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Camera Obscura: a new look at my old career

I was aware there was something called the Camera Obscura in Edinburgh, and there's a band I like called Camera Obscura and I know, but have probably only looked at passing references, that artists have made use of a cameras obscura since, at least, the Western Renaissance. I'm not going to go into any of that here, but rather just document my recent experiments with a small camera obscura kit that I got from one of the technicians in the photography workshops at my university.

The kit came flat packed in an A5 envelop and I was not sure what to make of it at first... it was much smaller than I had expected. It consisted of two laser cut pieces of mounting board, a small plastic lens and a tracing paper screen. The mounting board was cut to fold into two rectangular boxes, one on which the lens was to be mounted and another that would move freely inside the first with the tracing paper screen on which an image would be projected. There were printed instructions and, importantly, a link for video instructions on how to put everything together.

I watched the video instructions carefully and built my first camera obscura. I pointed at various objects and just loved the quality of the upside-down image it projected and decided to capture these with my phone camera. I was surprised at how good these images appeared - not for the clarity, but for the way the texture of paper on which the image was projected was captured and how the out-of-focus parts of the picture had the quality of water colour paint.

It was a bit of a faff taking photos with the camera obscura so I rigged it up so that it could be attached to my phone. The initial version was just a strip of card to block out excess light and some masking tape to secure the camera obscura to my phone. I tried out some portraits of myself, setting the camera on a tripod with a timer running to allow me to get into position. I was not entirely happy with these, but I realise now that was probably vanity - I'm almost unrecognisable anyway as a result of the loss of detail and the pictures do make me think very literally of Georg Baselitz's inverted figures and also of the trees of Rodney Graham that I mentioned in my Outdoors blog. Whatever the result of that, I was ready to take my camera obscura out on the road.

On the road was to make a start on documenting all the office buildings I had worked in during my previous career from first to last using camera obscura images. I'll maybe write about the rationale of this series in another post, or it may just remain as a series of notes in my sketch book. The only pertinent point I'll make here is that three of the offices are in the West End of London and I was able to photograph them in a single trip.

I managed to do this without much incident - one passer-by was intrigued by the weird contraption attached to my smartphone and walked away satisfied, but shaking his head a bit, when I explained what I was doing. I'm reasonably satisfied with the images - they have created dramatic effects as a result of the angles and changing light conditions. However, after looking at them a bit more I realise they will probably not scale particularly well as the camera was set to capture smaller images - it has a 48 megapixel setting that I could have used. Also my smartphone camera lens could possibly have been closer to the camera obscura screen.

In order to get the phone lens closer to the screen I realised I would have to make some alterations to the camera obscura, but I did not want to risk messing up the device with no back-up so our technician at the photography workshop very kindly sent me a second kit. Armed with this, I set about making adjustments that would both make it easier to attach the camera obscura to my phone and shorten the distance between the screen and the lens.

I thought I had measured the minimum focusing distance accurately, but I just could not achieve the sharpness that I had in the earlier experiments. I made another version increasing the focusing distance and this seems a bit better, but it has been difficult to test effectively as the light has been poor in London in the last few days.

I'll carry on with this. The next steps are to revisit the office blocks in good light and re-photograph them with the new set-up, try capturing the images with different phone camera settings and then investigate printing options. What will the images look like when printed? How can I achieve the luminosity of the digital print and what sort of size can I reproduce at?

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