Vermeer, Camera Obscuras and the Film Camera

Given its almost cinematic quality, it is strange how the camera obscura is a relative stranger to the silver screen.  Apart from a brief cameo in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), it is rarely seen.  This, gives the visitor to the Camera Obscura a real treat, seeing something rare and unusual.  Camera obscuras are like films in many ways, showing a photo perfect moving image to the delight of a watching, and often amazed crowd.  Indeed, when Edinburgh’s own Camera Obscura first opened, some people fainted in shock.  Whilst it has been a while since this has happened, the life quality image that the device reproduces is still a cause of great wonder.  This is not new.  Camera obscuras have been around for centuries, and their quality has been used for a variety of purposes.

Two films that feature camera obscuras share a common link in Johannes Vermeer, a person whoused the camera obscura in the 17th Century..  The Dutch painter, famous for such works as The Milkmaid and The Girl with the Pearl Earring, is considered a master of light and detail.  His works are almost photographic in their quality.  This has led many to believe that he did not paint by looking directly at the subject, but rather copied what he saw using a camera obscura, essentially tracing the image onto canvas.

This is shown, rather sensuously, in The Girl with the Pearl Earring (Peter Webber, 2003), when Vermeer (Colin Firth), invites Griet into his own private camera obscura, a rather smaller affair than ours, to show her the image it reproduces, and allowing him a chance to move closer physically to the reclusive Puritan girl.


Vermeer looks on Griet whilst inside the camera obscura

Griet 2

The camera obscura from the outside with Griet in the background.

Whilst utilised in Webber’s film as a devise to provide an intimate moment, the camera obscura takes centre stage in a new film out this month, Tim’s Vermeer (Teller, 2013).  This documentary follows inventor Tim Jenison and his lifelong passion for art as he tries to replicate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson from scratch, replicating the room and props and then reproducing the work using a camera obscura.  Tim, to top it all, is not an artist.

Tim Jenison 2 Tim Jenison


What is reproduced in the film is startlingly close to Vermeer’s masterpiece.  This raises the question of whether Vermeer had artistic talent.  If a non-artist can reproduce a work to his quality, then can we say Vermeer could paint?  If all he did was trace an image projected onto a white sheet, can we even say that he could draw?

Vermeer, it is safe to say, was an artist, but maybe not in the sense of Da Vinci or Monet; moreover like a photographer or filmmaker.  He used scientific methods to create his art.  His use of light, colour and mise-en-scène were skilful.  No one can be a Vermeer, just as no one can be a Jean-Luc Godard or an Ansel Adams, even though anyone can pick up a film camera, point, and click.  Vermeer used a camera obscura to enhance his art and create a new medium of expression.

A visit to Camera Obscura not only shows our own giant camera obscura, larger in scale than Vermeer’s would have been but using the exact same principle of mirrors and lenses, but also examples of artists who, like Vermeer, created art through extraordinary methods.  We have on display cameras made from drink cans and chocolate boxes that produced wonderful photographs (also on display).

Pinhole Can 2

Here, the method, the science of the reproduction, becomes as much a part of the art as the image itself; and it was Vermeer’s decision to use a camera obscura that made him an artistic genius.

Could a landscape painting of Edinburgh be created using our very own Camera Obscura?  Most likely.

Could one of our guides paint it?  Probably not.  I would not trust them with a paintbrush!

Written by Jen Cresswell

Further information

Tim’s Vermeer is on release now.  Please check your local cinema for times.

Trailer available at:

For earlier explorations of Vermeer’s use of a camera obscura, see David Hockney’s fantastic book Secret Knowledge and Philip Steadman’s Vermeer’s camera.  Both appear in Peller’s film.

For more on camera obscuras in film and literature, please visit

For a review of Tim’s Vermeer by Mark Kermode of Radio 5 live flagship film programme (hello to Jason Isaacs), please visit

For the review from the Financial Times, please visit

Girl with a Pearl Earring is available on DVD from most good DVD retailers.

Lenticular postcards of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring are for sale in the Camera Obscura shop.

Image credits

Vermeer and Griet –

Griet and the camera obscura –

Tim’s Vermeer


Try This At Camera Obscura: Learn More About Our Exhibitions!

Our World of Illusions houses a collection of weird and wonderful exhibitions that offer a little more than meets the eye. Even when you have worked them out, there are sometimes different ways to use them. Here are a few things to try!


The light painter uses different coloured torches to ‘draw’ on the screen. You can also shine the torch on yourself and see your face appear on the screen. Another trick is to point the light straight into the camera – at the bottom of the screen – and fill it with colour. Then smile, press ‘reset’ and it will capture your picture.

Light Painter

Level Two: Edinburgh Vision

The infinity corridor is a beautiful exhibit to begin with, but it can produce a variety of unusual photos depending on your camera settings. Try adjusting the exposure and moving the camera.

Infinity Corridor

You will find collections of portraits in many museums, but at Camera Obscura these are no ordinary pictures. Not everybody looks at these too closely, but look what happens when the pictures are viewed from different angles:


Our new thermal camera provides an even clearer picture than before. Compare your body heat with that of the ice bottle, leave your handprints on the wall behind you, or turn your hair from blue to green just by putting your hands on your head for a few seconds. Mothers-to-be can even see their unborn babies on the heat cam.

