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The Camera Obscura! Reviving the Old Masters' Secret Tool's video poster

Making Camera Obscuras for Artists, Photographers and Anyone Who Wants to Own a Magical Piece of the Past! Read more

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This project was successfully funded on March 6, 2014.

Making Camera Obscuras for Artists, Photographers and Anyone Who Wants to Own a Magical Piece of the Past!

About this project

 If you missed the Kickstarter, click the link above to get on a waiting list to order this Camera Obscura. Then after all the Kickstarter rewards have been fulfilled, you will be able to order your own Camera Obscura.

As Seen On
As Seen On
As Seen On
As Seen On

About this Camera Obscura

This is going to be a very high quality camera obscura, handbuilt with your choice of Maple or Walnut hardwood. We are using dovetail joinery for its strength and beauty and to add to the overall quality of the piece. Each camera obscura has a tripod mounting screw, that can be attached to any standard tripod.

This camera obscura is about a 6 inch (15.3cm) cube and only weighs 33oz (0.936k). You can take it anywhere and it's easy to store or display!

The lens tube is formed from seamless brass tube to give you a solid authentic use and feel. The lens is a uncoated spherical glass lens about 38mm in diameter. This standard lens will allow you to focus on objects about 3 feet away to infinity.

Walnut camera obscura
Walnut camera obscura

The ground glass screen is used for viewing the image and the clear screen is used with a piece of tracing paper to trace the image. The useable screen image size is about 5 inches (12.7cm) square.

Maple camera obscura
Maple camera obscura

The optional focus cloth (Deluxe and higher) helps block out extra light, so you can see the image more clearly. This is very helpful. This focus cloth is white on the outside to reflect away heat and black on the inside to lessen light reflecting back onto the image.

The Close-up lenses are used to focus on and enlarge close objects. The standard close-up lens that comes with the Deluxe and higher focuses on objects from about 5 to 9 inches away (13 to 23cm) and enlarges up to 1.5X. With the Deluxe Camera Obscura w/ Camera Mount you also get a “super Close-up” lens, this lens focuses on objects about 2 inches (5cm) away and enlarges 2.5X.

Close-up of a Necklace
Close-up of a Necklace

The Camera Mount attaches to a standard tripod, and has a place to attached a digital camera on one end and your camera obscura on the other end. With the focus cloth draped over the two cameras, you can take pictures and video of the camera obscuras image.

Artistic uses for this Camera Obscura

There are two main ways to create art with this camera obscura. One is to observe the image and paint on a separate canvas the other is to draw directly on the image.

Observing the image and paint on a separate surface

The image projected by a camera obscura is like no other image you will ever see. From pictures of the image you can get a good idea what the image will look like, but it is impossible for a digital image to truthfully capture every thing that it is. It is, of course, a full color moving image of your surroundings, but it is much more than that.

The camera obscura's image has a beautiful and profound effect on a subject. It simplifies it while adding depth and enriching color. It looks more vivid then life, like you can reach out and grab it.

Here is a LINK to a great article explaining why and how Vermeer used a camera obscura. They divide in into five areas: perspective, tonal rendering, composition, handling of light and some peculiar effects produced uniquely by the camera obscura.

Plus it sees the same way we see with our eyes. When you look at an object it is sharp in focus and everything else softens into the background, but as soon as you look to see the soft background it become the sharp foreground. But with this camera obscura you can observe a scene the way your eye sees it without your eye's constant refocusing. Observing the camera obscura's image will teach you how to paint the way you see, which will add untold depth to your work.

Besides the beautiful effect, drawing from a camera obscura's two-dimensional image is easier then drawing from a live three-dimensional field: in the same way it is easier to copy a picture then paint from life. The Camera Obscura translates the 3D into the 2D-helping you better capture depth in your painting.

You can also draw a grid on the screen, so you can use the Grid Method to draw from life with your camera obscura! Just draw a grid of equal ratio on your work surface (paper, canvas, wood panel, etc). Then you draw the image on your canvas, focusing on one square at a time, until the entire image has been transferred. See a quick example below.

