Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Of all the beautiful spots to visit in San Francisco, this is one of my favorites. A giant walk-in camera taking 360-degree real-time images of the sea. For a $2.00 entry fee, we are given the gifts of seaside panorama and peace.


Named Camera Obscura, for the Latin translation “dark room,” it operates on the photographic “pinhole image” concept that dates back centuries, based on a natural optical phenomenon.


Rays of light travel in a straight line, a law of optics. When rays of bright light pass through a small opening, like a pinhole, they reappear reversed and inverted. By using a dark room, two lenses, a mirror, and a surface, the images turn right-side up and appear before you.


The small building is perched above Ocean Beach in San Francisco, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It is on the register of National Historic Places.

Front view.

The mirror is in the triangle at the top, lenses below it, and the turret rotates.


San Francisco’s Camera Obscura website:

Wikipedia Camera Obscura information



Image on screen inside the Camera Obscura

The concept of capturing light into images, like the Camera Obscura, is similar to the human eye. From Wiki: “The human eye … works much like a camera obscura with an opening (pupil), a biconvex lens and a surface where the image is formed (retina).”


The oldest mention of this phenomenon dates back to 5th Century China.


Camera Obscura Effect. Courtesy Wikipedia

In the 16th century, philosophers, scientists, astronomers, and artists used the light tool for viewing eclipses, studying light, and even drawing. Before mirrors and lenses, they simply used the light and the pinhole. It was a fascinating topic of interest for scholars, and interpreted as an invention of the devil for others.

Diagram courtesy Camera Obscura, San Franciso

By the 18th century, the Camera Obscura had gained popularity for education and entertainment. Often parks or scenic spots had one, like New York City’s Central Park, and also Coney Island. Old Camera Obscuras that no longer exist. Just as it was used for science, art, and entertainment; it was also used for training in wars.


Camera Obscuras are the first cameras. Photography pioneers like Fox Talbot, Niepce, and Daguerre created cameras by modifying Camera Obscuras. Soon after, when light-sensitive plates and film were invented, the Camera Obscura was no longer necessary.

Ocean Beach

Ocean waves on screen


Today there are Camera Obscuras in the U.S., England, Scotland, Wales, and other countries. Some are old, some are new. There are private Camera Obscuras and public ones; less than ten public ones exist in the U.S. The Wikipedia link provides all locations.


This one in San Francisco was built by Floyd Jennings in 1946 for a popular amusement park in the 1900s, Playland at the Beach. When Playland closed in 1972, the structure was relocated to its present location, behind the Cliff House at Ocean Beach.


For those of us who can never get enough of Camera Obscuras, a good website to feed your fix is brought to us by Jack and Beverly Wilgus, scholars of this phenomenon:  Magic Mirror of Life


You might wonder, why would this be anything great these days when you have a phone in your pocket that takes excellent photos? Or easy-access live cams? Or why would you go inside a building when you have the whole outdoor image in full view?


Because with the Camera Obscura, you are in the camera. Inside the camera.

Outside it is noisy from the wind and the crashing waves, and sometimes blindingly bright from the vast, open sea.


You walk through the curious saloon-style doors and enter a world of magic. At first you can’t see anything, going from the brightness of day to darkness.


But then your eyes quickly adjust, and your body relaxes in the darkness and peace. You’re in a special little cocoon.


On the screen before you are the ocean waves silently lapping against the beach. Surfers in wet suits, dogs and dog owners walking the beach, cars moving down the Great Highway. The image slowly rotates, constantly changing, just like life…only softer and gentler.


Way out in the distance are ships sailing the sea. Closer in are large boulders covered with cormorants and gulls.


In that dark and hushed room you enjoy a few magical moments of gentle light and silence, and see the profoundness of life as it is unfolds.


Photo credit: As indicated

Video clip on San Francisco’s Camera Obscura


Camera Obscura, San Francisco


113 thoughts on “Camera Obscura, San Francisco

  1. I keep saying, “Someday we’ll visit the Camera Obscura”, and then time passes and I forget about it. You have provided enough of a nudge that we are going to have to do it. Thanks, Jet.

    I was unaware of their use during wartime. A fascinating sidelight. There is an accidental camera obscura in the top of the North Tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. A hole in the bottom of the top strut projects a beam of light onto a steel beam and you can see the cars passing by on the roadway below. It looks just like an old grainy silent movie.

    Have a good weekend,

    • I’m so happy you captured the delight of the Camera Obscura, Joanne. I think people like you who know cameras would find it especially fascinating. Many thanks–

  2. Jet I had no idea about this spot in San Francisco. As you describe the calm and serene experience I can feel myself relaxing in the midst of it. I was intrigued that some saw the Camera Obscura as the invention of the devil. Imagine what they would think of a smart phone! Fascinating to learn about this and I hope to see it for myself one day. All the best to you and Athena.

