Camera Obscura on Wheels

Camera Obscura Front View

I found another Camera Obscura this past summer. We were driving down Highway 1 and happened to see it beside the road. Stopped the car immediately. I never miss an opportunity to steal away from the real world and escape into a Camera Obscura.


This one is a mobile unit, and was parked at Russian House #1, a restaurant where the Pacific Ocean and the Russian River meet in Jenner, California.


From the outside it looks like a psychedelic tool-shed. The inside is small, but has all the essential ingredients: completely dark with a parabolic screen, a tiny ray of light, and the rotating lens and mirror on top. I found it charming and curious, and appreciated the ingenuity it took to build it. It rests sturdily on a small flatbed trailer, with steps built for visitors.


Camera Obscura Side View


Camera Obscura Lens


Camera Obscura means “dark chamber” in Latin. They date back centuries; and are the original idea behind the pinhole camera, where light passes through a pinhole and provides an inverted image in a dark chamber.


The oval photos are what we saw from the inside of the unit. These are real time images, as reflected by the lens onto the oval concave screen.

Camera Obscura Screen Photo of Russian River and Bridge


And this is the wheel, inside, that you turn, moving the lens for 360 degree views.

Crank for Turning Outside Lens


As we hand-cranked the lens, the Russian River, bridge with passing cars, and restaurant appeared on the screen.


There are 23 public Camera Obscuras listed as existing in the world today. In addition, there are private ones. This one we came upon is both. The owner, Chris de Monterey, built it and owns it; he transports it and shares it with the public.


Camera Obscuras date back to the 5th Century, B.C. Over the centuries, scientists, scholars, and artists studied the phenomenon. By the 18th century, it had become a resource for education and entertainment. Then photography pioneers built portable Camera Obscuras, and the camera was born.


As portable cameras became popular, the Camera Obscuras fell out of fashion, and most were demolished. Fortunately there are still some in the world.


Camera Obscura Wikipedia — including the list of Camera Obscuras with public access.


In San Francisco there is a Camera Obscura: The Giant Camera, on Ocean Beach behind the Cliff House. It was built in 1946 and is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.


I’ve been here dozens of times, and taken many loved ones here as well.


I wrote about it in a previous post:  Camera Obscura San Francisco.


San Francisco Camera Obscura

Camera Obscura, San Francisco

Camera Obscura, San Francisco


I have seen another one at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, but it’s always been closed when I’ve gone there. The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles also has one; there are about two dozen open to the public around the world. A list of their locations is provided in the Wikipedia link above.


Today we all walk around, rather cavalierly, with a telephone/computer/camera in our back pocket.


I suppose one day our back-pocket-phone devices will become quaint antiques, too.


But for now, we can take pleasure in all the different versions of any sized device that records the beauty and magic of our surroundings.


Written by Jet Eliot.

Photos by Athena Alexanader.

More info:

The Magic Mirror of Life, a website about the world’s Camera Obscuras by Jack and Beverly Wilgus.



76 thoughts on “Camera Obscura on Wheels

  1. Kudos on a very cool post, Jet! I was familiar with camera obscura, but only as an invention of bygone times. I didn’t realize there were such installations today. Thanks for letting us all visit one with you. TGIF hugs!

    • Oh how I love the marvel of Camera Obscuras. Wonderful that you are familiar with the concept, Teagan, and glad I could share two current ones with you. Always a joy to “see” you.

  2. Wow. It must be so cool to essentially step inside of a camera. Jet. Like most folks of a certain age, I used film when I first got into photography. I remember the awe and joy I felt when I first developed my own black and white prints and watched the images “magically” appear. It was the same feeling when I first used a Polaroid camera. I like these kinds of reminders of simpler times, when we saw the world primarily with our own eyes and not though an electronic screen. I checked out the list of where the other cameras obscura are located and I’ll have to travel a bit to see one.