Thermal Camera


Level Three: Light Fantastic

There are some impressive holograms in the collection. However, peer closely at this one and you’ll find it looks back!


The Find Your Twin camera can produce lots of great effects, from jumping with one foot still on the ground to shaking hands with yourself or having two heads. You can even make it look like your head has disappeared!


You probably laughed about turning yourself into a chimp with the Face Transformers, but were you using the machine that lets you merge into your friend? Choose the booth on the left-hand side to try it.

Morph Machine

Level Four: Magic Gallery

In the Magic Gallery, we have a giant plasma dome, but did you notice the fluorescent tube beside it? If you put one hand on the dome and the other on the bulb, you can switch on the light!

Plasma Ball

You can capture your shadow on the shadow wall, but if you have a torch on your mobile (or in your bag, if you’re incredibly prepared!) you can embellish the image with writing or other scribbles. Just use the torch like a pen to add angel wings, funny faces or your name alongside your shadow.

Shadow Wall C

Have you tried these things already? Tell us your other tips and tricks in the comments section!

Written by Lauren Robertson

Where did the year go? What we did in 2013.

Two thousand and fourteen, the start of another year. As we finish off the last few mince pies and pack away the Christmas tree (which was officially voted the prettiest and most uniquely decorated in Edinburgh!), Camera Obscura reflects on all that’s changed since the start of 2013…

We’ve had new exhibits, additions to old favourites, new staff joining our team and old friends moving on, we’ve extended our opening hours longer than ever before and built relationships with local schools, attractions and restaurants. It’s been a fantastic 2013 for us, what about you?

Hidden in the Middle

In collaboration with James Hutchby we launched Hidden in the Middle, a new exhibit for the Bewilderworld gallery. Hidden in the Middle exploits the tiny lag in visual processing to create images of ducks, frogs, cars or flowers from just a single line of lights.

Hidden in the Middle C

Mirror Maze

One of our favourite exhibits had its ceiling finished this year. This really adds to the effect and some staff who have been happily wandering through every day for months actually got stuck inside! How will you go on your next visit?

Mirror Maze C

Giant Pinhole Camera

We love our giant pinhole camera, not only do you get to turn your family or friends upside-down, you get a real feel for the way the first cameras (and camera obscuras) worked. The giant pinhole camera has been a staple of the exhibition floor at Camera Obscura since we launched World of Illusions but this year we began experimenting with a new design. We have added a pinhole in the wall of the camera that allows you to peek into the next room of exhibits. Using state-of-the-art camera lenses has really sharpened the focus and we hope to continue with this improvement throughout 2014.

Pinhole C

Spy Cam

Speaking of peeking; we have had two spy cameras on our rooftop for years, and one of them finally kicked-the-bucket in 2013. This actually turned out to be a good thing that has allowed us to invest in a brand new, higher resolution, more dynamic camera that gives more control over your city views. You have to be careful in Camera Obscura though, as while you are looking at the city someone in the Giant Pinhole Camera might be looking at you!

View C

Placement Science Communicators

We continued to collaborate with Edinburgh University and took on two placement students in 2013. You can see their additions in the Edinburgh Vision Gallery. Brilliant, new photos have enhanced the way other visitors see the exhibits. People are playing longer, experimenting with the fibre optics and microscopes more than before – and we get the occasional scream when they realise the highly magnified photo is a spider! Thanks to our students; you really added to the experience.

Spider C

Fibre Optics C

Puppets and Education

After strolling through the largest hologram collection in Europe you come to a white wall, but is it really white? Our coloured shadows wall has had a make-over this year. No longer a white wall, it is now a stage for puppet shows with foam characters strung from the ceiling and on sticks for visitors to use. The white wall becomes a rainbow of colours as the light is blocked and each puppet throws off, not one, but three different coloured shadows. This has received praise from teachers and parents as it explains what light is made of in a simple and fun way – and it is set to feature in our new education pack in 2014!

Coloured Shadows C


This is possibly my favourite addition to the walls of Camera Obscura this year. The poster looks like a scene from a novel, Alice in Wonderland or Great Expectations. Take a closer look. It is the novel! The entire book is represented as carefully coloured and positioned text that forms the scene when viewed from further back. Book club at Camera Obscura next week?

Alice Lithograph C

Comfy Chairs

We know that two hours is quite a long time to spend on your feet, with amazing things jumping out at you and testing your eyes and brain, so we added some super-comfy chairs to the Light Fantastic Gallery. Nothing odd about them… except the noises you make when you sit on them! Phe-ew!

Chairs C

Electric Spaghetti

Not actual spaghetti so please don’t lick it, the lightning tube has been twisting light into spaghetti shapes for a long time – but never before in colour! The new lightning tube is brighter and more colourful than the last. But we have even more shocking plans for the electric room in 2014, watch this space…

Lightning C

And they’re just my favourite ones! Come and see for yourself the new Ames Room camera, the new images in our Kaleodispheres, the rooftop terrace lights, the amazing ways you can use a torch or a packet of ketchup, the iPad programs, the magic tricks and the hole through your hand that is entirely pain free! And don’t forget the new shows at event time, the brand new products in the shop, the musical stairs and magic eye pictures, the food faces and light painting…I think we are just warming up! What else would you like to see on your next visit?

Written by Alyce Paton