Light fixing – a darkroom inside an obscura

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I’ve talked for far too long about using the camera obscura as an actual, real, image taking camera – to make it into a working camera you can climb inside. Up until now, the images you see on this website have been created by rephotographing various screens inside the obscura (canvas or materials usually) with a modern DSLR.

During my residency at St Anne’s Arts and Community Centre, I have had the space and time to take this a step further and use just light-sensitive paper (as you may have used in a darkroom) to create the images. I’ve made a video below to describe the process a little better…

If you want to know more, here are a few more details about the set up I was using. The lens is a beautifully sharp 4” diameter, 1m focal length lens cell I took off a telescope. That means that if the subject were a landscape the horizon would be in sharp focus with the screen exactly 1 metre behind the lens. As I was shooting subjects that were a lot closer to the lens, the screen had to be moved back to around 130-140cm for sharp focus. The image below shows the set up – on the right you can see the bright, round lens. Light from the scene outside is focussed onto the screen – just like in any other camera this initial image is inverted (upside down and back to front). Behind that screen I have hung some dark, heavy fabric to stop light reaching the darkroom behind. Light sensitive paper is stuck to the screen where it records the image. This paper is the processed to reveal the image, giving me a paper negative. Next step is to re-invert this negative image to give me a positive. Easy!

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It seems a massively complicated process to get a 10×8 print… but the beauty of working in this process (esp after some development) is that it doesn’t involve any enlargement. Each time you take a photograph conventionally, all that light, all that detail is focussed on to a small area where it is then recorded. This is why many digital camera manufacturers are so focussed on Megapixels – everyone is trying to cram more and more pixels into that small space to capture that bit more detail, or making the sensors larger with the full frame cameras.  Shooting film has benefits as it relies on chemistry over digital technology but this still involves the enlarging of the film (although of course it can be made far larger) to make a print. These projections are captured onto light sensitive paper – the same paper used in the video above. This process simply skips out using film and jumps straight to printing with light onto paper.

This is not a new process (have a look at Ian Ruhter Richard Learoyd for instance) but I am keen to develop my process to enable me to make some immersive landscape photographs. These initial tests in the studio have been useful, but I’m excited to get out and about and shooting in nature. Landscapes are what I love shooting, and should suit this process well.  It should make possible large prints with high levels of detail, a still subject meaning I can use lengthy exposure times and working with a very bright light source – the sun. There will of course be limitations, some technical (the sharpest part of the lens may only cover a small section of a landscape) or logistical (reaching areas I may want to photograph can be tricky with either a van based obscura or my current set up!) but that’s all part of it. I think creativity can thrive when constraints and limits are applied, and I’m looking forward to the next steps.

There are some more photographs below of these early experiments. They are currently on show at St Annes Arts and Community Centre, Barnstaple until the 10th March. For opening times, click here. There is also an Open Studio session on Sat 8th March where I will be demonstrating the process and answering any questions.

Feel free to write below if you have any comments or questions or suggestions

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