Below is how artist Eric Alexander Santoli uses his camera obscura. He has been working with my Ancient Magic Art Tools brand camera obscuras for a while, and I sent him one of the prototypes from this project for this video explanation.

Drawing directly on the image

You can also draw directly on the image: either by placing a piece of clear plastic over the ground glass and drawing on that, or use the clear acrylic glass screen with a piece of tracing paper over it. The image will project right onto your paper and look like a TV screen that you can draw on.

But remember that the screen size is 5 inches (12.7cm) square , so if you use the tracing method your drawing can only be as big as the screen.

Photograph and Cinematography

Also, as mentioned in the campaign video the camera obscura's image can be captured by still or motion cameras and will add a rich vibrant depth to your photograph or cinematography.

See the music video below by cellist Tina Guo's arrangement of Apres Un Reve. The Cello scenes were shot thru one of my camera obscuras, then combined with intimate footage of Eli Presser's amazing puppet work

This really captures the unique look and depth of a camera obscura's image. Every scene with the woman and the cello is actual footage from the camera obscura's screen. A video camera was mounted to the camera obscura to film the screen.

They did an excellent job of capturing the obscura's image the way it looks in real life and dramatically demonstrated the obscura's ability to focus on one object at a time and jump from far to near with a simple slide of the lens.

Behind the scenes photo from video above
Behind the scenes photo from video above

History and Background about the Camera Obscura

The camera obscura means “dark room” and it really is that simple. Just make a hole in the wall of a dark room, and you will see a hazy up-side-down image of the outside world.  This basic principle has been recorded in China as far back as 500 BC and mentioned by great thinkers from Aristotle to Leonardo Da Vinci, and the first clear description of this principle was given by Ibn al-Haytham.

Now make that hole bigger and add a lens to focus the light. And you will get a brighter clearer image.  And by the 1600’s the whole “room” was shrunk down to the size of this wooden box, so it would be portable. And the image was projected onto ground glass, so it could be seen from outside the box. This is how the camera obscura being Kickstarted hear works.

In the 17th, 18th and 19th century many artists were aided by the use of the camera obscura: Jan Vermeer, Canaletto, Guardi and Paul Sandby are just a few who used the Camera Obscura to make their beautiful masterpieces.  Find out More about Vermeer and the Camera Obscura.

Below is a very interesting interview with David Hockney, where he explains and demonstrates the use of camera obscuras and camera lucidas in the artwork of the Old Masters chronicled in his book “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters”.

Tim's Vermeer, playing in select theaters, is the most recent attempt to answer how 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer manage to paint so photo-realistically. Find out more about the movie HERE.

Here is some more research on the practical use of the camera obscura in the time of Vermeer


The unassembled kits go together fairly easy, the wood pieces kind of snap together like LEGOs, but you should have at least a little ability to work with your hands and a few very common tools like a mallet or hammer, wood glue, sandpaper and your choice of finish. There will be an instructional video to walk you though it. Here is a quick look at the unassembled kit:

No building or assembly needed for the fully assembled and finished camera obscuras.

$20,000 Fresnel Lens stretch goal!

If we can reach this goal a Fresnel lens will be INCLUDED with the Deluxe Camera Obscura with Camera Mount (assembled or unassembled). Or available as a $10 add-on at any other pledge level.

Get more information HERE

Les' Camera Obscuras

I've been building camera obscuras for nearly eight years now, and over that time I've built quite a few variations. Each camera obscura I designed built on what I learned from the previous variations, until now where I can design a camera obscura in my head and just go build it.

I've hand built many hundreds of camera obscuras for people, schools, museums and film makers including thirty camera obscuras for the National Gallary of Art's Vermeer workshop and camera obscuras for films and movies like The Memory Keeper's Daughter. 

The big difference from what I have been doing with my camera obscura building and what I am trying here with this Kickstarter, is that I want to move the building of the wooden parts of the camera obscura to a professional woodworking shop to get a better product at a better price and have something that could be mass produced if needed.

Below are some of the many types of camera obscuras I've built over the years, which all have contributed to the camera obscura I am Kickstarting now.