    • Yes, Mike, it is so incredible to step inside the camera. I am certain you would enjoy every minute of it, as I do; espec. with your love and command of photography. I’m glad you looked at the list. I hope to go to the one in Edinburgh someday, and the one in LA at the Griffith Observatory. If I had all the time and money in the world, I would go to every one on that list. lol. Many thanks, Mike, and I wonder which one you’ll go to….

      • The SF camera obscura is so very cool, and if you’re ever coming to SF, Mike, please email me ahead, perhaps we could meet up. I will take you to it. A slight caveat on the SF C.O., however, is that it is often closed. If it’s a warm day and daylight hours, there’s a better chance of it being open. But I have found there’s no predictability, unfortunately, not being associated with a bigger museum or facility. Quirky is the word for it. 😉

  3. Very cool. I’ve never seen a public camera obscure around here. Although, the museum of science and natural history may have one. It’s been years since I’ve been there. Does this one have double mirrors turning the image upright?

    • The public camera obscuras are few and far between, unfortunately; but the list on Wikipedia is helpful, and the link at the bottom of the post, though a bit outdated, is helpful for locating them, too. Yes, this one has the double mirrors. Thanks so much for your interest, Timothy.

  4. Oh, what a delightful find for you! I love the psychedelic paint job! It seems especially appropriate for the camera obscura’s ability to “expand your consciousness!”

    • Oh how I enjoyed this comment, Nan. I am so lucky that you, a loved one, never tire of my joy for the camera obscuras. It was indeed a delightful find. Glad I could share it with you.

    • The camera obscura images are only as sharp as the lens. This lens is not the best quality. The cameras and lenses we have today, the ones you no doubt use, cannot compare. Thanks Michael Stephen.

  5. This is marvelous, Jet. I also looked at the list and sadly didn’t find any that are near places we’re likely to travel. I think Oregon definitely needs to create one. I wonder how hard it might be to create even a more rudimentary example as a DIY project? Hmmm…. as the wheels inside the head start turning. 😀

    • This camera obscura featured today is one of those rudimentary DIY projects, and I thought it was great. So there might be one in Oregon somewhere, Gunta. Keep your eyes open. We just found this one on the side of the road, in a rural setting. Everyone else was zooming by and didn’t even notice it. We screeched the car to a halt and marveled at it for an hour! The more I think about Oregon, the more I am convinced there is a c.o. on a beautiful stretch of land. I’ve noticed the seaside has always been a favorite place for camera obscuras, due to the fantastic views. Have fun!

    • There are so few people I know who have been inside the Cliff House camera obscura, Jan, it gave me a big smile to know you have been there. You’re right, it is like entering another era. I love Laughing Sal, too. She’s still around, you can find her at the Wharf at the Musee Mecanique…it’s possible you already know that. Fun to share old SF with you, thank you.

    • Yes, a lot of people don’t know about them, I guess because there aren’t many around, and they’re also not super animated so some people would find them boring. I love them, I bet you would too, Wilma. Thank you!

  6. Pretty cool device. It must have been pretty amazing to the first people who saw one, thousands of years ago. I do remember seeing the one on the beach in SF, but I can’t recall if it was open.
    Happy weekend to you both.

    • Yes, they were amazing to people in the past centuries, you’re right, Eliza. Leonardo de Vinci did many studies and drawings with them, and Vermeer created artwork with them. Many others too. At some point in history the camera obscura was so foreign and unexplained that some folks thought they were the work of the devil. Fortunately, scientists continued the work and learned and expanded on them, and brought us the marvels we have today. Thanks so much, Eliza, always a pleasure.

  7. A wonder on wheels! Loved the look and the location of this one, and the notion you screeched to a halt to investigate – what a find! I like the fuzzy images you shared here, there’s sometimes something to be said for a little texture in images, I think it can “warm up” a photograph. Also, funny to think the phone/computer/camera gadgets we carry today will be as dated in their own way as a camera obscura. Will future humans screech to a halt to check out an old smartphone?
    Thanks, Jet, and we wish you both a wonderful weekend ahead!

