Easily create a camera obscura

Nancy Breslin tests a camera obscura lens from the Finnish company called Bonfoton and turns an entire room into a camera obscure, reflecting the outside upside down on her wall and also recorded a video to show us.

Writer and photography / Nancy Breslin

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Just before Christmas, I received a camera obscura lens in the mail from a Finnish company called Bonfoton. As a pinhole photographer who had earlier blogged about the famous camera obscura in Edinburgh, they thought I might be interested in trying out one of their lenses and sharing the results with the readers of this site. It was a welcome mid-pandemic project.

During the years I taught at the University of Delaware a photo classroom was turned into a camera obscura by one of the graduate students, with a 2 cm hole in the center of a removable window cover. My students would think I was crazy, asking them to sit in the dark for five or ten minutes as an image slowly appeared on the far wall. But then something would catch their eyes – perhaps a passing bicycle – and the room would erupt in “oohs” and “aahs.”

The advantage of a lens, of course, is that the hole can be much larger, creating a brighter image (no need to wait for five minutes) while keeping objects from a certain distance in focus.

camera obscura pinhole camera image inside a room
Facing North Scene. Camera Obscura image by Nancy Breslin

For my own camera obscura I first chose a room that faces north, toward houses on a diagonal street which get late morning sun. Before the lens arrived I made measurements and purchased eight sheets of black railroad board, plus black masking tape. I already had a box cutter and a straight edge, and some cardboard so I could cut without damaging my floor. The process didn’t take long, perhaps an hour, and the results were remarkable.

I left it installed for several days and noticed that when it was overcast my eyes would need a little time to adjust. On a bright morning, however, a clear and colorful image was immediately apparent.
I also have west-facing windows, with a view of the famous Watergate complex (I live in Washington, D.C.). I decided to try that as well, although it was more daunting since that room is a long dining/living room combo, with multiple large windows. I got reasonable results by using a black bed sheet as a room divider and lowering the blinds in all the other windows. I captured that installation as a time-lapse, as seen in the video. It took about the same time as for the first room because, while I had already created the components, the windows were slightly different sizes so I had to recut much of the board. Because this room wasn’t as light-tight, the image wasn’t as brilliant. I could have covered all of the other windows with board or foil, but was still very happy with the results.

Standing inside a camera is magical. For those who would rather see the image right-side-up, Bonfoton sells another device called the “BonfotonUP,” which incorporates a prism.
I’ve also made my first solargraphy camera and have it sitting in a front window. I started it on the winter solstice and will see the results in June: another alt-photo project that I’ve waited too long to try.

The lens can be ordered from bonfoton.com and it ships everywhere, you can also contact Tommi at tommi (at) bonfoton.com if you have any questions.

Nancy Breslin from Washington, DC, USA works with a variety of techniques, including pinhole, cyanotype and gum, see Nancy Breslin’s gallery or read more articles she has written.

Recommended reading - Learn more in the pinhole book
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