 Designing This Camera Obscura

A nice camera obscura can be very expensive, and with all my experience building camera obscuras, I wanted to design something that anyone could afford. I love the camera obscura and wanted to try to bring back this lost device. At first, I didn't know how I was going to do it, but I knew to make this work, people would need to be able to afford this camera obscura. I also wanted it to be high quality—something you keep for the rest of your life—not just some one time cardboard project.

First I thought a good way to make this affordable would be to use a piece of hardwood plywood, this is like normal plywood, but with a veneer on one side that makes it look like some kind of hardwood.

Looking at options for building with the hardwood plywood, I first consider using a simple butt joint (my brainstorming sketch of this is shown on the lower left). Basically you glue and nail the joints together. The ugly looking ends this method would produce with the cut ends of the plywood showing made that method undoable.

Next I considered a dado joint with the plywood (my sketch shown on upper right). This joint is a little stronger and hid the ends of the plywood a little better, but I was still not happy with the quality of this plywood option. And although the material was less expensive, it was harder to work with; all the joints would have to be lined up just right and nailed together—which can be time consuming by hand.

During the process of trying to find places to quote me for making these plywood pieces, I came across a woodworking shop that worked in dovetail joints, which I've always loved. I knew dovetail joinery would be more expensive, but also that the assembly would be easier because they just snap together. It turned out that the cost of these dovetail joints along with solid hardwood were mostly offset by the time saved in putting these interlocking joints together, so I very happily opted for the solid hardwood with dovetail joint.

When I got the sample pieces for the woodworking shop and started putting them together, I realized that this was so easy that most people could put together their own camera obscura if they wanted to. And this could make this camera obscura even more affordable. So through this long process of doing testing and considering all these different methods, I ended up with a method that produced the highest quality possible and with the option to build it yourself, also very very affordable!

So now I have the first prototypes that I built from the samples I got from the woodworking shop and I just need your backing to place the order, bust out the figurative smelling salt and revive this nearly lost device!

Production Plan

I have the designs all done and already have samples of the wood pieces back from our woodworking shop (as mentioned above)—I used those pieces to build the camera obscuras for the video and campaign pictures. This woodworking shop is more then capable of making as many of those wooden boxes as we need and they are just waiting on an order from me. And I just need the funds to place that order, which is why I'm doing this Kickstarter.

The woodworking shop uses dovetail machines to cut out the interlocking joint and the pieces I get look super cool and just snap together like LEGOs.

Once we successfully fund, I will place the order for all of the wood pieces. The woodworking shop said they can get that order shipped to be within two weeks. This will give me all of April to get all these orders assembled and to apply the lacquer finish. And if I need extra help, I could have the woodworking shop do the assembly, if the orders are beyond what we can do.

For getting all of these pieces put together into the final camera obscura, you can also opt to pledge for a unassembled kit and you will be the one doing the final building—which is a really fun project that most people can do.

From my years of building camera obscuras, I already have of all the suppliers lined up for the optics—I've done this many times and it will just be a matter of getting it ordered and putting everything together. This may be the most time consuming part, so that is way I am giving myself until May to ship these rewards. It is just a matter of lead time from these suppliers, which can be up to 4 weeks.

I make the brass lens tubes out of long pieces of solid seamless brass tube, which I cut down and finish into nice two inch tube pieces. I then glue in rubber tube rings that hold the lenses in place. The lens fits in the lens tube between to rubber rings and can be removed and changed out with the close-up lenses as needed. I can do as many of these lens as we will need within one working week.

In all, their should be plenty of time to get these shipped out by May, and it is very likely that I will be able to ship them out as early as April. This will all depend on how many pledges we get.

Some blogs and websites covering this project:,,,,,,,

Risks and challenges

Our woodworking shop is solid, and what we are giving them is a relatively small order compared to what they produce on a regular basis. I think the most likely obstacle might be that if I end up needing to order higher quantities of optics from my usual suppliers, it might take a little extra time to get all of the parts delivered, so I can put them together. But I will be proactive about this and ensure that as I see pledges coming in, I will have all of the parts lined up and ready to order.

