A camera obscura pilgrimage

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

A pinhole photographer arranged part of her holiday around the chance to be inside a giant camera.

I just returned from a two week trip to the UK.  Most of the time was spent visiting family (we saw over 30 relatives in five cities), but on the way from Cambridge (12 relatives) to Ayr (3 more) we decided to spend a day in Edinburgh.  It is a beautiful city known for many cultural offerings, but the main draw for me was the Camera Obscura.  While this device does feature lenses, the experience is much like being in a giant pinhole camera.  Installed in a tower in central Edinburgh in the 1850’s, this camera obscura consists of a series of lenses and mirrors that project the surrounding area onto a large white surface in the middle of a darkened room.  A staff member can redirect the view so one sees, in color and great detail, everything around, from church spires to people walking on the street below.  I have been inside a pinhole camera before, but it typically takes a long time for my eyes to adjust enough for the image to appear and I never see much color (our monochrome-perceiving retinal rods are much more sensitive in low light, compared to the color-perceiving cones).  This, on the other hand, was a clear and colorful image. It was worth climbing five flights of stairs to see.

A member of the staff points to a landmark seen in the camera obscura in Edinburgh.
A member of the staff points to a landmark seen in the camera obscura in Edinburgh.

The camera obscura is on the top floor of a building which also features “The World of Illusion,” which looked a bit cheesy in the advertisements but proved to be very interesting, including a collection of holograms, an Ames room, an exhibit on different types of 3-D images, and a show of pinhole photography by Derek Reay.

This is my cue to remind everyone that Sunday (April 28) is Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day.  That day I’ll be giving a talk about my pinhole work at the Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center in Frederick, Maryland< at 2 pm, and also taking some pictures so I'll have something to submit to the WPPD gallery.  If you have a pinhole camera, pull it out on Sunday and join thousands of people around the world!

1 thought on “A camera obscura pilgrimage”

  1. For those in the US, there is a similar camera obscura at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, up the hill near the Hollywood sign. There is a motorized periscope device on the roof of the building that slowly rotates and projects images of surrounding LA onto a large white tabletop surface in a dark room. The rest of the observatory is worth a visit as well. The vintage telescope is fun to see.

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