How to: Make a camera obscura at home, have an awesome engagement story, and miss high school all at once

In ninth grade I took Mr. Fear’s intro to photography class, where we all spent months staring at photographs in books, watching slide shows during lectures, and wondering when we’d finally get into the mysterious darkroom the juniors and seniors loved so much. Finally we got to enter the chemical-smelling cave and learn the fundamentals – but not on the Nikons we’d come to love months later. First we experimented with pinhole cameras.

My pinhole camera was was a round tin that previously held “rainforest cookies” with a piece of wood acting as a sort of tripod on the bottom. We each drilled a tiny hole into the bottom of our tins, went into the darkroom to place photo paper inside the lid, covered the whole thing in duct and electrical tape, and created a little “shutter” over the hole. Then we went out into the sunlight. When we lifted the shutter to allow light in, the outside world was projected upside down onto the photo paper. We experimented with exposure times and returned to the darkroom to remove and develop our images one at a time.

Fourteen years later, one morning about two weeks ago, I was grabbing my work bag when I realized Anuj’s living room was totally dark. He had covered the window with two layers of black garbage bags, leaving only a quarter-sized hole where light could shine through. The idea was to see the outside world, “upside down,” on the walls of his room. We were inside a camera obscura, a human sized pinhole camera, the kind of thing the earliest photographers pioneered. I snapped this picture of his setup with my phone:

FxCam_1330436932479

(This video explains it better than I can, and includes simple instructions if you want to try it at home. Which you should. This weekend.)

We enjoyed being in our camera for a few minutes, but it was a cloudy day, so we couldn’t see much of the outside world. And he had to go to work, and so did I.

camera obscura

According to the village of Greenport, New York, “Today there are approximately fifty public camera obscuras in the world, five of which are in the United States.” Anuj hoped to take me there the weekend we got engaged.

Guess what? It was cloudy again.

FxCam_1330877729505

“It’s cool, Greenport,” Anuj thought. JUST TRYING TO PROPOSE. NO BIG INCONVENIENCE.

I was stoked anyway: about the existence of the camera obscura, our big conversation, and some other magical little elements throughout the weekend.

us!

The day after our trip I headed out of town for the week for work. I took a red eye back on Friday night, emerged before 7 a.m. to a bright, sparkly NYC skyline, and stumbled blearily into my apartment. But there was no light peeking out from around my bedroom door frame. Nope! Because my room was, you guessed it…

A camera obscura.

see the streetlamp?

And that, my friends, is how I came to (A) fill this blog post with possibly confusing photographs (yes, these are digital pictures of the images of the outside world projected onto my bedroom walls and ceiling), (B) spend my entire Saturday morning having a pajama party with Anuj and Trish and all the neighbors we could cram into my bedroom, making fools out of ourselves by dashing outside to wave up at my window, and (C) preach the gospel of the DIY camera obscura.

I hope Mr. Fear would approve.

Photos: Brooklyn and Greenport, NY, March 2012. I believe credit for the photo of me and Anuj (second from the bottom) goes to Kim H. See the whole camera obscura set.

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