    • I’m happy you enjoyed the Camera Obscura today, Sue. I know you and Dave would really like it. Yes, and interesting that a trick of light would be interpreted as the devil. I like knowing that this instrument goes so far back in time. Thanks so much for your visit, my friend–

  3. This lovely piece turned my morning upside down! From the scenic perch to the gentle atmosphere inside the little building, your words and pictures projected a soothing scene. Sometimes, it is just fine to have some of the edges taken off or smoothed out, and you have shared a perfect location for that!
    Thanks for this one, Jet, and have a great weekend!

    • What a delight, pc, to share this special little San Francisco nugget with you. I’m happy you enjoyed it. It’s pouring rain here today, but still, it’s beautiful. One of my other favorite spots is the Wave Organ, I took you and Mrs. PC there. I hope you both have a great weekend too.

  4. Like several other commenters, I had no idea this place existed. What a great idea it was to put the Camera Obscura there by the oceanside. I really enjoyed your description of what it’s like inside and how it works. Great post!

    • Even when it’s open, people walk by without even looking at it. I guess it doesn’t look as magical as it is. But you’re right, Eliza, it is VERY cool. Many thanks–

  5. Oh how exciting and wonderful. You are giving me so many reasons to re visit the San Francisco area and this is definitely one. I was aware of the camera obscura with 16th century artists and some more contemporary artists, but this is just the best. Have a wonderful weekend…don’t let the bureaucracy get you down – in fact when it does, just go back to this place and I am sure your mind will recover nicely 🙂 Janet

    • This corner of SF is one of my favorites, for the fun and history that was here, and the beauty that still remains, sweeping us into a magical aura. I would love to take you here, Janet, so if you do re-visit, I’ll take you to the past and the present of this magnificent section. Whenever I find myself with SF natives over age 55 or so, I get them started telling me about their memories of life out here in their youth. They went to Playland and the beach and another fun park called Fleishhacker Pool. You wouldn’t believe how many eyes I watch light up. Thanks so much for your kind words and encouragement, much appreciated.

  6. First time I saw the term camera obscura,was at the Royal Observatory Greenwich,London,and in Edinburgh,Camera Oscura & World of Illusions,years ago.Never decided though to walk in.It must be an unforgettable experience to ” walk-in camera”,and enjoy such effectual views over the ocean or a city.After reading your article,I’ll next time … Thank you dear Jet,I so much enjoyed the way you described all the details 🙂

    • Oh wow, Doda, you’ve been to two of the world’s wondrous Camera Obscuras. The World of Illusions in Edinburgh sounds especially dazzling. I’m glad you liked today’s article, and I do hope you head inside next time you’re near one. Always a pleasure, my friend — thank you.

    • It’s almost as exciting as watching a mother whale teach her calf how to slap the tail. 😉 I’m glad you enjoyed the trip to the Camera Obscura, Amy — thanks so much.

  7. what a wonderful place — my favorite sister-in-law took us there several years ago!!!
    Looking forward to going back:)

  8. It’s the first time I hear about this Camera Obscura in San francisco. Of course is an attraction for tourists. This effect was used by many famous artists from ancient times, way before the invention of Photography. I learned about Camera Obscura when I was a kid. My Mom used to live close to a river when she was a teenager and used to sleep with her sisters in a room facing the river and buildings across. The window had heavy shades with one pinhole not made in purpose. At certain time of the day they used to get a perfect image of the river and buildings across…but upside down! They could distinguish people walking and vehicles moving. I always thought that was cool! Thank you my friend for reminding me of my dear Mom. 🙂

    • HJ, I absolutely LOVE this story. What an amazement your mother and her sisters must’ve had with this discovery. Thanks so much for sharing how incredible this natural phenomenon is in an everyday setting. How fortunate for you to have learned about it as a child, and to have this sweet memory of your mother and aunts. Great contribution, my friend — many thanks.

    • The mysteries of light and images go so far back, for as long as there has been light. I am glad you enjoyed the camera obscura post, Dina, and the thoughts of our forebears and their discoveries in regard to light. Cheers!

  9. Fascinating post Jet! I had no idea that this treasure exists right in our city by the bay. I told my husband about it and we’re going to explore. I also had no idea of all it’s uses in the early days, like for drawing. ‘The girl with the pearl earring ‘ comes to mind but I have to read up on that one to fully understand. Thanks Jet for another wonderful adventure!

  10. I was going to say I can’t believe I lived in the Bay Area for three years and never knew about this, but in that lifetime I cared not a whit for cameras, photography, or even sailing, so I missed a good bit of what the area has to offer. Somewhere along the line I learned about the Camera Obscura in Santa Monica, but still missed knowing about this one. It’s fascinating — both the history of its development, and the details of how they work.

    I once watched a solar eclipse through a pinhole in a shoebox — even a grade schooler can enjoy the basics of the experience!

