The Camera Obscura Timeline ... up to the invention of Photography

Studies and discovery of optical realities and devices goes very much back in time. From as early as 500 years Before Christ scientists, philosophers and painters knew about the principles that would lead to the actual recording of an image 2,300 years later.

300-500 BC

Chinese and Greek philosophers describe the basic principles of optics and the camera.

470-390 BC

The first surviving mention of the principles behind the pinhole camera, a precursor to the camera obscura, belongs to Mo-Ti, a Chinese philosopher. Mo-Ti referred to this camera as a "collecting plate" or "locked treasure room".

384-322 BC

Greek philosopher Aristotle understood the optical principle of the pinhole camera. He viewed the crescent shape of a partially eclipsed sun projected on the ground through the holes in a sieve, and the gaps between leaves of a plane tree and noted "sunlight travelling through small openings between the leaves of a tree, the holes of a sieve, the openings wickerwork, and even interlaced fingers will create circular patches of light on the ground."

ca. 300 BC

The Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria's "Optics", presupposed the camera obscura as a demonstration that light travels in straight lines.

ca. 600 AD

The greek architect Anthemius of Tralles (474-558 AD) used a type of camera obscura in his experiments.


Leonardo da Vinci made a drawing reproducing the concept of the Camera Obscura.


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) described the principles of camera obscura in Codex Atlanticus.


The first drawing of a pinhole camera or camera obscura by Dutch physician and astronomer Gemma Frisus (1508-55). He used the pinhole in his darkened room to study the solar eclipse of 1544.


Giovanni Battista della Porta (1535-1615), writing in his "Magia Naturalis" (Natural Magic, 1558), suggested using a camera obscura as an aid to drawing.


The term "camera obscura" was first used by the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who used a darkened tent. Kepler paused his other work the year before to focus on optical theory. The resulting manuscript, presented to the emperor on January 1, 1604, was published as 'Astronomiae Pars Optica' (The Optical Part of Astronomy).
Kepler described the inverse-square law governing the intensity of light, reflection by flat and curved mirrors, and principles of pinhole cameras, as well as the astronomical implications of optics such.
He also extended his study of optics to the human eye, and is generally considered by neuroscientists to be the first to recognize that images are projected inverted and reversed by the eye's lens onto the retina.
He said, "... how that representation or that painting is linked with the visual spirits who have their seat in the retina and the nerve
... I will leave to the Physicists to discuss.


Dutch painters such as Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) were known for attention to detail. It has been widely speculated that they made use of a camera obscura.


Isaac Newton discovers that white light is composed of different colors.


Johann Zahn's (1641-1707) 'Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium' was published and contains many descriptions and diagrams, illustrations and sketches of both the camera obscura and of 'the magic lantern' (an early projector or enlarger).


Johann Heinrich Schulze discovered that silver nitrate darkened upon exposure to light.


First Panorama opens, the forerunner of the movie house invented by Robert Barker.


Camera Lucida ("light room" from Latin) was patented by William Hyde Wollaston. A much more compact drawing device than the camera obscura as in this you just looked through a lens and could see your drawing paper with a reflection of the subject (by the help of a mirror-glass or prism close to the eye you compare your drawing to the subject).


Joseph Niepce achieves the first photographic image with Camera Obscura - however, the image required eight hours of light exposure and later faded.


First photo of Joseph Niépce done with the Camera Obscura which survived because it was fixed.


Louis Daguerre's first daguerreotype, taken in his studio, the first image that was fixed and did not fade. It needed 'only' under thirty minutes of light exposure.


Boulevard du Temple, Paris - Daguerreotype taken by Louis Daguerre: one year later he had improved greatly, about ten minutes of exposure, and we can see two persons in the image, in the lower left: a shoeshiner and his customer.

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