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

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