Build a camera obscura from an empty Pringles can.
This topsy-turvy homemade camera creates wonderful upside-down optical illusions, and showcases just how simple the principles of photography are, once they’re stripped back.
What is a camera obscura?
Before the art of conventional photography was discovered, crowds got their visual kicks from optical illusions. One such spectacle was achieved by standing in a dark room, a small pinhole poked through one wall. Through the gap, an image of the scene beyond the room would be projected onto the opposite wall. Inverted and reversed, it looked like a parallel world, different but somehow the same.
Catering to the demands of the age, room-sized structures were built as Victorian tourist attractions – littering the scenic coasts of North American and Europe. But, as technology advanced, curious audiences withdrew, and camera obscura’s popularity quickly dissipated. Today, only a handful of these public structures remain, but the simple joy of the illusion itself can be recreated from the comfort of your own home. All you need is an empty Pringles can.
- After buying a can of Pringles from your nearby shop, you’ll both need to remove its contents. Whether you eat all of your salty snacks together, or transfer them to a new container, is up to you. Once the can is empty, ask your child to wipe it clean and save the lid for later.
- Together, draw a line around the tube, about 6cm or 2½ inches up from the base.
- Using a craft knife, cut carefully through the tube so that you’re left with two individual pieces. The shorter section will be from the bottom of the can, and the longer section from the top. Explain how to safely handle the craft knife as you cut.
- Next, your child needs to make a screen onto which their image will be projected. Place the lid of the Pringles can onto a sheet of tracing paper, draw around it, and then carefully cut it out.
- Secure the tracing paper on to the top of the tube, using the lid.
- Next, you need to put the Pringles can back together. The cut end from the bottom section of the can should meet the lidded, tracing-papered end from the upper section. Secure these in place using your tape, and get your child to make sure than no light can seep through the join.
- In order for the light to pass into the can and create an image, your child should pierce a hole using a drawing pin in the base of the can. Help them to do this safely.
- To make sure that your child doesn’t end up with jagged pieces of cardboard poking into their face as they hold up their new camera, tape up the cut surface with some electrical tape.
- Head out into the light, and peek through taped up end. What do you see? The brighter the day, the stronger the image you’ll be able to render on your screen.
What’s the difference between a camera obscura and a modern camera?
Most modern cameras are either digital or analog whereas the camera obscura is a type of pinhole camera. The main differences are outlined below.
Analog Camera: A camera that uses film to record images, ie not digital.
Pinhole Camera: A camera without optics. There is no lens. Instead, it uses a small pinhole to invert the image in front of it. It then transfers that image onto film at a distance from the pinhole, and creates an image, with no need to focus.
Camera Obscura: A pinhole camera, without film. Used for viewing scenes (upside down), and possibly as a drawing aid, allowing the user to record the image by other means.