    • I so enjoyed your comment, pc, thanks so much. Funny to think about future humans screeching to a halt to check out our old smartphones. I’m happy you enjoyed the Camera Obscura post today. It’s always a joy to hear from you. I hope you and Mrs. PC are having a delightful weekend.

  8. Oh wow!! How lucky you are to have had the experience to step inside a camera. Oh how cool, Jet! I would have had a blast! This is fascinating to even wrap my head around. Thank you so much for sharing the camera obscura,

  9. That is so cool! I watched an interesting segment on CBS Sunday Morning a couple of years ago about a photographer named Abelardo Morrell who uses this technique. I highly recommend googling it (segment is posted online, well worth watching!)

    • I looked up Abelardo Morrell, Marsi, and really appreciate you giving me this information. Very clever and creative use of this phenomenon. His photos are incredible! Thanks so much.

      • Absolutely fascinating, Marsi. Interesting to read how he blocked all incoming light and then opened a pinhole; clever, devoted, and unique, with incredibly curious and surreal results. I’ll be on the look-out for more of his art and the documentary — thanks so much, Marsi.

  10. Like finding treasure! As I was reading this Jet I was wracking my brain to remember where you found the other one that you shared in a blog post so thank you for sharing that. It may have driven me wild trying to shake it out of my aging noggin. I think it is wonderful in this age of instant photos everywhere, and trust me I am that person, to be taken back to a simpler time. Best wishes to you and Athena and may you discover many more treasures such as this.

    • It is a true joy to share this walk-in camera treasure with you, Sue, and I hope in your travels sometime you have the opportunity to see and experience one too. In the meantime, bon voyage, my friend. Happy travels. Many thanks.

    • That Edinburgh camera obscura looks like one of the best in the world. With your frequent visits to Scotland and it being where you’re from, I am happy to hear you’re up for checking it out on a future visit, Val. I hope to visit that one someday too. Thanks so much.

  11. It never had occurred to me that someone could build one of these and then just haul it around to different locations. I love the concept, just as I love knowing that you’re another “slam on the brakes” sort of traveler. It would be a little long, but instead of one of those “I brake for wildlife” bumper stickers, you need one that says, “I brake for every sort of obscure sight, including Cameras Obscura!”

    • How lovely to receive your suggestion for the Camera Obscura bumper sticker, Linda — gave me a smile. It had never occurred to me either, to make a camera obscura mobile. Wonderful comment, my friend, thank you.

    • I am happy I could introduce you to the camera obscura, Sheryl. With your frequent and studious perusal of 100-year-old news, maybe one day you’ll find something alluding to one. Thanks so much for your visit.

    • Hi Tminch, wonderful to hear from you. Yes, this is definitely one of those devices that is great fun. When you step into a camera obscura, you step into another world. Thanks very much.

  12. Hi Jet, I love your passion for these cool cameras. I didn’t know about the one in Jenner– was just up there, darn! Another time. Pinhole cameras are very cool. I think there’s also one in Santa Monica on the promenade, although I’ve never gone in. Great post. 🙂

    • Thanks for the heads-up about the Santa Monica camera obscura, Jane. I saw it on the list, but it’s good to know it’s still there. I don’t get to LA too often, but when I do I will make a trip to both this one and the Griffith Observatory one. I agree, pinhole cameras are very cool. Thanks so much, Jane.

    • Oh how very nice to receive a visit from you, Alastair, as I know you’ve been busy on your new project. I am shaking my head, smiling, at what you say here, they truly are “such cool things.” I agree on the fun psychedelic décor, too. Many thanks for your visit, and I hope your project is progressing smoothly.

    • I am delighted to know the Camera Obscura post was pleasant for you, dear Iris. Thanks so much for visiting. And now off to your site I go, to see what beautiful words you have written lately.

  13. wonderful that found another Jet! You should make your own! I noticed Canada has only one and its in Nova Scotia! I win the lottery I promise to make one on the west coast here in Tofino and you both have free admission for life!

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