cover your head and a small part of the box, but leave the pinhole uncovered. The image will appear more clearly.


Whether you are studying art or photography, I hope you at least have an idea of how the camera obscura works. To appreciate modern-day devices, we need to acknowledge how they came to be. The camera obscura or pinhole image contributed to art, entertainment, photography, and even our understanding of solar eclipses.

It must have been an exciting discovery to make during the ancient past, and the best part is that you can quickly teleport back to the olden days by creating and testing a hand-made camera obscura “device”.