Last year I successfully fulfilled my rewards for my ZOEFLIX Kickstarter. My backers got their quality rewards within the time frame I promised and were very happy with their zoetropes! I will do the same again.

I am experienced in consumer product development, fulfillment, and have shipped thousands of orders all over the world. Costs have been accurately calculated, quality is a priority, and any problems or difficulties will be managed in a proactive and professional manner keeping in mind the promises I have made to our backers.

Learn about accountability on Kickstarter


  • Shipping to Canada is only $8 more then domestic shipping, so you do not have to pay the full $14 or $15 for international shipping.

    So if you are located in Canada, you can pledge as if you were located in the US, then just add $8 to the total for shipping.

    Last updated:
  • Kickstarter won't let me add an option for more then one item, but you can get an extra camera obscura as an add-on. Just pledge enough for as many camera obscura rewards as you want, then when you fill out the survey at the end of the campaign, you can list out exactly what you want, just as long as the totals match.

    So for example, if you wanted 2 [Deluxe Camera Obscura with Camera Mount Fully ASSEMBLED and finished] that would be $139 each times 2 equals a $278 pledge.

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  • After the campaign is over I send you a survey to get all your shipping information, at that point you also tell me what wood type you want.

    Last updated:


  • You selected
    Pledge $1 or more

    13 backers

    Give a dollar or two, and I'll give you a special thanks and a virtual high-five! (whatever that means...) You will be an official Backer! You can comment and will receive all updates, public and private.

    Estimated delivery:
  • You selected
    Pledge $59 or more

    32 backers

    Basic MAPLE Camera Obscura (UNASSEMBLED Kit). Includes everything you'll need to build the full camera obscura: Maple hardwood pieces (snaps together without nails), the lens tube and 1 standard lens, and 2 screens: 1 ground (frosted) and 1 clear screen. Also includes video instructions for assembly. This goes together fairly easy, but you should have at least a little ability to work with your hands and a few very common tools.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $69 or more

    25 backers

    Basic WALNUT Camera Obscura (UNASSEMBLED Kit). Includes everything in the previous reward except this kit has Walnut hardwood pieces. Walnut is a darker richer hardwood species.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $89 or more

    13 backers

    Basic WALNUT or MAPLE (your choice) Camera Obscura Fully ASSEMBLED and finished. Includes: the fully assembled camera obscura with a beautiful lacquer finish, the lens tube with 1 standard lens, and 2 screens: 1 ground (frosted) and 1 clear screen.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $95 or more

    14 backers

    Deluxe Camera Obscura (UNASSEMBLED Kit). Includes everything in the Basic Camera Obscura—Maple or Walnut (your choice) hardwood pieces, lens tube and lens, and 2 screens and instructional video —PLUS: a Focus Cloth, 1 Close-up lens, and an extra ground glass screen.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $115 or more

    15 backers

    Deluxe Camera Obscura Fully ASSEMBLED and finished. Includes the fully assembled Maple or walnut camera obscura with a beautiful lacquer finish, lens tube and lens, and 2 screens—PLUS: a Focus Cloth, 1 Close-up lens, and an extra ground glass screen.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $119 or more

    44 backers

    Deluxe Camera Obscura with Camera Mount (UNASSEMBLED Kit). Includes everything in the Deluxe Camera Obscura—Maple or Walnut (your choice) hardwood pieces, lens tube and lens, 2 screens, video instructions, a Focus Cloth, 1 Close-up lens, and an extra ground glass screen—PLUS: the Camera Mount and additional super close-up lens.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world
  • You selected
    Pledge $139 or more

    182 backers

    Deluxe Camera Obscura with Camera Mount Fully ASSEMBLED and finished. Includes the fully assembled Maple or walnut camera obscura with a beautiful lacquer finish, lens tube and lens, 2 screens, a Focus Cloth, 1 Close-up lens, and an extra ground glass screen—PLUS: the Camera Mount and additional super close-up lens.

    Estimated delivery:
    Ships anywhere in the world

Funding period

- (30 days)