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.

470-391 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 understands the optical principle of the pinhole camera. He views 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 notes: "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", presupposes the camera obscura as a demonstration that light travels in straight lines.

ca. 600 AD

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


Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) makes a drawing reproducing the concept of the Camera Obscura.


Leonardo da Vinci describes the principles of camera obscura in the 'Codex Atlanticus'.


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


Giovanni Battista della Porta (1535-1615), writing in his book 'Magia Naturalis' (Natural Magic, 1558), suggests using a Camera Obscura as an aid to drawing.


The term 'Camera Obscura' is first used by the German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who uses a darkened tent. Kepler pauses his other work the year before to focus on optical theory. The resulting manuscript, presented to the emperor on January 1, 1604, is published as 'Astronomiae Pars Optica' (The Optical Part of Astronomy).
Kepler describes 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 extends 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 sais, "... 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) are known for attention to detail. It has been widely speculated that they made use of a camera obscura in their painting activity.


Isaac Newton (1642-1726/27) discovers that white light is composed of different colors.


Johann Zahn's (1641-1707) 'Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium' is 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).

ca. 1750

Tent-type Camera Obscura is seen as the toy of the moment, to take around and draw with the utmost precision what you see, even if you are not an artist in reality.


Johann Heinrich Schulze (1687-1744) discovers that silver nitrate darkened upon exposure to light.


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


The Camera Lucida ('light room' from Latin) is patented by William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828). 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 Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833) achieves the first photographic image with Camera Obscura - however, the image required eight hours of light exposure and later faded.


First photo of Niépce done with the Camera Obscura (adjusted from the 'negative plate' on the left) 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 (1787-1851): one year later he had improved greatly, needing only about ten minutes of exposure, and we can see two persons in the image, in the lower left: a shoeshiner and his customer.


"You press the button, ... and we do the rest". Slogan by Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co. presenting its first consumer-type photographic camera. It came already loaded with film for 100 pictures, for $25.00.


Kodak DC 20, the first digital camera with a strong success in the market. Good price and on-line sales (!!!) helped its diffusion. Specifications: 493x373 pixels resolution, 8 pictures, 1 MB storage, and a weight of 110 g for full portability.

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