Atelier Bonryu(E)

pinhole photography


Laboratory: Pinhole Photography

History of Pinhole Photography

- Days of Camera Obscura -

Days of Camera Obscura: In what way was the pinhole phenomenon found by Mo Ti and Aristotle developing into the modern photography?

In the western countries there are a huge volume of records on the camera obscuras on the historical pathway from Aristotle’s finding of the pinhole phenomenon to the modern photographic technology.  As there are a lot of excellent reviews as well as research papers in addition to these original records, we describe them only briefly in this site. 

Before Renaissance, i.e., during Hellenistic period and ancient Roman period the pinhole phenomenon seldom came to an issue in the western countries.  In this period the most important person concerning the pinhole phenomenon was an Arabian polymath Alhazen (Abū ‘Alī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham: 965? -1039?).  Alhazen contributed to  physics and mathematics immeasurably.  He is regarded as the father of modern optics and especially he analyzed and described the pinhole phenomenon correctly.  Actually he made the first ”camera obscura“ in the world and carried out some experiments on it.  He used it for observing a solar eclipse, too.  When he studied the camera obscura he named it as ”Al-Bayt al-Muthlim“ which means ”dark room“ in English.  Incidentally the first person who called this device as ”camera obscura“ is considered to be Johannes Kepler (1604).

We would like to mention some names of key-persons who played important roles in the history of the camera obscura during Renaissance.  They are, Roger Bacon (1214 - 1294) who was an English philosopher and a Franciscan friar, and he introduced the Islamic science to the western countries including the optics especially the camera obscura to be used for observation of a solar eclipse, Fillippo Brunelleschi (1377 - 1446) who was an architect and contributed to establish the perspectivism,  the famous ”uomo universale“, Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519) who designed the camera obscura in the course of studying the structure and the function of eyes and described the camera obscura in his book ”Codex Atlanticus“(1490).  There were a lot of artists and researchers as users of the camera obscura, such as Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528), a German painter, and Johannes Vermeer (1632 - 1675) a Dutch painter, who are very famous artists in the world.  As described later Nicolaus Copernicus (1473 - 1543), Tycho Brahe (1546 - 1601), and Jahannes Kepler (1571 - 1630) who played very important roles for the incunabular modern physics, are considered to have used pinhole telescopes for astronomical observation.  Especially, Kepler is known as he solved the Aristotle’s problem independently from Francesco Maurolico (1494 - 1575)(*1).  Other than them there were a lot of artists, architects, astronomers, mathematicians, and so on who are widely known as users or researchers of the camera obscure during Renaissance. 

As for China, there are several documents(*3) on the pinhole phenomenon published after Mozi.  Though the ”camera obscura“ and the pinhole phenomenon were interested in during Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty, no noticeable progress was found in the theory of the phenomenon.  Instead, in a book, ”Youyang Zazu“ (863) written by Duan Cheng Shi (803? - 863) erroneous explanation was given on the reason why an inverted image is attained.  It seems that the understanding on the optics went backward from the days of Mozi.  However, 2 centuries later from Duan Cheng Shi in the book, ”Meng Xi Bi Tan“(1086), by Shen Kuo (1031 - 1095)  the correct explanation of the phenomenon was given and the error by Duan Cheng Shi was mentioned.  In Meng Xi Bi Tang the inversion phenomenon was described minutely as: when a bird flies from west to east the projected image moves from east to west, and a projected image of a tower is upside down.  Concerning the Chinese history of science and technology it is noteworthy that there remain a lot of records of astronomical observations.  These are not directly related to the pinhole phenomenon but it is very important that systematic records of sunspots have been preserved.  In contrast with it, in western countries sunspots were discovered after the camera obscura was introduced in Renaissance.  In ancient China sunspots were probably observed when the sun was near the horizon in the morning or the evening and, moreover, when the sunspots were especially large.  There is no document which tells that the old Chinese astronomers utilized the pinhole phenomenon for their observations.

By the way, though the ”camera obscura“ is often mentioned in relation with the pinhole phenomenon, practically used camera obscuras were usually ones with a lens.  An image of a camera obscura with a pinhole was too obscure to use indoors and impractical.  Though from the viewpoint of the history of arts it might not be necessary to distinguish the camera obscura with a lens and with a pinhole, this difference is important as we are considering the history of the pinhole camera.

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