  11. Thank you Jet for the prompt to finally visit the camera obscura in Dumfries, Scotland when I am next there in June. I love the image of the waves on the beach. What I like about the whole pinhole camera thing (having used it myself to watch the last eclipse we had here) is that it is a natural phenomenon, as is so much of photography. A truly amazing one at that and one that reminds me of the magic of life itself.

    • Dear Alastair, this is what I, too, like so much about the pinhole and light phenomenon, that it is an extension of nature. I can hardly wait to hear about your Dumfries, Scotland visit. Just now I went to the Dumfries Museum website and heard myself gasp when I saw the stunning photo of the tower there that holds the Camera Obscura. What a glorious camera that must be. And the oldest one in the world. Yes, these are great reminders of the magic of life, thanks for sharing it here.

  12. What a extraordinary experience! INSIDE a camera. I have never heard about this place! Thanks for sharing, Jet!
    I hope the warm spring is reaching you as well as in Germany this weekend!

    • I am happy you enjoyed San Francisco’s Camera Obscura, Simone. I saw on the Wikipedia C.O. site that there is one in Mulheim Germany and it is the biggest “walk in” Camera Obscura in the world. It is in the Broich Watertower at the Prehistory of Film Museum. Enjoy–

  13. JET!!!! How did I never hear of this?!!! I’m scratching my head, laughing. Been to SF a few times but apparently I was in a daze! Thank You for sharing this. How cool!!! I hope all is going well with You and Yours! Cheers and Hugs! 😄💖😊

    • I’m delighted you found the SF Camera Obscura here, Katy, and next time you’re in SF just head out to the Cliff House on Ocean Beach and you’ll find it. If it’s a beautiful day, it will hopefully be open. Until then, you have had the vicarious experience. I always enjoy your visits, thanks so much.

      • That’s brilliant, Jet! “….the vicarious experience.” You’re my holodeck to all things wonderfully San Franciscan that I missed!!! And gosh…to AMAZING birds of the world!!! And…Ah…You’ve started a domino effect in my mind. No longer blogland. The Holodeck. I like it. Have a great one! Cheers!!! ☀️🤗🐬

  14. Delighted to see one of my favorite places in S.F.!! Just last night we learned about Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040 AD), a scientist during the Islamic Golden Age, who was a leader in the field of optics – including the camera obscura. (I felt so smart to know what they were talking about, thanks to you! ha)

    • I read about him in my Camera Obscura research for this post, I would love to read more about his experiments in his book. I had never heard of him before. I am smiling as I type, thinking about the fun we have had with the SF sites, and especially the Camera Obscura. I am delighted the learning goes on.

  15. I always enjoy that in between Athena’s wonderful photos (and your wonderful shots this week) and your words that leave me thinking and smiling, that I am so often introduced to something new that I hope to see and experience some day.🙂

    • And when I read your posts, I am thinking and smiling too, amazed by your photographic skills, buoyed by your joy for life and all its many highlights from quarterbacks to ice sculptures, accompanying songs, and special outdoor adventures with and without Gabby. Thanks so much for your kind words, ACI. I hope your new week has some sunshine and smiles.

  16. Fascinating, Jet. The building even looks like a camera, with control dials. I didn’t know about this. I’ll make a note to get out to see it the next time I’m in San Francisco.

    • I am certain you would enjoy the Camera Obscura, Draco. I’m glad you recognized that they built it to look like a camera. The owner of the Cliff House, George Whitney Sr., who agreed to let the camera be moved to his property, is the person who thought of designing its housing to mimic a camera. A curious little corner of SF, one I know you would enjoy. Thanks for your visit–

  17. Completely interesting and totally fascinating Jet. Thanks for this informative tour of a until now
    unheard of place that seems a must see when next in sunny California. great information and post

  18. The phenomenon is optical, of course, but in your photograph with the building in the lower left corner I get the impression I’m seeing an old-fashioned radio, complete with two knobs to control volume and tune in a station.

  19. Thank you for this very informative story, Jet! When I come to visit California this camera will be high on my list. No need to carry a camera because it’s already there 🙂 Fascinating.

    • Yes, you will like it, David. And I love knowing you enjoyed Playland as a child. There’s a video out on the days of Playland; I hope, being a video person and former Playland visitor, you have found it. It’s really excellent. Smiles to you, my friend–

  20. I ALWAYS learn so much of interest at from your posts. I was living out on the Great Highway from around ’68 to ’70? Never even knew this was there. Must have had other things on my mind! 😀 You’ve provided so many great trips down memory lane (even if I didn’t have enough sense to visit this treasure!)
    Thank you for all of it!

    • How wonderful for you to have lived out there on the Great Highway in those years. Perhaps you had a chance to visit Playland? I’ve read it was declining in those years, so maybe not. But either way, I am happy to have brought the Camera Obscura to you here, and happy to reunite you with great memories, with a piece of information too. Always a delight to hear from you, Gunta, thanks so much for your visit.

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