The Light Side!

Here at Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura, we like to think of ourselves as a little bit mischievous.  It comes from working in a place that is essentially five floors of fun filled fascinations.  When one is encouraged to become a child most days of the week, one cannot help but slip slightly to the naughty side.  I will be blunt, we at the Camera Obscura are on the dark side.  This is not solely our fault, but rather the fault of the Camera itself.  The name camera obscura comes from Latin and it translates as ‘dark room’;

Camera = room           Obscura = dark*

*(in Latin, the adjective goes after the noun, like in modern day French and Italian)

Actually, the English word ‘camera’ comes from camera obscura.  So, when you take a picture with a camera, you are actually taking a picture with a ‘room.’  FACT!

But as Isaac Newton and Yoda taught us, for every force there is an equal and opposite. For the camera obscura, it is the ‘camera lucida’, or light room. So, how does this relate to Pompeii (2014) I hear you ask? Let’s start with how the Camera Lucida works.

Beyond the name, the camera obscura and camera lucida do not share much in common.  Camera obscuras are big, need the room to be dark, and project a detailed image onto a white surface.  In comparison, the camera lucida is small, portable, needs a lot of light, does not project an image, and works best with a dark surface.  Like the camera obscura, a tilted mirror is used, usually to a 45° angle, which reflects an image onto a horizontal surface. Consequently, camera lucidas were very popular with artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The mirror would superimpose/reflect the object or scene to be drawn onto the artist’s drawing surface, allowing the artist to see both the drawing surface and image at the same time.  Confused?  Here is a demonstration:

Camera Lucida

The camera lucida’s portability and ability to recreate very detailed images made them very popular amongst both the professional and amateur painter.  More than this, though, the camera lucida has helped shape our image of Roman life, and brought the discoveries of two ancient cities (Pompeii and Herculaneum) to the world.  This was through the work of Sir William Gell.


Forum of Pompeii. Illustration by William Gell (1777–1836)

Sir William Gell (1777-1836) was an artist who pioneered a more accurate form of scientific drawing for archaeology by using the camera lucida. His work was massively influential in the perception and dissemination of the image of Pompeii and the Roman world. He effectively demonstrated how technology can be used in both art and science to great success, and it is due to his work and use of the camera lucida that we know what Pompeii looks like. And that will have certainly come in handy during the making of the film ‘Pompeii’ (in cinemas from 30th April!).

pompeii_2014_movie-852x480 (2)

Pompeii (2014)

So, when you next visit the Camera Obscura, remember that you are seeing only one side of the story, the dark side of the moon (as it were!).


Written by: Jen Cresswell





Amazing views from our Camera Obscura

We have been spoiled over the last couple of weeks with plenty of the rarest of things: Scottish sunshine. And what’s more, the weather is set to be great for the beginning of the Easter weekend.

If you have visited us before you will know that the Camera Obscura relies on natural daylight, and the sunshine makes the picture especially bright. Those of you who have visited on foggy or stormy days will know what a difference the weather can make to the quality of the picture!

We took a few moments this morning to capture some shots of the Camera Obscura at its best.


A beautiful shot of Prince’s Street Gardens and the New Town, with Fife in the distance. We’ve even been known to spot the odd tram on Princes Street!

Camera Obscura - gardens view - small

Princes Street Gardens and Beyond!


The Scott Monument, dedicated to the late Sir Walter Scott, has an impressive 287 steps. The Monument has 64 statuettes around the outside, all of which represent characters from Scott’s novels.

Scott Monument view from Camera Obscura

The Scott Monument


A live image of the Castle esplanade with some of the morning’s first visitors:

The Castle view from Camera Obscura

Edinburgh Castle


Ramsay Garden, constructed by Sir Patrick Geddes – the second owner of the Outlook Tower, or Camera Obscura as it’s called today. You’ll notice the windows that face us are extra small… so we can’t spy!

Camera Obscura - ramsay garden view - small

Ramsay Garden View

We are open throughout the Easter weekend from 9.30am – 8pm. Take advantage of this gorgeous sunshine and see our Camera Obscura at it’s absolute best. Plus you’ll get absolutely amazing and unrivalled views across Edinburgh and beyond from our Rooftop Terrace!  Hope you can make it and Happy Easter!

Rockets, Robots & Starry Night Skies….get scientific at the Camera Obscura shop!

Is the Edinburgh International Science Festival leaving you feeling scientific?! Then we have just the thing for you! We’ve selected our favourite, fantastically fun kits from our shop to satisfy your creative and scientific sides. Plus, they’ll keep the kids busy for hours over the school holidays!


