How to Make a Digital Capture Camera Obscura

April 16, 2013 General, Photography 0 Comments

How to Make a Digital Capture Camera Obscura

The camera obscura is perhaps the purest or most primitive form of camera out there.  Which adjective you choose to describe it depends on your perspective.

For those unfamilar, a camera obscura is a light, tight box that projects an image through a pinhole lens. In its original form, artists used this device to trace images of scenes requiring accurate representation of perspective.  The desire to make the images projected by the camera obscura permanent is what led to the development of modern cameras. 

I have always been intrigued by the grainy but colorful images projected on the viewing screen of a camera obscura and wondered if there was a way to capture them.  After some experimentation, I came up with my own design for a digital capture camera obscura.

  • One 10x24-inch piece of black foam core
  • Two 6x6-inch pieces of black foam core
  • One aluminum pop can
  • One sheet of tracing paper or rice paper
  • One roll of black gaffer’s tape

Step 1: 

Cut score lines at 6-inch intervals on the 10x24 piece of black foam core and form it into a box.

Step 2:

Take one 6x6 inch piece of black foam core and cut out a 1x1 inch square at the center, then take a 2x2 inch piece of aluminum and poke a hole in it with a pin.  Center the pinhole in the opening in the foam core.  This will be the lens of the camera.

Step 3:

Take the other 6x6 inch piece of foam core and cut out a 4x4 inch opening in the center.  Cover the opening with tissue paper.  This will be the projection screen.

Step 4: 

Take the lens and projection screen and insert them into the ends of the foam core box.

Step 5:

Use the black gaffer’s tape to seal the seam of the box in order to make it light tight.

After you have assembled your camera obscura, place a DSLR with a 35mm lens focused on the projection screen behind it.  Secure the DSLR to an apple crate or a sheet of plywood with a quick release tripod about 10 inches away from the screen and connect a cable release.

How to Make a Digital Capture Camera Obscura

Cover both cameras with a dark cloth and use gaffer’s tape to make the whole assembly light tight.  Exposure times will vary, but generally 15 to 30 seconds will do the trick. 
In addition to being an exercise in nontraditional image making, this project is also an exploration of extrusive time.  At first, I felt that long exposures would be an obstacle to making portraits, but later I came to the realization that the long exposures were an opportunity to do something interesting.

I started asking the people sitting for me to perform specific movements during the exposures and was quite thrilled to see the motion recorded as blurs and “ghost images.” My subjects were usually equally excited to see the results, and my shoots became collaborative efforts with very satisfying results. 

How to Make a Digital Capture Camera Obscura

How to Make a Digital Capture Camera Obscura


Joe Byrnes is the Studio Supervisor and an Instructor in the Photography program at Harrington College of Design. See more of his work at

All images copyright Joe Byrnes.


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