Pump Rocket Science

3..2..1 BLAST OFF! Launch micro rockets that fly up to 20 feet, a rocket racer that speeds across the floor, and gliders that soar across the sky. Discover the Newtonian rocket science behind all of this in a fun and practical kit!

Pump Rocket Science



One of our favourites. Create your very own mechanical moving robot. It’s fun to build, easy to assemble and even roars when it runs! Trust us…..we’ve tried it!



Solar System

Build your own glow-in-the-dark solar system! Assemble and paint your own planetarium model with this superb kit. Build it, paint it, highlight it with glow-in-the-dark paint then sit back and watch it glow…it’s out of this world!

Solar System

Illusion Science

Challenge your eyes with the classic illusion trick cards; experience the dynamic illusions produced by the illusion spinner; view and create 3D pictures. Over 20 optical fun activities with scientific explanations supplied. It is a brilliant science kits which guarantees hours of fun for all sorts of occasions.

Illusion Science


Night Sky Projection Kit

Lights off! It’s time to transform your bedroom into a starry night sky with this amazing cardboard star projector. Just build the dome, add some batteries and you’ll be star gazing in no time!

Night Sky



Can a plant find its way through a maze? It sounds impossible, but just watch as plants grow and wind their way through a maze that you design. It’s a-maze-ing! You can even watch the roost develop inside the transparent soil container…it’s a mini root watcher too!




We are open every day from 9.30am to 8pm during the School Holidays – plenty of time for you to explore all 6 floors of interactive fun and grab one of these kits from our shop. Enjoy!


The Camera Obscura: how does it work?

Maria Short knew!

The Camera Obscura is a darkened room or chamber into which light is directed to enable you to see a mirror image of the view outside. In our case, you can use it to tour the city of Edinburgh.

A History of Camera Obscuras

Camera Obscuras date back a long time, possibly even before records existed.  The first actual record of something like a Camera Obscura dates back to Ancient Greece, when Aristotle noticed that a partial eclipse could be safely viewed by looking at the ground underneath a tree. The tree’s canopy created a nice, dark space, and the tiny holes between the leaves allowed light to pass through and ‘project’ a mirror image of the sky onto the ground.

In the 16th century, artists made use of the Camera Obscura to produce drawings with perfect perspective. For more on that, see our previous blog post about Vermeer and his use of the Camera Obscura here.

In Victorian times, larger Camera Obscuras became popular seaside attractions, allowing groups of people to experience the phenomenon together. The live images were a great source of entertainment.

Seaside Camera Obscura

Seaside Camera Obscura

It was in 1835 that Maria Theresa Short first set up Short’s Popular Observatory on Calton Hill, exhibiting the Camera Obscura as the first, purpose built attraction in the city of Edinburgh. In 1853 Maria moved to Castlehill with the Camera Obscura and it has been running here ever since.

Shorts Observatory 1870

Short’s Observatory 1870

In 1882, Sir Patrick Geddes bought the tower in a public auction. He renamed it the Outlook Tower, deciding to refocus the Camera Obscura away from tourism and onto education and philosophy. He would rush people up the five flights of stairs to see the Camera Obscura. It was believed that this race to the top would stimulate blood flow and oxygen to the brain – opening peoples’ minds and allowing them to get more from the experience.

Outlook Tower Brochure

Outlook tower brochure

Edinburgh University owned the tower from about 1940, during a quiet time for Camera Obscura. It was then sold to us in 1982, heralding the renaissance for entertainment, education and innovation for the Camera Obscura.

Our Camera Obscura

Our Camera Obscura

How It Works

At the top of the tower there is a plain mirror, protected by a hood and a pane of glass.  The mirror is angled so that natural light reflects downwards, into the tower. The light passes through the three lenses, which enable it to focus onto the table.  The lenses also switch the image so that it appears the right way up on the viewing table.  When the room is darkened, our eyes adjust to the light and we can then see the reflected image.

Top ofthe CameraObscura

Top of the Camera Obscura – showing the mirror and first lens.

 There have been a few changes to the original Camera Obscura here. In the beginning, there was only one lens, and the original table was even higher than the current one, so the distance between the lens and image was much smaller. The original picture was also smaller and less clear than it is now.

Nowadays there are three lenses and the first lens is almost thirty feet from the table. These lenses focus light in a curve. To compensate for this, the table is concave, so that images do not appear warped.

The view

The view from up here…

 By today’s standards, the technology involved in the Camera Obscura is incredibly simple; no pre-recordings, no cameras, not even any electricity. Despite this – or perhaps because of it – Edinburgh’s Camera Obscura has continued to entertain the public for over 160 years.

Want to see it in person? We are open every day from 9.30am to 8pm during the school holidays.